A trailblazing Western classic that offers insight into the high art of film directing
This week features a classic from that stellar year in movie history, 1939. The film is “Stagecoach”, and it is a glorious example of how a movie director’s personal artistry can transform conventional material into enthralling perfection. This exceptionally crafted Western made such an impact it revived a genre, put director John Ford on the path to legendary status, catapulted John Wayne to movie stardom, and served as the start of Monument Valley’s rise as the symbol of the American West. In an Oscar year filled with the most numerous classics in movie history (including “Gone with the Wind”, “The Wizard of Oz”, “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington”, “Gunga Din”, “Wuthering Heights”, "The Hunchback of Notre Dame”, and “Ninotchka”), “Stagecoach” still managed to garner seven Academy Award nominations (including Best Picture) and walk away with two statues. It is one of a relatively short list of films to receive a 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, and the American Film Institute named it the 63rd Greatest American Movie of All-Time (one of less than a dozen Westerns to make the grade). This film works on every level, providing the ultimate in movie entertainment.
Its simple plot follows the stagecoach journey of nine people from Tonto, Arizona Territory to Lordsburg, New Mexico in 1880. Apache Chief "Geronimo" is on the warpath, and the passengers must decide if they will risk venturing into his territory or stay put. Because of their personal predicaments, the majority opt to go to Lordsburg, and the film focuses on the intertwining relationships and evolution of the nine stagecoach riders amid savage Indians, gun fights, a showdown, and a budding love story. With flawlessly unforced artistry, it becomes pure entertainment. Even the main characters introductions happen so organically (as one character leads us to another and so on), the viewer is unwittingly drawn into the vibrant world of"Stagecoach".
The main characters are: “Buck”, the stagecoach driver; “Lucy Mallory”, a refined lady on her way to see her husband; “Samuel Peacock”, a whisky salesman; “Hatfield”, a notorious Southern gambler; “Marshal Curley Wilcox”, who rides shotgun with “Buck” to catch escaped outlaw “Ringo Kid”; “Henry Gatewood”, a bank owner; “Dallas”, a prostitute being run out of town by the ladies of the Law and Order League; the drunken “Doc Boone”, run out of town by his landlady (and the ladies of the Law and Order League); and finally, the outlaw “Ringo” himself.
While the story and characters had all been seen before in various forms (particularly in Westerns), John Ford’s inventive approach added unexpected depth and visual beauty, invoking themes of social prejudice, perception, acceptance, morality, the power of kindness, the establishment, and redemption. The heroes in this tale are the underdogs and the film makes a case that the outcast is essential for our survival. But even with all its subtext, this psychological Western is presented with such popcorn-eating excitement that one need not analyze any of it, but just sit back in sheer movie-watching bliss.
The director most closely associated with Westerns in all of cinema is almost certainly John Ford. His first major success came after directing fifty films (40 were Westerns), with the 1924 silent Western "The Iron Horse". He made just one more Western in 1926, "3 Bad Men", before leaving the genre for over a decade, during which he directed approximately thirty films and earned his first Best Director Academy Award for 1935's "The Informer". But his love for the American West never faded, and upon reading Ernest Haycox’s short story "The Stage of Lordsburg" in Collier's magazine in 1937, Ford bought the rights and set out to make a Western to end all Westerns based on it. He did, and it was “Stagecoach”.
“Stagecoach” was a hard sell. Though incredibly popular during the silent era, with the coming of sound, Westerns found themselves regulated to low budget B-movies and serial short films produced by smaller studios. They were no longer considered serious films, and certainly not something in which a large studio would invest substantial resources. So after a year of trying to find financing, Ford found independent producer Walter Wanger (who had a deal with United Artists), who agreed to make “Stagecoach”. Ford worked with screenwriter Dudley Nichols (and later uncredited screenwriter Ben Hecht as well) to expand upon Haycox’s short story. By all accounts Wanger stayed out of Ford’s way and let him carry out his vision for “Stagecoach”.
In the twelve years since his last Western, Ford's direction matured, and the complex social themes and jaw dropping visuals he injected into “Stagecoach” turned the Western into a serious genre. He fleshed out and deepened clichés such as the outlaw, the prostitute with the heart of gold, the corrupt banker, vast landscapes, and gun fights, and in doing so, reshaped the entire genre. And so began the golden age of the Western, which lasted through the 1960s. Not only did the Western genre crystalize with “Stagecoach”, but so did Ford’s personal artistry.
