Tag Archives: Strangers on a Stagecoach

Hangman’s Knot

Nicholas Chennault ~ July 11, 2014

Hangman’s Knot—Randolph Scott, Donna Reed, Lee Marvin, Claude Jarman, Jr., Frank Faylen, Ray Teal, Guinn Williams, Jeanette Nolan, Richard Denning, Clem Bevans (1952; Dir: Roy Huggins)

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A Civil War Confederates-after-Yankee-gold film, and one of Randolph Scott’s best from his pre-Boetticher period.  (Note that the producers here are Scott and Harry Joe Brown—later the combined “Ranown” of the Boetticher-Scott films.  At this point they still needed to find a reliable director and writer for their team, although Roy Huggins does well in both those roles here.)

Eight Confederate soldiers from Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia are in Nevada, led by Major Matt Stewart (Randolph Scott).  As the movie starts, they’re planning to steal a shipment of Union gold to save their all-but-defeated southern cause.  They waste no time in carrying out that plan, killing the Yankee soldiers and taking the $250,000 in gold the Yankees are transporting.  Unknown to them, however, the Civil War has ended a month before the attack, and they just hadn’t heard about it.  Now they’ve killed a bunch of Union Nevada volunteers, are in possession of a lot of gold in the middle of hostile territory, and are liable to be hung when they get caught.  The five survivors of the raid agree to try to get back south with the gold and perhaps split it up.  Stewart doesn’t want to become an outlaw, but Rolph Bainter (Lee Marvin in one of his first significant movie roles) wouldn’t mind at all.

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Capturing the gold wagon is only the start.

They can trust no one, and Rolph impulsively kills Capt. Peterson, their contact who he thinks has been holding out information on them and plans to take the gold for himself.  They take Peterson’s medicine wagon with Stewart driving.  When they encounter a posse, Stewart tells them the Confederates have already been captured in a town behind them, and they move on.

That’s fine until the wagon is ruined in an accident.  The Confederates flag down a stagecoach and take it over.  The two passengers inside are Molly Hull (Donna Reed), a former Union nurse, and her fiancé Lee Kemper (Richard Denning), a cattle trader who is not all he seems.  They all take refuge in a stage line way station in a rocky mountain pass and are trapped there by the posse of “deputies” (read: gold-hungry drifters) led by Quincey (Ray Teal).  It’s pretty clear that they intend to kill the remaining Confederates and anybody else in the station and take the gold for themselves.  They capture Cass Browne (Frank Faylen), one of Stewart’s men, and drag him nearly to death.

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Stewart (Randolph Scott) drives the getaway stage.

Stewart’s men are now besieged in the way station, with the aging stationmaster Plunkett (Clem Bevans) and his middle-aged daughter Mrs. Margaret Harris (Jeanette Nolan), whose husband was killed at Gettysburg and whose son was in the Union patrol guarding the stolen gold; he’s now dead, obviously.  Molly helps care for a badly wounded Confederate while the others try to figure out how they’re going to escape.  Stewart, under the guise of trying to make a deal, plants the seed with the posse that the gold is back where they left the medicine wagon.

After taking their captives’ word not to yell out, the Confederates try to escape through the back door.  But Lee breaks his word, and Stewart’s men are forced back inside.  In exchange for two bars of gold, Lee gives Stewart a token that he says will enable them to get horses, supplies and passage from the local Paiute Indians.  Molly isn’t really his fiancée, but now she’s even more disgusted with him.  Both Stewart and Rolph have eyes for Molly, but Stewart is much more gentlemanly in his approach, as we would expect from Randolph Scott.

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Rolph (Lee Marvin) finds his brand of charm doesn’t work on Molly (Donna Reed), or on Stewart (Randolph Scott), either.

At one point, the “deputies” put a noose around Cass Browne’s neck, and Stewart uses dynamite for a distraction to rescue him. (Anachronism alert:  Dynamite wasn’t patented until 1867 and was not used during the Civil War.)  Some backstory emerges on young trooper Jamie Groves (Claude Jarman, Jr.):  he watched his family killed and their farm burned by Sherman’s men in Georgia, and, although he was in the raiding party after the Yankee gold, he’s never shot any one during his brief military service.  Rolph tries to seduce/attack Molly, until Stewart pulls him off. They fight, and Rolph, when he’s losing, tries to shoot an unarmed Stewart.  Jamie shoots Rolph—the first man he has ever shot.  Now they’ve lost one of their best (but most unscrupulous) fighters.

