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Stagecoach (DVD Review)

17 Oct, 2011 By: Mike Clark

Available at ScreenArchives.com
Twilight Time
$19.95 DVD
Not rated.
Stars Ann-Margret, Alex Cord, Bing Crosby, Red Buttons.

As follies go, Fox’s instantly foredoomed remake of John Ford’s 1939 perennial isn’t without passable entertainment value — if for no other reason than it turned out to be the final theatrical feature of Bing Crosby, who for so many years had ranked No. 1 or near as the industry’s top box office attraction. Putting a comic spin on his boozy, Oscar-nominated performance in 1954’s The Country Girl, Crosby (a real-life reformed alcoholic) took on the perpetually inebriated doctor’s role that had won the Oscar for Thomas Mitchell in Ford’s original.

By 1966, things had changed since the earlier film — some. Freedom of the screen wasn’t yet a reality (though interestingly, the new Stagecoach hit theaters almost exactly at the same time as the verbally groundbreaking movie version of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf). But whereas Claire Trevor’s original saloon girl was just a saloon girl (though everyone knew what that meant), there is literal talk here of Ann-Margret’s version “going upstairs” (where she presumably isn’t going to be reprising puppy-love-ish One Boy from the score of Bye Bye Birdie) The violence is a lot more graphic as well; I didn’t remember, from my first viewing in 45 years, that a few Indian-massacre victims open the movie by taking hatchets between the eyes.

Ford’s black-and-white version was filmed in the Monument Valley desert, while this CinemaScope/color take has a Colorado look and lots of foliage. But the characters, who were intentional prototypes in the first place, are at least on paper what screenwriter Dudley Nichols had envisioned 27 years previously. There’s a milquetoast travelling salesman (Red Buttons for Donald Meek); thieving banker (Robert Cummings for Berton Churchill); polished gambler (Michael Connors for John Carradine); cavalry wife (Stefanie Powers for Louise Platt); plus two stagecoach drivers (Van Heflin and Slim Pickens for George Bancroft and Andy Devine). In a movie that is already too slick and prettified, the newer performances are just broader enough that it’s tough to take anything that happens here seriously — though Heflin (whose character doubles as a marshal) is excellent by any standards, while Crosby and Cummings are such lifetime personal favorites that I can’t knock their contributions.

But then we have Alex Cord as the Ringo Kid — the folkloric role in which Ford sprung John Wayne out of ‘B’-Western purgatory forever. I can remember one major critic at the time saying — I am pretty sure, but am not positive, that it was the New Republic’s Stanley Kauffmann — that Cord came the closest here to being a human vacuum as anything he’d ever seen. This is still true, and it renders the entire center of the movie (not just the Kid’s revenge motivation but his budding relationship with Ann-Margret’s Dallas) all but negligible on any meaningful movie-watching level.

Another memory I have from the time is that some involved principal (possibly producer Martin Rackin, but, again, I’m not sure) undiplomatically answered the heresy issue over “how dare you remake Stagecoach?” by saying something like, “But have you seen the original lately?” Well, last time I looked, Ford’s version was still regarded as one of the director’s best movies — and not long ago resulted in one of the best total packages that Criterion has ever released.

The third memory of a drive-in Western that was outmatched by the same summer’s Nevada Smith is the series of Norman Rockwell portraits of the Stagecoach cast that were commissioned for publicity. They got a lot of play at the time and are welcomely reproduced on the attractive jacket for this release. The paintings also show up during the movie’s end credits, which also feature a dreadful song sung by Wayne (Two-Gun) Newton — though, as Julie Kirgo suggests in the liner notes, he sounds enough like Ann-Margret to elicit confusion. No danke schoen for this.

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