Monday, October 5, 2015

AFI Top 100, #63: "Stagecoach" (1939)

Movie Stats:
Released 1939 (USA)
American, in English (some non-translated Spanish)
Director - John Ford
Stars - John Wayne, Claire Trevor, Thomas Mitchell, George Bancroft

Plot Summary:
A stagecoach run across Arizona territory is complicated by the cast of characters aboard it and by the threat of Apache attack. Wayne stars as escaped con Ringo Kid; Trevor as Dallas, a woman of ill repute; Mitchell as the drunkard Doc Josiah Boone; and Bancroft as the fair-minded Marshal Curley Wilcox.


Bad Stuff:
The scene with the “Native American” wife Yakima (Mexican actress Elvira Rios) was so strange, very out of place. It was like, [SPOILER] “Quick, a lady is having a baby, call in all available ladies!” and then all she did was sing a song, get her back up band to steal the extra horses, and run away. Huh? I felt like the director just wanted that particular actress to sing a song so he found a way to shoehorn it in (as an aside, she did have a lovely voice). [SPOILER]

The pacing at the end was weird. It was a lot of build-up for virtually no pay-off.

Good Stuff:
I loved the complex characterizations. Just because Doc Boone managed to sober up long enough to save someone’s life, for example, didn’t mean that he wasn’t still an alcoholic. Kudos to the script for hinting that his problems stemmed from his experiences in the Civil War. Even bigger kudos to the film for recognizing that women without family, like Dallas, have had few reputable options throughout much of human history. And unlike most lawmen in the movies, Curley didn’t see the world in black-and-white. All of this was so refreshing. It was such a surprise for a Western.

The secondary characters were great too, and brought a fun dimension to everything. I especially enjoyed the chatty, simple-minded coach driver Buck (Andy Devine) and the timid whiskey peddler Samuel Peacock (Donald Meek).

It actually has a lot of funny dialogue.

The Verdict:
I could have sworn I’d seen this before. I distinctly remember watching a John Wayne movie that involved a stagecoach with a motley cast of characters, and a running battle with “Indians.” That movie, however, was in color and included a scene where Wayne slapped a hysterical woman (the female lead, I believe). This movie is in black and white and includes no such slapping scene. So I have no idea what I’m remembering. If you know what movie I’m talking about, please let me know in the comments.

Anyway, when I thought I was going to watch that movie again, I wasn’t looking forward to it because I didn’t like it. It was a pleasant surprise to discover that I would be watching something else entirely. And I’m happy to report that I finally found a Western that I like. For real! I really, really liked this a lot! It was fun and surprisingly layered and sensitive and pretty funny in parts. I was amused by how shabbily the character of the blowhard banker Ellsworth Gatewood (Berton Churchill) was portrayed because, given the timing of the movie’s release toward the end of the Great Depression, it seemed like it was a sentiment of the time creeping in. For once, I finally get what all the hullabaloo about John Ford was. 

I give it 4.25 stars.


Patricia said...

And we have a winner! This comes up on the Filmspotting podcast list of recommendations, so much that I got it from the library. But I never got around to watching it. Someday.

balyien said...

Yeah, I see it on recommendation lists a lot too, and that's why I thought I saw it before. I wonder if I somehow checked the wrong movie out of the library? Or maybe I dreamed the whole thing, haha. I say if you get another chance, you should give it a shot. It's a good toenail painting movie. ;)