The “deputies” now try a short tunnel under the station’s floorboards, but that doesn’t work.  The second night they set fire to the station, just before a brief downpour cuts visibility.  The first out the door is Lee, who is shot down while trying to make a deal.  Taking what they can of the gold, the three remaining Confederates make a break for it.  Some of the deputies leave to hunt for the gold supposedly left by the medicine wagon; Quincey shoots Smitty (Guinn “Big Boy” Williams) and is shot and then dragged himself.  Cass Browne is shot while trying to get to the posse’s horses, but he gets another posse member.

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The way station falls in flames.  From left to right:  Claude Jarman, Jr., Randolph Scott, Jeanette Nolan, Clem Bevans, Richard Denning, Donna Reed and Frank Faylen.

Finally, it’s only Stewart and Jamie left.  Now that they could actually get away with it, they choose to leave the gold at the station for Molly to turn in.  Plunkett and Margaret give them a couple of stagecoach horses for their escape and offer Jamie a place with them if he wants to come back.  Stewart and Molly make plans to reunite, too.

The film is very well-cast, and the writing (by director Roy Huggins) is very good.  Randolph Scott looks good in his dark clothing, light-colored neckerchief and worn leather jacket.  That leather jacket is one of the trademarks of Scott’s later career, like his dark palomino horse Stardust; look for him wearing it in many of his movies from this period, including Ten Wanted Men and Ride the High Country (his last film).  Marvin is very effective as a villain in an early screen role, and even Claude Jarman, Jr., known principally as a child actor in The Yearling, does well with his small part, in one of his last significant movies.  All the Confederates seem well-defined and distinct, with their own personalities, and some of the posse as well.  This is a small gem, one of the best of Randolph Scott’s pre-Boetticher years. This is rare for a movie from the early 1950s in that it allows Stewart and Jamie, at least, to get away without having to surrender to the authorities, if not with their loot intact.

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Molly and Stewart, finally together, featuring Randolph Scott in his trademark jacket..

The action is good, since the stunts were overseen by second-unit director Yakima Canutt.  The stunt double for Scott during his fight scenes with Lee Marvin is a little too obvious.  Writer-director Roy Huggins never directed another movie but took his talents to television, with Maverick, Cheyenne, The Fugitive and eventually The Rockford Files.  Shot in the Alabama Hills at Lone Pine, in color, at just 81 minutes.

For other Confederates-after-Yankee-gold westerns, see Virginia City (1940) with Errol Flynn and Randolph Scott, Westbound (1959), also with Randolph Scott, and The Black Dakotas (1954).  Even Rio Lobo (1970), Howard Hawks’ last movie, may fit into that category, although it’s not a very good film.  For more Lee Marvin as a bad guy, see him in Seven Men From Now (1956), again with Randolph Scott, in Bad Day at Black Rock (1955), with Spencer Tracy and Robert Ryan, and The Comancheros (1961), with John Wayne, before he gets to his ultimate villain role:  as Liberty Valance in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962).

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Gun Fury

Nicholas Chennault ~ June 30, 2014

Gun Fury—Rock Hudson, Donna Reed, Philip Carey, Leo Gordon, Pat Hogan, Roberta Haynes, Lee Marvin, Neville Brand (1953; Dir: Raoul Walsh)

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Three of the principal characters in this western from the early 1950s are still wallowing in the aftermath of the Civil War. Ben Warren (Rock Hudson in an early starring role) fought for the Union, has had more than enough killing and now wants only to marry his fiancée Jennifer Ballard (Donna Reed) and live on his large California ranch.  He doesn’t even wear a gun any more.  Jennifer is from Atlanta and is anxious to start a new life where the the desolation of Sherman’s March is not remembered.  And Frank Slayton (Phil Carey) is an embittered former Confederate, now an outlaw in the southwest.

As the film starts, Jennifer is on a stage carrying a large amount of gold and two former Southern gentlemen, along with a cavalry escort.  They stop in Haynesville, Arizona Territory, where Jennifer is meeting her future husband Ben.  He joins the stage passengers, and after it takes off Ben and Jennifer discover that the two Southerners are the noted outlaws Frank Slayton and Jess Morgan (Leo Gordon), and their new cavalry escort are Slayton’s men.  They rob the stage and think they’ve killed Warren, and Slayton abducts Jennifer, for whom he has developed a fascination.

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Strangers on a stagecoach:  Slayton (Phil Carey), Morgan (Leo Gordon), Warren (Rock Hudson), Ballard (Donna Reed), and a real stranger.

Slayton and Morgan have a falling out over the abduction, and Slayton leaves Morgan tied to a corral post for the buzzards.  Meanwhile, Warren discovers he isn’t really dead and takes one of the stagecoach horses in pursuit.  He releases Morgan, and they join forces to pursue Slayton for vengeance and to rescue Jennifer.  They are joined by an Indian Johash (Pat Hogan), whose sister was also taken by Slayton’s men in an earlier raid on Taos.

