Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Stagecoach (1939) -- John Ford

Geronimo is on the warpath, cutting telegraph lines and burning isolated settlements. Danger awaits the nine passengers of a stagecoach as it attempts to drive to Lordsburg, much of the way without cavalry escort. The odds against them, each has their own reason for making the trip.

The stage to Lordsburg.
Director John Ford had dabbled in Westerns before Stagecoach, most notably with the critically acclaimed silent film The Iron Horse in 1924. And Western films had garnered some success with movie-goers, most notably 1931's Best Picture, Cimmaron. But in the intervening years, the genre had been relegated mostly to cheaply made B pictures. "Oaters" just weren't considered serious films. All that changed with Stagecoach in 1939. One of America's premiere directors showed audiences that the genre was more than horse chases and gun play; it could explore adult relationships and offer riveting adventure and drama.

There are lot of reasons why this splendid film is considered a classic, notably its tight story line, the Oscar nominated cinematography, a superb action and stunt sequence, and its wonderful score of American folk standards. And though Ford wouldn't know it at the time, it introduced two American film icons: John Wayne in his breakout starring role, and the buttes of Monument Valley, the most majestic of Western settings. All in all, it's in the handful of best Westerns ever made.

Under attack!

The ensemble cast includes vivid characters that became Western stereotypes--a testament to the script and the performances of the actors. It also has an irresistible appeal for audiences, i.e., a small group of diverse men and women under severe pressure, some outcasts seeking some type of redemption. They reflect everyday society, with some good guys, some bad ones, and a few you aren't sure of. Wayne is Ringo, a prison escapee on his way to avenge the death of his father and brother; Claire Trevor is a girl of ill-repute with a heart of gold (Dallas); Thomas Mitchell, a doctor, is a drunk (Doc Boone); John Carradine is a Southern gambler (Hatfield); Donald Meeks, whose name fits his character perfectly, is a nervous and mild whiskey drummer (Mr. Peacock); Berton Churchill is a banker and embezzler (Gatewood); and Andy Devine (Buck) is a reluctant stage driver. Along for the ride are Louise Platt, a refined Southern belle (Lucy), pregnant and on her way to meet her officer husband; and George Bancroft (Curly), the steady marshal who decides to ride shotgun.

"We're the victims of a foul disease called social prejudice, my child." 
Director Ford demonstrates wonderful pacing. He tells the story in essentially four acts, first introducing the characters in the town of Tonto. With the exception of Wayne, we meet them all here and in remarkably short order are led to understand their respective class distinctions. Dallas is being run out of town by the ladies of the Law and Order League, a group of self-righteous prudes and old biddies. Doc Boone sees them for what they are and has a kinship with the prostitute. His landlady has had him evicted for failure to pay his rent. Boone provides the film's humor. He scowls and says in a feigned theatrical voice, "Is this the face that wrecked 1000 ships and burned the towerless tops of Illium? Farewell, fair Helen." Things start to look up for the inebriate when he learns that Peacock is taking the stage with his satchel of samples.

The stage encounters Ringo on the way. Standing beside the trail, he flags down the coach with a rifle shot. Ford uses a great zoom close-up of Wayne. The marshal puts him under arrest, and he surrenders his rifle as the cavalry escort rides up. Viewers who know Wayne only from the 60's and 70's, and think of him as an overweight, past-his-prime cowboy actor, may be surprised at how handsome and vigorous he looks. Just 32  here, lean and athletic, it's easy to understand how he became a huge star. 

Inside the coach, the smoke from Doc Boone's cigar is bothersome. The gambler Hatfield, who came along to protect Lucy, insists that he put it out. Doc apologizes to Lucy: "Excuse me ma'am. Being so partial to the weed myself, I sometimes forget that it disagrees with others." Doc is courteous to Lucy, but feels no such obligation when it comes to Hatfield:
Hatfield: A gentleman doesn't smoke in the presence of a lady.
Doc Boone: Three weeks ago, I took a bullet out of a man who was shot by a gentleman. The bullet was in his back!
Hatfield (feeling insulted): You mean to insinuate...
Ringo Kid (to keep the peace): Sit down mister. Doc don't mean no harm.
Of course, 1939 is generally considered Hollywood's best year. Thomas Mitchell was right in the middle of several signature films, showing his mettle as a supporting actor, and surely accumulating one of the greatest single year resumes in history. Besides Stagecoach, he appeared in Gone With the Wind, Only Angels Have Wings, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, and The Hunchback of Notre Dame. His humorous performance here won him one of the film's two Oscars. It was well deserved.

Dallas and Ringo, two misfits made for each other.

We learn more about the characters when they stop at the Dry Fork way station for dinner. Lucy expects to meet her husband here, but he has already left for Apache Wells, their next stop. When the food is served the other passengers shun Dallas, but Ringo thinks he's the cause for their reaction,  saying, "Well, I guess you can't break out of prison and into society in the same week."

After a vote they continue their trip, stopping overnight at Apache Wells. Lucy goes into labor and gives birth, attended to by Boone, who shows he's still a competent physician when filled with enough coffee.  By now Ringo and Dallas have begun to fall in love. He asks her to marry him; she agrees, provided he escape instead of seeking vengeance against Luke Plummer, the man who murdered his father and brother. But when he sees Indian smoke signals in the distance, he knows it's too late. The stage makes a mad dash for Lordsburg, forging a swift river along the way in a visually interesting sequence before being assaulted by Indians.

