Program Notes: Stagecoach (1939)

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From the moment it hit the nation's movie screens in March of 1939, John Ford's Stagecoach was declared a masterpiece.

Not just a pretty good Western, but a masterpiece. Never before had an "oater" earned that sort of praise.

Not only did Stagecoach redefine the possibilities of an overworked and underappreciated genre, but it made a first-class star of John Wayne, who had been kicking around for nearly a decade in B-movie purgatory.

Today, 75 years later, Stagecoach remains on virtually every list of the best Westerns ever made.

Ironically, Ford almost didn't get it made at all.

Though he had filmed dozens of silent Westerns in the 1920s, Ford was pretty much out of the cowboy business by 1939. Throughout the ‘30s he had made comedies, adventures, costume dramas – just about every sort of motion picture. But Ford was considered a prestige director and Westerns were widely considered to be matinee fodder: cheap, cliché-riddled, horse-heavy melodramas aimed at little boys and men who still thought like little boys.

Film Screening:
Stagecoach (1939)
Saturday, August 23 at 1:30 p.m.
Central Library

The big studios hardly ever made Westerns any more, leaving them to a handful of low-budget production companies. Most Westerns didn't even get reviewed by the newspapers.

But Ford loved Westerns. He saw in the genre's clichés possibilities for commenting on what would become his favorite cinematic theme: What it means to be an American.

Ford had purchased the screen rights to the short story "The Stage to Lordsburg," which appeared in Collier's magazine. It was about a diverse group of travelers thrown together by circumstance for a dangerous trip through Apache territory. They come from various professions and castes, and represent a microcosm of the larger society.

Ford and screenwriter Dudley Nichols went to work expanding the tale, adding characters and situations. But the studios weren't interested. It was only a Western, after all.

Finally producer David O. Selznick (who at the time was hard at work on Gone with the Wind) signed on. But when he demanded that Ford cast big stars in the main roles – Selznick wanted Gary Cooper and Marlene Dietrich – Ford backed out of the deal.

Because the director already had a cast in mind. For the role of Dallas, a prostitute who has been run out of town, he envisioned a young actress named Claire Trevor. And for the role of Ringo, a young outlaw who has broken out of prison, Ford wanted John Wayne.

Nearly a decade earlier Wayne, then a UCLA grad known as Marion Michael Morrison, had worked for Ford as a prop boy. Now and then he was cast as an extra in a Ford film.

Leaving the Ford company, Wayne began getting roles in Westerns. But The Big Trail, an epic wide-screen production about a wagon train that was supposed to be his big breakthrough, flopped. For several years Wayne's career had been treading water in low-budget studios like Monogram and Republic.

Ford had kept an eye on his former protégé, studying the development of Wayne's screen persona through a series of mediocre vehicles and awaiting a role that would show the struggling actor in the best possible light. Ringo was the perfect match.

Ford eventually found financing with independent producer Walter Wanger, who saw in Stagecoach a project that would elevate his reputation and attract audiences who previously had shown no interest in Westerns.

Why is the film so highly regarded? The most obvious answer is that it treats its characters and situations with a seriousness virtually unknown in Westerns. Unlike just about everyone else in Hollywood, Ford saw the genre as a viable vehicle for discussing big issues.

Stagecoach is overflowing with social criticism. Most of its characters come from the wrong side of the tracks – an outlaw, a prostitute, a gambler, a drunken physician – and the film is continually thumbing its nose at notions of bourgeoise propriety.

In the very first scene boozy Doc Boone (Thomas Mitchell, who would win an Oscar for his performance) and the prostitute Dallas (Trevor) are marched to the stagecoach by the town's moral guardians (a singularly joyless bunch of axe-faced matrons) and forcibly put on board.

Comforting the distressed Dallas, Doc observes: "We're the victims of a foul disease called social prejudice."

Meanwhile, the most conventionally "civilized" passenger on the coach – a pompous banker played by Berton Churchill – has absconded with $50,000 of his customers' money. For audiences in 1939 the character was a reminder of the Hooverish mindset that led to the Great Depression and the refusal of Republicans to legislate relief – that would only come after Democrat Franklin Roosevelt instituted the New Deal.

It's often been pointed out that Stagecoach's characters weren't all that original. They were well-known "types."

Yet as New York Times movie critic Frank Nugent observed, the film seems astonishingly fresh and new. It was as if Ford was telling audiences, "All right, you know what's coming...but have you ever seen it done like this?"

Ford filled the movie with memorable moments, few as jaw-dropping as John Wayne's first appearance.

As the stagecoach crests a hill, there in the road stands Wayne's Ringo, a saddle slung over his shoulder and a Winchester rifle in the other hand. The camera takes the point of view of the lead horse, zooming right up to Wayne's face before stopping.

He's young, handsome, trim...and sexy as hell. It was quite the entrance.

Wayne's Ringo may have just escaped from prison, but it's clear he's no hard case. He's polite, friendly, and likable. In fact, Ringo was convicted on the perjured testimony of some old enemies and is now determined to pay them a visit.

Ringo is so innocent that he doesn't realize that Dallas is a prostitute. And when he finally figures it out, he's already in love and it doesn't matter.

The role transformed Wayne's career. He would go on to be Hollywood's most reliable box office attraction, and would appear again and again in Ford films. The director, who nursed a sadistic streak, was notorious for abusing "Duke" and humiliating the actor in front of cast and crew members. But Wayne put up with it because, he said, he owed Ford for everything.

Stagecoach is also noteworthy for being the first time Ford filmed in Utah's Monument Valley, whose red dirt and towering buttes have become the single most universally-recognized visual representation of the American West.

Actually, Ford only filmed in the valley for one week, picking up long shots while the major cast members remained in Los Angeles. But Ford returned to Monument Valley for film after film, hiring the local Navajos as extras and crew members, and eventually becoming an honorary member of the Navajo Nation.

Ford made two other films in 1939: Drums Along the Mohawk, about settlers fighting the British and their Indian allies during the Revolutionary War, and Young Mr. Lincoln, a classic bit of Americana with Henry Fonda (in his first Ford film) absolutely nailing Honest Abe as a lanky, small-town lawyer.

It's not fair to say that Stagecoach singlehandedly revived the movie Western. Other well-known directors made oaters that year: Cecil B. DeMille with Union Pacific, Michael Curtiz with Dodge City, Henry King with Jesse James, and George Marshall with Destry Rides Again.

But Stagecoach was better than all of the others put together. It's not just a great Western. It's a great movie.

Other films in the series “Hollywood’s Greatest Year, 1939: All-Time Classics”

Saturdays at 1:30 p.m.:

Admission to these films is free.

About the Author

Robert W. Butler is a lifelong Kansas City area resident, a graduate of Shawnee Mission East High School and the William Allen White School of Journalism at the University of Kansas. For several decades he was the movie editor of the Kansas City Star; he now writes a movie-themed blog at butlerscinemascene.com.

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