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Frank Slayton (Phil Carey) leaves Jess Morgan (Leo Gordon) to die.

As Slayton and his men get closer to the Mexican border, Morgan and Warren find a couple of his men buying supplies in a town and kill one of them.  Now Slayton knows they are following.  He stops by a village notable for its cantina and Mexican ladies of easy virtue, where Slayton has a girl Estella Morales (Roberta Haynes).  He has Jennifer cleaned up and has his way with her, although the camera doesn’t show that very explicitly.  Estella is enraged at being abandoned so casually.  Slayton makes a deal with Warren and Burgess: he’ll trade Jennifer back to Warren in exchange for Burgess.  Although Warren isn’t minded to make that trade, not trusting Slayton in the slightest, Burgess insists he can take Slayton.  It doesn’t work, and Burgess is killed.

Now it’s Warren and Johash against Slayton and the remainder of his band of outlaws.  Estella tries to get Slayton and is killed for her pains.  It comes finally, as we knew it would, to former pacifist Warren and the ruthless outlaw Slayton.  Just when it looks like Slayton has the advantage, it turns out he has forgotten Johash, and Slayton ends with a knife in his back.  Warren and Jennifer ride off to their California ranch.

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Jennifer Ballard (Donna Reed) is fit to be tied; Ben Warren (Rock Hudson) seeks vengeance.

This is one of three movies from 1953 in which director Raoul Walsh used his new discovery Rock Hudson. (The Lawless Breed and Sea Devils are the other two.)  None of them are particularly memorable.  Like Hondo, this film was made in the 3-D process that was all the rage that year, and the camerawork, especially in the second half, shows the usual evidence of that in the angles of thrown objects, striking rattlesnakes and such.  Carey as the sociopathic outlaw Slayton and Leo Gordon as the vengeful Jess Burgess give the best performances in the cast.  Leo Gordon was just breaking into movies, the same year that he played Ed Lowe (Geraldine Page’s despicable husband, shot by John Wayne) in Hondo.

Donna Reed is beautiful but nothing special as Jennifer (she’s more notable in Hangman’s Knot and Backlash later in the decade, for example), and Rock Hudson was never a dazzling actor, but he was more wooden here than he would be later in his career.  Lee Marvin and Neville Brand have early roles as members of Slayton’s gang, but they have neither enough lines nor enough camera time to distinguish themselves here.  Roberta Haynes is modestly interesting in a limited role as Mexican spitfire Estella, but one does feel that actual Mexican Katy Jurado could have done it better, and that the smoldering Linda Darnell did do it better in My Darling Clementine.

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The script by Irving Wallace and Roy Huggins is fine, based on Kathleen George’s novel Ten Against Caesar.  Warren has interesting exchanges with lawmen and townsfolk of the small towns he and Burgess go through in their pursuit, as he tries without success to get some help.  The title of the movie doesn’t mean anything in particular, which was common enough with westerns of that era.  One does expect better camera work from the experienced director Walsh; camera placement and angles here often telegraph what’s coming.  The one-eyed Walsh could not himself see the 3-D results of his work, but he had done better westerns—Colorado Territory, for example.  Shot on location in Sedona, Arizona.  83 minutes.

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Gunsight Ridge

Nicholas Chennault ~ April 9, 2014

Gunsight Ridge—Joel McCrea, Mark Stevens, Joan Weldon, Addison Richards, L.Q. Jones (1957; Dir:  Francis D. Lyon)

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This late Joel McCrea film seems more formulaic than it ought to; somehow the whole is less than the sum of its parts.  McCrea, getting a bit long in the tooth (he was 52 at the time), plays Mike Ryan.  He and the attractive Molly Jones (Joan Weldon) are passengers on the stage to Bancroft near the Arizona border with Mexico, where her father is the sheriff.  On the way the stage is held up by two robbers, one of whom has distinctive eyes above his bandanna-mask.  During the robbery the other’s mask slips, and he is recognized by the stage driver (Slim Pickens in a small role).  Molly berates Ryan for not trying to thwart the robbery, as her father would have done.  As the bandits make their getaway, the one who was recognized is shot down by the other.

