Nine Characters in Search of an Author Continued
Everything in Stagecoach is balanced. The major plot line of Ringo’s search for justice is balanced by the trials of each of the others. We have balance among the travellers. Each connects strongly with another in a deliberate act of pairing and we have a balance between the “aristocratic and privileged characters – Lucy Mallory, Hatfield and Gatewood” and the “disreputable and/or powerless – Dallas, Doc Boone, Peacock and Ringo.” (Jim Kitses). There’s balance between the number and sequence of the exterior shots of the huge landscape the stage is travelling through and close-up shots of characters inside the stage. Balance between travelling shots and resting shots, between night and day. There is also the revealed balance between social status and moral goodness. I’ve mentioned before a touch of Charles Dickens about Stagecoach. John Ford’s view of the world is “democratising and egalitarian, indeed even rabble-rousing” You’ll find something similar in A Christmas Carol and Bleak House. “it is the misfits and losers who are the soul of the new nation.” The Bob Cratchitts the Tiny Tims and Joe the crossing sweeper.
The Ringo Kid: John Wayne
There is no getting away from it. Despite the fact he has the least lines of dialogue, is far from being the best actor, is awkward in his costume, has his most famous scene shot with an unfocused camera and is seldom allowed to move and talk at the same time, John Wayne’s is the most memorable performance in the film. Anyone wishing to do a PhD on what makes a star could do worse than begin here.
He’d been tried in a major role before, it had bombed at the box office and he’d spent ten years churning out B movies at a rate of 8 a year. Production companies were reluctant to put money into a film starring John Wayne: David O Selznick wanted him replaced. But John Ford knew he was right for the role. He made considerable sacrifices in order to keep Wayne. He didn’t intend to make him a star but when he watched the completed film he knew that that was what he had done. That “He (Wayne) will be the biggest star because he is the perfect everyman” (John Ford)
Those of us who had grown used to Wayne as an established part of western casting are surprised to see how young the actor looks in Stagecoach. He was in fact 31.
Much of his success has got to be down to pairing his character with Claire Trevor’s Dallas. Who incidentally was paid five times more than Wayne. She is brassy and hardened by experience though gentle and vulnerable. Her attractiveness is not showy or exotic. Ringo is an innocent who has experienced the hurt and pain but has not yet been able to turn this to durability and wisdom. He’s decent and brave and prepared to stand up for Dallas. She in turn protects him. She understands a great deal that passes Ringo by. They shield each other and given time will nurture each other. And cinematically they look wonderful together.
“It’s one of the most stunning entrances in all of cinema.” (Edward Buscombe). Not quite his debut in films. Wayne had in fact already appeared in 83 movies by the time he twirls his rifle, shouts “Hold it!” and dollies into an out of focus close-up against an obviously painted backdrop. Ford expressed an intention to re-shoot the scene but never did. He must have realised that for all its manifest faults this is an almost perfect moment. It’s right up there with Orson Welles’ first appearance in the shadowy Vienese doorway in The Third Man, without the enigmatic smile. Wayne’s face is sweat stained and dusty and wears a look of purposeful innocence. You know straight away (we’ve been given clues) that this is the hero; the guy we’re going to be rooting for. The rooting continued for forty years and ended with a presidential eulogy.
John Wayne was bigger than life. In an age of few heroes, he was the genuine article. But he was more than just a hero—he was a symbol of many of the most basic qualities that made America great. The ruggedness, the tough independence, the sense of personal conviction and courage—on and off the screen—reflected the best of our national character.
It was because of what John Wayne said about what we are and what we can be that his great and deep love of America was returned in full measure.
Rosalynn and I extend our deepest sympathies to his family.
President Jimmy Carter 1979
Even the costume declares our allegiance to him. Levis worn outside his boots with the trouser bottoms rolled up, a western shirt and a leather belt. Take away the braces, neckerchief and cowboy hat and you’ll see “everyman” wearing the same on every city street in the world 77 years later.