The attack is the most memorable sequence with the great stunt work of famed stuntman Yakima Canutt, who twice risks his life. Ford introduces the threat with a marvelous sound effect. Thinking they have passed the danger point, Doc Boone proposes a toast. As he takes a swig from a bottle, an arrow zips loudly into the window and you hear the thunk as it embeds itself into Peacock's chest. The music swells and the chase is on. The horses pull frantically across the dry alkali flats, pursued by ferocious warriors, whooping like banshees and banishing their weapons. One brave jumps from his mount onto the lead horses, trying to stop the coach. Ringo, now riding atop the coach, shoots him, and the Indian (Canutt) falls beneath the horses' hooves, where he struggles to hang onto the rig's shaft as he drags along the ground. He finally loses his grip as the coach rolls over his prone body. Ford pans the camera back to let you know it was real man and not a dummy--the wounded Indian rolls over and pushes himself up to his knees.

When Buck is shot in the shoulder and loses the reins, the stage begins to slow. Ringo (Canutt again) leaps to the rescue, landing on the wheel team, then forward to the swing team, and finally forward again to the lead team, where he gets control of the animals. 

Yakima Canutt as Ringo leaps to the rescue.
Inside the coach ammunition has run out. Hatfield has saved one bullet and in a close-up aims his pistol at Lucy's head as she prays, planning to save the woman from being ravaged and tortured by the Apaches. A gunshot rings out; the pistol drops as Hatfield is killed by the Indians. A bugle sounds and the cavalry ride to the rescue.

The stunt work here includes several dangerous looking falls by riders from the horses. The entire sequence showcases the wonderful film editing by Otto Lovering, who also earned an Oscar nomination.

Finally in Lordsburg, lawmen arrest Gatewood and retrieve his $50,000. The marshal, whose symphathies are clear throughout, gives Ringo ten minutes to say goodbye to Dallas and confront the Plummers. Ringo escorts the girl home and learns she's a prostitute. Plummer is playing cards in a saloon and hears that Ringo is in town. He holds a "dead man's hand," aces in eights -- the same hand held by Wild Bill Hickok when murdered.

Ford sets up the shootout in a thrilling manner. Doc Boone, his self-respect renewed, refuses to let Luke leave the saloon with a shotgun; the editor of the Lordsburg newspaper predicts the morning's headlines: "The Ringo Kid was killed on Main Street in Lordsburg tonight, and among the additional dead were...;" then three Plummers advance toward the camera, moving forward cautiously down a dark street as Ringo's dark silhouette comes into focus in the foreground. From a low camera angle, Ringo throws himself to the ground while firing three shots. Dallas, listening where Ringo left her, fears the worst. A cut to Luke shows him stagger through the swinging doors of a saloon, presumably the victor, but he falls dead. Then Ringo appears out of the mist and embraces Dallas.

In a fitting ending, Ford has the marshal let Ringo go instead of arresting him, sending him and Dallas to Mexico in a buckboard. Doc Boone waxes philosophically, giving a final observation about civilization and respectability:
Doc Boone: Well, they're saved from the blessings of civilization.
Curley: Yeah. (Curley removes his sheriff's badge.) Doc? I'll buy ya a drink.
Doc Boone: (After a long pause) Just one.
Dudley Nichols wrote the terrific screenplay. He had won an Oscar with Ford just four years earlier with The Informer, and was a frequent collaborator with the director. The black and white cinematography received an Oscar nomination as did Ford for directing, and the film for Best Picture.

This is one of the earliest films I know where the director employed specific music to represent the characters. "I Dream of Jeannie with the Light Brown Hair, "plays over scenes with Louise Platt as Lucy, and "Shall We Gather at the River?" connotes Doc Boone.

The stage in Monument Valley.

Ford made films in all kinds of genres, but his Westerns best demonstate his incomparable abilty to weave a landscape into his story. In Stagecoach, for most of the film the nine passengers are isolated in a harsh, threatening environment. The sandstone formations of Monument Valley tower above them, and the land is dry and unforgiving, and filled with danger. Survival depends on courage and a man's wits. Ford is saying that the taming of the West was not for the faint of heart. What better place to set this story?

Ford and Wayne, of course, would forge the most successful director/actor relationship in Hollywood history. They would make 14 films together. Monument Valley became Ford's favorite location to film. He returned in 1946 for My Darling Clementine with Henry Fonda; the Cavalry Trilogy (1948-1950) and The Searchers (1956) with Wayne; and finished with Cheyenne Autumn with Richard Widmark in 1964.

The Great John Ford about the time of Stagecoach.
John Ford won four Oscars for Best Director, a record:
  • The Informer 1935
  • The Grapes of Wrath 1940
  • How Green Was My Valley 1942
  • The Quiet Man 1952
A 1966 remake pales in comparison, though is still worth a watch. Its biggest problem is the casting of Alex Cord as Ringo. The cast does have a few actors that I always enjoy in films: Keenan Wynn, Slim Pickens, and Van Heflin.

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