Sunday, September 29, 2013

Stagecoach (1939)

Director: John Ford


Assemble a group of complete strangers on a journey across dangerous wilderness in America’s Wild West with excellent writing, acting, and direction and you get Stagecoach. It had been thirteen years since director John Ford had produced a western, in fact not since the silent days of cinema when he was one of the best at bringing stories of the American frontier to the silver screen. Stagecoach would bring together a great cast of colorful characters each on their own journey, helping to revive a genre that had been dying since the advent of sound, igniting mainstay traditions to the western that would live on as legends and classic styles seen from then on in motion picture history. From Monument Valley, Utah to the pairing of star John Wayne with director John Ford, it is the beginning of a true western formula seen in many future features.

Stagecoach is a western about the coach travels of a group of complete strangers through the treacherous territory filled with savage Indians and dangerous gunmen. Despite word of hostile Apaches on the roads ahead of them the passengers of the Overland Stage decide to move forward to the town of Lordsburg. Along the way the coach and its authority in Marshal Curly Wilcox (George Bancroft) pick up the stranded and notorious fugitive the Ringo Kid (John Wayne). Along the way grows the relationships between the passengers. Dallas (Claire), a prostitute forced out of her town by a decency league of women. She is looked down upon by fellow travelers, especially the lady passenger, Lucy (Louise Platt). Rngo’s gentlemanliness takes a liking to the fellow outcast in the shunned Dallas. Meanwhile Lucy surprisingly gives birth while at a stop along the trail, aided by fellow passenger, the alcoholic, Doc Boone (Thomas Mitchell), who sobers up to do this duty, despite the plentiful abundance of whisky salesmen’s, Peacock (Donald Meek),  liquid beverage travels with him. Apaches attack the stagecoach, and when all things look their bleakest, the Calvary arrives to save our heroes. Once in Lordsburg Ringo Kid must face his destiny in the men that killed his father and brother in an anticipated gunfight, the last thing he will do before being officially taken into custody. The picture concludes with Ringo and Dallas set off on their way to start their lives anew as they ride off into the distances in their budding romance.

It is surprising just how much happens in this ninety minute capsule that is Stagecoach. With an ensemble of great characters played by wonderful actors, this picture creates numerous niches in the plot that allow you to become attached to all of them.  It’s difficult to single one story out as the main plot outside of the simple idea of the stagecoach attempting to make it to its destination with the threat of savages attacking at any moment. On top of that we get a romance between two outcasts, a woman giving birth and too weak to do anything on her own, the doctor who becomes a hero along with his battle with the bottle, a gambler that appoints himself protector of the lady on the coach nearly doing the unthinkable to keep her from suffering, and then there is the side characters of the marshal, the driver, and the whisky salesman. There’s the action of the Indian attack, the tension of the showdown, and mystery of what all these strangers will do when thrown into a mess together.

John Ford captains the helm of is first western since the advent of sound. After purchasing the rights to the story that would eventually become Stagecoach, Ford shopped around the script throughout Hollywood with the name of B-western actor, and good friend, John Wayne attached as the Ringo Kid. Independent producer Walter Wanger accepted the project, but only if Ford would use Gary Cooper as Ringo Kid and Marlene Dietrich playing Dallas. Ford would not change his mind and John Waynewould be cast in his first big budget western since 1930’s mega big screen film The Big Trail.

Looking for locations to shoot Ford would come across information from an old contact that urged him strongly to look at Monument Valley in Utah with its beautiful natural rock formations and colorful soil contrasted by the very blue sky. Even though this picture was only black and white which would not manifest the full beauty of the colors, Ford was sold on this location and its Big Sky country. He would revisit the local numerous times in his many future westerns. To contrast the large openness of the outdoor scenes, the interior segments where filmed on sets with ceilings, an uncommon practice for lighting purposes. This would create a claustrophobic feeling for the moments when the large cast where all together in smaller places, a wonderful use of cinema.

The cast in an interior scene where you can see a ceiling that made the quarters tighter.
The cast would be filled with character actors and relative unknowns in major motion pictures. Wayne, the most memorable star of the film ultimately in cinema history, at the time was a B-film cowboy happy just with the work, surprised he was going into a big budget movie. Claire Trevor, who plays Dallas, was given top billing because she was the most notable name going into production of the picture having once been nominated for best supporting actress for Dead End back in 1937. Character actors Andy Devine, John Carradine, Thomas Mitchell, and Donald Meek were not known for playing such serious roles. Claire Trevor plays a powerful role as the pregnant officer’s wife, but she was an unknown. Even George Bancroft was a forgotten actor by this time in his career, a fallen actor from the silent days, as he played Marshal Curly, the film’s authority figure and the driving force of the stagecoach. The players appear to gel very well in the film, each having their moments to shine, perhaps most of all Thomas Mitchell. Mitchell whose résumé was vast and diverse tended to play smaller roles, but always seemed to have a great deal of acting talent. Not an actor to play handsome leading men, he would be relegated to lesser rounded supporting parts, but here as Doc Boone, the alcoholic physician who is able to save mother and child, Mitchell’s performance shines as ultimately would receive a well deserved Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor.

Stagecoach would go on to become a wide box office success, a critically achieved movie, and one of the most influential films in cinema history. Nominated for seven Academy Awards, the picture won two statues, for best score along with Mitchell’s best supporting actor award. The film would be one of many pictures up for the highly contested best picture category in 1939, losing to Gone with the Wind, and though Ford lost out on the best director Oscar he would be honored by the New York Film Critics for what they believed was the best direction of 1939. Even more so the film would live on as an all time classic in the hearts of most movie lovers. Orson Welles, director of Citizen Kane, was said to have watched the Stagecoach dozens of time while producing his cinematic masterpiece as inspiration. In 1995 the title was added to the National Film Registry, a list of the most significant pictures in American cinematic history. In 2008 AFI would list Stagecoach 9th on the list of top ten best westerns of all time, the oldest film on the list.

Monument Valley in Utah would become a mainstay in future westerns.
This John Ford film would aid ushering in a new genesis in the genre of the western. The film seemed to have all the right parts in place in its production. John Wayne would be introduced to the world of stardom and Ford would continue to make classic western after classic western. This colorful bunch of complete strangers makes for a picture that can be re-watched numerous times, each time leaving a sense of discovering new nuances of the film and appreciation for the art of motion picture production. Stagecoach is a classic in every sense of the word and truly stands as one of the finest pictures in cinema history.

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