Tuesday, January 18, 2011

1939 - STAGECOACH, a few notes on the Criterion release

Criterion has probably done as good a job of restoring Stagecoach that can possibly be done with it.  The film was popular with audiences and critics when it was released but nobody thought to take care of the negative of the film.  There's still some visible wear and tear on the image but this is the best I have ever seen it.

John Ford benefited from having top behind the camera talent.  The producer Walter Wanger financed the film after every major studio turned Ford down.  This is actually kind of amazing considering Ford was considered one of the most important directors working in Hollywood in the 1930's.  He and the writer Dudley Nichols had considerable success with The Informer, which was an artistic high point in American film. 

This was John Wayne's second shot at a major film career.  The Big Trail, one of the first 70 mm films failed to make him a star.  Wayne and Ford were close friends but had a prickly relationship at times.   Ford would freeze Wayne out of his life for months and years at a time over some perceived petty slight. 

John Wayne introduced the cowboy/stuntman Yakima Canutt to Ford.  Wayne had worked with Canutt on a lot of those poverty row westerns (the ones you see in Target selling for $10.00 for a set of 10).  Canutt was responsible for the film's impressive stunts during the Indian fight at the end of the film.  Yakima Canutt went on to work on films like Ben Hur, Where Eagles Dare, El Cid, and Spartacus
staging the action scenes in these films, usually the best parts of those films.

In a lot of ways, the real star of Stagecoach is the character actor Thomas Mitchell, playing the alcoholic doctor.  Mitchell is in almost every scene and has much of the little comedy bits that Ford liked to stick in his films.  John Ford was known for verbally abusing actors while filming, he apparently met his match in Thomas Mitchell who gave as good as he got from Ford. At one point during the filming, Mitchell stuck it to Ford by ridiculing Mary of Scotland, one Ford's few flops.

John Ford hadn't made a western since Three Bad Men, and contrary to popular belief, he wasn't the first person to shot in Monument Valley.  Ford only filmed for about 10 days in Monument Valley.  A lot of Stagecoach was actually shot in southern California, which included the famous Indian attack at the end.

Still, when all is said and done, Stagecoach turned out remarkably well and certainly has earned its title as a classic American film.

96 minutes.

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