As Ryan arrives in town, some of the town fathers have their misgivings about whether the sheriff is too old for the job.  Four cowboys from a local ranch (the Lazy Heart) ride in and proceed to shoot up the town.  The sheriff squares his shoulders and goes out to stop them without obvious help.  But Ryan tucks a gun in his belt and helps the sheriff stop them.  Since Ryan needs a job, the sheriff hires him as a deputy.  Meanwhile, the penniless Ryan inveigles a place at Mrs. Donahue’s upscale boarding house, where one of the other boarders is Velvet Clark (Mark Stevens), a gambler-miner, who (as is immediately obvious to the viewer) has the eyes above the bandanna in the stage robbery.

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Mike Ryan (Joel McCrea) and Velvet Clark (Mark Stevens) get acquainted.

As Ryan starts about his duties, he observes Clark playing the piano in the parlor when Clark figures nobody is around.  Clark then proceeds to the saloon, where he loses.  He explains to his paramour, saloon girl Rosa (Darlene Fields), that he had the talent but not the funds to develop that talent; it appears that his turning to crime was because of the frustration.  Leaving for the Oriental across the street, he instead robs the bank, being careful not to be seen.  During the investigation of the robbery, Ryan displays his credentials as a Wells Fargo detective and steps in to support the sheriff. 

The train is robbed by the four drunken cowboys from the ranch.  On his way to arrest them, the sheriff crosses paths with Clark and Clark shoots the sheriff rather brutally.  Ryan is also on their trail and finds the murdered sheriff.  Clark sees the robbery of the train and plans to take the $30,000 in proceeds from the drunken cowboy-robbers.  Meanwhile Ryan is following and gets a Mexican to show him a short cut by an old Indian trail over the mountains to their likely destination.  The townspeople there have captured the four cowboys, but Clark takes the loot, killing one of the captors.  He shoots Ryan’s horse as Ryan pursues, and Ryan has to get another.

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Ryan negotiates with an irate farm girl.

At a ranch house, Clark charms a farm girl into giving him a replacement horse.  Ryan still pursues, and catches up with Clark at Gunsight Ridge.  They shoot it out in the rocks, and Ryan wins.  He returns to Bancroft to Molly and to become sheriff as her father’s successor.

McCrea is good as always, and rides better than anybody else in the cast.  Stevens is excellent as Velvet Clark, and his character and performance are what make this movie better than average.  However, Stevens was a career second-tier actor in movies, and, except for McCrea, this is a low-wattage cast.  L.Q. Jones in an early role is one of the train-robbing cowboys.  In black and white, filmed in part at Old Tucson.

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Trooper Hook

Nicholas Chennault ~ February 14, 2014

Trooper Hook—Joel McCrea, Barbara Stanwyck, Earl Holliman, Royal Dano, John Dehner, Edward Andrews, Rodolfo Acosta (1957; Dir:  Charles Marquis Warren)

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This is both a cavalry movie and a strangers-on-a-stagecoach movie, based on a short story by Jack Schaefer (author of Shane and Monte Walsh).  It makes good use of the decency Joel McCrea always projected; the strong cast, led by McCrea and Barbara Stanwyck, elevates the movie slightly over what it might have been. 

Sgt. Clovis Hook (McCrea) is 47, a veteran of the Civil War and graduate of Andersonville Prison during that war.  He’s in charge of a detail that captures Chiricahua Apache chief Nanchez (Rodolfo Acosta) and his band, including Cora Sutliff (Stanwyck), a white woman captive who has borne Nanchez’s son.  She was taken by the Apaches a few years ago while traveling from the east to rejoin her husband on his new ranch in Arizona.  Most of the movie concerns Hook’s attempts to reunite her with her husband, while both Nanchez and well-meaning whites try to part her from her son.

Cora comes in for a fair amount of hostility and abuse from whites over the course of the movie.  Hook reacts with more humanity. One of the best scenes comes as their relationship develops.  Cora talks about the humiliations for her in dealing with the reactions of other whites; Hook tells her about his survival at Andersonville, where he pretended to be a dog in order to get more food in that hellish environment.  There are references to Hook’s own wife and family, who never appear.

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Hook with the captured Nanchez; the recently liberated Cora Sutliff and her son by Nanchez.

Hook, Sutliff and her son take a stagecoach toward the modest ranch her husband has built up.  The stagecoach passengers include young cowboy Jeff Bennett (Earl Holliman), a Mexican grandmother and granddaughter and a talkative Charlie Travers (Edward Andrews), with a colorful ex-Confederate driver (Royal Dano).  Along the way they hear that Nanchez has escaped, and he catches up with the stage.  Hook resorts to a strategem to get Nanchez to let them depart, but we haven’t seen the last of him.