He’s on his way to Lordsburg to avenge the murder of his father and brother. The film defies our expectations by having him immediately put under arrest, disarmed and manacled. He uncomplainingly takes his place on the floor of the stage and with barely a line of dialogue establishes himself as a source of decency, a reassuring presence, a calming influence and a protective knight. The relationship with Dallas is done purely though the eyes. For those who think of Wayne as a rugged actor at best who keeps himself free of sentiment, these scenes are eye-openers.
Peacock: Donald Meek
So close to being a purely comic character and yet so necessary to the plot, the story development and the denouement. There are three running gags. One is people always getting his name wrong (Peacock is the opposite of an aptronymic name), the second is everyone assuming he is a priest when in actual fact he is a whisky salesman (outside the world of Graham Greene they don’t often mix) and third that he keeps on insisting that he comes from Kansas City Kansas when everyone else assumes he comes from Kansas City Missouri. This last one is one of those jokes that works best without explanation.
He represents the ordinary people of who moved west and took up the jobs that needed to be done. He tries to act as an intermediary on any verbal fights that break out (particularly between Northerner Boone and Southerner Hatfield (Kansas played a complex role in the Civil War)) and is actually a caring and solicitous figure during and after the birth of Mrs Mallory’s baby.
His main role is as a foil to the comic genius of the character (and portrayal) of Doc Boone. Like Kansas in the Civil War Peacock is badly wounded during the journey but survives due to help from the North (Boone).
Buck and Curly: Andy Devine and George Bancroft
The sort of actors that make westerns work. John Sturges talked about the need to succeed in a film with those characters who come below the stars. The need to beef up the middle. These are tried and tested character actors; Bancroft provided convincing honesty and strong authority to many a film and Devine was a sort of engaging cross between John Goodman, John Bellucci and Lou Costello. He’s a big man with a wonderful high pitched cracked voice that just doesn’t fit with the build. The two characters represent the transport and law that opened up the West and gave it its first semblance of order.
Curly is the authority figure of the stagecoach and a particular father figure to Ringo. Buck is more of a brother. Curly knows exactly what is going on in and around the stage, Buck hasn’t the faintest idea but is hard-working and diligent and brave. The two keep up a dialogue that is something more akin to two monologues that occasionally intersect. Curly: prescient, direct, questioning. Buck: wandering, self-concerned, comic. They are a device for setting the background, for moving both stagecoach and story onwards, for contrast with the passengers, for helping the audience navigate between viewpoints and for the pure entertainment value of their scenes.
This deserves an entire post of its own. Stagecoach deserves a special place in cinema history for a lot of reasons not least the cinematography. Bert Glennon not only shot some of the most spectacular exterior shots seen up to that point in films but also (with Ford) developed a way of shooting interiors that inspired a generation of film makers. The low shot, chiaroscuro, multi shadowed scenes from inside the inns at the way nations were re-created two years later by Orson Welles in Citizen Kane and from then on in almost every “noir” film made in the next thirty years. Welles was credited with transforming the appearance of films. Indeed his achievement with Citizen Kane is fully deserving of all the plaudits it has received but even he admitted that John Ford and Bert Glennon had done it first.
Who Got Paid What?
John Ford (Director) $50,000
Dudley Nicholls (Screenwriter) $20,000
Claire Trevor $15,000 – $20,000 (depending on source)
John Wayne $3,700
Andy Devine $10,624
Thomas Mitchell $12,000
George Bancroft $8250
Donald Meek $5416
Louise Platt $8541
John Carradine $3666
Berton Churchill $4,500
As you can see, of the major stars only John Carradine (father of David, Keith and Robert: all future stars of Westerns) got paid less than John Wayne.
Horizons West (Directing the Western from John Ford to Clint Eastwood) by Jim Kitses
Stagecoach by Edward Buscombe
Westerns by Philip French
The Western by David Carter
John Wayne The Man Behind the Myth by Michael Munn
The BFI Companion to the Western Edited Edward Buscombe
The New Encyclopaedia of the American West edited Howard R Lamar
It’s Your Misfortune and None of My Own by Richard White
These commentaries make little reference to the significant role played in the film by Native Americans. That is firstly because I’ve chosen to look at the film as a social comedy that is an allegory for the establishment of American civilisation in the West and secondly because I intend to return to the issue of how Native Americans were portrayed in this and other films in future posts.