Stagecoach (1939): Wayne’s Star Making Scene in Ford’s Classic Western

Honoring the Duke

John Wayne’s breakthrough role in John Ford’s 1939 classy western, Stagecoach, began a new phase in his career, one that would last a decade, until Sands of Iwo Jima, the WWII movie that made him a bona fide box-office star.

This phase was transitional but extremely important, establishing Wayne not so much as an actor but as a screen persona. After a decade as a “B” player at the Poverty Row Companies, Wayne graduated into “A” movies and “A” directors and became a respectable star. During that decade, 1939-1949, Wayne appeared in 31 pictures, making on the average three movies a year.

The Second World War slowed down movie production in Hollywood because many directors and actors were enlisted into the Army. Wayne was not drafted because of his age (34 when the U.S. entered the War), a large family, and an ankle injury. Of the 31 pictures he made between 1939 and 1948, half were for Republic, where he was under contract, but he also worked for other studios: five pictures at RKO, three at Universal, and two each at MGM, United Artists, and Paramount. The major achievement was that he was no longer associated with second-rate studios.

The crucial point in his career was getting the part of the Ringo Kid in “Stagecoach,” which he considered “the film that started my career.” Ford took a big risk in casting Wayne because he was then labeled a “B” Western actor.

Wayne himself had serious doubts as to whether he was able to play the part convincingly. However, the timing of Ford” offer could not have been better, “just about the time I was ready to resign myself of being a run-of-the-mill actor for the rest of my life.”

Wayne’s first scene was unforgettable: The Ringo Kid appears on the screen out of nowhere, when he stops the stagecoach. The passengers ask, “Who are you” to which he replies, “The Ringo Kid. That’s what my friends call me. But my real name’s Henry.”

“Those three sentences,” Wayne believed, “were my possport to fame.” He also recalled that “everybody told Ford he was committing suicide, risking a third rate bum like me in a million dollar movie.” Indeed, asked what had distingushed his career from that of other “B” actors, he was quick to reply, John Ford. Wayne worked with many excellent directors, but none has had the pervasive influence that Ford had, not to mention that he cast him in 18 films.

Unfortunately, a month prior to Stagecoach, Wayne had signed a long-term contract with Republic which committed his to six pictures. When Ford asked the heads of Republic to borrow the actor, the studio was dubious; it feared that playing the lead in a prestitious movie like Stagecoach would spoil him for low-budget Westerns. Wayne, however, took a leave of absence to work for Ford and promised to return to Republic, which he did.

The premiere of Stagecoach took place on Februrary 2, 1939 at the Fox Westwood Theater in Los Angeles. Wayne invited some of his employers from Republic, who came “but never said a word to me.” Finally, when he asked for their opinion, their response was short, “if they want Westerns, they’d better let us make them.” Apparently, they were impressed with neither the picture nor him.

The audience, by contrast, “yelled and screamed and stood up and cheered. I never saw anything like that.” Wayne scored critical acclaim as the Ringo Kid; it was the first time that the critics acknowledged his presence and really praised his acting. The N.Y. Daily News reviewer represented many when he wrote: “John Wayne is so good in the role of the outlaw that one wonders why he has had to wait all this time since The Big Trail for such another opportunity.”

Stagecoach pulled Wayne out of his rut and out of the “B” Westerns, but it didn’t make him an instant star. It certified, however, for the first time, his abilities as a prominent screen personality who could “carry” a film. After this picture, many studios wanted to hire him, but he kept his word and returned to Republic. This studio apparently regarded Wayne’s popularity as a passing fad, for it continued to cast him in low-budget Westerns, which were sort of an anti-climax and a low point in his career.

Nonetheless, Republic must have sensed the interest in Wayne, because it held back his pictures until the release of Stagecoach, to cash in on his recently-acquired popularity. Still, it took Republic another decade to recognize Wayne’s star potential and cast him in better roles in bigger-budget pictures, such as Angel and the Badman.

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