Stagecoach is the next 1939 best picture Oscar nominee to be screened as part of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences' series “Hollywood's Greatest Year: The Best Picture Nominees of 1939.” Directed by John Ford, and starring John Wayne and Claire Trevor, Stagecoach will be presented on Monday, June 1, at 7:30 p.m. at the Academy's Samuel Goldwyn Theater in Beverly Hills. The film will be introduced by John Ford's grandson, Dan Ford.
Beginning at 7 p.m., the evening will also feature the second and third chapters of the 1939 serial Buck Rogers, starring Buster Crabbe and Constance Moore, in addition to the animated short The Film Fan, starring Porky Pig.
Some consider Stagecoach, a rip-off of Guy de Maupassant's story Boule de suif, to be not only John Ford's best film, but also one of the greatest films ever made, period. Written by frequent Ford collaborator Dudley Nichols (from Ernest Haycox's story “Stage to Lordsburg”), this quintessential Western follows several disparate characters facing a series of obstacles – birth, death, prejudice, love – while traveling through the American West.
Personally, although I think Stagecoach is Ford's best Western, I much prefer the lesser-known 1945 Boule de suif, directed by Christian-Jacque. The chief reason for my choice, I'd say, is that Boule de suif doesn't have John Wayne's Ringo Kid in it. The film's focus is on Micheline Presle (a more light-hearted version of Claire Trevor's character) and on the inner workings of the various travelers.
In fact, Wayne's Ringo – the archetypal (or rather, cliched) strong, silent type – is the weakest element in Stagecoach. Someone like Gary Cooper could have done a much better job of creating a flesh-and-blood human being out of role written with a granite statue in mind. Wayne just manages to look stolid while delivering his lines in his usual monotone manner. That, however, seemed to have sufficed both for audiences (who made him a star) and for John Ford (who would work with him in about a dozen other films).
The other cast members are mixed bunch: Claire Trevor (above, with Louise Platt) is as usual fully believable as the hooker with a heart of steel-covered gold, and so are best supporting actor Oscar winner Thomas Mitchell as an alcoholic doctor and timid Donald Meek as a timid liquor salesman. (Too bad no one at the time was imaginative enough to cast Meek as the Kid.) Silent-screen veteran George Bancroft and meanie John Carradine fare less well, though all of them make Wayne's Ringo look as if he's just a stagecoach fixture.
The injuns who attack the travelers are just that – the deader the better. That sequence, however, was remarkably shot and edited, even if its most memorable moment, a shot from below of the racing stagecoach, was taken straight out of the 1925 Ben-Hur.
Stagecoach won Oscars for Thomas Mitchell and for music directors Richard Hageman, Frank Harling, John Leipold, and Leo Shuken. The film's four other nominations were for best picture (Walter Wanger Productions), art direction (Alexander Toluboff), black-and-white cinematography (Bert Glennon), directing (Ford) and editing (Otho Lovering, Dorothy Spencer).
Tickets for Stagecoach and other individual films in the “Hollywood's Greatest Year” series are $5 for the general public and $3 for Academy members and students with a valid ID. Tickets may be purchased online at www.oscars.org, by mail, in person at the Academy during regular business hours or, depending on availability, on the night of the screening when the doors open at 6:30 p.m.
Curtain time for all features is 7:30 p.m., and pre-show elements will begin at 7 p.m. The Academy is located at 8949 Wilshire Boulevard in Beverly Hills. For more information, call (310) 247-3600. For the latest updates on guests, cartoons, and other surprises, visit www.oscars.org.
Photos: Courtesy of the Margaret Herrick Library