When they arrive at the Sutliff ranch, Cora’s husband, who hasn’t seen her for years, takes the approach most whites have.  He hadn’t heard about, and wants nothing to do with, the half-Apache kid, and Cora won’t let the child go.  Nanchez finds them, and the four of them make a run for it in the Sutliff wagon.

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The ending is a bit contrived, with both Nanchez and husband Fred Sutliff (John Dehner) dead and Hook riding off into the sunset with the woman and her son. Hook admits he has no family; he just invented one to fend off the questions and good intentions of others.  He remarks, “I’m 47.  Nearly 30 of that in the Army makes a man rough.  Got four months ‘til the end of my last hitch.” It sounds like a proposal, sort of.

The movie has intrusive, clunky theme music (e.g., Rancho Notorious and Will Penny) sung by Tex Ritter; such music seldom works as well as it did in High Noon.  There are good supporting performances by Royal Dano as Mr. Trude, an ex-Confederate stagecoach driver, and Earl Holliman as Jeff Bennett, a good-hearted young cowboy.  Rodolfo Acosta as Nanchez isn’t bad, either, in a role very similar to what he did in Hondo.  Barbara Stanwyck isn’t very convincing at first, but she can act and becomes more believable as her character develops. 

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 A still of Hook (McCrea), Quito, Cora (Barbara Stanwyck) and Fred Sutliff (John Dehner).

This was the sixth and last film McCrea and Stanwyck made together.  McCrea and Stanwyck teamed in this modest western 18 years after being in DeMille’s more epic Union Pacific.  The boy who plays Cora’s mixed-race son in a black wig (Terry Lawrence) isn’t great; the direction may be at fault for some of that.  Unresolved question:  Who got Charlie Travers’ $15,000?  In black and white.  Both the Four Corners setting and the stagecoach elements recall John Ford, but the direction obviously isn’t as good.  In black and white.

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Westbound

Nicholas Chennault ~ January 20, 2014

Westbound—Randolph Scott, Karen Steele, Virginia Mayo, Andrew Duggan (1959; Dir:  Budd Boetticher)

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Although this is usually reckoned about the least of the Boetticher-Scott westerns, it’s not terrible.  According to Boetticher, after the third of his pictures with Randolph Scott, he was told that Scott had an obligation to Warner Brothers to make one more picture, and this was it.  The Ranown movies were made for Columbia.  The best of the Ranown movies were written by Burt Kennedy; this was written by Bernie Giler.  The score is standard western movie music by Elmer Bernstein, though.

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Heading west, and meeting the young couple.

Scott is Captain John Hayes, returning to Julesburg, Colorado Territory, during the Civil War to make sure that gold from California gets to the Union, where it’s going.  Near Julesburg, he drops off a young couple, the Millers; the husband is a one-armed Union veteran (Michael Dante) and the wife is played by the Jane-Russell-esque Karen Steele.  In town, Hayes finds the Overland Stage in disarray, with its station closed and its stock gone.  His former flame, Norma (Virginia Mayo), has married Clay Putnam (Andrew Duggan), a long-time rival with Confederate sympathies.  Putnam and Mace (the swarthy Michael Pate, an Australian actor who frequently played Indians), a hired gun, are behind the depredations against the Overland Stage.

Hayes hires the young couple to run a stage station at their ranch.  There are raids on various stage stations and various murders before Hayes has it out with Putnam and Mace in Julesburg.  At the end of the movie, Putnam is dead (as is the young one-armed Miller), and there is a visual implication that Hayes and Norma may resume their relationship.  But then Hayes makes it clear that Norma is going back East, and he’s more interested in the young widow Jeanie Miller (as was Budd Boetticher; she became Mrs. Boetticher).

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It’s short, about 75 minutes, and it’s not bad.  It just isn’t as good as most of the Ranown westerns Boetticher and Scott made.  Written by Berne Giler  This was one of the last Boetticher westerns to be released on DVD, in 2009.

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Colorado Territory

Nicholas Chennault ~ December 2, 2013

Colorado Territory—Joel McCrea, Virginia Mayo, Dorothy Malone, Henry Hull, James Mitchell, John Archer (1949; Dir: Raoul Walsh)

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Raoul Walsh’s 1941 gangster movie High Sierra is here remade by the same director as an excellent western, set in Colorado Territory in 1871.  Long-time outlaw Wesley McQueen (Joel McCrea) is in a Missouri jail, waiting transportation to Leavenworth.  He gets sprung from jail at the instructions of The Old Man, acting through one of his agents with the curious name of Pluthner.  McQueen heads west, toward Colorado Territory, where The Old Man, kind of a criminal mastermind by the name of Dave Rickard (Basil Ruysdael), lives. 

