Katy’s first pick for Westerns month was this, the most acclaimed Western of all. We both liked it very much, though I’m probably not qualified to proclaim its greatness or otherwise. For one thing, it’s not all Citizen Kane-y, shouting its own greatness to the heavens, just a cheap-looking, charming flick (reportedly, Welles loved it). Story by Ernest Haycox (Canyon Passage, Union Pacific), screenplay by Ford regular Dudley Nichols (also Bringing Up Baby and Scarlet Street – I like this guy). Remade in the 60’s with Ann-Margret, Bing Crosby and Slim Pickens, then in the 80’s with Highwaymen Willie, Kris, Johnny and Waylon. I would kinda love to see both remakes. Ford also made two Henry Fonda movies this year, including Young Mr. Lincoln.
Bunch of people who do not belong together are crammed into the stage to Lordsburg through dangerous Indian territory and their military escort has vanished. The long-dreaded attack comes, but they’re saved last-minute by the cavalry, and everyone learns a little something about each other. Lots more humor than I expected, too. It’s hardly a dry, stodgy classic. It’s hardly realistic either – you never forget that it’s a movie (in fact, sometimes it feels like a stage play).
John Wayne (in his star-making role after flying under-radar for his last hundred movies) shows up late, out for revenge on some guys who killed his brother, watched closely by Marshall Curley (George Bancroft, star of those Josef von Sternberg movies Criterion just put out). It seems weird now that Claire Trevor (Dark Command, Key Largo, that 60’s remake of Pickup on South Street) was first-billed in this. She’s a hottie haunted by her dark past (as a “saloon girl,” it seems, not a prostitute) and shunned by the right and proper other girl, pregnant Lucy (Hollywood short-termer Louise Platt of Street of Chance, Spawn of the North) who’s trying to meet up with her husband.
There’s an uptight crooked banker named Gatewood (Berton Churchill, the villainous senator in Judge Priest) who gets arrested upon arrival, after irritating everyone the entire way, and for comic relief, nerdy whiskey salesman Peacock (appropriately named Donald Meek, also of You Can’t Take It With You, Peter Ibbetson, Return of Frank James) and the seriously drunk Doc Boone (Thomas Mitchell, who won an oscar for this, also with major parts in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Gone with the Wind, Only Angels Have Wings and The Hunchback of Notre Dame – all this same year!). The doc sobers up just long enough to deliver Lucy’s baby halfway through the trip, becoming everyone’s hero. I can’t tell if gentleman gambler Hatfield (John Carradine, who was playing Robert Ford in the Jesse James films around the same time) is a hero or not, dying in the attack (somebody had to) before he could blast Lucy in the head to spare her from Indian capture. And I loved coachman Andy Devine, whom Katy immediately pegged as the voice of Friar Tuck in Robin Hood. And oh yeah, when they get into town, lawman Curley lets Ford blow away his opponents then escape with Claire Trevor.
Stock types, but Nichols and Ford and the cast make them fresh by letting them bounce off one another in surprising ways. Character change elevates Stagecoach far above The Hurricane, where the cardboard figures blow in the wind but don’t bend. Nearly everybody in Stagecoach is either developed or transfigured during the adventure. Snooty Lucy transcends the prejudices of her upbringing via her growing respect for Dallas, and even the timid Mr. Peacock gains a little force. A family man, he is more able to assert himself after Lucy’s baby is born, even if nobody pays much attention. Curley, meanwhile, thanks to his exposure to that noble outlaw the Ringo Kid, abandons his rigid service to the law so a higher justice can be done. … Throughout the film, the Apaches are an anonymous threat, Geronimo a mere renegade with no motivation supplied. It’s the least nuanced portrayal of Indians in any of Ford’s classic westerns, though his relations with the Navajo extras were very warm—he even had a medicine man on retainer to arrange photogenic cloud formations for his camera.
We watched it on crummy netflix streaming, not on the gloriously restored, feature-rich new Criterion-edition blu-ray, so I have no supporting materials.