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Thursday, June 17, 2010

Greenbriar's Stagecoach Ride --- Part Two

John Ford seems to have developed projects along lines aspiring filmmakers could only dream of, he and creative pals lounging aboard yachts, conjuring movie magic as they brandished fish poles and cocktail glasses (this revealed in home movie DVD extras). Many a Ford script came to fruition aboard his Araner with passengers in full party gear. Did inspiration also flow from potables downed in Mexican cantinas such as Ford frequented with John Wayne and Ward Bond? Kodachrome glimpses suggest it did. Amidst such convivial setting was borne Stagecoach and Fords that followed, along with our romantic concept of how this band of brothers devised westerns better than anyone else's. Did Stagecoach bring outdoor drama back to roaring life in 1939? Based on its reputation since, you'd think so, but this was a banner year for westerns that really didn't need Stagecoach one way or the other, being crowded with turnstile spinners like Dodge City, Union Pacific, The Oklahoma Kid, and frontier monarch of the lot, Jesse James, which grossed over twice what Stagecoach brought and was more influential besides for giving birth to a badman cycle that other studios copied. Most of 1939's "A" lot outperformed Stagecoach at ticket selling, a shortfall I'd attribute to United Artists' distribution, not lack of appeal in Ford's western. Stagecoach was a hit, but not a smash, earning a million in domestic rentals, which was all the better for its negative cost being apx. half that. Foreign rentals enhanced with an additional $736,000, but didn't such a pleaser deserve more? I delved into the Liberty's 1939 account ledger for a possible (if only partial) explanation ...

Our theatre has been around a long time (still operating), and yes, ran Stagecoach on numerous occasions through years (there were stills for varied bookings I found during storeroom searches). The Liberty first played Stagecoach on Monday and Tuesday of the last week of April, 1939, a short wait for a film that had premiered in Arizona, then opened in LA and New York but a couple of months before. United Artists placed stiffer terms on their features than any other company the Liberty dealt with. Stagecoach carried a flat rental of $120.00, way more than Paramount charged for Union Pacific five weeks later ($83.47), and certainly beyond Metro's price for the "A" Idiot's Delight ($71.50), which preceded Ford's film at the Liberty by days. Did UA price Stagecoach out of territories that might otherwise have used it? For those two days hosting Ford's western (plus Love Taps, a Metro musical short at $7.00 rental and a Paramount newsreel for $3.00), the Liberty collected $147.10 in ticket sales. Combined rental expense of $130.00 for this program, plus overhead factors, wouldn't have yielded much profit from Stagecoach, especially in comparison to a later in the week's run of The Hardys Ride High, for which MGM charged $46.50 flat, and from which the Liberty collected $177.85 for its Thursday/Friday play-off. Did other small venues yield similarly low surplus for having run Stagecoach in 1939?

Impact of Stagecoach would be felt longer than for westerns that out-grossed it. John Wayne was immediately elevated to higher rungs of stardom, even as he was obliged to report back to Republic for continuation of Three Mesquiteer B's. Warners got out trade ads (above) trumpeting reissue of their six Wayne programmers from the early thirties in hopes they'd bring back Stagecoach riders curious to see what a newly-minted A star was doing before lightning struck. Industry folk recognized qualities of Stagecoach unknown to previous westerns, even epic ones (including DeMille's). The film entered a public's memory bank as one of the Great Westerns, deposits made regularly as reissues and revivals kept it in near constant theatrical circulation for a remarkable twenty-five years. The negative had reverted to Walter Wanger after United Artists wrapped general release, and it was Wanger who turned Stagecoach over to Masterpiece Productions for a 1944 go-round to be followed by a 1948 combo with The Long Voyage Home, another Wanger/Ford collaboration in which both had percentages. That program benefited from intersection with a post-war reissue boom that earned first-run bookings in spacious houses (including New York's RKO Palace, their marquee touting "2 John Ford Thrillers" shown below). The director enjoyed Stagecoach income for possibly longer than any other feature in which he had a share. My own microfilm search through near environs found Stagecoach continuing to play drive-ins right through the fifties, an evergreen that showed up often. Winston-Salem's Lincoln Theatre, a scratch-house with three program changes per week, used Stagecoach at least once per year right through 1965, and might have continued doing so but for that house going dark the following year. Interesting here is fact they weren't booking it as any sort of "classic" or repertory piece --- indeed, Stagecoach ran August 26, 1965 at the Lincoln with co-features Half-Human and The Monster From Green Hell.

