Stagecoach: Enter Johns Wayne and Ford

Reader, I’ll confess:  I nearly skipped Stagecoach.

I knew its pedigree:  the first major collaboration between John Wayne and director John Ford, a duo that would go on to make most of America’s great westerns.  It was the first Western John Ford shot in Monument Valley, a rugged strip of land on the Arizona-Utah border.  Ford would return to Monument Valley again and again throughout his career.

And though John Wayne had shown up in dozens of movies before, Stagecoach is the film that elevated him from bit player to A-list star.  It’s hard to believe, but The Duke doesn’t even get top billing in the film–that honor goes to Claire Trevor, an actress mostly forgotten who plays Wayne’s love interest in the film.

They don’t make many westerns anymore, and I’d never seen one from the Golden Age.  I honestly thought a silly movie about cowboys and indians riding around shooting each other would bore me.

I was wrong.

Stagecoach earns its reputation as a great film in a great year, even to a skeptic like me.

With apologies to my preconceived notions of Ford and Wayne, Stagecoach had way more heart than I’d expected.

It’s not just a story of cowboys and indians shooting each other–though the final chase scene is magnificent–but a story of people.

It’s surprisingly fresh.

The plot is simple–a group of strangers sets out in 1880 on a dangerous stagecoach trip, braving the threat of an Apache attack to reach their destination.  Each has their own reasons for taking the risk to make it to New Mexico.

There’s a scene in Titanic when Rose’s mother asks, “Will the lifeboats be seated by class?”

It’s a revealing line about the deep class divides that persist even when the trappings of society are stripped away in the name of survival.

John Ford is driving at the same point in Stagecoach–that even in the land where we say we believe “all men are created equal”, we often act more like George Orwell’d pigs in Animal Farm, where “some are more equal than others.”

In Ford’s coach we have the respectable members of society:  Pregnant lady Lucy Mallory, gambling aristocrat Hatfield, banker Ellsworth Gatewood, and whiskey runner Sam Peacock.

Then, we have the undesirables:  Town drunk Doc Boone, prostitute Dallas (Trevor), coach drivers Buck and Curly, and fugitive Ringo Kid (Wayne).

The first half of the film is filled with the undesirables suffering assorted humiliations at the hands of the respected.  Doc Boone and Dallas are run out of town.  Lucy Mallory’s friends lament that she has to share the stagecoach with such dregs of humanity.  Dallas does not receive the gentlemanly deference shown to Lucy.  And though Lucy tries to hide her disdain, she does not want to sit at the same table with Doc Boone, Ringo, and Dallas.

But halfway through the film–after the stagecoach ride has taken much longer than expected–Lucy goes into labor.  The coach is in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by dangers and a hundred miles away from help.  

Without the drunken doctor and the prostitute she so disdains, Lucy and her baby would’ve died.

The doctor and Dallas show no ill will–they accept their lower role in society, and do what needs to be done to save Lucy.  In fact all the undesirables show far more mercy, courage, and class than those who are supposedly their betters.

There’s a great chase scene–this is a western, of course–that I found thrilling.  You can feel the dust in your throat, imagine the stink of sweat in that claustrophobic coach.  I jumped when an arrow hit one of the passengers right in the heart to kick off the epic battle.

(Also, Hatfield saves his last bullet so he can shoot Lucy to prevent her capture–and torture–by the savage Apaches.  Forget wine and roses, I want a man who saves the last bullet for me.)

And of course Ringo romances Dallas.  He saves the stagecoach, avenges his brother’s death, gets the girl, and eludes capture by the authorities.

It was exactly the ending I wanted.  And the most pleasant of surprises.

Just another legend that time hasn’t found a way to dim.

Before & After

#17 Golden Age of Hollywood Series

In 1932, Clark Gable, still in his pre-mustache days, made a great pre-code picture with Jean Harlow called Red Dust.  Gable plays Dennis, the owner of a rubber plantation in Indochina.  He lives a physically demanding life devoid of creature comforts.

His world is upended when he goes from having no female company to two very different women vying for his affection.  First, Jean Harlow’s Vantine shows up unannounced.  She’s a bawdy and fun loving prostitute running from trouble, and at first Dennis can’t take his eyes off her.

