Stagecoach - 1939

Claire Trevor - Stagecoach

Stagecoach - Released March 2, 1939. Directed by John Ford

Claire Trevor as Dallas in John Ford's genre-changing Stagecoach plays a part that is part the stereotype saloon girl of a thousand Cowboy movies (big heart, good looks, availability), except Ford's story (by Ernest Haycox and Dudley Nichols) allows the audience to get a lot closer to the facts that were usually vague in classic oaters: she's a prostitute. Or, at least, was a prostitute. Ford never shows any bona fides for the character's career, a strategy which certainly helps along his alternative track of getting the movie audience to like Dallas, which Claire Trevor makes it easy to do.

Ford's script seems to have helped itself to material from Maupassant's short story Boule de suif and that informs the tale with Maupassant's tensions, hypocrisy and ironies of a long-distance stagecoach ride with a selection of society all bottled up together (Val Lewton used Boule de suif whole hog in his 1944 film, Mademoiselle Fifi). This group doesn't really get along with each other until the threat of massacre provides focus that their petty prejudices might not be all the important.

You can see that Ford's sympathies lie the strongest on Caire Trevor. He has sympathy for all the characters right across the board, though, as Ford pities the drunk Doctor, the unreconstructed Confederate, a young pregnant girl, John Wayne's Ringo Kid, etc. The only character left in the wind is the thieving banker (played by Berton Churchill) who Ford puts on the screen in one scene with just his backside to the camera for a prolonged sequence, the wind blowing his coat-tails up, as if Ford is saying "look at this man, isn't he an ass?" The native Americans get Ford's nod, too, briefly, though not anywhere as on the scale of his later films.

Ford's strongest plea for empathy is for the suffering Dallas who is helpful and kind to every person on the trip, and has to endure endless slights because, well, she's a prostitute mixing with decent society. She is looking for someway out of her profession, and Ford (and John Wayne's Ringo Kid) will supply the exit ramp. First, though, Ringo Kid has to survive to the end of the movie, and Ford tries hard to make it seem as though that is not an assured proposition.


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