If you want insight into what a director can bring to a film, look no further than “Stagecoach”. Ford’s often unexpected choice of visuals, precise framing, pacing, and editing inject personality, atmosphere, and emotion into the story. One clear example is when the stagecoach leaves Tonto. We are shown an expansive, unusual landscape for as far as the eye can see. At the bottom of the frame is a fence. The stagecoach and army enter the frame and pass through the fence, and as they grow smaller there's a visceral sense they have left civilization and are traveling into the untamed wild. Ford repeats this emotionally visual poetry as the stagecoach and army part ways, this time adding reaction shots, pulling us deeper into the minds and hearts of the characters. Ford deliberately takes his time for both of these fleeting moments, heightening feelings of loneliness, excitement, and danger, while showcasing the beauty of the West. It's this kind of visual thinking and execution that makes Ford’s direction so outstanding and lyrically rich.
With Ford, less is more, and his economically clear direction keeps “Stagecoach” moving at a thrilling pace. He gives us all we need to know as quickly as possible. Take the film's towns as an example. We are shown very little of Tonto, Apache Wells, or Lordsburg, yet get a complete sense of each. And Ford is just as precise at presenting his characters. Without ever stating it, we know “Dallas” is a prostitute from the reactions of others, and “Dallas” and “Ringo” fall for each other without words but through a series of exchanged looks seen in lengthy closeups, letting their feelings unfold before our eyes – most notably inside the coach when “Ringo” is half asleep. Nothing superfluous, just to-the-point filmmaking.
The influence of “Stagecoach” can be seen in innumerable films, including the lighting, use of shadows, low angles, and displays of ceilings in another all-time classic, “Citizen Kane”. In the book "This is Orson Welles", Welles states that he watched “Stagecoach” every day for a month to understand how a film should be made. It was the only film he watched while preparing his groundbreaking classic.
For his direction in “Stagecoach”, Ford earned his second Best Director Academy Award nomination. And so began a three year period in which he directed the biggest cluster of great movies by any director in such a short period (including“Drums Along the Mohawk”, “Young Mr. Lincoln”, "The Long Voyage Home”, “The Grapes of Wrath”, and “How Green Was My Valley” – the latter two earning him Best Director Oscars). Because Westerns were seen as an American genre and Ford directed so many of them, he became nicknamed “The Great American Director”. “Stagecoach” was also the first film Ford shot on location in Monument Valley, which sits on the Arizona-Utah border. Its alien landscape of open spaces and giant buttes was something very few had seen in 1939, and Ford would shoot more classic Westerns there (including "My Darling Clementine", "She Wore a Yellow Ribbon", and "The Searchers"), turning it into an icon of the wild West and a symbol of the hopes, dreams, and opportunities that uncharted America could offer.
As I’ve mentioned from time to time in this blog, films are a product of the time in which they were made, and an unfortunate element in "Stagecoach" is how it depicts the American Indians as one-dimensional, murderous villains who kill for no reason. And because Ford's work was so impactful, he almost singlehandedly invented how the world saw and thought about the American West, with its saloons, gunfighters and all. Being such an influential powerhouse, "Stagecoach" unfortunately created the wretched stereotype of Indians as ruthless bad guys, which carried into decades of subsequent films. You can read more about John Ford, Westerns, American Indians, and Monument Valley in my post on a later Western masterpiece “The Searchers”, and about Ford himself in “How Green Was My Valley”.
“Stagecoach” is an ensemble piece with every character representing an archetype from society. A brilliant aspect of the film is how much mystery it contains, particularly regarding the backstory of its characters. Again, true to Ford, less is more, and most of the characters have shady pasts which are never fully explained. Part of Ford’s genius is to give his audience a full understanding with as little as possible. But never fear, through extracting solid performances from his cast and filming them in informative ways, his audience truly gets to know these people.
Part of Ford’s initial vision for "Stagecoach" included specific actors in certain roles, one of whom was top-billed Claire Trevor as the kindhearted prostitute “Dallas”. It’s never disclosed how or why she became a prostitute, instead hints are dropped, such as that her parents died when she was young and she did what she needed to get by, and Trevor brings such a clean heart and innocent quality to "Dallas" that it’s easy to infer that this wounded girl turned salty out of desperation. Trevor presents her as devoid of hope, and Ford keeps her shunned by almost everyone – underscoring “Dallas” as an outcast we can (and do) root for. Though not a giant star, Trevor was the biggest movie star in the film at the time, and “Stagecoach" helped her career gain even more momentum.
