Saturday, February 15, 2014

'Stagecoach' Was About Images

"Well, there are some things a man just can't run away from."

The Ringo Kid (John Wayne)

(1939 is widely regarded as the greatest year ever for the motion picture. Ten movies were nominated for Best Picture that year, and today I take a look at the first of those 10 movies to hit the theaters.)
As in most genres, the movie western has many icons. John Wayne is certainly one of them.

In fact, the Duke is probably the first image that comes to mind for most people when they think of big–screen cowboys. And he made a lot of westerns in his life, many of them in the 1920s and 1930s.

But it is the one that made its debut 75 years ago, John Ford's "Stagecoach," that really launched his career.

Ford, too, had made many westerns, but "Stagecoach" was his first since the introduction of "talkies." I suppose he had made movies in just about every other genre, but, for some reason, he hadn't directed a western with sound. Maybe he regarded it as more of a risk to his reputation.

(That's kind of hard to rationalize, but, really, what other explanation could there be? After Ford made "Stagecoach," he went on to make classic westerns like "The Searchers," "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance," "Fort Apache," "My Darling Clementine" and "She Wore a Yellow Ribbon," among others.)

Wayne made his initial appearance in the movie when a stagecoach, eastbound from Arizona to New Mexico, picked him up after it came across him carrying his saddle after his horse had gone lame. Wayne's character, the Ringo Kid, was a fugitive from justice, and he wasn't so much picked up as he was taken into custody by a cavalry lieutenant who was on board.

Actually, it was sort of illogical that Ringo should be taken into custody on that particular stagecoach, which was occupied by a rather unsavory group — a prostitute (Claire Trevor), a banker (Berton Churchill) who was embezzling $50,000 from his bank, a whiskey salesman (Donald Meek), an alcoholic doctor (Thomas Mitchell) and a gambler (John Carradine). About the only respectable passenger was the pregnant wife of a cavalry officer (Louise Platt).

The rest of the movie was about the various hazards the stagecoach encountered on its journey. A subplot was the budding romance of Wayne's character and Trevor's character.

I've heard it said that an authentic country music song has at least one of a certain list of elements — drinkin' or guns or pickup trucks or prison or trains or Mom. The more the better, I suppose.

I guess it is that way with a western movie. I'm not a diehard fan of the western. But if that comparison is valid, then "Stagecoach" pushed all the right buttons.

It had horses and Indians and gunfights. There was a spine–chilling scene in which Wayne's character (played in the scene by stuntman Yakima Canutt) walked along the team of running horses to retrieve reins that had been dropped by Andy Devine when his character was shot, even a showdown on a town street in the Old West.

Speaking of which ...

I imagine that most moviegoers in 1939 weren't very well traveled. Air travel was still an emerging technology in those days, and the nation didn't have the extensive highway system it has today. My guess is that most Americans had no idea that there were places in this country that looked like the region in which "Stagecoach" was set.

Ford often used existing locations in his films. When moviegoers saw "Stagecoach," they saw the sprawling landscape of Monument Valley on the Utah–Arizona state line. Ford returned to the area several times, helping to make Monument Valley what most moviegoers imagine when they picture the Old West in their minds.

So Ford's movie entertained and educated at the same time. Escapism at its finest.

I watched this movie again for the umpteenth time two weeks ago when it aired on the opening day of Turner Classic Movies' annual salute to the Academy Awards, "31 Days of Oscar." It was shown, appropriately, on a Saturday afternoon, and I allowed my thoughts to wander to what it must have been like to be a boy in 1939, watching John Wayne in cowboy movies in a darkened theater.

By the time I came along, Wayne was the definition of what it was to be a cowboy. But that really began 75 years ago today.

"Stagecoach" is said to be one of the most significant movies ever made. It has been further said that Orson Welles watched it dozens of times prior to making "Citizen Kane."

Part of what made it so important was the performance of Mitchell, who had quite a year in 1939. Most movie scholars will speak of 1939 in reverent tones, and it was an exceptionally good year for movies. It was also a good year for Mitchell, who was a supporting actor in three of the movies that were nominated for Best Picture — "Stagecoach," "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" and "Gone With the Wind."

Mitchell was nominated for Best Supporting Actor for his performance in "Stagecoach" — and won it, too — but he could just as easily have been nominated for either or both of the other two.

Strangely, though, 1939 seems to have been the peak of Mitchell's career; although he kept making movies until his death in 1962, he wasn't even nominated for his performance as Uncle Billy in the now–classic Christmas movie, "It's a Wonderful Life."