Thursday, October 27, 2016

"Stagecoach" (1939)

I'm taking a free online course on western films right now, called "Made in America:  Exploring the American Western," and the first film we've studied is Stagecoach, the film that took John Wayne out of the third-rate "oaters" he'd been making and made him a movie star.  I don't know if I'll be posting about every film we study, but I've been wanting to write up a review on this one for a while now, so this viewing gives me the chance.

I've seen Stagecoach sooooo many times.  First as a young teen watching and rewatching every western I could get my grubby hands on, then in college when it was one of the few John Wayne westerns my friends liked much, then once in a while throughout my adult life.  But it's been at least six years since I last saw it, so I welcomed having a reason to sit down with it over the weekend.  This is one of those films that feels like hanging out with a bunch of friends I've known a long time, which is always a delight.

People like to say that Stagecoach is about a group of strangers racing to find safety in the town of Lordsburg from Geronimo and his renegade Apache followers, who are on the warpath.  But they're not actually all strangers -- Doc Boone and Dallas know each other, and the stage driver Buck knows Marshal Curley Wilcox.  The gambler Hatfield knows Mrs. Mallory from long ago, even if she doesn't remember him.  Everybody kind of knows Banker Gatewood.  And Doc, Buck, and the marshal all know the Ringo Kid.  So really it's about a variety of interesting people who don't know each other very well.  And it's those interesting people that make this movie so re-watch-able for me.  So I'm going to introduce you to them one at a time, in the order the film introduces them.

Buck (Andy Devine) drives a stagecoach for a living.  He is a generous, kind-hearted man, if not especially bright.  He loves to talk, especially when he's nervous.  And who wouldn't be nervous with a band of angry Apaches roaming the countryside, not to mention the Ringo Kid escaped from prison?

Mrs. Lucy Mallory (Louise Platt) is on her way west to rejoin her husband, a captain in the cavalry.  She has a secret.  And hides it well, I must say.  Mrs. Mallory is very refined, which is a code word for snobby.  She looks down on most of the other passengers for much of the film.

Marshal Curley Wilcox (George Bancroft) is an honorable, competent officer of the law.  He's on a mission to recapture the Ring Kid, as much for Ringo's protection as anything else.  We'll get to that.  I like Curley a lot, because he's sensible, quick-thinking, and kind.

Gatewood (Berton Churchill) is a wealthy banker with a guilty secret.  He's constantly antagonistic toward every single other character, and I'm astonished at how long it takes before somebody finally slugs him.

Doc Boone (Thomas Mitchell) is a boozy, breezy fellow with a smile or a snarky quip for every occasion, as is called for.  He has lost all respectability due to his drinking and is being run out of town for being a bad influence on morality or something.  He provides a nice bit of wry comic relief throughout the adventure, and eventually reclaims a little of his self-respect.

Dallas (Claire Trevor) is a lady of the evening who's also being run out of town by a bunch of angry, sanctimonious wives.  She's a fascinating mixture of cynical and hopeful, and I love her character arc, as she goes from hurt and resentful to kind and helpful.

Mr. Peacock (Donald Meek) is a whiskey drummer, a travelling salesman who tries to get bartenders to order liquor from him.  He is a mild-mannered, nervous man who allows Doc Boone to take and drink all his samples, making many ineffectual protests, but never doing more than that.  But he is a constant reminder that respectable people can be kind and polite, which is very much needed to counteract all the snobbery from Mrs. Mallory and Gatewood.

Hatfield (John Carradine) is a gambler with a bad reputation.  But he considers himself a gentleman, and offers his protection to Mrs. Mallory for her trip.  He says he served under her father during the Civil War, though she doesn't remember him.  Side note -- doesn't John Carradine have the most fascinating face?  My brother and I used to call him The Raisin Man because, in a different film, his face reminded us of a long, thin, withered raisin. However, I think he's very handsome in this movie.

The stagecoach and its passengers head off into the desert, accompanied by a Cavalry detachment that will take them part of the way.  Beautiful scenery ensues.

Much of this movie was filmed on location in the glorious Monument Valley, one of the places I am determined to visit some day.  Preferably not in the summer, since I hate heat, hee.

