“Stagecoach” screens at 1:30 p.m. Saturday, August 23, 2014 in the Durwood Film Vault of the Kansas City Central Library, 14W. 10th St. Admission is free. It’s part of the year-long film series Hollywood’s Greatest Year, featuring movies released in 1939.
From the moment it hit the nation’s movie screens in March of 1939, John Ford’s “Stagecoach” was declared a masterpiece.
Not just a pretty good Western, but a masterpiece. Never before had an “oater” earned that sort of praise.
Not only did “Stagecoach” redefine the possibilities of an overworked and underappreciated genre, but it made a first-class star of John Wayne, who had been kicking around for nearly a decade in B-movie purgatory.
Today, 75 years later, “Stagecoach” remains on virtually every list of the best Westerns ever made.
Ironically, Ford almost didn’t get it made at all.
Though he had filmed dozens of silent Westerns in the 1920s, Ford was pretty much out of the cowboy business by 1939. Throughout the ‘30s he had made comedies, adventures, costume dramas – just about every sort of motion picture. But Ford was considered a prestige director and Westerns were widely considered to be matinee fodder: cheap, cliché-riddled, horse-heavy melodramas aimed at little boys and men who still thought like little boys.
The big studios hardly ever made Westerns any more, leaving them to a handful of low-budget production companies. Most Westerns didn’t even get reviewed by the newspapers.
But Ford loved Westerns. He saw in the genre’s clichés possibilities for commenting on what would become his favorite cinematic theme: What it means to be an American.
Ford had purchased the screen rights to the short story “Stage to Lordsburg,” which appeared in Collier’s magazine. It was about a diverse group of travelers thrown together by circumstance for a dangerous trip through Apache territory. They come from various professions and castes, and represent a microcosm of the larger society.
Ford and screenwriter Dudley Nichols went to work expanding the tale, adding characters and situations. But the studios weren’t interested. It was only a Western, after all.
Finally producer David O. Selznick (who at the time was hard at work on “Gone With the Wind”) signed on. But when he demanded that Ford cast big stars in the main roles – Selznick wanted Gary Cooper and Marlene Dietrich — Ford backed out of the deal.
Because the director already had a cast in mind. For the role of Dallas, a prostitute who has been run out of town, he envisioned a young actress named Claire Trevor. And for the role of Ringo, a young outlaw who has broken out of prison to seek revenge on his father’s killers, Ford wanted John Wayne.
Nearly a decade earlier Wayne, then a UCLA grad known as Marion Michael Morrison, had worked for Ford as a prop boy. Now and then he was cast as an extra in a Ford film.
Leaving the Ford company, Wayne began getting roles in Westerns. But “The Big Trail,” an epic wide-screen production about a wagon train that was supposed to be his big breakthrough, flopped. For several years Wayne’s career had been treading water in low-budget studios like Monogram and Republic.
Ford had kept an eye on his former protégé, studying the development of Wayne’s screen persona through a series of mediocre vehicles and awaiting a role that would show the struggling actor in the best possible light. Ringo was the perfect match.