What can one say about Hollywood’s 1939 except to cast about for all the superlatives you can find? Most film critics and aficionados accept without equivocation that 1939 was the nonpareil, that no crop of film of any year comes close to what was produced just before WWII. What film year can come close to it, when it has such films as Dark Victory, Gone With the Wind, Ninotchka, and The Wizard of Oz?
But the film I want to address today is a film from 1939 that is an equal to these, and more: Stagecoach. This was the first pairing of director John Ford and actor John Wayne. While Ford and Wayne would go on to make many other movies together, Stagecoach established Wayne as an actor and Ford as a director. In fact, Wayne’s portrayal of The Ringo Kid was his breakout role, establishing him as a major motion picture star.
But for me, the real “star” of the movie was John Ford and his innovative direction. According to Wikipedia, “Orson Wells argued that it was a perfect textbook of film making and claimed to have watched it more than 40 times in preparation for the making of Citizen Kane.” His decision to move the production from the studio backlot and film in Monument Valley created a lush visual panorama that would come to define the Western film genre. As well, he created new camera angles that added to the storytelling of the film. In one short sequence, the stagecoach crosses a swollen river. A simple scene done many times, right? In Stagecoach, the viewer watches the team of horses pulling the coach from above, from the vantage point of the driver. It was a beautiful sequence, and one I’ve never seen repeated.
As a fan of old movies, one of my joys is seeing character actors that I enjoy, and Ford stocked Stagecoach with several familiar faces: Donald Meek, Andy Devine, Thomas Mitchell (Uncle Billy, in “It’s A Wonderful Life”, and John Carradine. See if these old photos don’t make you go, “Oh, him!”
And, of course, there is the iconic shot of The Duke, the one that served to announce a major star had arisen: