Stagecoach (1939) Starring: Claire Trevor, John Wayne, Andy Devine, John Carradine, Thomas Mitchell, Louise Platt, George Bancroft, Donald Meek, Berton Churchill, Tim Holt. Directed by John Ford. Screenplay by Dudley Nichols. Based on the short story “Stage to Lourdsburg” by Ernest Haycox in Collier’s (April 1937). Produced by Walter Wanger. Run time: 97 minutes. U.S. Black and White, Western.
Dipping our toes back into the films from 1939, we’re taking a look at one of the great Westerns to ever be made: Stagecoach. As we’ve discussed previously, the Western has been a tried and true American film and television genre that has been around in some form since The Great Train Robbery (1903). By the late 1930’s the genre had been somewhat relegated to “B” movie status. The major studios were not making them, but they were being churned out by Poverty Row studios like Monogram and Republic. Westerns were considered a genre for kids and country folk.
John Wayne was one of the frequent stars of these Westerns. Wayne had starred in the big budget Raoul Walsh directed The Big Trail (1930), but since had almost exclusively made serials and Westerns at Poverty Row. One such film we reviewed previously, Overland Stage Raiders (1938), would pair Wayne with Louise Brooks, her last film appearance. While under contract to Republic, he grinded out a Western roughly every eight days. Well known at the time, Wayne was considered by many in Hollywood to be a no-talent “B” movie actor.
John Ford, Wayne’s friend since the latter had been a propman at Fox, had made many silent Westerns, but had not made a sound one. His last silent feature, Hangman’s House (1928) was Wayne’s first screen credit, though he had appeared uncredited in other movies prior. Ford was very influenced by another of Fox’s directors, F.W. Murnau, whose Sunrise (1927) is said to have had a great influence on Ford’s filmmaking in the late 20’s and early 1930’s. He even made his penultimate silent film Four Sons (1928) on some of the leftover sets from Sunrise.
During the 30’s, Ford directed such films as Up the River (1930), which featured the screen debuts of both Spencer Tracy and Humphrey Bogart; Arrowsmith (1931) for Samuel Goldwyn; Doctor Bull (1933) starring Will Rogers; The Lost Patrol (1934) starring Victor McLaglen; The Whole Town’s Talking (1935) with Edward G. Robinson and Jean Arthur; The Informer (1936) again with Victor McLaglen; The Prisoner of Shark Island (1937) about Samuel Mudd, the doctor who treated Abraham Lincoln’s assassin, John Wilkes Booth; The Hurricane (1937) a South Seas melodrama and Wee Willie Winkie (1937) starring then superstar Shirley Temple.
|John Ford directed Shirley Temple in Wee Willie Winkie (1937).|
It was during the filming of Wee Willie Winkie that Ford first used the Iverson Ranch in Chatsworth, California. A location he would also use with Stagecoach. Looking to get back into Westerns, Ford purchased the film rights to Ernest Haycox ‘s short story “Stage to Lourdsburg “ for $2500 in 1937 and started writing a screenplay with frequent collaborator Dudley Nichols. Some changes were made to the story, including the name of lead character from “Malpais Bill” to a more hero-sounding “Ringo Kid”.
Wayne was Ford’s choice for the lead from the beginning, but he didn’t come out and ask his friend to star in the movie. Instead, he asked Wayne to read the script on a boat ride to and from Catalina Island. When he was finished, Ford asked him if he knew any good actors he could suggest. Wayne reportedly told him Lloyd Nolan, but Ford told him he wanted him for the part. Wayne supposedly said, “Yeah coach. I know.”
Script in hand, Ford could apparently find no major studio (Twentieth Century-Fox, M-G-M, Paramount, Columbia or Warner Bros.) interested in making a big budget Western, even though films like: Destry Rides Again (1939), Dodge City (1939), Union Pacific (1939) and, of course, The Oklahoma Kid (1939), were already in production or pre-production at this time. Ford turned to David O. Selznick, then an independent producer about to make Gone With the Wind (1939), and was turned down.
Having Wayne for the lead role also didn’t help. And when he found a producer, Walter Wanger, he was told to replace Wayne with Gary Cooper. But Ford held firm, though he did supposedly agree to hire Claire Trevor for the female lead. By this point, Trevor had already been nominated an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for her role in Dead End (1937). She actually gets top-billing over Wayne in posters for the original release. (Subsequent releases have lifted Wayne’s name to the top.)
United Artists, through which Wanger distributed, wasn’t keen on a Western either, so Wanger set the budget low at $392,000, especially considering this was to have a lot of action and location shooting. And the location Ford had chosen was Monument Valley, Utah, a location he had heard about from Harry Carey the actor, who had found it on his own travels through the west. The location, which Ford would return to again and again (and would be seen in films by other directors as well, including Forrest Gump (1994) and Thelma and Louise (1991)).
At the time, Monument Valley was off the beaten path to say the least. One of the least accessible locations in the U.S., it was only reached by a 200-mile drive over washboard dirt roads from Flagstaff, Arizona. Members of the crew were billeted at an old CCC (Civilian Conservation Corps) camp. Conditions at Monument Valley were rough, production hours long and the weather at 5700 feet extreme.
|Monument Valley would provide the backdrop for the movie.|
To save on the budget, he had to take a cut in his own pay, making it for $50,000 rather than his usual $75,000. He also had only $65,000 to spend on the cast. John Wayne was borrowed from Republic, and "was the first star Republic has loaned to a major lot,” according to a New York Times article at the time. Andy Devine was borrowed from Universal and John Carradine was borrowed from Twentieth Century-Fox. Production began in late October / early Nov 1938 and lasted until January 7, 1939. In addition to Monument Valley, the film was also shot in on location at the Kern River near Kernville, Fremont Pass at Newhall, Muroc Dry Lake near Victorville, Chatsworth, Calabasas and Kayenta and Mesa, Arizona.
The film takes place in 1880. Geronimo, the Apache Indian leader, was on the warpath and three riders, including an Indian calvary scout (Yakima Canutt) arrive at Tonto, Arizona to warn the army stationed there. They try to wire Lourdsburg, but the telegram lines go down after a single word is transmitted: Geronimo. The military decides to send a message using the Overland Stage Line, which is about to leave town. The driver, Buck (Andy Devine), has just dropped off his passengers, including Lucy Mallory (Louise Platt), the wife of an Army officer, who is on layover in her travels to be with him. Buck also has the payroll for a local ranch that is being dropped off at the Bank, run by Henry Gatewood (Berton Churchill).
|Buck (Andy Devine), the stagecoach driver, arrives in Tonto.|
But before the stage leaves town, several other passengers will join Lucy on her trek. Dallas’ (Claire Trevor) occupation is never spelled out, but she is a prostitute being forced out of town by members of the towns’ “Law and Order League”, a woman’s group. She turns to Doc Boone (Thomas Mitchell) for advice, but he, too, is being run out of town, since he can no longer pay his rent.
|Doc Boone (Thomas Mitchell) and Dallas (Clarie Trevor) are|
two undesirables that Tonto, Arizona is kicking out of town.
Gatewood’s wife (Brenda Fowler) notifies Henry that the women from the Law and Order League will be joining them for lunch. Maybe it’s a coincidence, but as soon as she leaves, Henry absconds with the $50,000 payroll that has just been delivered.
|Town banker Howard Gatewood (Berton Churchill) decides to abscond with local ranch's $50,000 in payroll.|
Buck goes looking for his shotgunner and ends up at Marshal Curley Wilcox’s (George Bancroft) office, who tells him the guard has gone with a posse to search for fugitive the Ringo Kid. When Buck tells him that Luke Plummer is in Lordsburg, the Marshal, knowing that the Ringo Kid has vowed to avenge the deaths of his father and brother at Plummer's hands, decides to ride along as guard.
Meanwhile, Peacock (Donald Meek), a travelling whiskey seller or drummer as he’s referred to in the film, speaks like a preacher and is trying to make his way back to his loving wife and family in Kansas City, Kansas. He meets Doc when the latter goes into the saloon for one last free drink before leaving town. When Doc learns of Peacock’s profession and that he still has samples, he is on him like a fly on sugar.
Just before the stagecoach is about to leave, U.S. cavalry Lieutenant Blanchard (Tim Holt) informs Curley that Geronimo and his Apaches are on the warpath and his small troop will provide an escort until they reach Dry Fork. He gives Curley a written message to deliver. Curley informs everyone travelling on the stage is doing so at their own peril, but none have a choice but to continue on. Buck, who is willing to back out can’t because Curley won’t let him. Lucy wants to be with her husband even more if he’s in danger. Dallas and Doc have no choice but to leave town and Doc won’t let Peacock out of his sight.
Hatfield (John Carradine), a southerner, gambler and gunfighter, recognizes Lucy, though she doesn’t him. When he hears of the trouble on the trail he volunteers to be her guardian on the trek. The stagecoach takes off, but is flagged down by Gatewood before it gets out of town. He tells everyone that he has just received a telegram from Lourdsburg and has urgent business there. Curley is bothered by that excuse, since he knows the telegraph lines are down.
|Gatewood squeezes Dallas and Lucy (Louise Platt) when he gets onboard the stage.|
The stagecoach is crowded. The women are required to travel facing forward and Gatewood sits in between them, across from Hatfield, Peacock and Boone. They don’t get to their first stop before they come across the Ringo Kid (John Wayne), who is standing by the side of the trail with his shotgun. Curley immediately points his rifle at Ringo and puts him under arrest. But Ringo cautions that he might need his help, because he’s seen ranches on fire nearby.
|The Ringo Kid (John Wayne) makes a dramatic entrance into the film.|
Onboard the stage, Ringo has an instant attraction to Dallas. We learned that he has been in prison since the age of 17, so he is naïve to the way of the world and women in general. He doesn’t know what she is and all he sees is an attractive woman. He doesn’t read too much into how the others treat her, though he thinks their ostracizing is aimed at him because he’s been in prison.
Doc recognizes Ringo, though he has mistaken him for his brother, who we learn is now dead, no doubt at the hands of Luke Plummer. When Doc tells Peacock that he had served as a doctor in the Union Army during the "War of the Rebellion," Hatfield quickly counters using the Southern term, the "War for the Southern Confederacy."
When they get to Dry Fork, the group is told that the cavalry detachment that was supposed to escort them the rest of the way has been sent to Apache Wells. Buck wants to turn back with Blanchard’s group, but Curley demands that the group vote. Only Peacock wants to turn back, so they decide to proceed on to their next stop, Apache Wells. When they sit down for lunch, Lucy Mallory is clearly uncomfortable at having to sit next to a known prostitute. Hatfield offers to sit her next to the window and Lucy accepts.
|Lt. Blanchard (Tom Holt) leads the cavalry escort that leaves them at Dry Fork.|
Lucy asks Hatfield if he’s ever been to Virginia and he informs her that he had served under her father in the Confederate Army. When they arrive at Apache Wells, Lucy finds out that her husband, who should have been there, had been wounded in a skirmish with the Apache and has been taken for medical treatment. Lucy faints at the news. We find out that she’s in labor. Doc Boone is called into service and sobers up; with Dallas’ help they deliver Lucy’s baby.
|Dallas and Doc Boone work together to deliver Lucy's baby.|
Later that night, when they’re alone, Ringo proposes to Dallas. Afraid that he’ll find out about her past, she doesn’t answer. But the next morning, after having stayed up watching over Lucy, she accepts on the condition Ringo give up on his plan to fight the Plummers. He agrees, but Dallas insists that he go now and she’ll join him later, as she doesn’t want to leave Lucy and the new baby. She has arranged for him to make an escape and he goes, but not far. When he sees smoke signals, he returns and Curley puts him in handcuffs. Even though they had planned to stay a couple of days so Lucy could recover, they quickly gather up their belongings and leave, hoping to avoid an encounter with the Apache.
|Ringo proposes to Dallas, who doesn't answer him.|
When the stage arrives at Lee’s Ferry, they find that the station and ferry have been burned and those who had not been killed have fled. Needing his help, Curley releases Ringo from his cuffs. The men tie large logs to the side of the stagecoach so that it will float across the river.
|Curley lets the Ringo Kid help repel the Indian attack.|
And just when they think they’re in the clear, the stagecoach is set upon by a band of Apaches. The stage tries to outrun the Indians, but they can’t. During the chase, Peacock gets struck by an arrow and Buck is also wounded. They run out of ammunition and Hatfield is about to use his last bullet on Lucy Mallory to save her from being taken by the Indians, when he is fatally wounded. Just when all hope seems lost, the 6th U.S. cavalry arrives to the rescue of the group and chase off the Indians.
|Hatfield saves his last bullet for Lucy to keep her from the Indians.|
When the stage finally arrives in Lordsburg, the local sheriff is there, but not to arrest Ringo. Rather the telegraph wire has been repaired and news of Gatewood’s embezzlement has arrived ahead of him and he is taken into custody. Mrs. Mallory is told that her husband's wound is not as serious as she had been told and she is taken to him. But before she is carried away, Mrs. Mallory reconciles with Dallas, and Dallas gives her her shawl to show there are no hard feelings.
