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Monday, June 14, 2010

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.


Blogger Arizona's Little Hollywood said...

John, thanks for another interesting blog.

Stagecoach is one of my favorite films and I've spent years digging for the truth about its production. Of course, I discovered that the "lore" is just studio PR puffery. The Flagstaff newspaper covered Stagecoach for the weeks it was shooting in Arizona and what it reported contradicts almost everything that's ever been written about it. You can read some of what I learned on my own blog,

1:37 PM  
Blogger Mark Mayerson said...

I don't think our understanding of Ford will ever be complete without seeing more of those Universal westerns with Carey. To see how Hoot Gibson and Jeffrey Hunter dismount from a horse the same way almost 40 years apart in Straight Shooting and The Searchers is proof that Ford had a good memory regardless of what he told interviewers.

It must have been tough for Harry Carey and Francis Ford to see Ford ascend while their best years were over. It must have been tougher knowing that Ford was standing on a foundation they built and not interested in acknowledging it.

4:14 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Joe, I just read your blog post about Monument Valley and was really fascinated. Those are some really interesting facts you've dug up. Thanks a lot for the link!

Mark, I've always thought Harry Carey and Francis Ford got a short end in the Ford saga. You put it very nicely with that "standing on a foundation" reference.

5:04 PM  
Anonymous Chris said...

Every time I watch this movie I notice something interesting but my favorite moments remain the mostly wordless moments on the coach where the characters are looking at each other. And especially the part where Thomas Mitchell's Doc Boone takes a swig of whiskey but he's so drunk he can't get it down his throat so it just dribbles out of his mouth, earning him an Oscar for best supporting actor.

Overall, 1939 was a pretty good year for Mitchell:

Stagecoach (1939)
Only Angels Have Wings (1939)
Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939)
Gone with the Wind (1939)
The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939)

I'm not sure how I'd describe this feat, but I don't think it's ever been topped. ;)

5:20 PM  
Anonymous Jim Lane said...

Chris is right, '39 was surely a banner year for Thomas Mitchell -- that Oscar for Stagecoach may well be the first time you could say someone got the Oscar for a body of work all in the same year.

The challenge in Chris's last line made me think of Ward Bond, who made 21 pictures in 1939, including Gone With the Wind, Drums Along the Mohawk, Young Mr. Lincoln, Dodge City, Union Pacific and Frontier Marshal. But Chris is right, that Oscar is Mitchell's trump card.

And speaking of which, my own favorite Stagecoach story was told by Andy Devine late in life. He said he was Ford's designated whipping boy on the set, and that nothing he did ever seemed to satisfy Ford. At one point, he said, Ford bellowed at him, "Why, you big fat dumb sonofabitch, I don't know why the hell I ever cast you in this picture!" To which Devine yelled back, "Because Ward Bond can't drive six horses!"

8:52 PM  
Blogger Mark Mayerson said...

I just noticed that the blue piece with the faces in teh sky has Francis Ford instead of Berton Churchill! I wonder who made that decision?

10:32 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

I had noticed that too, Mark. Do you suppose they just delivered a wrong portrait to the artist when he did the montage?

10:35 AM  
Blogger Dugan said...

I love Ford's stuff although he certainly had his high's and lows. I finally got around to seeing "3 Bad Men"and was amazed by the visual and high and expensive productionqualities of this film. The famous door frame shot was reused in the Searchers. Then I sucked it up and watched "When Willie Comes Marching Home," yikes. Ford reminds me of Hitchcock who was a pretty darn good self promoter as well.

Stagecoach is a very great film thanks for the post.

8:35 PM  
Blogger Vanwall said...

Stagecoach is one of the few 'A' pics that Tim Holt, a 'B' movie king, pops up in, often as a star player, and it's amazing those few are of such quality.

2:25 AM  
Blogger MDG14450 said...

"Overall, 1939 was a pretty good year for Mitchell:

Stagecoach (1939)
Only Angels Have Wings (1939)
Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939)
Gone with the Wind (1939)
The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939)"

Yeah, I was a little annoyed when TCM's program on '39--which featured at least four of these--didn't mention Mitchell at all.

I love Stagecoach--first seen at Syracuse in a beat 16mm print. I try to get my kids to watch it, but they won't sit still for (non-Leone) westerns.

1:59 PM  

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