Gone with the Wind may have been 1939′s biggest picture, but the surprise hit that captured America’s heart that year was STAGECOACH, a lowly western made at a time when westerns in general were considered a down-market commodity. The show confirmed John Wayne as a star after ten years of false starts. John Ford found the experience of filming out on distant location in Monument Valley such an enjoyable experience that he would return to the genre at every opportunity just to escape the Hollywood grind.
STAGECOACH immediately wins over audiences with its humor, warmth and escapist thrills; it connects with viewers as well now as the day it opened. In a figurative sense the movie closes the book on the Depression years, with its crooked banker spouting anti-Roosevelt sentiments most likely encouraged by the very liberal producer Walter Wanger. It also sounds the drums of impending war, with the Apache standing in for implacable foes threatening peace and stability in Europe. But everything else about the movie is optimistic — solid American values can overcome any obstacle. The Ringo Kid (Wayne) has become a wanted man, but we know he’s a good boy at heart. Disillusioned prostitute Dallas (Claire Trevor) is hustled out of town by a cackle of sewing-circle biddies determined to transplant Eastern morality (read: hypocrisy) to the West. The inexperienced Ringo doesn’t understand why the other coach riders treat Dallas so poorly. It’s a match made in heaven — the West will be won by noble boys and fallen women with hearts of gold.
Called a Grand Hotel on wheels, STAGECOACH is loaded with interesting characters. Andy Devine is the nervous stagecoach driver and George Bancroft the sheriff who wants to give Ringo a second chance. Louise Platt’s pregnant wife shouldn’t be making the trip at all. She attracts the mysterious cardsharp Hatfield, who buys a stage ticket and gallantly promises to protect her. We know that Berton Churchill’s dour banker is no good because Ford gives him a rigid close-up that all but screams, ‘dastardly villain.’ Perhaps the biggest cliché is Thomas Mitchell’s alcoholic Doctor Boone. The Doc provides plenty of comic relief, helping himself to the contents of whiskey drummer Donald Meek’s sample case. When the Doc’s services are needed, we know he will be calling for barrels of coffee to help him sober up. Mitchell’s Doc Boone must be the original mold from which all subsequent drunken doctors were cast.
What keeps STAGECOACH alive are exactly these mythic touches, sketched with assurance by screenwriter Dudley Nichols and given precise direction by John Ford. Every character has a moment of personal transformation. With this cast and this director we don’t worry about how schematic it all is. Little Donald Meek’s devotion to his family back home is equally as endearing as Dallas’s hopeless yearning to have a real life, to become a mother. John Carradine’s defeated Southerner says nothing about himself, but his behavior hints at a life of banishment and regret.
A lot happens in ninety-six minutes. Geronimo attacks, a baby is born, an outlaw is redeemed and a black cat chooses the perfect moment to cross the path of a gunslinger villain. Ford’s Apaches vs. stagecoach chase updates the best of silent western excitement, complete with a daringly risky Yakima Canutt stunt. We’re still impressed by the Native American horseman who reloads his rifle with both hands, as his horse barrels along at a full gallop. The vast Monument Valley is like a landscape unborn, and the tidy cavalry patrol riding on its trails is commanded by a soldier (Tim Holt) who looks like a schoolboy. The West in STAGECOACH is fresh and bright, made for courageous people with big hearts. There’s danger, but also the promise of forgiveness and freedom. That must be why Americans love this movie: it allows us to feel good about ourselves even when things aren’t going well.
STAGECOACH screens at 9:15 am Friday; the introduction will be made by author Nancy Schoenberger. So wake up and smell the sagebrush!
(Post-screening addendum:) Ms. Schoenberger will have a book out soon about the relationship between John Wayne and his (tor)mentor John Ford. She delivered her spirited speech about STAGECOACH to a packed audience, and Chinese #6 is one of the bigger auditoriums.
The early hour scarcely mattered. The movie was greeted enthusiastically, and as every character was introduced, applause broke out. I can’t imagine a better way to see such a great picture. And frankly, the TCM audiences are more polite and appreciative than native Los Angeles classic moviegoers.