Monday, March 2, 2009

This Day in Film History (John Ford’s “Stagecoach” Opens)

March 2, 1939—The archetypal American western, Stagecoach, opened in general release in the U.S., making a star of 31-year-old John Wayne as the "Ringo Kid" and cementing the status of its director, John Ford, as a hugely influential force in worldwide cinema.

Virtually from the moment that American cinema came into being, with the first narrative film, The Great Train Robbery (1903), from former Edison camera man Edwin S. Porter, the Western has formed the cornerstone of movies. Even Ford had ventured into the genre before Stagecoach, with his silent epic about the transcontinental railroad, The Iron Horse (1924).

But Stagecoach, without forsaking the action that audiences craved, introduced elements more complicated, poetic and character-driven into the genre. For the next quarter-century, Ford would delve deeper and deeper into the form, culminating with a series of films that examined racism, sexism and mythmaking in this essential form of Americana--all set against the awesome but lonesome vistas of Monument Valley.

Critics and other filmmakers began to take notice, just as they did in opening their eyes to Wayne, a frequent but marginal actor up to this point. A decade before, Ford, observing the lean, powerful 6 ft.-4-in. UCLA football player on the set, made him a “fourth-assistant prop boy,” then made him a part of his production company when the young man agreed to step in when a stuntman refused to go into the seas for an underwater sequence because of turbulence in the water.

Raoul Walsh had cast Wayne as the star of The Big Trail (1930) and had even changed his name from Marion Michael Morrison, but the film went nowhere. The actor was stuck for nearly the next decade making more than 40 Westerns, none of which made much of an impression, until Ford cast him as his outlaw hero, The Ringo Kid, in 1939.

Many of Ford’s subsequent films deal with the issues of order and loyalty.

You can see the need for order in the stock company of actors who gave him a comfort level on all of his films--not just Ford and his other longtime star, Henry Fonda, but supporting players like Ward Bond and Ben Johnson.

You can see loyalty in the decades-long relationship between the director and the actor who would become his principal star. The March 2009 issue of Vanity Fair has an article by Buzz Bissinger on how, beginning with Stagecoach, Monument Valley in Arizona came to form the principal backdrop of Ford’s films. But the piece might be even more instructive on the director and Wayne.

The word “crusty” could have been invented for Ford. If you dared to suggest to him how a scene could be improved, you’d better come prepared with earplugs, because he’d let go with a round of profanity-laced verbal buckshot.

For all the major films Wayne ended up making over the next 25 years with Ford—not just all those Westerns, but also the St. Patrick’s Day evergreen, The Quiet Man—the director felt the constant urge to insult him as a “big oaf” and “dumb bastard.”

The Bissinger article doesn’t mention it, but a real sore point between the two became Wayne’s WWII service—or lack of same. Ford had jumped into the conflict early (so early that, on these seemingly aimless drunken fishing trips he’d taken with Wayne, Fonda and Ward Bond in the 1930s down to Mexico and into the Pacific, he’d been secretly photographing shorelines for the War Department, which was already anticipating that conflict would erupt with the Axis Powers).

Despite Ford's constant entreaties to “get into it” (the war), Wayne kept begging off that he needed to make “one more film.” According to Garry Wills’ John Wayne’s America, Ford’s hazing of Wayne got so bad that the actor, in an uncharacteristic move, even briefly walked off the set of one of his films.

Yet Wayne kept coming back for more. He knew that “Pappy” Ford had saved him from the celluloid ashheap—and Ford, with a sense of humor that, when it wasn’t outright abusive, tended more toward Irish-American expressions of endearments through insults, cherished his friendship with “Duke” (enough so that the director, a liberal Democrat, increasingly dispensed discussing politics altogether with his conservative Republican leading man lest they fall into quarrels).

A final word about Stagecoach: its unusual provenance. The basic story grew from several sources. In later decades, when Hollywood creative types took to hawking their ideas to producers with snappy one-liners (e.g., Beverly Hills Cop was “a fish-out-of-water story about a black Detroit detective in Beverly Hills”), Stagecoach could have been marketed as “Grand Hotel way out West.”

But the all-star Best Picture Oscar winner of 1932 wasn’t the only European inspiration for Ford’s landmark Western. If you insist on literary sources, I’m not going to argue with the idea that Stagecoach dates back to The Canterbury Tales and The Decameron—other sagas about groups of travelers varying widely by profession, class, and moral outlook, all thrown together on a very long trip and forced to reveal unlikely things about themselves.

Dudley Nichols’ screenplay was adapted from a Collier’s Magazine short story by Ernest Haycox, “The Stage to Lordsborg.” But there’s another, more unusual source hinted at. The clue is in Claire Trevor’s “scarlet woman” Dallas, driven out of her last town by the respectable women there. Her plight sounds a lot like that in French short-story master Guy de Maupassant’s Boule de Suif, about a prostitute riding in a carriage with other refugees at the height of the Franco-Russian War.

Just think—we owe two major pieces of Americana to the French: the Statue of Liberty and Stagecoach. Sacre Dieu!

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