Dallas begs Ringo not to seek vengeance against the Plummers, but he is determined to settle matters. Curley grants him leave and his gun so he can avenge the murder of his father and brother. Ringo finds and kills Luke Plummer (Tom Tyler) and his brothers Ike (Joe Rickson) and Hank (Vester Pegg). Afterwards, Ringo returns to Curley, expecting to be returned to jail. He does ask Curley to take Dallas to his ranch in Mexico, but when Ringo boards a wagon and says goodbye, Curley invites Dallas to ride with them to the edge of town. As she climbs aboard, Curley and Doc laugh and start the horses moving, letting the two of them escape across the border.
|Luke Plummer (Tom Tyler) knows Ringo is coming for him.|
While budgeted at $392,000, the film reportedly cost over $500,000 to make, and made $1,103,757 at the box office. More than that, it helped to change how Westerns were viewed. New York Times writer Frank S. Nugent, who we’ve quoted before, wrote that "We've formed the habit of taking our horse operas in a Class B stride...But all that is now changed." Stagecoach may have been one of the several Westerns released that year which helped reclaim the genre from "B" movie status it was the only Western to be nominated for Best Picture in a field of 10 films. It would of course lose that top honor to Gone with the Wind. The film was also very influential for Orson Welles, who claimed to have watched the film over 40 times while filming Citizen Kane (1941). He called Stagecoach a perfect textbook of filmmaking.
Following Stagecoach, Ford would return to the genre that he would be most closely associated with, the Western and Wayne would no longer be considered a “B” movie actor. Ford and Wayne would work together many times over the next two decades and not only on Westerns. Their collaborations include: The Long Voyage Home (1940); They Were Expendable (1945); Fort Apache (1948); 3 Godfathers (1948); She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949); Rio Grande (1950); The Quiet Man (1952); Hondo (1953); The Searchers (1956); The Wings of Eagles (1957); The Horse Soldiers (1959); The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962); and Donovan’s Reef (1963).
|John Ford at left would return to Westerns and Monument Valley again and again.|
Music played an important role in Stagecoach as it does in many of Ford’s films. Richard Hageman, Franke Harling, John Leipold and Leo Shuken received an Academy Award for their score, but it incorporated many American folk songs including "Lily Dale," "Rosa Lee," "Joe Bowers," "Joe the Wrangler," "She's More to Be Pitied Than Censured," "She May Have Seen Better Days" and "Shall We Gather at the River?" as well as the African-American spiritual "Careless Love;" "My Lulu," music and lyrics by Wilf Carter; "Gentle Annie"; "Jeannie with the Light Brown Hair”; "Ten Thousand Cattle” and "Trail to Mexico (Bury Me Not on the Lone Prairie)."
Thomas Mitchell was also awarded the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his role as Doc Boone. He became an actor in 1913, but he was also a writer of plays. One which he co-authored, Little Accident, would be made into a film by Hollywood three times. He made his first film appearance in Six Cylinder Love (1923), a silent comedy at Fox which also featured another Stagecoach co-star, Donald Meek.
|Thomas Mitchel would win the Academy Award for |
Best Supporting Actor for his depiction of Doc Boone.
His big break didn’t come until Frank Capra’s Lost Horizon (1937). From there he would appear in such films as The Hurricane (1937), Only Angels Have Wings (1939), Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), Gone With the Wind, The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939), The Outlaw (1943) and It’s a Wonderful Life (1946). In addition to his Oscar, Mitchell won an Emmy in 1952 and a Tony in 1953. He was the first actor to win all three awards. (3/4 of an EGOT.)
The aptly named Donald Meek also made his film debut in Six Cylinder Love. Prior to Stagecoach, he appeared in many films including Ford’s The Informer, Captain Blood (1935) and You Can’t Take it With You (1938). He would also appear in Jesse James (1939), an even more successful, but more maligned Western than Stagecoach. (The film was notorious for its treatment of animals, leading to the American Humane Society’s overseeing of animals used in films.) He also appeared in such films as Ford’s Young Mr. Lincoln (1939), the Jesse James sequel, The Return of Frank James (1940), Rationing (1944) and The Thin Man Goes Home (1945). His last film, Magic Town (1947), was released after his death in 1946.
