The Also Rans – Stagecoach (Best Picture Nominee 1939)

Stagecoach movieposter.jpgDir. John Ford

Screenplay by Dudley Nichols, based on the short story “The Stage at Lordsburg” by Ernest Haycox

Starring John Wayne, Thomas Mitchell, John Carradine, Andy Devine and Claire Trevor

I resist John Wayne.  I always have and make no bones about why — he’s a rat bastard red-baiting jingoist war-monger and to this common-sense liberal, he’s repulsive.  And such is my repulsion that I can barely separate John Wayne the man from the characters John Wayne plays to such a degree I suspect he could play Ralph Nader and the only thing I’d think is, “My, it’s strange how conservative Ralph Nader is.”  To me, John Wayne’s a racist old grandpa we should be embarrassed about, not building films around.

Under the circumstances, it’s no surprise I’ve only seen three John Wayne films and have varying attitudes to them all:

  • True Grit
  • The Quiet Man
  • The Searchers

The Searchers, thought to be a classic, hardly registers with me beyond being racist in story and casting.  (Ironically, Gone With The Wind plays a similar game with it’s racial elements and yet, I don’t brush it off the same as I do The Searchers.  Rather, I’m apologetic of those elements to the point I’ve had to come to grips with being a massive hypocrite.)

Poster - Quiet Man, The 01.jpgOn the other hand, I quite like True Grit and absolutely love The Quiet Man.  Interestingly, my enjoyment for both films actually comes from the performances Wayne delivers in the both.  Despite his real-life propensity for shallow war-mongering, in both True Grit and The Quiet Man he shows real depth and emotion.  Better, the emotions are not the same, proving John Wayne actually had range.  In True Grit he’s epically flawed old drunk, only doing the right thing because Mattie Ross (Kim Darby) makes the wrong thing, which is usually so easy to do, so much more punishing than it’s ever been.  Yet, in The Quiet Man, he’s so goddamned decent and charming and respectful it’s hard to believe he’d every do anything wrong, let alone kill Natalie Wood’s character in The Searchers simply because an Indian might’ve boinked her.  In other words, his performances are so good in those two films it helps me get passed the more distasteful parts of him.[1]

Still, no matter how charming or moving he might’ve been, I avoided him.  Not because I was afraid of being offended by some right-wing dross, but rather at being afraid his right-wing dross infect and ruin the re-watchability of movies I love.  I particularly did not want The Quiet Man ruined by anything.. (Yes, I know, I should be mentally strong enough to not let my disgust control me, but you know what, I’m human and humans are flawed.)

That being said, from just those two films – The Quiet Man and True Grit – I can see quite clearly why John Wayne was the star he became.  And I can also see how it was that somebody so antithetical to basic human decency and liberalism in his personal life could appeal to just about all ends of the political spectrum – it’s obvious that magnetic charm is the true weapon of the demagogue.

So

So, John Wayne was nobody before he made Stagecoach and him getting Stagecoach was not a sure thing – far from it.  Throughout the thirties he made dozens of B movies and the few films he got into and had a chance to do something bigger, bombed.  So lousy was his box office track record that when John Ford decided Wayne would be the Ringo Kid – his character in Stagecoach – nobody at the studio jumped for joy.  But, lucky for Wayne, John Ford got his way because and Stagecoach made Wayne a star.[2]

Knowing this, and knowing the film would get nominated for Best Picture, there’s really two questions:

  • Was Stagecoach worthy of a Best Picture nomination?
  • Was Wayne actually good in the movie?

But wait—

But before we get on to that, it’s probably a good idea to answer another question – what the hell is Stagecoach about?  Well, Stagecoach is the story of a bunch of strangers on the titular stagecoach, headed through dangerous Apache territory, for Loudsburg.  Everybody on the coach has their own reasons to need to get to Lourdsburg, and obviously, the plot of the movie revolves around that.

Anyway

Anyway, the question was:

  • Was Stagecoach worthy of a Best Picture nomination?
  • Was Wayne actually good in the movie?

Answering the first is complicated.  Through the hindsight of history, the answer is no, Stagecoach was not worthy of a Best Picture nomination.  In fact, were it not for an expanded field of nominees – ten in all – there’s little doubt it would not have rated.  After all, of the Best Picture nominated films, it’s obvious that Gone With The Wind, Goodbye Mr. Chips, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Of Mice and Men and The Wizard of Oz are better films – and those are only the five nominated films I’ve actually seen.

Looking at the ones I haven’t seen, I suspect most of those are better, too.  Laurence Olivier is in Wuthering Heights and given he was both a heartthrob and a serious actor on the rise, I have no reason to believe the film is also serious and heartthrobby.  No need to talk about Ninotchka and Love Affair, either, because they are definitely highly regarded by history.

So, that makes eight of the nine nominees probably higher rated historically than Stagecoach.  The one it might be better than?  Dark Victory.  But, as I’ve only seen five – now six – of the ten, there’s no real way for me to know whether it’s the sixth best film of the year, or the tenth.

Anyway, the truth is that Stagecoach probably didn’t rate a slot in the Best Picture race and, despite the love of it in many circles – apparently in 2008 the AFI ranked it as the 9th best Western in history[3] – the film is only just ‘okay’.  And the reasons why it’s only ‘okay’ are pretty easy to spot.

First, it’s devoid of incident, or nearly so for the first two thirds of the film.  Instead, it spends the first 65 minutes of its 90 minute run time introducing, and re-introducing, the same one-note characters over and over again, inviting them to do little more than hammer their single notes with impunity.  Then, once the action finally does kick in, there’s barely any of it there.  The Indians give chase for about five minutes and once the big stunt happens, they’re basically never seen again.[4]  Then, finally, once we get to the final showdown with John Wayne and some guy who done him wrong in Lourdsburg,[5] it all happens off-camera.