Writers have lamented bad prints of Stagecoach since original elements disappeared. Actually, there were and still are a handful of stunning 16mm printdowns out there. These were generated within ten years of the film's release and derived from the camera negative itself. The one I used to own had a 1948 edge-code, the year of Masterpiece's second reissue. These printdowns were done for non-theatrical rental, and there were lots of them. Problematic was fact that, being a popular favorite, Stagecoach picked up wear-and-tear not visited upon lesser 16mm titles, and finding one in clean condition posed a daunting task for collectors (mine had splicy sections). But Wow ... did they look a million. Contrast was richer than ever it would be again (including the DVD) and blacks registered deep as pitch, especially during the Lordsburg finish. These initial prints would unfortunately be replaced with ones softer and obviously cobbled from elements far afield of the lost original. Stagecoach was among first A westerns sold to television, and there its reputation continued soaring despite by-now cloudy transmission. By the early seventies when we had it for a college run, Stagecoach was a long diminished shadow of what had so impressed 1939 audiences. It was around this time that Peter Bogdanovich lucked across John Wayne's personal 35mm Stagecoach as they walked through the latter's garage (read Bogdanovich's excellent Who The Hell Made It for details) and that became source, at least in part, for preservation and circulating prints that followed. I'd assume JW's was among elements consulted by Criterion for their Blu-Ray release (although it was primarily a found 35mm nitrate negative from 1942 that was used, according to sources in-the-know). Certainly Criterion's represents the best Stagecoach has looked for many years, and combined with a bounty of extras, the most extravagant Ford package since Fox's massive box set of several seasons back.

Also See Part One of Stagecoach in Greenbriar Archives.


Anonymous Jim Lane said...

Another pair of great posts, John, and you're right about those cloudy prints; for decades I wondered, "Did Stagecoach look like this in 1939?" The new Criterion release settles that for good.

Kudos, too, for debunking the cineaste myths: Stagecoach did not single-handedly create the adult "A" western, nor did Ford "rescue" John Wayne (Peter Bogdanovich's exact word) from obscurity. Fact is, the gilding is unnecessary; the movie's a masterpiece anyhow, no error, and your posts put it in context.

And by the way, here's some anecdotal evidence about the box-office impact of Henry King's Jesse James. My mother was a 14-year-old Indiana farm girl in 1939, and she said that picture was the one and only time her dad drove the whole family into town to see the same movie two nights in a row.

1:43 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Jim, I need to do a post about "Jesse James." Much as I like "Stagecoach," this was the BIG western of 1939 ...

6:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


Great posts, John.

Warner Bros. actually started re-releasing their six John Wayne B-Westerns in August - September 1936. But it is interesting to see in that ad how they were trying again.

6:06 AM  
Anonymous Malcolm Blackmoor said...

A slight slip John - here's the title.

Malcolm Blackmoor

7:16 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

A co-worker of mine insisted that "Angel and the Badman" was the film that made Wayne an "A" picture actor, but what did he know? Remember how Marlene Dietrich claimed to have discovered John Wayne?

2:20 PM  
Blogger Michael said...

I think why Stagecoach lasts and Jesse James and others seem is that it's pure action-- a very rare thing in a movie aimed at grownups in the 30s, to start it on the run and practically never stop for a breath. (The only other one from the 30s I can really think of is The Most Dangerous Game, which was, of course produced and/or co-directed by Ford buddy Merian Cooper.) We're more used to that now but I think it sets Stagecoach apart for 1939 or thereabouts.

By the way, speaking of Cooper and possible influence on Ford... watch the Cooper-produced Roar of the Dragon (1932) and you'll see an early runthrough of Stagecoach's telegraph-gets-cut-off opening. Not done as well, Wesley Ruggles ain't Ford, but unmistakably similar.

2:27 PM  
Blogger StevensScope said...

1939. John Ford's "STAGECOACH".(A classic it is!). However, I'm probably the biggest fan of the Gordon Douglas 1966-remake for 20th Century Fox; and THAT majestic film-- (along with it's most wonderful music score by Jerry Goldsmith)--- when screened today, still holds the SAME exciting experience as it held THEN- when I first saw at it's premiere in CHICAGO,--at the CHICAGO THEATRE-- some 50 years ago! (and a CLASSIC it is- as well!).

7:36 PM  

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