Stagecoach 1939: Forever the Original

This is written for the March 2022 Genre Grandeur hosted by Movie Rob with this month’s theme being Oscar winners and nominees.

(Filmzie)

Before beginning the article, with the 94th Oscars airing soon why not take this opportunity to check out Filmzie, a free streaming service available online and on the app, that currently is offering hidden Oscar winners and nominations. They are currently hosting semi forgotten short titles such as 1941’s Churchill’s Island , 1956’s A Chairy Tale, 1957’s City of Gold and many more!

Warning: Minor spoilers to follow!

When I first learned of the John Ford and John Wayne collaboration team when I was younger, there always seemed to be this age old debate when trying to figure out the best movie the pair did together: The Searchers or Stagecoach. Oddly, although I didn’t see these movies fully at that young age, I was more interested in saying, “Well what about She wore a Yellow Ribbon” because the VHS cover looked interesting or, “What about The Quiet Man” because I had heard it was a, “romance”, movie. I was less interested in two hardcore westerns, even though that’s exactly what the duo was legendary for.

Now that I’m older, and have seen these films many times each, I think I’m more inclined to say the best movie the pair made together is more so a 4-way battle of Stagecoach vs Searchers vs The Quiet Man vs The Man who Shot Liberty Valence. Yet, even with me making my claim for all these legendary movies, Stagecoach is where it all started, and without it, there is no Searchers, Quiet Man, or Liberty Valence.

Stagecoach (1939) is the ultimate example of perfect timing and careful planning to create a rousing success. It was the return to the western for John Ford, if you can believe it, as he hadn’t directed a western since a silent picture from 1926 called 3 Bad Men. While John Wayne had never really been away from the western, it was his return to John Ford, after nearly a decade away from each other professionally with their previous pairing being 1930’s Men Without Women (The Duke was only in a bit part!).

On top of those reunions, Stagecoach was also to be the reunion picture for the western genre and the audience, as the genre had fallen to B-movie filler and radio serial status. Despite the fact the simple story of Stagecoach would introduce nothing “new” to the western overall: 9 strangers gather together in a stagecoach, and it takes them on a journey that will change them by the end of it; what Ford did instead was elevate characters and stunt work to surprise the audience.

For instance, by then cliché characters like the drunk (Thomas Mitchell), the outlaw (John Wayne) and the prostitute (Claire Trevor) were all given layered backstories and behaviors: Doc the drunk ends up sobering up to deliver an officer’s wife’s (Louise Platt) baby, outlaw Ringo only killed to defend his family, and prostitute Dallas ends up being a great caretaker to the newborn baby when the mother falls ill. Other western staples like a carriage attack scene, chase on horseback sequence, and shootout scene were raised to new status when Ford employed the stunt coordination of actor Yakima Canutt (who also would also be a bit player within the film).

Take a look at the intricate carriage chase/ attack sequence, and the careful use of the cameras, actor placement, and rigging in order to pull of the very dangerous scene. There is no CGI, protective gear, or safety equipment; just perfect timing, knowing your marks, and a stuntman dedicated to the craft.

By the time the Oscars came around, Stagecoach would rack up 7 nominations winning two: Best Supporting Actor for Thomas Mitchell, and Best Music (scoring) for Richard Hageman, W. Franke Harling, John Leipold, and Leo Shuken. Most notable nominations include Best Director for Ford and Best Picture- both of which lost to Gone with the Wind.

Perhaps the biggest remembrance of Stagecoach was John Wayne becoming a mega star (despite not scoring an Oscar nom.) after working in movies for 13 years. Ford was very willing on reuniting with Duke, as the financial backer/ producer Walter Wanger wanted better-knowns Marlene Dietrich and Gary Cooper in the roles of Dallas and Ringo. To see his vision become reality, Ford sacrificed half the budget and did not give John Wayne top billing- small prices in my opinion!

The most under-rated John Wayne Leading Lady: Claire Trevor

In the end, I believe Stagecoach has lasted the test of time (although not without criticism of animal cruelty and treatment of Native Americans) and it will always be the touchstone for the western genre. A story of its journey has and will be told many times over, but not to the high caliber that Ford created.

Stagecoach was remade 27 years later in 1966, directed by Gordon Douglas with a star studded cast (Ann Margaret, Bing Crosby, Red Buttons, Stefanie Powers to name a few) and while I personally can’t speak for everyone, I have no desire to watch it and enjoy it. Out of shear curiosity if I ever do decide to watch it, I could only imagine myself hate watching it and longing to watch the original. I always have a stance that when you’re watching or listening to a remake movie or cover version song and you want the original, then the remake is no good to begin with.

What Ford crafted together was utter magic in 1939 and it’s still magic today 9 decades later in 2022. It will live forever in a moment in time in which people could believe in heroes again, and that will never go out style!