Friday, September 4, 2009

1939 - Stagecoach

A brief and inconsequential anecdote from today's journeys in the Big Apple:

I was on the 5th floor of a building on 42nd Street, heading to the elevator to go back down to the lobby. There was already a woman waiting, and as I approached, the elevator doors opened, so I naturally just hopped in after her. She asked me, "What floor?" and I told her the lobby, simultaneously noticing that she had already pressed number "9". Oops. I hadn't bothered to check to see that the elevator I was stepping into was actually going down. And obviously it wasn't. She graciously pressed "1" for me as I uttered the clichéd joke about going along for the ride. But when we got to the 9th floor, she took half a step out, realised she'd forgotten something, stepped back in, pressed "5" and giggled with embarrassment. So, back we went to the 5th floor, she got out and I continued my ride down to the lobby. Going along for the ride, indeed.

Nothing meaningful about that story. I just thought it was mildly amusing.

After my mostly redundant elevator ride, I made it home to watch another 1939 Best Picture nominee...

John Ford
Dudley Nichols
(based on the short story "The Stage to Lordsburg" by Ernest Haycox)
Claire Trevor, John Wayne, Andy Devine, John Carradine, Thomas Mitchell, George Bancroft
Academy Awards:
7 nominations
2 wins, including Best Supporting Actor

A classic Western, Stagecoach follows a diverse group of strangers as they travel from the town of Tonto, Arizona bound for Lordsburg, New Mexico. There's an alcoholic doctor, an exiled prostitute, an embezzling banker, a pregnant cavalry officer's wife, a gentleman gambler, a whiskey salesman and an honourable outlaw. All crammed together in a six-horse stagecoach, helmed by an excitable driver and supervised by the marshal that has brought the outlaw into custody. The doctor drinks the salesman's whiskey. The gambler is protective of the cavalry officer's wife. The outlaw flirts with the prostitute. And the banker just gets on everyone's nerves. All the while, they ride under fear of attack by the local Apache tribe.

Stagecoach is big adventure, that's for sure. There are plenty of chases and shootouts and guys falling off horses. It's the ultimate game of Cowboys and Indians. Despite the repeated use of the rear projection effect, which, although common in 1939, looks excessively fake by today's standards, there is a great deal of genuinely wide open spaces. The picturesque Monument Valley serves as the landscape for most of the outdoor scenes, a location the great John Ford became fond of shooting. And I can see why. It is stunning, even in black-and-white.

Rounding out the film is a fair chunk of humour, too. The diversity of the stagecoach's passengers makes room for assorted light-hearted moments, thanks to a very entertaining cast. Not to mention the incredible stunts. Real eye-popping stuff. Although, the technique used to make the horses stumble to the ground was, apparently, rather inhumane. Nonetheless, there is at least one shot in which a horse face plants the dirt only to immediately rise and stand motionless, almost in defiance, as if to say, "I'm NOT doing that again!"

John Wayne, as the Ringo Kid, made his breakout performance in this film, shifting away from his B-movie roots and it's no wonder. He has a very strong and impressive presence, that of a very likable leading man. Thomas Mitchell won an Oscar for his role as the very alcoholic Doc Boone. Also of note, in wonderfully comic roles, are Andy Devine as the stagecoach driver and the appropriately named Donald Meek as the meek whiskey salesman. I didn't make that up. His name is actually Meek.

Stagecoach is a very well crafted Western. John Ford, with his clever selection of shots and the sequence in which they are presented, turns those crucial scenes into a fine lesson in filmmaking. This film has definitely earned its reputation for being a benchmark to which all other Westerns are compared.


  1. Just as I gave a shout-out to Miranda Richardson for her film work in 1992, I'll shout even louder for Thomas Mitchell in 1939. I'm not sure there's ever been a better year for an actor, especially a character actor. While it was quite normal for the contract actors to crank out many films each year back then, that was their job after all, Thomas Mitchell's five 1939 performances were all stellar. Three of his 5 films earned Best Picture nominations.

    Mitchell played the patriarch of the O'Hara family in Gone with the Wind, the tippling reporter and pal of Jean Arthur in Mr. Smith goes to Washington, and of course his Oscar winning role as Doc Boone in Stagecoach. He also appeared as the King of Thieves in The Hunchback of Notre Dame and the over-the-hill pilot in Only Angels Have Wings.

    When you look at his other great work in other years, it is easy to see why he was considered one of the consummate character actors in film.

  2. I must admit, I wasn't very familiar with Thomas Mitchell. I've probably only seen a couple of his movies before this project began, but I'll be paying closer attention to him this time around.

    Which is one of the things that makes this project so fascinating - seeing actors pop up again and again over the years. Vanessa Regrave has appeared in two that I've seen so far - 1992's Howards End, and a cameo in 1966's A Man for All Seasons. And I'm sure I'll be seeing a lot more of her in the years in between.