Hollywood 1939: Best Year? John Ford’s Stagecoach

One of the best and Westerns ever made, John Ford’s “Stagecoach” is also one of the few Westerns to be nominated for the Best Picture Oscar.  The movie, considered to be the first mature (or adult) Western, changed the image of the genre, previously held in low regard and often referred to as “horse opera.”

The movie benefits from script by Dudley Nichols, based on a story by Ernest Haycox. Ford later said that he and Nichols were inspired by and based some of the characters on the French writer Guy de Maupassant’s “Boule de Suif.”

It is also known as the movie that made a star out of John Wayne, after a decade of playing parts in B-movies of Poverty Row productions. “Stagecoach” features a splendid cast, headed by Thomas Mitchell as the alcoholic doctor Doc Boone, John Carradine as the mysterious Southern gentleman Hatfield, and Donald Meek as the whiskey salesman Peacock.

John Wayne’s fanatic screen hero first took shape in this Ford’s classic. Wayne plays the Ringo Kid, an honest, good-humored youngster, wrongly condemned for a crime he did not commit. He breaks out of jail to pursuit of the criminals (the Plummer brothers) who murdered his brother and put him behind bars.

Ringo stops the coach with a shot that terrifies its passengers. However, he immediately establishes himself as a decent, likable guy, especially after surrendering to the benevolent sheriff–until the stagecoach coach gets to Lordsburg. Ringo’s intention is to return to jail to serve his term, an act that further reaffirms his credibility; though he intends to do it only after his vendetta mission is accomplished.

Wayne’s commitment to a mission is sacred; no one can deter him from fulfilling it once his mind is set about it.  When Dallas (Claire Trevor), a prostitute he meets on the coach, suggests that he escape rather than avenge his brother, he states unequivocally, “There are some things a man just can’t run away from.”

As far as women are concerned, however, the Ringo Kid is shy, nave and even awkward. “Stagecoach,” in which Wayne was at his most sexually appealing, set the pattern for Wayne’s screen sex persona for a decade. A prostitute with a heart of gold, Dallas had been expelled from town by the more “respectable” but hypocritical ladies.  However, Ringo accepts Dallas for what she is. “I know all I need to know,” he says and means what he says.

Ringo also demands that the others on the stagecoach treat Dallas as a lady, with the appropriate politeness and courtesy. When a vote is taken as to whether the journey should continue, Ringo reminds them that Dallas had been overlooked. Later on, Ringo forces Hatfield offer her water, just as he had offered to the ladylike Mrs. Mallory.

In the end, unaware of issues of propriety, he invites Dallas to join him and is amazed when Mrs. Mallory moves away and they are left to eat alone, “Look like I’ve got the plague, don’t it” Ringo is proposition to Dallas is hesitant and awkward. He says, “I have a ranch across the border. A man could live there…and a woman…Will you go”

After avenging his family’s murder, Ringo and Dallas, the group’s two misunderstood misfits, leave together for his ranch, with Doc Boone’s blessing and approval, which ends the picture: “Well, they’re safe from the blessing of civilization.”

Oscar Nominations: 7

Picture, produced by Walter Wanger

Director: John Ford

Supporting Actor: Thomas Mitchell

Score: Richard Hageman, Frank Harling, John Leipold, and Leo Shuken

Cinematography (b/w): Bert Glennon

Interior Decoration: Alexander Toluboff

Film Editing: Otto Lovering and Dorothy Spencer

Oscar Awards: 2

Supporting Actor
Score

Oscar Context

Sweeping most of the Oscars in 1939, “Gone with the Wind” vied for the top award with nine other films: “Dark Victory,” “Goodbye Mr. Chips,” “Love Affair,” “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” “Ninotchka,” “Of Mice and Men,” “Stagecoach,” “The Wizard of Oz,” and “Wuthering Heights.”