|Peacock (Donald Meek) takes an arrow in the fight with the Indians.|
John Carradine, who played Hatfield in the film, is probably best known for his many appearances in horror films. In all he appeared in 234 films from 1930 to 1990. He auditioned for the role of Dracula, but lost out to Bela Lugosi and the monster role in Frankenstein, losing out to Boris Karloff. In all, he made 11 films with John Ford, becoming part of that director’s stock company of actors. Perhaps his most memorable role was as Preacher Casy in The Grapes of Wrath (1940). He appeared in dozens of low-budget horror films in the 1940’s as a way of financing a touring classical theatre company. He would also appear in 100s of episodes on television including a regular on My Friend Irma (1952-1954) and The Munsters (1964-66). John, the father of acting brothers David and Keith, died of organ failure in 1988.
|John Carradine plays Hafield, a Southerner gambler and gunfighter.|
One of the better sequences in the film, the Apache attack on the Stagecoach, includes two very famous stunts performed by Yakima Canutt, who not only was the stunt coordinator, he was also a Second Unit Director on the film. An Indian rides along the stagecoach horse team and tries to take control of the horses. Ringo shoots him and he falls down between the horses. Ringo shoots him again and he falls to the ground as the team and the stagecoach ride over him. This would become one of Canutt’s signature stunts.
|Yakima Canutt provides the movie's best stunts.|
Later, when Buck is shot, he drops the reins of the horses and Ringo leaps from harness to harness until he gets to one of the lead. While we see Wayne riding the lead horse, the Ringo that gets out there is once again Canutt.
Many of the themes associated with John Ford are present in Stagecoach. The film opens with the arrival of the stage in Tonto and closes with the departure of Ringo and Dallas on a wagon; Ford often started and ended his films with such a visual motif. His use of doorways as a frame within a frame, especially in one scene, where Ringo follows Dallas outside, harks to their use at the ending of the Searchers, when Ethan (John Wayne) leaves after rescuing Debbie.
|This shot in Stagecoach is similar to the shot at the end of The Searchers.|
Often Ford’s heroes are society outsiders, like Ringo is an escaped convict, who let their actions speak louder than words. Additionally, Ringo is joined by two others in the stagecoach, Doc Boone and Dallas, which civilized society has also pushed away. Both Doc and Dallas redeem themselves to a certain extent by delivering the smug Lucy’s baby.
I also read anytime Ford shows a doomed character playing poker, such as Liberty Valance or Luke Plummer, they're holding the "Dead Man’s Hand": two eights and two aces (one of the aces being the spade). This is the same hand, reputedly, that lawman/gunfighter Wild Bill Hickok was holding when he was murdered.
|It's never good to get the "Dead Man's Hand" in a Ford western, just ask Luke Plummer.|
Ford is also well known for his composition, though he never used a storyboard, or necessarily the same cinematographer from film to film. In this case, we often see Monument Valley in long shots as the wagon, troops and Indians maneuver in its desolate trails. It is not surprising he would return again and again to this site.
Ford is also known for the camera movement or lack thereof. Ford preferred a static camera and long shots, framing the actors. However, one of the most dramatic shots in the film, the first appearance of Ringo, is a dolly that moves in one the character. I’ve watched this movie many times and I’m always a little flummoxed by the fact the shot gets blurry as it moves into towards Wayne before coming back into sharp focus. It seems odd to leave that in a finished film unless Ford was trying to make a point with it. I’m wondering if perhaps he’s trying to do a sort of double take, say from the Marshal’s point of view, rubbing his eyes as it were, to be sure it really is the Ringo Kid standing there and not a mirage. If someone has a better explanation I would love to hear it.
One thing I really like about the film is that even though there were nine people crammed in and on top of the coach, I never got a sense of claustrophobia. A film with a similar number of cast members, Alfred Hitchcock’s Lifeboat (1941), even though it is set in the open sea, always feels claustrophobic to me. Perhaps it is the fact that Hitchcock liked to film in the controlled environment of a studio rather than on location. The juxtaposition of studio and location shooting keeps Stagecoach from feeling that way for me.
|One of the strengths of Stagecoach is its ensemble cast.|
There is so much to like about Stagecoach. The acting is very good, the atmosphere is breathtaking and the action leads to a satisfying conclusion and the film is directed by one of the all-time great directors and story-tellers. If you like Westerns, you owe it to yourself to see this film. If you like good stories well told, you should see it too. This is one film not to miss.