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Stagecoach (Blu-ray Review)

24 May, 2010 By: Mike Clark

Street 5/25/10
$39.95 DVD or Blu-ray
Not rated.
Stars John Wayne, Claire Trevor, Thomas Mitchell.

John Ford’s landmark 1939 Western is about as bedrock as you can get when it comes to American cinema, marking the director’s talkie-era return to a genre that had consumed so much of his filmography during the teens and early 1920s. But this time, it was in a more modern (by today’s standards) or “adult” framework.

You want more? As the first of seven Ford Westerns shot in Monument Valley, it made John Wayne an overnight star after he’d labored for a decade in ‘B’-movie doldrums following his 1930 ‘A’-pic flop in Raoul Walsh’s The Big Trail (which now looks primitively magnificent on its widescreen DVD, but that’s another story). What’s more, Stagecoach became a staple with subsequent generations because it was one of the first Hollywood movies of real consequence that could be seen on television before the late 1950s, which is when most studios released their pre-1949 libraries to what was then that small box at home.

The last was part of its problem, given that the rights to this independent production (from Walter Wanger through United Artists) changed several times over the years. Cavalry buglers long ago played taps for its original negative, and as long ago as my moviegoing adolescence, stories were circulating that someone had even cut it up for use in trailers. Yet as a huge Ford fan growing up, I had already seen non-household names like The Fugitive, The Sun Shines Bright and The Rising of the Moon before I even got a chance to see Stagecoach — which in my neck of the woods played on TV a lot less in the ’60s than it did in the ’50s. When I finally saw it in NYU film school in either 1970 or 1971, I was shocked at how dupey the print was on both the audio and visual levels.

The first improvement came with Warner Home Entertainment’s VHS release, which was still worn but cleaner, and the Warner gang also did an especially good job with accouterments for the 2006 DVD, which features an outstanding documentary on the complex Wayne-Ford relationship of about 45 years. But the print here — struck from best-existing 1942 materials, which tells you everything you have to know — is the best of the movie I’ve ever seen, though with more scratches than anyone is used to seeing in a Criterion Hollywood release. That’s the way it is: We all know the horror stories about the what-me-worry attitude the industry took toward preservation way back when.

Any time someone uses the words “metaphor” or “microcosm” to describe any movie from a genre as meat-and-potatoes as the Western, fans can understandably be forgiven if they run for the hills. Still, it’s difficult not to do so in this case. Here’s a symbol of a provincial but now expanding country (the stagecoach) packed with passengers from all social strata — from a prostitute (top-billed Claire Trevor) to an outlaw (Wayne) to a drunken doctor (Thomas Mitchell’s Oscar performance) to a snobbish Virginia lady (Louise Platt) to a banker (Berton Churchill), and more. Screenwriter Dudley Nichols was politically liberal, and in the 1930s the progressively conservative Ford was as well. So, naturally, it’s the banker who is the most disreputable of the bunch. Ford treats Churchill’s character (whom one ’70s critic compared to Richard Nixon’s attorney general John Mitchell) with all the love he lavished the following year on bankers in The Grapes of Wrath.

Criterion has gone all out on the extras here, starting with a rather rigidly delivered but undeniably organized no-fat commentary by top movie Western historian Jim Kitses, who emphasizes (to those who look at the film as a John Wayne staple) just what an ensemble work it is. But the first of the set’s knock-me-down revelations is the tinted and terrifically scored (by David Sosin) inclusion of Ford’s 54-minute Bucking Broadway, a 1917 Western for which absolutely no apologies need to be made. Starring the director’s favorite silent actor, Harry Carey Sr., it’s a ticklish delight about a ranch-hand seeking marriage to the boss’s daughter, who’s unexpectedly whisked away to New York by a city slicker. Affable throughout, the movie really hits its stride in its final quarter, when Carey’s big-city experiences with everything from con artists to a radiator that sounds like a rattlesnake anticipate Johnny Weissmuller’s culture shock in 1942’s beloved Tarzan’s New York Adventure. And a climactic brawl with many participants very much anticipates the mass punch-outs in Ford’s The Wings of Eagles, released 40 years later.

Equally surprising are 72 minutes of raw footage from a late 1960s BBC interview of Ford, conducted in the study of his home at a time (though we and probably he didn’t know it then), the director’s last feature had been already been released. Always a professional Irishman (and you know what this meant in terms of the British), Ford appears to like the Brit youth asking the questions — but still rakes the kid over the coals before (most of the time) answering them. The most fascinating portions, near the end, deal with race in the final third of the 20th century — a subject on which this lifelong student of history appears positively clueless.

The hits keep coming: Peter Bogdanovich and grandson Dan Ford offering first-hand memories, the latter with home movies; Ford biographer Tag Gallagher brilliantly dissecting the director’s style in a primer unlike any of I’ve ever seen; a portrait of Stagecoach stunt genius Yakima Canutt; a remembrance — by original Friday Night Lights author H.B. “Buzz” Bissinger — of the fascinating Harry Goulding, who introduced Ford to Monument Valley; and a 1949 radio re-creation of the film with Wayne and Trevor. You get the sense that Criterion, knowing the inevitable shortcomings of the utilized print, did everything else possible to succeed in making this one of the DVD/Blu-ray releases of the year.


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