Brooklyn born Clair Trevor began in theater, debuting on Broadway in 1932 in "Whistling in the Dark". She started appearing in short films in 1931 and features in 1933, particularly B-Westerns. In 1937, she appeared in "Dead End" earning her first Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination. She continued her film work while also appearing on the popular radio series "Big Town” opposite Edward G. Robinson (from 1937 until 1940). "Stagecoach" helped establish Trevor as a star, and the 1940s became her most shining decade as she found her way to film noir, a genre that fit her like a glove, earning her the nickname “The Queen of Film Noir” and somewhat of a cult status. Her noirs include "Murder, My Sweet", "Born to Kill”, “Raw Deal”, and most famously "Key Largo", for which she earned a Best Supporting Academy Award (her only win). Trevor’s chemistry with Wayne in “Stagecoach” was so electric, they made three more films together: “Allegheny Uprising”; “Dark Command"; and "The High and the Mighty” (for which she earned a third and final Oscar nomination). Trevor began appearing on television in the early 1950s, working on TV almost exclusively from 1953 onwards, earning two Emmy Award nominations (winning for “Dodsworth" in 1954). Her other notable films include "The Amazing Dr. Clitterhouse”, "Honky Tonk", "How to Murder Your Wife”, "Two Weeks in Another Town”, and her final film, 1982’s "Kiss Me Goodbye”. After retiring from the screen, she became associated with the University of California-Irvine's School of Arts, which was renamed The Claire Trevor School of the Arts after her death. She donated her Oscar and Emmy to the school, which are on display in the campus theater. She was married three times. Claire Trevor died in the year 2000 at the age of 90.
Against everyone’s wishes, Ford wanted (and fought for) actor John Wayne to play “Ringo Kid”. The two started a friendship when Wayne began in the industry as a prop boy in silent films. He worked for Ford and other directors, and was soon given extra parts and small roles starting in 1926. In 1930, director Raoul Walsh gave him his first starring role in the big-budget Western “The Big Trail”. It was a financial flop and Wayne was then regulated to star in low-budget "Poverty Row" Westerns made by lesser B-movie studios, and small parts in A-list films. He became an established B-movie actor. Ford thought the qualities Wayne possessed were perfect for “Ringo”, and told Wayne that “Stagecoach” would make him a star. He was right. With Ford’s help, “Stagecoach” turned Wayne into an A-list movie star, soon becoming perhaps the biggest of the Hollywood Studio Era and a top ten box-office star for a record 25 years (between 1949 and 1974).
While his part is no bigger than his co-stars, John Wayne is the actor most associated with “Stagecoach” – and with good reason. He brings a casual authority, honesty, and even what one might call tenderness underneath an imposingly stoic, gunslinging veneer. Ford was hard on Wayne during filming, making him shed his B-movie acting habits. In addition, Ford sets Wayne up for stardom from the second “Ringo” enters the film. Unlike all the other characters (who are first seen with other people), “Ringo” is preceded by a gunshot. The camera then swiftly moves towards him as he stands like a rock, spinning his Winchester rifle, ending with a close-up of his face. It is a spectacular shot, enough to fill the most jaded viewer with awe. Wayne’s star build-up continues... Though “Ringo” sits alone on the floor of the stagecoach, Ford never films him with angles that make him look inferior. In addition, everyone else in the stagecoach is filmed in two-shots (framed with another actor), but not Wayne. “Ringo” aways fills the frame alone, and Ford shows us many of his reactions, making him a strong individual with whom we emotionally identify. It is the calculated making of a star, and Wayne was smart enough and talented enough to cultivate the qualities found in “Ringo”, and establish a thriving screen persona as an indestructible, charismatic, inward-looking loner. He and Ford remained lifelong friends, and the two made a total of twenty-four films together, including many classics. You can read more about the life and career of John Wayne in my posts on “The Searchers” and “Red River”. Just click on the films' titles.
Andy Devine is a joy to watch as “Buck”, the stagecoach driver. With his unique crackly voice and jovial manner Devine brings much of the film's humor. He once stated that his trademark voice was the result of an accident he had as a kid while running with a curtain rod in his mouth, but that story was never confirmed. Devine became a staple in Western films.
Born in Arizona, Andy Devine played semipro football and was a lifeguard at Venice Beach before his dream of acting began with his first film appearance in the 1926 silent short "The Collegians". With the coming of sound his unusual voice helped him become a popular and prolific character actor, appearing in just shy of 200 films and TV shows, including "A Star is Born" (1937), "Romeo and Juliet", "Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves", "Canyon Passage", "The Red Badge of Courage", "Around the World in 80 Days", and as the voice of "Friar Tuck" in the 1973 Walt Disney animated musical version of "Robin Hood". He was particularly known for Westerns, and appeared as sidekick "Cookie" to Western star Roy Rogers in ten films. Devine was in a total of five films directed by Ford, including "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” and "How the West Was Won” (both opposite Wayne). Devine also became known for his TV work, particularly as "Jingles" on the 1950's TV series "The Adventures of Wild Bill Hickok". He was married once for over forty years, until his death. Andy Devine died in 1977 at the age of 71.
