Wednesday, May 23, 2007

John Wayne, John Ford and "Stagecoach"

As we continue our way to the John Wayne Centennial Birthday Celebration, I re-visited the film that made him a star, 1939’s “Stagecoach”. What a marvelous film it is, featuring a set of fascinating characters aboard a stagecoach traveling through hostile Apache territory – each traveling west for very different reasons.

Directed by the great John Ford, “Stagecoach” is a textbook example of the Golden Age of Hollywood, a movie that does not overstay its welcome (only 95 minutes long), offers gorgeous cinematography of the awe-inspiring Monument Valley and boasts a gallery of Hollywood’s best character actors.

For example, John Carradine plays a gambler, a mysterious character known only as Hatfield. We don’t know anything about him except he is from the South and fought in the Confederate Army. Impeccably attired, he takes a special interest in a pregnant woman (Louise Platt) who is traveling to meet her cavalryman husband. He acts as her protector throughout the movie and is even ready to kill her when it appears the coach will be overrun with Indians. We don’t know why he feels the way he does, but I don’t think we have to. Carradine’s acting and the direction of Ford and the writing of Dudley Nichols are so strong and sure we don’t need reams of motivation. It’s likely she reminds him of someone from his past and that’s all we need to know. Ford and Nichols are confident enough to let the audience figure it out for ourselves, and we are spared any angst-filled flashbacks, thank you very much.

Thomas Mitchell earned a well-deserving Best Supporting Actor for his performance here as the alcoholic Doc Boone. Has anyone in Hollywood history ever had a greater year than Thomas Mitchell in 1939? Consider his entire 1939 output: “”Stagecoach”. “Only Angels Have Wings”. “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington”. “The Hunchback of Notre Dame”. “Gone with the Wind.” Each one a four star movie, and all are still enjoyed to this day.

John Wayne as The Ringo Kid more than holds his own against the veteran cast. In 1930, he starred in the big-budget western “The Big Trail” but it proved a colossal flop and Wayne was banished to Poverty Row studios like Republic and Monogram for the next decade to hone his craft in an endless stream of low-budget westerns. The experience was worthwhile because Wayne is very natural and relaxed.

I particularly liked his scene with the prostitute Dallas (Claire Trevor) when he proposes to her without actually proposing. He tells her about the ranch he has and how it would be a good place for a man and woman to share a life together. The way he says “woman” is drawn out into two long syllables, as if a yearning, and something he thought up to now was only a dream. It’s a beautifully written and played scene. Of course, his entrance scene, as the camera zooms in, goes slightly out of focus, and then clears up as his face fills the screen, is one of the great entrances in movie history.

All of the action takes place in the final third, but when it comes it doesn’t disappoint. The Indian attack on the stagecoach on salt plains is justly celebrated, a thrillingly shot and edited sequence featuring memorable stuntwork by the great Yakima Canutt. The final gunfight takes place off-screen, but is more effective because of it.

There’s more I can write about this movie, but it’s best you discover it for yourself. “Stagecoach” is a true classic, and one of the greatest movies ever made.


spazz said...

The Duke rules!

Dees Stribling said...

I need to see Stagecoach again. Been about 20 years, and I'd forgotten a lot of the detail you describe.