A movie log formerly known as Bookishness / By Charles Matthews

"Dazzled by so many and such marvelous inventions, the people of Macondo ... became indignant over the living images that the prosperous merchant Bruno Crespi projected in the theater with the lion-head ticket windows, for a character who had died and was buried in one film and for whose misfortune tears had been shed would reappear alive and transformed into an Arab in the next one. The audience, who had paid two cents apiece to share the difficulties of the actors, would not tolerate that outlandish fraud and they broke up the seats. The mayor, at the urging of Bruno Crespi, explained in a proclamation that the cinema was a machine of illusions that did not merit the emotional outbursts of the audience. With that discouraging explanation many ... decided not to return to the movies, considering that they already had too many troubles of their own to weep over the acted-out misfortunes of imaginary beings."
--Gabriel García Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Stagecoach (John Ford, 1939)

John Wayne in Stagecoach
Ringo Kid: John Wayne
Dallas: Claire Trevor
Doc Boone: Thomas Mitchell
Hatfield: John Carradine
Curley: George Bancroft
Buck: Andy Devine
Lucy Mallory: Louise Platt
Samuel Peacock: Donald Meek
Gatewood: Berton Churchill
Lt. Blanchard: Tim Holt
Luke Plummer: Tom Tyler

Director: John Ford
Screenplay: Dudley Nichols
Based on a story by Ernest Haycox
Cinematography: Bert Glennon
Art direction: Alexander Toluboff
Film editing: Otho Lovering, Dorothy Spencer
Music: Gerard Carbonara

Stagecoach breaks a lot of rules: The celebrated sequence in which the Apaches chase the stagecoach is filmed from various angles instead of adhering to the practice of keeping the action moving in one direction across the screen. Some of its climactic moments, such as the final showdown between Ringo and the Plummer brothers, occur offscreen. And the whole film is a bewilderment of locations, with John Ford's beloved Monument Valley showing up whenever Ford wants to use it, and not when it matches the location of the previous shots. The great example of this last is the introduction of the Ringo Kid himself, a flourish of camerawork that zooms in on Ringo with a Monument Valley butte in the background, no matter that neither lighting nor lenses nor the ordinary scrubby landscape of the scenes that frame this moment match up. Clearly, Ford wanted to give the moment a special magic, establishing the character as the film's hero -- even though John Wayne, a veteran of B-movies, was forced to take second billing to the better-known Claire Trevor. The magic worked, to be sure: Wayne became a central figure in the American mythology. If Stagecoach had been a flop, American movies would have been quite different. John Ford would have been known as a director of solid "prestige" films like The Informer (1935), The Grapes of Wrath (1940), and How Green Was My Valley (1941), three of the record-setting four pictures for which won the best director Oscar.* and not as the man who turned the Western into the essential American genre. John Wayne might have stayed in B-movies, at least until the outbreak of World War II made him a good catch for war pictures. But Stagecoach would never have been a flop: It's too cannily written, directed, and cast not to succeed. It is essential entertainment, cliché-ridden and sometimes clumsy, too obvious by half, but it draws you in irresistibly with its revenge plotting, its damsels in distress, and its social commentary -- the blustering crooked banker Gatewood is far more of a lefty caricature than Wayne or even Ford would have wanted to be associated with later in their careers, and probably owes more to Dudley Nichols's political leanings than to Ford's.

*The fourth, of course, was The Quiet Man (1952), which like the other three was not a Western, even though it starred John Wayne. That Ford never won for a Western is one of the many anomalies of the Academy Awards.

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