On the stage west, McQueen meets a Georgian named Fred Winslow (Henry Hull) and his daughter Julie Ann (Dorothy Malone, with dark hair and her trademark eyes).  When outlaws attack the stage, killing the driver and shotgun rider, McQueen fights them off and brings in the stage.  He heads for the meeting place with a new gang, a deserted mountain village called Todos Santos.  The Winslows head off for their new ranch, Rancho del Sol, which they find to be less than advertised—less water, less stock, etc. 

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The women:  Dorothy Malone as the ultimately faithless Julie Ann.

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And Virginia Mayo in dark makeup as half-Pueblo dance hall girl Colorado Carson.

McQueen at this point would like to go straight, and he’s not impressed by the other gang members The Old Man has lined up:  Duke Harris (James Mitchell), a bully and killer; Reno Blake (John Archer), slick and cowardly with a waspish tongue; and Colorado Carson (Virginia Mayo), a part-Pueblo dance hall girl from El Paso.  He tells Colorado to leave, since he can see she ignites trouble between Duke and Reno.  He wants to go straight, and he’s attracted by Julie Ann. 

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McQueen (Joel McCrea) takes the unruly gang in hand.

McQueen heads for Pacheco to talk with The Old Man, stopping by Rancho del Sol.  The Winslows aren’t doing well, and he hears some backstory about Fred’s worrying about Julie Ann’s attraction to a Randolph back home—much above the Winslows in social class, and who’s never going to marry her.  The Old Man’s in rough shape health-wise, but he talks McQueen into leading this last score.  McQueen has strong misgivings about all aspects of the job:  Reno, Duke, a garrulous, corrupt train conductor (Ian Wolfe), and especially about Pluthner.  He leaves $1000 with the Winslows, but feels (a) he’s sinking deeper into a moral morass, and (b) Julie Ann may not be as pure as he imagines anyway.  Colorado’s obviously attracted to him, and she seems like she could be a better match for somebody like him notwithstanding her past. 

As the gang carries out the robbery, the talkative conductor has squealed to the marshal, and Duke plans to kill McQueen during the robbery.  McQueen is successful in getting the loot, and he escapes with Colorado, a posse in hot pursuit.  As he stops by Pacheco, he finds The Old Man dead and Pluthner going through his stuff.  Pluthner pulls a gun; McQueen kills him but is wounded in the shoulder. 

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McQueen (Joel McCrea) looks to get away after a final robbery gone wrong.

At Rancho del Sol, Colorado patches him up, and he realizes that his future, if there is any, lies with her.  In fact, Julie Ann tries to turn McQueen in to the posse for the reward on his head.  At Todos Santos, McQueen and Colorado conclude that they have to head for Mexico immediately, and Colorado hides the $100,000 in loot above the confessional in the old church.  McQueen tries to draw off the posse, heading for an old canyon pueblo called the City of the Moon.  The posse overtakes him there, as does Colorado.  With a ruse, the marshal lures McQueen out to where he is hit by an Indian sniper.  Colorado, blazing away with two guns, is shot down, too.  (See the Italian poster for the movie, above, which focuses on this scene very colorfully.)  They are together in death.

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Colorado Carson (Virginia Mayo) and McQueen (Joel McCrea) are trapped by a posse.

As with Pursued, Yellow Sky and Blood on the Moon, this has a strong noir influence.  McCrea’s basic decency makes a reforming McQueen believable, although some think he’s too decent to be credible as an outlaw.  Watch how naturally McCrea rides in this; he and Randolph Scott were probably the best riders among major western stars.  This may be one of Virginia Mayo’s best roles, although the dark makeup she wears doesn’t go with her light eyes and natural coloring.  When posters feature a prominent female image, you can’t always count on the female being central to the movie.  This one features strong female roles.

In black and white, making good use of mountain settings.  The pueblo where the final shoot-out takes place looks like it might be Canyon de Chelly.  The movie was filmed around Gallup, New Mexico.  A good screenplay by John Twist, with very effective dialogue, although some of it has a 1940s flavor now.  Something about this one spawned an unusual number of colorful posters internationally.

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Stagecoach

Nicholas Chennault ~ October 2, 2013

Stagecoach—John Wayne, Claire Trevor, Thomas Mitchell, George Bancroft, Andy Devine, John Carradine (1939; Dir:  John Ford)

In addition to being the first of the modern westerns, this was also director John Ford’s first use of Monument Valley, which became his favorite filming location for westerns, and his first association with John Wayne in a starring role.  It was Ford’s first sound western and his first western of any kind in 13 years.  When the film was made, Claire Trevor was the biggest star in the cast and was paid the highest salary.  Wayne had been in a number of low-budget westerns in the 1930s, but this was his first big lead in an upscale film since 1930’s The Big Trail with director Raoul Walsh almost a decade earlier.  That one had bombed on its theatrical release, although it’s been rediscovered by many in the DVD age.   Casting Wayne in Stagecoach was Ford’s idea; the studio preferred Gary Cooper, but ultimately went along with Ford’s recommendation.   This film put John Wayne on the track to being an even bigger star than Trevor, especially when he was teamed with Ford in future projects. 

