Monument Valley must have felt like a second home to director John Ford. When the studio bosses said, "Let's make a movie," he said, "Good, book us to Arizona."
Ford kept going back there to film his many Westerns, acknowledged as high points in this distinctly American genre. The beautifully rugged vistas--a contrast of jutting peaks and desert expanses--in northeastern Arizona and trailing into Utah were the right backdrop. Even when the story sagged, which wasn't often, the landscape held up.
It holds up sturdily in "Stagecoach," one of Ford's first and best films in a library that includes "My Darling Clementine" (1946) and "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance" (1962). The 1939 release (screening Tuesday evening in a free presentation at the new Newport Beach Central Library) won an Oscar for cinematographer Bert Glennon, who captured Monument Valley the way Ford liked--as a pristine metaphor of an undisciplined, purer time in our history.
There may have been little environmental pollution back then, but you couldn't say the same about the people and their character. Ford usually played with our well-established, simple notions of good guys and bad guys in Westerns, and he does the same in "Stagecoach." Ford is probably the first director to kiss off the Tom Mix mold of hero--he brought irony to the frontier film.
In "Stagecoach," it's this revelation of just who everybody is, what they want and what they're willing to do for it that makes the picture more than just a romp over picturesque countryside. Ford and screenwriter Dudley Nichols give us a coach full of interesting, sometimes comical, sometimes devious folks and then exposes them under the glare of danger.
The story is straightforward. The stagecoach, driven by a forever-flustered Andy Devine, is heading to a grimy Old West outpost. Geronimo and his war-minded Apaches stand in the way. Along the route, the sheriff picks up the Ringo Kid, a likable outlaw played with typical aw-shucks heroism by John Wayne.
Among the other passengers are Doc (Thomas Mitchell), a boozing doctor; Dallas (Claire Trevor), the hooker who's run out of town, then clumsily wooed by the Kid; Hatfield (John Carradine), a Confederate officer turned card hustler; Mrs. Mallory (Louise Platt), the pregnant wife of a cavalry officer, and Gatewood (Berton Churchill), an obnoxious banker who might just be an embezzler.
Besides the panoramic sweeps, Ford and Glennon bring craftsmanship to the tighter shots, both indoors and outdoors, when the cast becomes the focus. An especially striking set-piece comes shortly after Doc delivers Mrs. Mallory's baby and the Ringo Kid gazes down the long adobe hallway leading to the bedroom.
The lighting is near-phosphorescent, and the camera is set up perfectly, adding an evocative layer of drama to this important scene. The boldness of that shot is soon replaced by something more muted when the Kid and Dallas meet outside. Under a darkening sky, he proposes, their faces poignant under the natural illumination.
Before and after the screening, Arthur Taussig, editor of The Film Analyst newsletter, will discuss Ford and the Western.
What: John Ford's "Stagecoach."
When: Tuesday, July 12, at 6:30 p.m.
Where: The Newport Beach Central Library, 1000 Avocado Ave.
Whereabouts: Take Pacific Coast Highway to Avocado Avenue and head north.
Where to call: (714) 717-3800.