On the way, they encounter the final main character:

Today, it's considered one of the most iconic entrances in filmdom, but when they made the movie, it was just time to introduce another character, the Ringo Kid (John Wayne).  Ringo got sent to prison years ago for a murder he didn't commit, and the three brothers who framed him for it killed his father and brother.  He's broken out of prison and vowed to take down the Plummer brothers in Lordsburg or die trying, and most people aren't betting on him.  I'm not entirely sure why he's got this notorious reputation -- everybody has heard of the Ringo Kid -- when he's been in prison since he was 16, but whatever, I'm not going to puzzle over it.  'Cause Ringo is just so darned cool it's not hard to believe evvvvvverybody knows about him.

The stagecoach reaches their first stop, where they discover that the troops they'd expected to guard them on the next leg of their journey to Lordsburg is not there.  They try to figure out if they should keep going or turn back, and it's here that Ringo starts winning my affections.  And not just mine, but Dallas' too.  He insists on treating her with respect, calling her a lady and ma'am.  And he makes everyone else give her choice about going on or going back just as much weight as Mrs. Mallory's.  Dallas thinks Ringo doesn't know that she's a lady of the evening, but I think he knows it full well and doesn't believe it should make a difference in how she's treated.  In his world view, women should be honored and treated gallantly, and that's all.

He even blames his own presence for the other people not wanting to eat near himself and Dallas as they all share lunch at the way station, saying he should have realized he couldn't break out of prison and into society in the same week.

Ringo clearly liiiiiikes Dallas, but not because he thinks she's easy or loose -- he genuinely likes her as a person pretty much from the first glance they exchanged on the crowded stage.

The juxtaposition of behavior between those who are "socially acceptable" and those who are "outcasts" is one of my favorite parts of this film.  Time and again, the "upstanding citizens," banker Gatewood and Mrs. Mallory behave very rudely.  Gatewood is always yelling at people and trying to put himself first for everything.  Mrs. Mallory refuses to have anything to do with Dallas or Ringo or Doc because they are "beneath" her and "bad."  The whiskey drummer, Mr. Peacock, is supposedly a good person, but because he sells alcohol, Gatewood and Mrs. Mallory snub him too.  Buck is rough and doesn't have good manners, and he's overweight and usually dirty, so they don't want to deal with him.  And while Hatfield is genteel and has beautiful manners, and also shuns the "lower" types, he's also a gambler and reportedly has killed people in duels, so Gatewood doesn't like him, though Mrs. Mallory accepts his offer of protection.

But how do the lowly characters behave toward these snobby, snotty people?  (This will involve some spoilage, so skip to the next photo of John Wayne and Claire Trevor if you haven't watched this movie yet and want to remain unspoiled.)  Doc delivers Mrs. Mallory's baby with Dallas' assistance.  Dallas continually offers help, kindness, and comfort to Mrs. Mallory, even though she gets rebuffed over and over.  Ringo shows more consideration and politeness to everyone there than all the "polite" characters combined.  Buck bravely continues to drive the stagecoach as fast as he can even after he's been wounded, trying to save the lives of his passengers.  It's the so-called dregs of society who know the true meaning of kindness and good behavior, even if their manners aren't polished and their clothes are dirty and their backgrounds are not above reproach.  Like it says in the Bible, the one who has been forgiven much loves much, but the one who has been forgiven little loves little.  They know what it means to have your faults thrown in your face, and they know how much a bit of kindness or love can make a difference in a person's life.

In fact, the only "good guy" that everyone respects and likes is Curley, the marshal.  He's above reproach AND he's a decent human being.

Time to talk about my other favorite part of this film:  Ringo + Dallas.  As I mentioned above, Ringo is determined that Dallas should be honored and respected because she is a woman.  But more than that, he gradually and quietly develops admiring feelings for her.  And he makes very sure that she knows his intentions are honorable.  In fact, I noticed this viewing that he almost never touches her.  Their fingers brush a little when handing a spoon or canteen to each other, and at one point he takes her elbow to steer her through a crowd, then lets go once they're past the people.  But he deliberately puts a literal fence between himself and her during their one almost-love scene.

Ringo understands what Dallas is, all right.  She's a woman who has been touched too many times, by too many men.  And so he shows her that he is different, that he values her as a person, by not touching her.  It's the only way he can prove to her that he's serious when he asks her to marry him.  He's not saying that to get in bed with her, he's saying it because he means it.

Dallas and Ringo do touch a couple other times, all of them initiated by her.  One of the most important is when they realize the Apache are much closer than they'd thought.  She puts her hand on his arm as if seeking protection.  She's slowly, hesitantly allowing herself to believe that Ringo does mean to rescue her from her hopeless life.  She's learning to hope again, despite their desperate circumstances.

