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Stagecoach Movie Review

john ford film ringo

1939 – John Ford –

Director John Ford loved praising Stagecoach for not having a single respectable person among its characters. This theme of social ostracism serves as a linchpin to unite the film and seemed to interest the director even more than the many staples of the genre that this pioneering movie (Ford's first sound western) helped to establish. The nine people who gather to take the stagecoach from Tonto to Lordsburg feature among them a prostitute named Dallas (Claire Trevor), who is literally escorted to the stagecoach by the vinegar-faced ladies of the Law and Order League, and a drunken doctor (Thomas Mitchell, in an Oscar-winning performance), who barely has time to grab his shingle as he is told to clear out. These two, along with the Ringo Kid (John Wayne), an escaped prisoner out to revenge himself on the killers of his family in Lordsburg, give the film its rich heart and soul. (And also its irreverence: as the stage pulls out of Tonto, Ford shows the gasping faces of the Law and Order League as the doctor salutes them off-screen with an obscene gesture.)

Some of the other characters appear primarily for comic relief. Andy Devine plays Buck, the stagecoach driver with a safety-first policy about riding into Apache territory. Donald Meek plays a whiskey salesman who naturally attracts the doctor's friendship and concern. The remainder of the cast represents various degrees of unhealthy civilization. Curly (George Bancroft), the marshal, rides along with Buck to do his duty and make sure the Ringo Kid is returned to prison. A genteel cardsharp (John Carradine) looks out for Mrs. Mal-lory (Louise Platt), the pregnant wife traveling to meet her calvary-officer husband. The longest tirade of complaints comes from Gatewood (Berton Churchill), the banker who has embezzled payroll funds and hugs his fat satchel lovingly. Ford balances scenes of action with stops along the way to emphasize the character drama. In Dry Fork, Ringo chides Curly about snubbing Dallas in taking the vote to ride into Apache country. As the other travelers discreetly move away from Dallas at the lunch table, Ringo befriends her, and these two outcasts form an attraction.

The sweeping Monument Valley vistas that Ford used for the first time in this film are the more powerful by being connected to the story thematically. They epitomize the real frontier spirit of honor and integrity that Curly comes to respect in the Ringo Kid rather than the tainted standards of corrupted civilization represented by Gatewood and the ladies of the Law and Order League. Stagecoach happily stands social convention on its ear. It is an anarchic western, and the most fitting summation of its spirit comes from Ford's mouthpiece, the doctor, who in the final shot of the film watches the Ringo Kid and Dallas ride off toward the border and says, “That's saved them from the blessings of civilization.”

(The negative had so deteriorated that for many years it looked as if the film might never be seen again in pristine shape. A clean set of release prints, however, were struck around 1970 from a private copy of the film owned by John Wayne. Since then the film has been restored. Newer cassettes and the DVD version feature this restored print, which captures the rich textures of the nighttime shots in Bert Glennon's Oscar-winning cinematography.)

Cast: John Wayne (the Ringo Kid), Claire Trevor (Dallas), Andy Devine (Buck), John Carradine (Hatfield), Thomas Mitchell (Doc Boone), Louise Platt (Lucy Mallory), George Bancroft (Curly), Donald Meek (Mr. Peacock), Berton Churchill (Mr. Gatewood), Tim Holt (Lieutenant Blanchard), Tom Tyler (Luke Plummer), Yakima Canutt (Calvary Scout), Duke Lee (sheriff of Lordsburg), Louis Mason (sheriff of Tonto), Bryant Washburn (calvary captain) Screenwriter: Dudley Nichols Cinematographer: Bert Glennon Composer: Gerard Carbonara, Richard Hageman, W. Franke Harling, John Leipold, Leo Shuken, Walter Wanger Running Time: 96 minutes Format: DVD Awards Academy Awards, 1939: Supporting Actor (Thomas Mitchell), Score; Nominations: Black and White Cinematography (Bert Glennon), Director (John Ford), Editing, Interior Decoration, Picture; National Board of Review Awards, 1939: 10 Best Films of the Year; New York Film Critics Awards, 1939: Director (John Ford), Picture Budget: $531,000 Box Office: $1M.

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