Stagecoach (1939) 10/10
A stagecoach trip is complicated by the escape of Geronimo, who is raiding in the region. The motley assortment of passengers each have their reasons for wanting to go ahead anyway, and with last minute additions including the Ringo Kid (John Wayne in his breakout role), they proceed despite the danger.
On the surface, Stagecoach is a straight forward road-trip adventure with an interesting assortment of characters. One could look at it through the eyes of a film historian, and note how unusual such an assortment was, with complex morality and motivations instead of straight-ahead black hat/white hat stuff. From a modern perspective, you might not notice this, as it has become commonplace in films since.
Certainly, it’s fine as a roadtrip with adventures and surprises. Excellent, in fact. But there’s a complex and interesting subtext, about social mores and about sexuality, that I find absolutely fascinating.
Stagecoach was made in 1939, a historic year for film, often thought of as the greatest year cinema ever had. I am struck by Claire Trevor‘s whore-with-a-heart-of-gold role, and by the parallel goldhearted whore in Gone With the Wind (also 1939).
Dallas (Trevor) is being run out of town by the “Decency League,” along with Doc Boone (Thomas Mitchell, in an Academy Award winning performance), the town drunk. Although the word “whore” is never used (hey! 1939!), there is no attempt to hang any window dressing on her; she isn’t a “dance hall girl” or a “singer” or a “flower girl” or someone who “dates a lot.” There is no doubt she is a whore, and now she’s going back to the brothel she came from.
The same is true of Gone With the Wind‘s Belle Watling; there is no doubt who and what she is. It’s so interesting the way this is presented. In GWTW, Belle is meant to parallel Scarlett; she is a mirror held up to Scarlett. Scarlett, by being a businesswoman and socially aggressive, skirts on the edge of violating Southern mores. Belle is specifically compared to her, as both are businesswomen. The contrasting woman is Melanie, delicate, frail, prone to fainting and tenderly, dangerously pregnant in a key scene, Melanie is what a woman is “supposed” to be, but Scarlett rejects that.
The contrasting women to Dallas is Lucy (Louise Platt); married, fiercely loyal, assiduous about propriety, she is a Southern belle who is delicate, frail, and tenderly, dangerously pregnant in a key scene.
(We can’t be meant to miss this! Whores get men but only good women get babies! And strong women are whores or close to it.)
Lucy is so very, very delicate that her pregnancy is invisible. My hand to God, I thought the secret reveal about her illness was going to be TB, and she was going to die in a key scene. I mean, not even an extra-full skirt! Just a sudden need for “lots and lots” of boiled water, and whammo! Baby!
In Stagecoach, all social values are shown to be hypocritical, and all the “bad” people are good. I don’t mean anti-heroes; this isn’t High Sierra; I mean that Dallas, Doc Boone, and Ringo (who has just broken out of jail to kill the man who shot his father in the back) are the people who are compassionate, hard-working, polite, and forgiving, while the banker is an embezzler, the “Decency League” drives good people out of town, the belle is a bitch, and the Southern gentleman is a thief. All of which is really quite a lot of fun and not nearly as heavy-handed as it sounds, mostly because there’s a light touch and interesting characters.
One thing that is absolutely fascinating to observers of gender is the way the romance between Ringo and Dallas is handled. In a significant little conversation, Doc Boone, concerned about the way Ringo is taken with Dallas, asks him how old he was when he was sent to jail. “Seventeen,” Ringo answers. Aha! Too young to know the ways of women, he can’t tell that this is a whore and not a lady. How odd and wonderful that the virgin male is considered the appropriate match for the prostitute. Ultimately, he sees her for who she is and loves her anyway, showing his true decency immediately after killing three men. This is great stuff, kind of thrilling, in the way it takes what we think of as 1939 values and turns them on their head. Whoopeeee!