A bunch of exciting stuff happens then -- Indians chasing the stagecoach and so on.  I'm going to go ahead and spoil this for you now, so stop reading if you don't want to know stuff about the end, okay?  The stagecoach does get to Lordsburg.  Not without casualties, but it gets there.  And Dallas freaks out because Ringo asks to walk her home, or wherever she's going, before he takes on the Plummer boys, and now he's going to find out she lives in/behind a house of ill repute and ahhhhhhhhhhhhhhh, she's sooooooooo not cool with this.

So you remember that scene earlier where Ringo put a fence between himself and Dallas?  This time, he doesn't.  She runs away from him, he follows, he stands on the same side of a fence (OKAY, FINE, it's the railing of a footbridge and if he was on the other side, he'd be in a stream, but it's symbolic, okay?) so that she knows there are no barriers between them.  He has known all along what she's done to survive, and he wants to marry her anyway.  It is not a problem for him.

That is where I melted into a happy puddle.

I had another realization while writing this post.  Ringo tells Curley to make sure Dallas gets to Ringo's ranch in Mexico, no matter what happens to Ringo.  And Ringo told Doc and several other people that he has asked Dallas to marry him.  That makes her his fiancee, and in most cases, a fiancee inherits their fiance's worldly goods even if they're not married yet at time of death.  Everyone warns Ringo he's not going to win when he takes on the three Plummers.  He's kind of assuming the same.  But he's making sure Dallas will be okay.  She can have his ranch in Mexico, where no one knows her.  No one knows what she's been.  No one will know her as anyone or anything besides the Ringo Kid's fiancee, and she can start her life over there even without him.  Oh my goodness, what a man.

I said that Dallas touches Ringo a few times.  This is the second important one:

She clutches him, and his arms go around her, but not around her waist in a romantic clinch, around her back and shoulders.  There's no kissing.  It's a strong, protective embrace on his part, and a let-me-feel-if-you-are-real-and-okay sort of thing on hers.  It's one of the most loving, sincere movie embraces I've ever seen.

Is this movie family friendly?  I've detailed pretty much everything that might raise eyebrows.  Lots of Doc Boone drinking, a completely unseen birth, and nobody ever outright says how Dallas has been making a living.  I would let my kids watch this.

Like I said, this is the film that made 32-year-old John Wayne a movie star.  It's not hard to see why, and since he's my favorite actor and it's my blog, I'm just ending this with a bunch of really nice screencaps I took of him:


  1. I'm so glad you wrote this up, because this is those movies I saw parts of it when I was a kid, all of it once when I was an adult, and that's it. I was satisfied and never felt the need to revisit (though my dad loves the movie). I really wanted to know what you liked about it. Now that we understand what makes movies work for us as individuals, I'd like to see it again, with fresh eyes!

    1. Out of curiosity, have you ever watched the 1966 remake with Van Heflin and Bing Crosby? I doubt it measures up to the original, but I'm curious to know how similar/different it is.

    2. DKoren, I went through a phase where I was like, "Stagecoach isn't all that great -- why do people make a big fuss over it?" That was called my 20s, lol. Then I rewatched it again sometime after I'd had kids and was like, "WHOA, I get it."

      I've never seen the '60s version, but I think Eva has, so maybe she'll weigh in here? I see it's available on YouTube right now. I should give it a try.

    3. Woops, sorry, I was being unclear. I get the fuss over the movie. I think it's a great movie, has all the necessary/right pieces. Just like Searchers, and Mag 7, and a couple others I consider to be great Westerns, but aren't personal favorites. It's my own personal level I'm curious about. I didn't know I had to want to be someone in the movie when I last saw this film, so now I'm curious to watch it again to see how I look at the characters.

      I watched the opening of the 60's one a few years back, on youtube!, but it didn't grab my attention, and I ended up not finishing it. That was before I liked Van Heflin too, so I might have a different opinion now! I would like to hear from you or Eva about it.

    4. No, I think I worded mine poorly too. I meant that I've always liked it and enjoyed it, but it took me a while to figure out why people said it was important. As a teen, I was just all, "Yay, John Wayne in a stagecoach! Isn't Andy Devine funny?" And in college, I was like, "Yay! ED will watch this with me! I get my John Wayne fix!" And then in my 20s, I was more, "Hey, I heard this is all Important and Influential -- why? It seems so ordinary." So I'm like backwards of you -- I liked it, but didn't get the fuss for a long time.