But when surveyor Gary Willis shows up, Dennis’ head is turned by Gary’s sophisticated wife, Barbara.  

It’s obvious to the audience and to everyone on the plantation except Barbara and Dennis that they are all wrong for one another.  Barbara could never survive in such rugged conditions, and Dennis is not about to shine himself up.

Vantine knows she and Dennis are made for each other, two feral animals in the middle of the jungle, but she’s content to wait for Dennis to come around.  She’s amused by his attempts to make himself suitable for Barbara, whom Vantine calls “The Duchess.”  Unlike Barbara, Vantine doesn’t take life—or herself—too seriously.  And she lives to annoy Dennis.

Harlow is known for her sex appeal, the original blond bombshell.  But what we forget is just how funny she was.  She’s a wonderful comedienne with great timing, which she puts to great use in the film.

Gable is deliciously young and handsome.  He’s always sweaty with two day’s stubble, and I don’t blame Barbara or Vantine for going after him.

Harlow and Gable spark off each other, and it makes it impossible to believe that Dennis will end up with Barbara.  Their chemistry burns up every scene.

But it is Harlow’s Vantine who gets all the best lines.

Twenty-one years later, well after the enforcement of the production code and Gable’s mustache years, MGM remade Red Dust.  They moved the setting to Africa and retitled it Mogambo.  Instead of a rubber plantation, the main character traps African animals to sell to zoos and circuses.  The prostitute is replaced by a showgirl.  The husband and wife that show up are there to make a gorilla documentary instead of a survey.  Otherwise, the plot is remarkably similar.

The Red Dust role played by twenty-one year old Harlow was replaced in Mogambo with thirty-one year old Ava Gardner.  The twenty-six year old Mary Astor role was played by twenty-four year old Grace Kelly.

And the role previously played by thirty-one year old Clark Gable?  

Now played by fifty-two year old Clark Gable.

Ah, Hollywood.

(In truth, Harlow was dead by 1953, but let’s not pretend her status as a corpse had any bearing on the decision to cast a younger actress in the role.  And let’s not forget that Mary Astor was certainly still acting at the time.)

For me, Mogambo was not a great film, certainly not as good as Red Dust.

Ava Gardner’s Honey Bear just doesn’t sparkle like Harlow’s Vantine.  Part of it is the rules of the production code, of course.  In a pre-code world, Vantine is allowed to swagger about as an unrepentant floozy.  The audience is allowed to sympathize with her despite her lack of concern about her checkered present.

Compare Harlow’s entrance as Vantine with Gardner as Honey Bear:

Honey Bear is not as refined as Grace Kelly’s Mrs. Nordley, but it’s not obvious that she’s so much farther down on the social circle that Vic is justified in ordering her not to speak to Mrs. Nordley.  He just comes across as a jerk.

Honey Bear’s past is also whitewashed.  She was once in love with a man who was killed in the war, you see, and so she’s taken a bit of a wrong turn because her heart was shattered.

She’s also terribly jealous and miserable over Vic’s infatuation with Mrs. Nordley.  There is none of Vantine’s amused teasing.  Honey Bear is furious at being unceremoniously thrown over for another woman.

Clark before the mustache and production code with Harlow…..and after with Gardner.

And I hate to say it, but Clark Gable is too old.  He’s twice as old as Grace Kelly and looks even older.  To watch the King of Hollywood lusting after Grace Kelly is just a bit pathetic, and that’s not what the film was going for. (I’ll say nothing of their real life on-set affair.)  And his chemistry with Gardner is non-existent.

Grace Kelly, Clark Gable

Red Dust zips along, but Mogamo drags.  And thanks to the production code, though twenty-years older, Red Dust is actually a much racier and sexier film.

The critics disagree with me, as critics often do.  Gardner was nominated for an Oscar for Lead Actress, and Kelly for Supporting Actress.  Back in 1932, Harlow and Astor weren’t nominated for a thing.  Red Dust did a decent box office, but Mogambo was a smash.

Don’t listen to the critics or the audiences.  Listen to me—next time you’ve got a hankering for Clark Gable in the jungle, skip him with Gardner in the technicolor Mogambo and settle in to watch him with Harlow in black and white.

You won’t be sorry.