Stagecoach (1939)


The definition of Depression Giggles is pretty fluid in my class because we’re touching on every genre which hit theaters during the 1930s.  The Western was a B-movie experience during this time period, a surprising thought considering the A-list talent associated with this 1939 film.  John Ford pairs up with John Wayne for the first time in this human tale of survival and redemption.  It may have the standard Western elements of cowboys and Indians, but the human interactions and themes remain as universal today as they were in 1939.  I’m not a Western fan, but Stagecoach is the best I’ve seen!

A group of people are leaving a small town by stagecoach only to learn that Geronimo, is preparing to attack various towns along the way.  The group of citizens decide to take the risk, determined to get to the town of Lordsburg for their own personal reasons.

Stagecoachgroup

The suspense within Stagecoach peripherally focuses on when the Native Americans are going to attack the group, but the majority of the plot explores the various dynamics at play between the inhabitants of the stagecoach and their various reasons for going to the town of Lordsburgh.  The town’s name alludes to each character’s hope of being cleansed upon entering the town.  At a brisk 96-minutes, almost all the characters are fleshed out beyond their stereotypical titles of whore, Madonna, gambler, drunk, etc.  The various interactions blend to show a transformation each character undergoes, surprising considering how lazy a script can get starting with characters who hate each other and suddenly they’re all friends.  By the movie’s conclusion, you believe the characters have all witnessed an awakening, and while they may not be spending weekends at each others’ houses, there’s a mutual respect that wasn’t there before.

This is a character piece with almost all the characters presenting an interesting character arc which develops throughout the film.  The first inhabitants we meet are local prostitute Dallas (Claire Trevor), army wife Lucy Mallory (Louise Platt), Confederate gambler Hatfield (John Carradine), the drunken Doc Boone (Thomas Mitchell), whiskey salesman Peacock (Donald Meek), and drivers Buck (Andy Devine) and Curley (George Bancroft).  The eventual addition of thieving bank manager Gatewood (Berton Churchill) and escaped cowboy Ringo Kid (John Wayne) ignites a powder keg with various issues cropping up throughout.  There’s various themes and issues at play ranging from gender to political to economic and to go through each would make for a lengthy review.

The acting is so phenomenal you’ll find something to enjoy in every character, whether they’re heroic or villainous.  This is a character-driven movie, driven by them as much as the physical movement of the stagecoach towards Lordsburg.  The various vices each character hopes to cast aside, such as Doc Boone’s alcoholism and Hatfield’s gambling are merely stand-ins for the more complex issues of encroaching vice entering American society and the remaining harsh feelings of the after-effects of the Civil War and WWI.  John Carradine’s Hatfield is an enigma, starting off the film as a typical “black hat” who you’re waiting to turn on everyone.  Instead he’s a genteel gentleman whose only issue is he’s a former Confederate (which is a death sentence as evidence by his being the only death within the group).  I desperately wanted to watch more of his character, especially in light of his moment of redemption.  Ford and screenwriter Dudley Nichols never divide characters into good and bad, so it would make sense for Hatfield to remain bad unto death, but instead he’s given a moment of redemption and dies with a clean soul.

Of course, Stagecoach owes its claim to fame due to the debut performance by a young John Wayne.  I’ve mentioned my distaste for John Wayne but am willing to revise my past assessment.  His Ringo Kid is a knight in shining cowboy boots, solicitous to both Dallas and Lucy.  He’s the victim of circumstance; an outlaw forced into serving prison time after his family was killed.  He’s complimented by the astounding Claire Trevor as Dallas.  The gender dynamics were amazing in this movie, because redemption for Dallas isn’t wholly the part of Ringo Kidd.  She’s a similar victim of circumstance, kicked out of the community at the film’s beginning due to a prudish decency league (a veiled attack on the Hays Code?).  Instead, she finds her strength the further from town she gets, and while she falls back on wanting a home and husband, Ringo accepts her for who she is, part and parcel.  For 1939, it’s a rather revolutionary romance where both characters are on equal footing.

Talking about Stagecoach is difficult because there’s too much to talk about.  Really, it’s hard to talk about because it’s so good I fear this revolve will fall into sycophantic indulgence.  Stagecoach is the first surprise of 2014, a movie I expected boredom with, but which continues to remain stuck in my mind.

Ronnie Rating:

4Ronnis

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Stagecoach (The Criterion Collection)

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18 thoughts on “Stagecoach (1939)

  1. Have you seen Wayne in Hawks’ Red River, Ford’s The Searchers, or Siegel’s The Shootist? Even Ford (Stagecoach’s Director) didn’t think Wayne could act until he saw him in Hawks’ Red River.

  2. I’m sure you will find, as I have, that “Stagecoach” only grows in stature as time goes go. It is continually fascinating and continually impressive.

    When my daughter was in high school she asked me to help clarify what her teacher meant by “show, don’t tell”. We watched “Stagecoach”. Sometimes I need a reminder of perfect cinematic story telling. I watch “Stagecoach”. And when I want to see how a decade long B movie cowboy became a star, I watch “Stagecoach”.

  3. I’m not the biggest western movie fan either, but The Searchers was magnificent (it starred John Wayne too). I’ve yet to see Stagecoach, but your review has just convinced me that I need to watch it, like, RIGHT NOW. I’m going to see if my library has it so that I can borrow it this weekend 😉

  4. When I saw Stagecoach I finally understood why it made John Wayne a star. And I will echo the other commenters – definitely watch Stagecoach to see what I consider both the best western ever made and John Wayne’s best performance.

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  6. I love Stagecoach and am thrilled that you enjoyed it. It’s one of those films that is more complicated than I remember it, and I’m quickly thrown back into the story of the mismatched passengers making a daring journey. John Ford made Wayne a star in this movie, and it’s easy to see why it happened. I also agree that Dallas is hardly the typical mold, and that’s refreshing to see.

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