STAGECOACH (1939) was the first of five movies seen in a rather remarkable first full day at the TCM Classic Film Festival.
Although I love director John Ford and star John Wayne, somehow I'd only seen this film way, way back, on TV riddled with commercials. This despite owning not one but two different DVD versions of the movie! So many movies, so little time...
In fact, until the festival I think I actually knew the movie best thanks to the 1975 book JOHN FORD'S STAGECOACH, which I used to check out of the library as a kid. The book contained hundreds of frames from the movie along with the dialogue; it was edited by Richard Anobile for Universe Books. In those pre-VCR, pre-cable years, sometimes we had to enjoy movies on the printed page rather than the screen! This may make me sound a bit like a dinosaur, but I think it's important to be continually aware of how good classic film fans have it these days.
Seeing STAGECOACH on a big screen simply blew me away, there's no other way to put it. This was truly a landmark film, which provided the template for so many Westerns which would follow, from the travelers banding together to fight off Indians to the cavalry coming to the rescue. Every inch of the movie was rich with detail and characterizations. And that first shot of John Wayne...truly, a star was born!
That first shot wouldn't have been enough to make a star out of Wayne if what followed it had been a letdown, but he's absolutely charming and compelling as the Ringo Kid, whether he's insisting on treating prostitute Dallas (Claire Trevor) as a lady or going after the men who killed his family. He's a knockout.
The plot, as many readers will already know, concerns a group of nine travelers on a perilous journey. In addition to the Ringo Kid and Dallas, there's a drunken doctor (Thomas Mitchell), a pregnant young woman (Louise Platt) who wants to join her soldier husband, a courtly Southern gambler (John Carradine), a whiskey salesman (Donald Meek), a crooked banker (Berton Churchill), a lawman (George Bancroft), and the stage driver (Andy Devine).
All are terrific, but I especially enjoyed the dynamic between the gambler and the lady he volunteers to protect. Shots of the two actors as the stagecoach chase comes to its climax are very powerful.
Andy Devine Country last week!
It was an especial pleasure seeing this film at the festival with an appreciative audience, who honored Yakima Canutt's famous "under the racing horses" stunt with applause. In these days of CGI I think sometimes we've rather lost something when we're all too aware that what we're watching is easily faked. Canutt's showmanship in service of a great story was the "real thing," and it was wonderful to see it with an audience who recognized the greatness of the moment.
STAGECOACH runs 96 perfectly paced minutes. It was filmed in black and white by Bert Glennon.
STAGECOACH was released on DVD by Criterion; it also had an earlier DVD release with different extras. It also had a release on VHS.
STAGECOACH is so well known that it's difficult to feel there's much original to say about it, but I'd really like this post to encourage anyone who, like me, hasn't seen it in years -- or maybe even ever -- to make the time to watch this key Western. You'll be very glad you did.
For the rest of my coverage of the TCM Classic Film Festival, please visit The 2014 TCM Classic Film Festival in Review.