John Carradine is thoroughly engaging as “Hatfield”, the notorious Southern gambler. While it’s evident he is a staunch defender of the Confederate South, his past and ties to “Lucy” remain mysterious. Even so, Carradine makes him well rounded and highly intriguing. It's another example of how the past lives of characters in “Stagecoach” are kept murky, yet we are given a clear picture of this man’s personality and nature.
New York City born John Carradine is one of filmdom's most prolific actors, having appeared in 355 films and TV shows. After seeing a stage production of "The Merchant of Venice" when he was eleven years old, he decided to become an actor. His film career began with small parts starting with his first film "Bright Lights" in 1930, and soon his deep voice helped him become a member of Cecil B. DeMille’s stock company. Carradine became known for his work in Ford's films (he appeared in eleven of them), including "The Grapes of Wrath", "Drums Along the Mohawk", and "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance". Often cast as the villain due to his gaunt looks and booming voice, he also became known for his work in low-budget horror films such as "House of Dracula", "The House of Frankenstein", "Bluebeard", and "The Howling". Just a few of his many other classics include "The Ten Commandments", "The Bride of Frankenstein", "Cleopatra", "Les Misérables", "Around the World in 80 Days", "Captains Courageous", "The Hound of the Baskervilles", "Blood and Sand", "The Night Strangler", and "Johnny Guitar". Carradine also appeared on stage throughout his career, including many plays by Shakespeare. His last film was 1989's "Buried Alive" (though “Jack-O”, filmed eight years before, was his last to be released – seven years after his death). Carradine won an Emmy Award in 1985 for his appearance on the TV special, "Umbrella Jack". He was married four times, and was the first in a long line of family actors. His children include the highly successful actors David Carradine, Robert Carradine, and Keith Carradine, and his grandchildren include Martha Plimpton, Ever Carradine, and Calista Carradine. John Carradine died in 1988 at the age of 82.
Thomas Mitchell gives an Oscar-winning performance as the inebriated “Doc Boone”. He is wonderful as a man seemingly tired of society who’d rather be drunk than sober, though he cares deeply about people. Mitchell won his only Best Supporting Actor Academy Award for "Stagecoach", which came two years after receiving his first (and only other) Oscar nomination for the Ford film "The Hurricane". If you are watching the films on this blog, Mitchell should look familiar, as he previously appeared in "High Noon", "It's a Wonderful Life", and most famously as "Scarlett O'Hara's" father in "Gone with the Wind”. In addition to "Stagecoach" and "GWTW", Mitchell appeared in five 1939 classics, the others of which are “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington”, “Only Angels Have Wings”, and “The Hunchback of Notre Dame”.
New Jersey born Thomas Mitchell started in the theater, making it to Broadway in 1916. Other than one silent film ("Six Cylinder Love" in 1923), he officially began his hugely successful film career in 1936 with "Craig's Wife”. He also began appearing on television in 1951, and accrued 112 film and TV credits, ending with his final film "The Big Step" in 1962. This incredibly gifted and versatile character actor appeared in so many fantastic films, that just a sampling includes his breakthrough role in Frank Capra's "Lost Horizon", "Make Way for Tomorrow", "Our Town", "Pocketful of Miracles", "While the City Sleeps", "The Dark Mirror”, “The Outlaw”, and a third by Ford, "The Long Voyage Home”. Mitchell earned three Emmy Award nominations for his work on TV, winning the statue in 1953. He worked on Broadway throughout his career, earning a Tony Award for the 1960 musical "Hazel Flag", which made him the first actor to win the triple crown of acting (Oscar, Emmy, and Tony Awards). He was married three times. Thomas Mitchell died in 1962 at the age of 70. I am a big fan.
Donald Meek is utterly amusing as "Samuel Peacock”, the meek, nervous whisky salesman. In “Stagecoach”, people are never completely as they appear and “Peacock” is an excellent example. Others keep mistaking this timid, fearful liquor salesman for a priest, and he doesn’t seem the type who would have five children. Meek delightfully mixes comedy with a touch of anxiety. He is also a face you should recognize if you're watching the films on this site, for he gave another memorable performance the year before as “Poppins" in "You Can't Take It with You”.