Beyond the story being lousy, the directing is mediocre at best – to be fair, it shouldn’t surprise you that a western largely without incident is also very static.[6]  Much of the film is shot against rear-projection that looks particularly awful, even in terms of the time it was made.  I suspect the reliance on rear-projection was necessitated by the technology of sound recording at the time, so maybe I should give it a pass and give it a qualified appraisal – in other words, since it was crippled by technology, I should cripple my take on it.  And I would do that if the film actually showed any style in the sequences not shot against rear-projection.  But aside from the sequence of Ringo jumping ahead along the line of horses at the front of the Stagecoach – which was actually a Yakima Canutt special[7] – and the river crossing, there is little else to hang a flag on.  And, sad to say, I don’t rate movies visually great simply because they have some fleetingly beautiful images.

Incidentally, it’s a fair argument that in the best westerns, which in this instance are defined as being Sergio Leone westerns, nothing happens for almost the entirety of the pictures, just as nothing seems to happen in Stagecoach.  The key distention, though, is that in the ‘nothing happens’ parts of Stagecoach, literally nothing happens.  It’s almost as if these parts are there to mark time and nothing more.  However, in Leone’s films,  the ‘nothing happens’ sections of the films are invested with as much energy and tension as the ‘everything happens’ sequences, turning inaction scenes into action scenes.  In Stagecoach, the quiet moments merely exist as filler.  In Leone’s films, the quiet moments exist to tighten the screws on the threat of violence and are told in the most lyrical and moving ways imaginable.

If only I could praise the performances in Stagecoach and argue it works better as an actor’s film than as a director’s film, but aside from Wayne’s parts, everybody else plays their bits as narrow archetypes and little else:

  • You have the wimp salesman who’s only job in the film is to be henpecked for liquor by the town drunk.
  • You have the oily, embezzling banker, who’s only purpose is to demand they ride that coach into danger because he knows turning back will wind him up in jail.
  • There’s the whining stage driver meant only as comic relief.
  • There’s an uptight wife who only wants to get back to her hubby. There’s a hooker with a heart of gold.

Honestly, I’m almost as bored writing about the performances as the people giving them seemed about doing that.  And even if the one-noteness of the performances was by design, so as to keep the focus of the film on Wayne, that it was done this way on purpose makes it no less annoying.

The only one who actually seemed to give a good performance – at least, of the supporting characters – was Thomas Mitchell.  While he does play the unrepentant drunk with such gusto he’s almost a caricature of himself, the second the danger to them actually manifests itself, he turns his drunken doctor into a competent doctor with amazing ease, giving his character depth we didn’t see before.  It’s almost as if his character was a drunk to relieve the boredom of life and, when real excitement finally arrived to challenge him, he set the bottle aside and grasped the challenge with both hands.  It’s no surprise at all that Mitchell won Best Supporting Actor that year, likely aided by having also given a much different performance that same year as Gerald O’Hara in Gone With The Wind.

So—

So, while I don’t like it and think it’s just ‘okay’, at the time, Stagecoach was clearly a thing.  In addition to Best Picture, it wound up with six other Oscar nods, including Best Director. [8]  In fact, John Ford was named Best Director by the New York Film Critics Circle Award, and that has to mean something, right?.[9]

In the end, were it not for the presence of John Wayne, the film would be a historical document at best.  The truth is that, while the film itself is not very good, Wayne is.  Here he’s young and handsome and rugged and magnificent, and rather than strutting around like the racist lout he would come to play to perfection in other movies,[10] he shows himself to be quiet, tender and needing love like anybody else.  Sure, he’s not nearly as good as he is in The Quiet Man – that performance has everything this one does, along with a heaping dose of world-wiseness and weariness – but he’s still pretty damn good.

Fun Fact:

Thomas Mitchell played both sides of the civil war in 1939.  In Gone With the Wind, he was a confederate slave-owner, while in Stagecoach, he plays a former union soldier.

See the rest of the Also Rans Project here.

Also, don’t be afraid to have a look at the thing that inspired this, The Best Picture Project.

To be a pal and buy my books, jump over here and here and have a look.  I promise, buying always makes you feel good.

[1] I have to make a confession – after I wrote this I forgot I’d seen The Man Who Shot Liberty Vallance, which I quite liked.  Less for Wayne’s performance, than the film around him.

[2] For more on John Wayne and the early history of Hollywood, you should listen to the episode Karina Longworth did on him for her podcast, You Must Remember This.  In fact, if you don’t listen to her podcast in general, you are a fool.

[3] Please click through and look at the list.  Without any Sergio Leone in sight, the list is obviously insane and, the less said about it, the better.

[4] This despite having been the constantly worried over ‘threat’ up to that point

[5] Honestly, I found the film so boring I could hardly pay attention to their dispute.  And obviously the wedge between them was not serious enough to rate any explanation of it on Wikipedia.  Ergo, I was justified in not catching the reasons why.

[6] And I know this next statement of mine will be heresy to some, but John Ford was not exactly the greatest of visual stylists.

[7] If you don’t know who Yakima Canutt is, you’re an idiot.  But, for a taste of what he was about, you can read this.

[8] Ironically, none were for the script.

[9] To be fair, the AMPAS hasn’t exactly cornered the market on terrible award-giving.

[10] And probably lived to perfection, if we’re honest.

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