John Ford’s 1939 western, Stagecoach, marked a pivotal point in film history. Stagecoach was John Ford’s first western since the silent era and first major western of the sound era. It also launched the career of b-list film actor, John Wayne. The film follows nine people as they set out to traverse the hostile lands between Tonto, Arizona and Lordsburg, New Mexico. These nine travelers were not just a group of people. Each character represents a different class in society, a unique perspective on life, and progress through their own arc that challenges their position at the start of the film.
Stagecoach is an examination of moral character, social inequality, and rule of law. Even though the setting is the wild west, the film’s archetypal characters open themselves up to be accessible to anyone.
Dawn of Sound – Death of Western
As sound films became more prevalent, westerns began to fade in popularity. There were not many successful westerns in the early 1930’s. One example of a successful western, from this period, is Cimarron (1931). At the time it was well received and even won several Academy Awards. However, through the modern lens, Cimarron has not aged well.
It appears that many of the early talkie westerns didn’t see much success. There doesn’t appear to be many examples of successful westerns at this time and several examples of films that did not do well at the box office. For example, The Big Trail (1931) was a big budget western that starred a young John Wayne. The film was a box office failure and subsequently sent him to the B studio Westerns. The big studios released a few westerns, like Annie Oakley, Call of the Wild, Rider’s of the Purple Sage, to name a few. However, the majority of western films were made by B studios.
Western’s did not come back into popularity until the end of the 1930’s. In 1939, several major releases helped put the western film genre back on the map, not just Stagecoach. Other successful western’s were: Destry Rides Again, Dodge City, Union Pacific, Jesse James, and Frontier Horizon. I wonder if word got out that a studio was working on a big western and so each studio wanted to race to the finish line. It is interesting that each film was released by a different major studio at the time. Either way, the success of these films ushered in the golden age of westerns that would continue through the end of the 1960’s.
John Ford & Talkies
John Ford made many sound and “talkie” films prior to Stagecoach. He was even a pioneer in the industry with his film Mother Machree, a film that featured an early use of the movietone process of syncing music to the film by recording the sound directly to the film stock. Mother Machree was not just a pioneering example of the use of sound, it even featured a young John Wayne with a small role. Thirteen years later, Ford released Stagecoach, his first sound western film.
Each character in Stagecoach is a distinct facet of society. The characters are crafted in a way that encompasses a wide range of characteristics, including: social status, vices, moral values, gender, and economic status. The cast of characters creates a web much like a nine sided venn diagram. All of them have characteristics in common and those that differ. In some cases these differences are at the core of their personality and the crux of their development arc throughout the film.
I am sure that, writing the characters with distinct moral driven paths made it easier to appeal to a wider audience. The characters have their own clear set of parameters for where they start and the obstacles are laid out for them to overcome. This makes the journey more about how to be civil and navigate through society in the west instead of just a tale of how a group survived an attack while traveling through a war stricken territory.
I enjoyed the fact that the kind-hearted prostitute, Dallas, and the alcoholic Doctor, Doc Boone, are painted as the pariah’s of the town. The kind of folks you can’t have in a civilized town. While at the same time, the esteemed banker is the corrupt player that initially sabotages the caravan and leads selfishly through the trip. I can see how these archetypes could connect with people recovering from the great depression, seeing bankers as evil, and relating to hardworking people just doing what they have to do to get by.
Introducing: Marion Morrison a.k.a “John Wayne”
I had no idea that John Ford had such an significant impact on the career of John Wayne. Ford brought Marion Morrison on prop man and extra in 1926. His career really did not take off for many years though. He worked as an extra and with bit parts for years until starring in his first leading role as Breck Coleman in the commercial flop, The Big Trail. The Big Trail being the first time he was billed as John Wayne.
The failure led to Wayne being cast again in bit parts and in B films until John Ford took him in again under his wing. Stagecoach was the film that would catapult John Wayne into stardom and start the historic part of his career. Apparently, studios did not want Ford to cast John Wayne. Ford had to get independent financing from Walter Wanger to make the film.
John Ford was the one to bring him into the business and that gave him the leg up that he needed 13 years later. It is interesting that someone remembered for being so great and successful in the film industry also had such a difficult time for the first 13 years of his career.
Directed by: John Ford
Cinematography: Bert Glennon
Screenplay by: Dudley Nichols
Based on “The Stage to Lordsburg” by: Ernest Haycox
Editing By: Otho Lovering & Dorothy Spencer
Starring: John Wayne, Claire Trevor, George Bancroft, John Carradine, Andy Devine, Thomas Mitchell, Berton Churchill, Louise Platt, & Donald Meek.
Runtime: 1h 36m
Genre: Adventure, Drama, Western
Production By: Walter Wanger Productions
Distributed by: United Artists