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Warner Home Video presents
"We're the victims of a foul disease called social prejudice, my child. These dear ladies of the Law and Order League are scouring out the dregs of the town. Come on, be a proud, glorified dreg like me."
DVD ReviewJohn Ford's Stagecoach not only marks his first important collaboration with John Wayne, but also the arrival of a new bread of western. Returning to the genre for this first time since the advent of sound in motion pictures, Ford tells not only an exciting tale about a band of misfits, he creates what many have dubbed the first "adult western." Such a claim is arguable, since there are some silent films that have a right to that title; nevertheless there's no denying that nothing before Stagecoach combines the genre's various elements so splendidly.
Based on Ernest Haycox's Stage to Lordsburg, the movie is a taut experience about a collection of passengers riding through Apache territory to the aptly named Lordsburg. Each person boards the stagecoach for various reasons. The alcoholic Doc Boone (Thomas Mitchell) and lady-of-the-night Dallas (Claire Trevor) are forced onto the contraption by their fair city's refined citizens. All is well for the good doctor when he befriends a whiskey drummer, Mr. Peacock (Donald Meek), who will keep him in good supply during their journey. Things aren't as pleasant for Dallas, however, who must deal with the silent chastisement of Lucy Mallory (Louise Platt), a respectable pregnant woman traveling to meet her Army officer husband. Unfortunately for Mrs. Mallory, her fair presence has attracted the foul affection of notorious gambler Hatfield (John Carradine). Making things more cramped for all, the crooked, hypocritical banker, Mr. Gatewood (Berton Churchill), also steps aboard the stagecoach in order to flee town with everyone's money. Thus, under varying circumstances, this ad hoc troupe entrust their well being to driver Buck (Andy Devine) and Marshal Curley (George Bancroft) as threats of Geronimo attacking mount.
In his typically economical manner, Ford introduces these characters quickly and effectively. The motivation for each individual is clearly defined, allowing each actor to bring life to his or her part without hashing through tedious exposition. Marshal Curley rides shotgun in the hopes of finding the Ringo Kid (John Wayne), who recently escaped from jail. Find him he does, in one of the most memorable introductions in cinema history. Swinging his Winchester shotgun, the Kid is treated to a rare camera push-in from Ford. It not only announces the arrival of the story's principal hero, but also the screen's quintessential cowboy. Although he'd made 79 B-movies before this, it wasn't until Ford put the Duke on the big screen in a leading role that he became a star. The character suits him perfectly, letting his physicality dominate. With minimum dialogue, the Ringo Kid begins a tender courtship with Dallas and quietly makes his way to Lordsburg in the hope of avenging his fallen brother.
While the majority of the film takes place in the titular claustrophobic setting, Ford and cinematographer Bert Glennon never let the visuals dull the audience. The two men display immense talent as they find interesting, unique compositions that reveal character information in addition to advancing the story. Set to the musical themes of American folk classics, the visuals create a riveting experience. Ford's craft is out in full force here, as he seamlessly weaves between action, romance, drama, and comedy. He treats both the audience and characters with respect, avoiding all the trappings that a lesser director could fall prey to. Ford's joyous filmmaking is infectious.
The same can be said of the acting, which is an ensemble in the best sense. Wayne delivers a memorable performance as the Ringo Kid. Conveying the character's naïveté with quiet skill, it is easy to understand how the Duke became a national icon based on this performance. Equally impressive are Donald Meek and Andy Devine, who deliver excellent comic relief that never feels forced. Claire Trevor is also effective as Dallas, creating a resonant character who is the victim of circumstance. However, the scene-stealing turn from Thomas Mitchell is the biggest delight of the cast. His Doc Boone is one of the most entertaining drunks in movie history. Dishing out every line with impeccable skill, Mitchell delivers one of the best performances of his career.
If you like westerns, you'll love this film. It has everything you can possibly expect from the genre: fantastic stunts (performed by the legendary Yakima Canutt), Indian raids, delicious character acting, and attractive romantic leads. However, there's more at work here than just a simple adventure story. Ford, working from a script by Dudley Nichols, is painting an idyllic vision of America. Firmly establishing the values of the nation's identity, the stagecoach comes to represent America's melting pot. Stagecoach stands now as the epitome of the pre-war western, acting like a perfect counterpoint to Ford's own The Searchers. As the traveling band treks across Monument Valley—the first time the location ever stood in for Ford's background—each person is on a path to salvation. In a way, this mirrors the genre's journey throughout the movie's 96 minutes. Prior to the film's release in 1939, the western was cheap entertainment by most people's standards. However, with the guidance of Ford's direction and the star power of Wayne, the public's perception of the genre changed forever.
Rating for Style: A+
Rating for Substance: A+
Image Transfer Review: I've never seen the original DVD release of Stagecoach, so I can't compare this transfer. There's noticeable dirt present here, as well as some flickering and numerous scratches. However, none of this really bothers me and I can't recall ever seeing the film look as good as it does here. Contrast is fine and blacks look as good as can be expected.
Image Transfer Grade: B
Audio Transfer Review: The original monaural mix is preserved for this DVD release, delivering a fairly crisp presentation of the original theatrical experience. Dialogue is always audible and the score comes across nicely. There's nothing noteworthy about it, but Warner should be commended for their film preservation work here.
Audio Transfer Grade: B
Disc ExtrasStatic menu with music
Scene Access with 25 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English, French, Spanish with remote access
1 Original Trailer(s)
1 Feature/Episode commentary by Scott Eyman
Packaging: Amaray Double
Layers Switch: 00h:47m:18s
Over on Disc 2, there are two excellent documentaries. John Ford/John Wayne: The Filmmaker and the Legend (01h:23m:53s) originally aired on PBS a few months ago as part of their American Masters series. Featuring interviews with Ford biographers, filmmakers (including Martin Scorsese, Peter Bogdanovich, and many more), and the two men's offspring, this is a fascinating look at their personal as well as professional relationship. Their politics, personalities, and everything else you can think of is touched upon in this Sydney Pollack-narrated piece. I highly recommend this to anyone who wishes to learn more about these two men. Stagecoach: A Story of Redemption (30m:33s) also features Bogdanovich and Eyman, as well as some other Ford experts. Acting as a nice compliment to the audio commentary, this documentary fleshes out details concerning the film's development, Wayne's early career, and the movie's overall impact on the genre.
The special features conclude with the 5/4/1946 Academy Award Theater Broadcast (28m:22s). Starring Claire Trevor as Dallas and Randolph Scott as the Ringo Kid, the joy of the story is absent here. The humor and excitement is lost thanks to the condensed runtime and listening to the broadcast made me want to watch the movie instead. Still, the commentary and documentaries are quite worth your time.
Extras Grade: B+
Final CommentsA classic in every sense of the word, John Ford's western is now given a fitting home on DVD. Warner's Stagecoach: Two-Disc Special Edition pleasantly presents the film with informative special features and proper image and sound transfers.
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