A Ford-Powered ‘Stagecoach’ Opens at Music Hall; Mickey Rooney Plays Huck Finn at the Capitol
In one superbly expansive gesture, which we (and the Music Hall) can call “Stagecoach,” John Ford has swept aside ten years of artifice and talkie compromise and has made a motion picture that sings a song of camera. It moves, and how beautifully it moves, across the plains of Arizona, skirting the sky-reaching mesas of Monument Valley, beneath the piled-up cloud banks which every photographer dreams about, and through all the old-fashioned, but never really outdated, periods of prairie travel in the scalp-raising Seventies, when Geronimo’s Apaches were on the warpath. Here, in a sentence, is a movie of the grand old school, a genuine rib-thumper and a beautiful sight to see.
Mr. Ford is not one of your subtle directors, suspending sequences on the wink of an eye or the precisely calculated gleam of a candle in a mirror. He prefers the broadest canvas, the brightest colors, the widest brush and the boldest possible strokes. He hews to the straight narrative line with the well-reasoned confidence of a man who has seen that narrative succeed before. He takes no shadings from his characters: either they play it straight or they don’t play at all. He likes his language simple and he doesn’t want too much of it. When his Redskins bite the dust, he expects to hear the thud and see the dirt spurt up. Above all, he likes to have things happen out in the open, where his camera can keep them in view.
He has had his way in “Stagecoach” with Walter Wanger’s benison, the writing assistance of Dudley Nichols and the complete cooperation of a cast which had the sense to appreciate the protection of being stereotyped. You should know, almost without being told, the station in life (and in frontier melodrama) of the eight passengers on the Overland stage from Tonto to Lordsburg.
To save time, though, here they are: “Doc” Boone, a tipsy man of medicine; Major Hatfield, professional gambler, once a Southern gentleman and a gentleman still; Dallas, a lady of such transparently dubious virtue that she was leaving Tonto by popular request; Mrs. Mallory, who, considering her condition, had every reason to be hastening to her army husband’s side; Mr. Gatewood, an absconding banker and windbag; Mr. Peacock, a small and timid whisky salesman destined by Bacchus to be Doc Boone’s traveling companion; Sheriff Wilcox and his prisoner, the Ringo Kid. The driver, according to the rules, had to be Slim Summerville or Andy Devine; Mr. Devine got the call.
So onward rolls the stage, nobly sped by its six stout-hearted bays, and out there, somewhere behind the buttes and crags, Geronimo is lurking with his savage band, the United States Cavalry is biding its time to charge to the rescue and the Ringo Kid is impatiently awaiting his cue to stalk down the frontier-town street and blast it out with the three Plummer boys. But moreknowledge doesn’t cheat Mr. Ford of his thrills. His attitude, if it spoke its mind, would be: “All right, you know what’s coming, but have you ever seen it done like this?” And once you’ve swallowed your heart again, you’ll have to say: “No, sir! Not like this!”
His players have taken easily to their chores, all the way down the list from Claire Trevor’s Dallas to Tom Tyler’s Hank Plummer. But the cutest coach-rider in the wagon, to our mind, was little Donald Meek as Mr. Peacock, the whisky-drummer. That, of course, is not meant as a slight to Thomas Mitchell as the toping Dr. Boone, to Louise Platt as the wan Mrs. Mallory, George Bancroft as the sheriff or John Wayne as the Ringo Kid. They’ve all done nobly by a noble horse opera, but none so nobly as its director. This is one stagecoach that’s powered by a Ford.
Frank S. Nugent, NY Times, March 3, 1939
* Stagecoach: A story of redemption
* Commentary by Scott Eyman
Subtitles:English, Spanish, French