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The movie is based on a 1937 short story by western writer Ernest Haycox, which is in turn said to be based on Guy de Maupassant’s famous story “Boule de Suif,” which takes place in Normandy during the 1870 Franco-Prussian War.  In this film, several strangers board the crowded Overland Stage in Tonto, Arizona, heading for Lordsburg, New Mexico.  One is Dallas (Claire Trevor), a prostitute being run out of town by the respectable women.  Another is Mrs. Lucy Mallory (Louise Platt), a pregnant army wife going to meet her husband, although her pregnancy is neither mentioned nor shown until it’s time for the baby’s birth.  The male passengers include alcoholic Doc Boone (Thomas Mitchell), also being run out of town; Samuel Peacock (Donald Meek), a timorous whiskey salesman; Hatfield (John Carradine), a professional gambler with a southern accent and an occasional chivalrous streak; and Henry Gatewood (Berton Churchill), a bank president clutching his bag with suspicious tenacity.  Riding shotgun to stage driver Buck (Andy Devine) is Marshal Curley Wilcox (George Bancroft), looking for the Ringo Kid (John Wayne), who has just busted out of jail.  All these stories would seem complicated enough, but these passengers aren’t on just any stage trip:  Geronimo’s Apaches are on the warpath in the area the stage will be traveling through.

stagecoachRingo The stage stops for Ringo.

As the stagecoach rounds a bend, there’s a figure waving it down, rifle in one hand and saddle in the other.  The camera zooms in on his face, and it’s Ringo, in one of the most memorable shots of this film.  He’s been in prison because he was framed by the Plummer brothers, who killed his father and brother and sent him to prison before he was 17.  Now that he has escaped from jail, he’s on his way to Lordsburg for a final confrontation with the Plummers.  Both Curley and Doc Boone know Ringo and like him, and Curley takes him prisoner, in part to keep him alive. 

There are two stage stations and a ferry between Tonto and Lordsburg.  At the first station, all is well.  The stage changes horses but loses its cavalry escort; the passengers eat, and Dallas is shunned by the more respectable passengers:  Hatfield, Mrs. Mallory and Gatewood.  Ringo and Doc Boone are friendlier, and Ringo suggests that he’s the one being shunned.  “I guess you can’t expect to break out of prison and into society in the same week.”   There’s amazingly quick character development, including one brief but revealing scene where a canteen is passed around the stage.

The cavalry detail that was to pick up the stage at the first station is out chasing Apaches instead, and after taking a vote among the passengers the stage moves on toward the second station.  Here matters develop more quickly.  Mrs. Mallory collapses, and as there are hurried instructions for hot water, we realize she’s about to give birth.  (At least two of the other passengers didn’t recognize that she was pregnant, either, with the reticence of a bygone era.)  Doc Boone sobers up and delivers a baby girl, with the help of Dallas.  Outside in the moonlight, Ringo proposes marriage to Dallas and with her help he almost escapes.  However, Chris, the Mexican station master, has an Apache wife, who leaves with several vaqueros and the station’s spare horses.

Ringo decides not to escape here because he sees Indian sign and holds up.  Curley takes him back into custody, and the stage heads warily for the ferry, after which they all figure they’ll be safe.  The ferry and its station are burned out, though.  Buck, Curley and Ringo rig supporting logs to help the stage float across the river, and they head for Lordsburg with a sigh of relief.  But we know the Apaches are somewhere around, and inevitably they show up and give chase.  After an extended chase (featuring some superb, state-of-the-art stuntwork by Yakima Canutt), the stage’s defenders run out of ammunition, with Hatfield saving his last bullet to spare Mrs. Mallory the indignities of capture by the savages.  And then ….

stagecoach-1939 Under attack by Geronimo.

Well, Ringo has to make it to Lordsburg, and he does.  He has it out with the nefarious Plummer brothers (three Plummers against one Ringo), and matters work out as they should, perhaps not with complete believability.  Doc Boone does not miraculously become a respected teetotaler, and Dallas is unable to leave her past completely behind, but things work out for them as they should, too.

