Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Stagecoach (1939)


The disreputable doctor who cracks wise and drinks heavily, but sobers up when the chips are down. The golden-haired prostitute who brightens incandescently when a naive cowpoke calls her “a lady.” The shifty-eyed gambler with a gun at his side and, presumably, an ace up his sleeve.

And, of course: The square-jawed, slow-talking gunfighter who’s willing to hang up his shootin’ irons — who’s even agreeable to mending his ways and settling down on a small farm with a good woman — but not before he settles some unfinished business with the varmints who terminated his loved ones.

Why? Because, as the gunfighter tersely notes, “There are some things a man can’t run away from.”

These and other familiar figures had already established themselves as archetypes by 1939, that magical movie year in which Stagecoach premiered. Even so, director John Ford’s must-see masterwork arguably is the first significant Western of the talking-pictures era, the paradigm that cast the mold, set the rules and firmly established the dramatis personae for all later movies of its kind. Indeed, it single-handedly revived the genre after a long period of box-office doldrums, elevating the Western to a new level of critical and popular acceptance.

And unlike, say, Raoul Walsh’s creaky and badly dated The Big Trail (1930) — John Wayne’s first starring vehicle, but a career-stalling flop in its time —Stagecoach remains a lot of fun to watch.

Ford’s film is a classically simple tale of strangers united in close quarters for a brief but intensely dramatic interlude. In this case, the characters are passengers aboard an Overland Stage Line coach during a dangerous trek through Indian Territory. The journey begins in the small town of Tonto (no, really) as two social outcasts — Doc Boone (Thomas Mitchell), a gleefully roguish alcoholic, and Dallas (Claire Trevor), a tearfully vulnerable prostitute — are forcibly exiled by the good ladies of The Law and Order League.

These pariahs board the stage to Lordsburg along with Mrs. Mallory (Louise Platt), a very proper and very pregnant Army wife; Hartfield (John Carradine), a courtly gambler who appoints himself as Mrs. Mallory’s protector; Peacock (Donald Meek), a mild-mannered whiskey salesman whose sample case is progressively depleted by Doc Boone; and, at the last minute, Gatewood (Berton Churchill), a blustering banker who has absconded with the contents of his office safe. Buck (Andy Devine) is the driver, and Sheriff Wilcox (George Bancroft) rides shotgun. Just outside of Tonto, the travelers are joined by The Ringo Kid, a boyishly handsome gunfighter who has broken out of prison to avenge his murdered father and brothers.

As Ringo — the role that saved him from the professional purgatory of B-movies — John Wayne makes one of the greatest entrances in movie history: While he spins a rifle like a six-gun, the camera rapidly tracks toward him, then frames him heroically, almost worshipfully, in a flattering close-up. Ringo is a friendly and forthcoming fellow, even when dealing with Sheriff Wilcox. But he leaves no room for doubt that he’s quite capable of minding his own bloody business at the end of the line.

If you’re familiar with Stagecoach only through its reputation, or if you’ve seen nothing more than cut-and-paste highlights from Ford’s classic, you may be surprised by the movie’s intimacy. To be sure, the majestic landscapes of Monument Valley — to which Ford returned for several subsequent Westerns — are grandly impressive. And the much-imitated Indian assault on the speeding stagecoach, replete with breathtaking stunt work choreographed by the legendary Yakima Canutt, is every bit as exciting as its reputation attests.

But what really makes Stagecoach so vital and memorable is the emotionally charged interaction among its vividly drawn characters. Much of the movie consists of expressionistically lit interior scenes. (Orson Welles reportedly viewed Stagecoach several times as part of his preparations for making Citizen Kane.) And in many of its most memorable moments, the archetypes reveal unexpected depth and complexity. Even Carradine’s ostentatious gambler turns out to be truly chivalrous in his fashion, redeeming himself gracefully under fire. And Wayne demonstrates that, long before his speech patterns and body language ossified into self-parody, he could give as soulfully affecting a performance as any hero who ever rode hard and shot straight in the most American of movie genres.

And by the way: Has any film actor ever had a better year than Stagecoach co-star Thomas Mitchell did in 1939? Consider: In addition to earning an Oscar for his work in Ford's classic, he also contributed memorable performances to Howard Hawks' Only Angels Have Wings, Frank Capra's Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and (playing opposite Charles Laughton's Quasimodo) William Dieterle's The Hunchback of Notre Dame. And, not incidentally, he played the heroine's dad in a little movie called Gone With the Wind. Cowabunga.

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