Glasgow born Donald Meek emigrated to the US as a teenager, first appearing on Broadway in 1903's "The Minister's Daughter". His film debut came alongside that of Mitchell’s in 1923's "Six Cylinder Love", and Meek continued working steadily on Broadway until 1932, when his film career began blossoming. Between 1931 and 1932, he played "Dr. Crabtree" in twelve Warner Brothers' short films, and started getting bit parts in some major movies. One of his first important roles came in Ford’s "The Informer” in 1935, and Meek appeared in a total of four Ford films (the other two are "The Whole Town's Talking" and "Young Mr. Lincoln"). This beloved character actor's presence graced many 1930’s and early 40’s classics including "Jesse James", "The Adventures of Tom Sawyer", "State Fair”, "Captain Blood", "Double Wedding”, "Little Miss Broadway", "My Little Chickadee", "Keeper of the Flame”, and his final, "Magic Town" in 1947. He was married once for nearly forty years until his death. Donald Meek died in 1946 at the age of 68.
Although I could go on and on about all the great actors in "Stagecoach", I'll just mention one more, Tim Holt who plays “Lieutenant Blanchard”. His part is small, though he has an iconic wave goodbye to the stagecoach as it parts ways with him and his troops. If you are watching the films on here, Holt is another actor you might recognize, for he starred as “Bob Curtin” in the classic “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre”, opposite Humphrey Bogart and Walter Huston. You can read about the life and career of Western film star Tim Holt in my post on “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre”.
One of “Stagecoach’s” most iconic scenes is the Apache attack. This seven and a half minute sequence alone is a spectacular feat of filmmaking. With virtually no dialogue, Ford presents this high-speed attack with his own filmic flair. Though it’s completely high energy action, he takes his time mixing in close-ups, far shots, unusual camera angles (including a stunning shot from under the stagecoach), lightning-fast horses, gunshots and arrows, all playing out at a pace for optimal excitement. A truly phenomenally structured scene. It is also noted for its jaw-dropping stunts performed by legendary stuntman Yakima Canutt, such as when “Ringo” jumps from running horse to running horse or when a man gets dragged underneath the stagecoach (that's Canutt doing both). They have become part of cinema history (the latter of which was paid homage to in Steven Spielberg's 1981 film "Raiders of the Lost Arc”). Canutt also devised how to have the stagecoach and horses cross the river so they stayed afloat and were not thrown off course by the water’s current. Canutt was an innovative genius, often referred to as the Father of Stunt Performers.
Washington-state born Yakima Canutt was a five-time world champion rodeo winner before being called to Hollywood where he began playing cowboys. Canutt turned to stunt work, revolutionizing it by planning stunts and figuring out how to choreograph and rig them so they looked best for the camera and could be repeated over and over if necessary. He was the stunt double for many top stars (such as Clark Gable, John Wayne, and Gene Autry), standing in for them in fights and dangerous situations. Like all stunt people, Canutt is an unsung hero of cinema who, without public recognition, made actors look tough and heroic. It is Canutt we see driving the horse-drawn wagon in the famous burning of Atlanta scene in “Gone with the Wind”. And he planned, choreographed, taught stars Charlton Heston and Stephen Boyd how to charioteer while overseeing the filming and stunts for the immortal chariot race in “Ben-Hur” (which you can read about in my post on that film). In 1966, the Academy awarded him an Honorary Oscar for his achievements as a stunt man and for developing safety devices to protect stunt people everywhere (to date, he is the only stunt person ever awarded an Oscar). He was married twice, and two of his children, Joe Canutt and Tap Canutt, also became successful stuntmen. Yakima Canutt died in 1986 at the age of 90.
In addition to Thomas Mitchell’s Best Supporting Actor Oscar win, “Stagecoach” also won an Academy Award for its score by Richard Hageman, W. Franke Harling, John Leipold, and Leo Shuken. Along with its nominations for Best Picture and Director, it also earned Oscar nominations for Best Cinematography (Bert Glennon), Best Art Direction (Alexander Toluboff), and Best Film Editing (Otho Lovering and Dorothy Spencer).
So much more than a run of the mill Western, this week’s film entertainingly delves into the human psyche and our assigned places in society. A picture-book example of film directing at its best, this very fun classic makes for explosively gratifying movie watching. Enjoy “Stagecoach”!
This blog is a weekly series (currently biweekly) on all types of classic films from the silent era through the 1970s. It is designed to entertain and inform movie novices and lovers through watching one recommended classic film a week. The intent is that a love and deepened knowledge of cinema will evolve, along with a familiarity of important stars, directors, writers, the studio system, and a deeper understanding of cinema. I highly recommend visiting (or revisiting) the HOME page, which explains it all and provides a place where you can subscribe and get email notifications for every new post. Visit THE MOVIES page to see a list of all films currently on this site. Please leave comments, share this blog with family, friends, and on social media, and subscribe so you don’t miss a post. Thanks so much for reading!
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