Greenbriar Boards The Stagecoach --- Part One
Somebody please smack me if I repeat Stagecoach lore you've read a hundred other places. Here's one done to death by revisitors, more so lately with Criterion's Blu-Ray in welcome circulation. Is this worth yet another DVD buy? Let sharper analysts speak to that (but a hint --- yes!). Stagecoach is among most democratic of sacred texts. It is, and has been from 1939, a western easy for everybody to like. Once it was familiar as raindrops. Television got all over Stagecoach early on, as did screaming exhibitors incensed by the film's free access there from the early fifties. Anyone setting up a 16mm rental outlet in their basement could license prints for non-theatrical dates. Rights flew in all directions. The camera neg was pillaged for stock footage and action shots cheaper westerns could use. Prints bore consequent scars by the sixties and Tom Dunnahoo of Thunderbird Films, imagining Stagecoach was public domain, took a late seventies whirl at selling it on 8mm and early VHS (but was soon persuaded otherwise by rights holders). There's less of John Ford's original in general circulation today. If ever Stagecoach lists anyplace other than TCM, get prepared for Fox's punk remake of 1966, or worse, a TV movie with country warblers aspiring to roles immortalized by John Ford's ensemble (Kris Kristofferson plays Ringo at age 50 --- right on!). The real Stagecoach was a saddle buster folks remembered for giving John Wayne an early boost and putting him to shootin' Injuns for a near nine minute chase talked about for decades to come. What Ford did with stunt riders and wagon wheels was not to be approached until counterparts paid (knowing?) homage using souped-up autos for likes of Bullitt and The French Connection.
I'm ready now to buy all John Ford's myths, even as I admire writers like Garry Wills who deconstruct them (he calls one chapter about Ford ... Sadist) . By all means Print The Legends, for plain truth of how Stagecoach got made is largely lost to time. Did filmmakers of John Ford's generation ever consider that accuracy would one day matter so much? Imagine Ford under the microscope of 2010's exacting film scholars. He'd appreciate more the Phil Jenkinsons willing to kiss his rear-Admiralty before deeper researching gave the lie to yarns he spun. Was Ford really a cow-puncher during youth, stealing off on a horse when a rancher's daughter set her cap for him? Probably not, but I'll groove with it all the same. Ford anecdotes are better taken as extensions of movies he made, neither strictly based in fact, but both having much to enjoy. Where's the good of fact checking where larger-than-anyone's-life personalities like Ford are concerned?
The fact John Ford didn't altogether discover John Wayne was undoubtedly a rock in the old man's shoe. Encounters with Raoul Walsh at Guild gatherings must have been awkward. Ford took credit for Wayne everywhere they'd listen, but Walsh knew different. The latter's Big Trail wasn't circulating much after 1930 to bear witness (unlike ubiquitous Stagecoach), but those (few?) in the know recognized it was Walsh that gave Wayne his first big chance. Ford liked to tell about rescuing Duke from crummy westerns at Republic, forgetting or choosing to ignore the fact that these were, by 1939, shining Cadillacs among B cowboy models. Yes, Wayne spent the thirties (and most of his twenties) on programmer horseback, but he was by no means obscure, as Stagecoach producer Walter Wanger learned when time came to talk loan-out terms with Republic (like borrowing Garbo, according to Matthew Bernstein's excellent Wanger book). Wayne in fact had a major following, and that wasn't limited to nickel ticket kids. At least down here (and points further south and west), grown-ups filled Saturday seats and made that top earning day at houses for whom Republic stars were among most popular. Ten years serving said patronage accumulated a fan base heading toward a next generation for John Wayne. By Stagecoach time, he promised value to marquees that small town showmen understood, even if higher up food chain Wanger and Ford remained blinkered to Wayne's matinee following.
John Ford had more filming past invested in westerns than Wayne in any case. So what made him spend late 20's and 30's years avoiding them? Ford's silent output was three-fourths cowboy-centric. He guided Buck Jones, Tom Mix, Hoot Gibson, and most famously, Harry Carey. Did the influence of F.W. Murnau render Ford stuck-up toward westerns? Most of the dozens he made pre-sound are lost. One surfaced recently in France and turned up as a Stagecoach DVD extra. Bucking Broadway makes me weep for others we'll never see, being perhaps more valuable to the Ford scheme of things than further Stagecoach excavation. A perfect world would yield Cheyenne Harry box sets as opposed to just this and Straight Shooting, the till-now lone Ford/Carey in circulation. Imagine all the echoes from Ford silents we'd find in Stagecoach, given rediscovery and access to them. Tag Gallagher tells a story of Harry Carey, Jr. going with his father to see Stagecoach in 1939 and the older man exclaiming over and over, We did that! We did that! Too bad the rest of us can't scrutinize crib sheets Ford consulted in making his first sound western, not to mention gags from way back he'd reuse for ones to come.