#122. Stagecoach (1939)

Absolutely adore it. Stagecoach is a gorgeous, funny, exciting and dramatic adventure story that I’d thought was only famous for launching John Wayne into the stardom he’d occupy for the rest of his life and that’d ultimately morph (calcify?) into deification, a Hemingway-like figure of grace under pressure and of toughness formed as protection for his underlying gentility. Kinda nonsensical, but it is what it is.

But it turns out this wasn’t Wayne’s first film. Far from it. Turns out, too, that the picture’s actually a masterpiece. Hailed widely, rightly, as one of — if not the — greatest westerns. Stagecoach also stands out in movie history for striking the spark of Wayne’s relationship with director John Ford —  the latter of the pair being, I think, the most interesting, by a long shot. Ford was a bit of a hack. He was in his forties at the time he made Stagecoach and, with a few successes behind him, he could afford some discretion concerning the projects he chose, and he had a little more freedom with time and money, but he was a filmmaker of the silent era who’d honed his craft in a more cutthroat studio culture than the one that existed in ’39, had developed a lean and efficient eye from the days when a feature was forty-five minutes, filmed in three to five days, and seldom the only one you were making that week.

I talked in a podcast with Pavel Klein, a critic at Punch Drunk Movies, about the allure I’ve recently felt from these workhorse directors whose filmographies number int he high-double or low-triple digits. Alfred Hitchcock, Ridley Scott, Charlie Chaplin. There’s plenty to be said in praise of filmmakers who take a few years to perfect their script, to let their ideas ferment and to get everything right, but I think I’m more interested, lately, in a workhouse filmmaker who, like Ford, churns the product out as quickly and efficiently as he can, making the occasional masterpiece, unafraid of falling on his face now and then, and, finally, leaving us with a large body of work to dissect afterward. Maybe it’s a waste of resources that so much work should be tossed their way, especially when you consider all of the prospective first-timers who couldn’t get their shot because the project was being given over to the reliable industry veteran, the older guy whose work was maybe just a series of competent same-olds. But I enjoy having those old-guy collections.

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So yeah: Ford was like this. He cranked out film after film after film, with two week drunken benders on his yacht in between productions. John Wayne was a struggling young actor and Ford, with Stagecoach, was pulling the kid under his Wing of Covert Generosity.

Ford’s biographer, Scott Eyman, addresses Stagecoach as being nearly a charitable effort, on Ford’s part, to make Wayne a star. Whenever something momentous happens, he inserts a close-up reaction shot of Wayne. It’s a subtle way of ingratiating the characters of importance toward the audience. Wayne also receives one of the most dramatic intros. His composure during the famous chase scene is that of an obvious hero, and it definitely leaves a star-making impression when the movie’s done. (To be honest, though, I’m only recognizing this stuff now, as I’m reading the Ford biography — Print the Legend — a couple weeks after watching the movie. Stagecoach is an ensemble piece and while Wayne might be the shining star of the cast, he isn’t necessarily the most sympathetic character, nor does he get a disproportionately larger cut of screen time than the others. He’s the star, in other words, but not the main character.)

john ford
Director John Ford

Ford had a hard time showing outright affection for anyone, and with Wayne it was the same. Gave him shit about how he walks, emoted, talked. Pressed Wayne to give criticism of the dailies on Stagecoach. Wayne demurred. Said day after day that everything looked great. But Ford pressed and pressed until one day Wayne relented and criticized something — whereupon Ford balked at the temerity of this young nobody actor to criticize someone else’s work.

He seemed to have a hard time of even giving explicit praise to the stuntman, Yakima Canutt, who pulled off the scrotum-tightening feat of falling between two horses while they ran at roughly 40 mph. He had to hug his chest so that the stagecoach’s axel wouldn’t rip his arms off while driving over him. Ford refused Canutt’s willingness to do a second take when the cameraman voiced uncertainty about whether they’d caught it. he afterward told Canutt, privately, that he’d always have a job on a John Ford set (which didn’t turn out to be the case, apparently, but I don’t know if it was because of hard feelings).

Though his attitude about editing had always been that a good director ought to only shoot what he knows is needed so that the editor has no choice but to cut it as the director imagined, Ford — seeming to suspect that he had something special with Stagecoach — sat in on the editing process. His far-reaching concern for it reveals a tenderness for the project that, by extension, also shows a vulnerability, and though there doesn’t appear to be a detailed account of Ford being moved by Stagecoach‘s immediately rapturous reception, people calling it a masterpiece and an instant classic, I do like to think that he may’ve stolen away to some private place in the aftermath, and poured himself a drink, and shed a triumphant tear about it.


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