      Once this class is over and I'm not drowning in "homework," I'll try to find time to watch the other one.

  2. The first time I watched it was on a recorded vhs and we had the volume turned up to 100 and STILL could hardly hear it. Then I watched it again a couple years ago on dvd and it was MUCH better lol. Great post!!

    I'm really liking the films chosen for this class :) :)

    1. Phyl, I feel your pain! I have watched so many movies recorded off TV with wonky sound or jumpy images, or that cut off at The Wrongest Possible Moment.

      I am falling behind -- have only watched one of the lectures for this week and need to watch They Died With Their Boots On yet. So glad to finally see it!

  3. Excellent overview. I hope my attempt for the John Wayne blogathon doesn't pale by comparison.

    1. Thanks, Quiggy! I'm sure yours will be excellent. There were a bunch of things I never even touched on here, like the use of the song "Oh Bury Me Not" over and over and over.

  4. Eeesh, Ringo and Dallas. <3

    And this made me laugh:"OKAY, FINE, it's the railing of a footbridge and if he was on the other side, he'd be in a stream, but it's symbolic, okay?"

    Hahaha. :D Great review!

    1. Natalie, yeah... they're splendiferous.

      Glad I made you laugh :-)

  5. This sounds like a great movie . . .

    1. Jessica, it is! Loads of fun AND thought-provoking. Good stuff.

  6. Stagecoach is one of those films that I never tire of reading reviews about, and yours was great fun Hamlette! It's truly one of the finest westerns ever filmed, and is really quite thought-provoking.

    It was a great point you brought out about the one who is forgiven much, loving much. So true.
    I always cringe when I see the supposedly "good" ladies in the beginning acting very un-Christian and practically driving Dallas to her type of life, when just one kindness shown could have reformed her in an instant. She was so hungry for hope! They should have watched Gone With The Wind and taken a lesson from Melanie! :)

    1. Thanks, Annie! Yes, those "good" ladies at the beginning get me riled too. I've been speculating about Dallas -- she's the only woman being run out of town there, so there must not be a whorehouse, or they'd be running out lots of women. Was she plying her trade there too, or had she left Lordsburg to get away from that life, but they found out what she had been and were forcing her back to it by chasing her out. Her protests of, "They can't do this to me, can they?" make me feel like she thinks their treatment is unjust, like she hadn't been doing anything there to be chased away for. Dunno, just me filling in story gaps with my imagination the way I do.

  7. You intrigue me! Now I must find a copy of this movie. Also? John Wayne is a very handsome man.

    1. Kara, yes! I think you would quite enjoy this movie.

      And he definitely was a handsome guy, especially in the late 1930s and into the '40s.

  8. An excellent bit of writing! You nailed this one. STAGECOACH is truly one of those game changer films that pop up every so often. John Ford had several of these genre changers, STAGECOACH, FORT APAHCE, THE SEARCHERS and THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE. Each one of these film made the genre a more adult fare for the viewers.
    This one is also a film I never grow tired of watching even if I stumble on it while channel surfing. The leads, Wayne and Miss Trevor are perfect and the supporting cast never make a misstep. Andy Devine was always a hoot, and John Carradine in particular shows just who good of a character player he was. Was there ever anyone better at playing a cad, villain or just a plain low-life heel. There is one tv episode from 1958 that really stands out for me and that is, “A Touch of Evil” from the 1957-58 Hitchcock produced anthology series, SUSPICION. Audrey Totter is also in the cast. Review at the usual place.
    Again, well said!!!!!

    1. Thanks so much, Gord! I had almost forgotten how very, very good this movie is. Definitely one that changed and shaped the western genre, and "actiony" movies as a whole for that era, I think. It's not just about the action, it's about the people the action is happening to and around.

      John Carradine fascinates me, just because his face is SO long and lean and unusual. And he's got such a great, self-assured presence.

    2. Hello

      Gord here
      Been away for 3 years off line nut it is time to get back in the game. I see you have been busy. Did you ever get around to those Russell Crowe and Hugh Jackman bits were they are singing in that NY bar?

    3. Hello, Gord! Nice to hear from you again :-) Yes, I have listened to those little duet snippets many times since you recommended them, and with pleasure!


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