Silver Screen Standards: Stagecoach (1939)
I took a short ride in a stagecoach once, at the Old Tucson Western theme park in Arizona, and it permanently altered my impression of films like Stagecoach (1939), where travelers make long journeys in those noisy, dusty, bumpy conveyances. Anybody who spends days riding in a stagecoach must really be desperate or determined to reach their destination. Luckily for us, John Ford’s classic Western features just those types of passengers, each making the perilous trip for his or her own reasons, and in spite of all the dangers that accompany the uncomfortable ride. Ford’s film, while a star-making moment for John Wayne and a hugely influential picture far beyond its own genre, suffers most of the usual problems of the Western as American mythology, but its powerful narrative about people thrust together in dire circumstances is its heart and soul, and the cast assembled to tell that story is simply brilliant. As a study in complex characters, Stagecoach achieves true greatness, which makes it well worth revisiting if you haven’t seen it lately.
Most of the players are beloved character actors with several regulars in Ford’s casts, and every one of them delivers a memorable performance here, from Claire Trevor in her top-billed role as the disreputable Dallas to Donald Meek as the milquetoast whiskey drummer Mr. Peacock. Classic oater fans instantly recognize the distinctive voice of Andy Devine as stagecoach driver Buck (as well as the breathtaking stunts being performed by Yakima Canutt), while John Carradine, Thomas Mitchell, and George Bancroft are familiar faces to almost anyone who loves movies from the 30s and 40s. Less familiar are Berton Churchill, who nails his role as the obnoxious banker Gatewood, and Louise Platt as the prim but very pregnant Mrs. Mallory. Wayne, the most iconic of Western stars, makes his first appearance after all of the other characters are underway, which gives his Ringo Kid a particularly memorable introduction that helps to set the stage for Wayne’s emergence as a true leading man after years in lower-profile pictures and roles.
The audience might come for any one or all of these actors, but they stay for the characters being depicted. With the exception of Gatewood, who is utterly without scruples, each traveler is a complex mix of strengths and weaknesses, each capable of unexpected greatness when the moment demands. The film opens by introducing us to its pariahs, as Dallas and the alcoholic Doc Boone (Mitchell) are being run out of town by a thin-lipped flock of harpies who consider themselves the local arbiters of morality. Their failures are obvious, and their departure on the stage forced. Barely more reputable is the gambler Hatfield (Carradine), an ex-Confederate officer with a genteel manner who impulsively decides to board the stage when he recognizes Mrs. Mallory as the daughter of his former commander. Nobody makes him go, but the old flame of chivalry reignites his heart as he declares himself the lady’s protector. Mrs. Mallory – despite the most delicate of delicate conditions – is going to meet her husband, but her cold rejection of Dallas dampens our sympathy for her until she learns to appreciate the other woman. Poor Mr. Peacock is the most blameless of the lot and just wants to get home to his family, but he’s a nervous greenhorn out of place in this rough and dangerous territory, and he lets Doc Boone gulp down his entire stock of whiskey. Buck and Marshal Curley (Bancroft) are in their element and the most at home on the journey, but they also have personalities to explore. Their shared fondness for Ringo provides insight into the Kid’s nature and their own, especially since the Marshal intends to throw Ringo back in jail, and their competence keeps the stage going in spite of every obstacle.
We learn more about each character as their journey presses forward and the dangers mount. Gatewood rants and asserts his privilege, even manspreading egregiously in the crowded coach as he hogs the seat between the two women. When Mrs. Mallory gives birth at a wayside station, Gatewood actually proposes leaving her behind, to the utter abhorrence of every other traveler. Doc Boone and even Hatfield have their moments of redemption, Mr. Peacock’s gentle humanity becomes a needed antidote to Gatewood’s selfishness, and Ringo wins the love of both Dallas and the viewer by insistently treating her as a lady deserving of respect and kindness. It’s worth noting that this group of characters is far more sympathetic than those found in the original Guy de Maupassant story, “Boule de Suif,” which inspired Ernest Haycox to write the 1937 short story, “The Stage to Lordsburg,” that Dudley Nichols then adapted for the screenplay. Still, the idea of a microcosm of a culture’s characters exists in each; we recognize the Western types each character represents but are surprised to find out how complex and human they are. That combination of recognition and surprise is what makes Stagecoach such a powerful story. We think we know these people until we realize that we don’t. By the last scene, we know a lot more, and hopefully, we know that our real lives are one big stagecoach journey, fraught with peril, and we ought not to make assumptions about our fellow passengers.
I don’t want to spoil the third act too much for those who might not have seen the picture, but I will say that Stagecoach is a solid pick if you normally don’t go in for Westerns but want to give them a try. The film earned seven Oscar nominations, and Thomas Mitchell, who also appeared in Gone with the Wind in 1939, won his Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his performance as Doc Boone. Young John Wayne is sweeter and leaner than the grizzled version we usually imagine, and the ensemble cast provides someone for every viewer to appreciate. If you’re concerned about the depiction and treatment of Native Americans in Westerns (as you certainly should be), couple Stagecoach and other John Ford Westerns with a viewing of the 2009 documentary, Reel Injun, directed by Cree-Canadian filmmaker Neil Diamond.
— Jennifer Garlen for Classic Movie Hub
Jennifer Garlen pens our monthly Silver Screen Standards column. You can read all of Jennifer’s Silver Screen Standards articles here.
Jennifer is a former college professor with a PhD in English Literature and a lifelong obsession with film. She writes about classic movies at her blog, Virtual Virago, and presents classic film programs for lifetime learning groups and retirement communities. She’s the author of Beyond Casablanca: 100 Classic Movies Worth Watching and its sequel, Beyond Casablanca II: 101 Classic Movies Worth Watching, and she is also the co-editor of two books about the works of Jim Henson.