It’s great storytelling, with bits of social commentary unobtrusively scattered along the way.  John Wayne captures the screen whenever he’s in the frame, and Claire Trevor is magnificent.  Wayne has the iconic western line:  “There are some things a man just can’t run away from.”  If Thomas Mitchell’s hard-drinking Doc Boone seems a bit stereotypical from our vantage point (almost identical to Edmond O’Brien’s hard-drinking newspaperman in Liberty Valance 25 years later, in fact), well, he was perhaps less so in 1939.  Donald Meek’s whiskey drummer, whom every one mistakes for a clergyman, is very effective.  And we despise the overbearing banker Gatewood as we are meant to do.  The Apaches actually look like Indians, which you can’t say of many western films of this era; Ford generally used Navajos instead of Apaches, though.

stagecoach2

In addition to being the first use of Monument Valley as a setting (and the first of seven Ford films to use it), there’s other good filmmaking going on here.  Ford doesn’t use a lot of close-ups, so we tend to pay attention when he does.  The interior ceilings are low, which must have presented problems for the lighting of the time.  That adds to the claustrophobic feeling as the movie progresses, and was imitated by Orson Welles in Citizen Kane two years later.  And the stunt work by Yakima Canutt was later imitated in such films as Raiders of the Lost Ark and Maverick.

Although there were a couple of other well-made westerns in 1939, it was largely this film that rejuvenated the genre, brought it an element of respectability and started the modern era for westerns.  (Many 1940s westerns would still show evidence of low budgets, singing cowboys and lots of stereotypes—the revolution didn’t happen overnight.)  But Stagecoach was a real accomplishment and remains highly watchable today.  In what is still thought of as Hollywood’s single greatest year, Stagecoach was nominated for seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Cinematography, Best Interior Decoration, Best Film Editing, Best Supporting Actor (Thomas Mitchell’s Doc Boone) and Best Score.  It won for the last two. 

stagecoach-RingoDallas

Dallas (Claire Trevor) and Ringo (John Wayne) in Lordsburg, about to confront reality.

In an interview for a 1971 article, Ford reminisced about casting Wayne.   ‘I got a call from [producer] Walter Wanger who had one more picture to make under his United Artists contract. So I sent him the short story and he said, “That’s a pretty good story. I’m thinking of Gary Cooper and Marlene Dietrich,” he said.

“I don’t think you can go that high on salary with a picture like this,” I said. “This is the kind of picture you have to make for peanuts.”

“Have you got anybody in mind?” Wanger asked me.

“Well, there’s a boy I know who used to be an assistant prop man and bit player for me,” I said. “His name was Michael Morrison, but he’s making five-day Westerns and calls himself John Wayne now.”

“Do you think he’s any good?” he asked.

“Yes, I think so,” I said. “And we can get him for peanuts.”‘  And John Wayne became a star.

-Stagecoach-Cast Still

A production still of the cast, from Claire Trevor on the left to George Bancroft on the right.

As Ford recalled it, he had plenty of confidence in the film, but it wasn’t always obvious that it would be a hit.  ‘After I shot Stagecoach, I worked closely with the cutter.  But there wasn’t a helluva lot to do.  I cut with the camera.  When the picture was put together, Wanger invited a few top people – brilliant brains of the industry who proceed to say how they would have done Stagecoach.  Sam Goldwyn said, “Walter, you made one mistake:  You should have shot it in color.  You should start all over again and make it in color.”  Douglas Fairbanks Sr. said: “The chase is too long.”

‘Then it was shown to the great producers at RKO, who had turned the project down in the first place.  One of them said, “It’s just a B picture.”  Another said, “It’s all right, but it’s still a Western.”  Well, of course, the picture went out and hit the jackpot.  It started a flood of Westerns, and we’ve been suffering from them ever since.”‘

It was also made at a particularly productive period of John Ford’s career, the same year that he made Drums Along the Mohawk and Young Mr. Lincoln and just before he made The Grapes of Wrath and How Green Was My Valley.  It was an amazing streak for a great director.

The 1966 remake of Stagecoach was pleasant enough, but a pale and much less charismatic imitation of the original.  A made-for-television version in 1986 seemed to be merely a vehicle for a number of aging country music stars (mostly without much acting ability) and didn’t work at all.  The best other variation on this theme (strangers on a stage under attack, complete with social prejudices and hypocrisy, the supposedly respectable but actually corrupt businessman) is the 1967 movie Hombre.

For the 1971 article with comments from various participants in the production (including John Wayne and Claire Trevor), see:  http://www.dga.org/Craft/DGAQ/All-Articles/1004-Winter-2010-11/Features-On-John-Fords-Stagecoach.aspx

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