The ABC's of Film Noir
The ABC's of Film Noir

Stagecoach (1939) Classic Movie Review 61

Stagecoach (1939)

Stagecoach (1939)

Sure I can find another wife. But she take my rifle and my horse. Oh, I'll never sell her. I love her so much. I beat her with a whip and she never get tired.

I am continuing the series about people trying to go somewhere or get somethings done and there are obstacles in the way.

Stagecoach (1939) was the first sound western and the first of many times that director John Ford used Monument Valley as the setting for a film.

This movie was meant a vehicle to launch two stars. For one it took, and for the other not so much.

Dallas, was a woman of shall we say low moral values or in another word Awesome. The church ladies of the town loaded her up on the stage. You know those western towns were probably a lot of fun until they got schoolmarms and lawmen. Claire Trevor, who we mentioned in Episode 40 – Key Largo (1948) did a great job handling this complex role. However, she never became the big star that was expected.

Stagecoach (1939)

Stagecoach (1939)

The Ringo Kid was a youth that was serving time for murder and broke out to kill another man. But he wasn’t a bad guy as he was framed and the second killing would be justified. John Wayne played this role at the tender age of 31. Of course, we have talked about John Wayne ad nauseam beginning with Episode 3McLintock! (1963).

Hatfield was a mysterious southern gentleman riding on the stagecoach. He has a real interest in a pregnant woman and a secret. John Carradine was great as always in this role. We first talked about John Carradine in Episode 12 – Billy the Kidd Versus Dracula (1966).

Doc Josiah Boone was a pretty good doctor but he can’t resist the grape, or the hops, or barley or anything else he could drink. This role was handled expertly by Thomas Mitchell. He seemed to play this role in several other films as well. We talked about Thomas Mitchell in Episode 53 – It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)

Samuel Peacock was a very mild-mannered whiskey dealer. This role was handled masterfully by Donald Meeks. Meeks had a domed shaped bald head and he was very diminutive. Donald Meek made a career out of playing this type of character. However, this was not his off-screen persona.

Meeks was born in Scotland in 1878. Before he came to America in 1912. By this time he had already been in 800 shows in Britain and Australia. He was also part of an acrobatic troop but a fall from the wire resulted in several broken bones. After he was healed he joined the U.S. 6th Pennsylvania Regiment and served in Cuba during the Spanish-American War. He was wounded and lost his hair as a result of a yellow fever bout. When World War I broke out he joined the Canadian Highlanders as a corporal but never left Canada.

Between the wars, he began acting and working in stock companies. In 1903 he made his first appearance on Broadway. He was in his first movie, The Clyde Mystery (1931). In 1933, Meeks and wife Belle moved to Hollywood. He mostly moved from studio to studio but was a highly sought after character actor.

His roles include toymaker Mr. Poppins in You Can’t Take It With You (1938), nervous whiskey salesman Samuel Peacock, in Stagecoach(1939) a shady gambler My Little Chickadee (1940); bee-keeper Bartholomew in Nick Carter, Master Detective (1939). Meeks did have roles where he was not the meek character. These films include a courageous prospector fighting villains in Barbary Coast (1935), a miser in The Toast of New York (1937), a citizen trying to collect a reward by unmasking Edward G. Robinson in The Whole Town’s Talking (1935), a tough railroad executive in Jesse James (1939) and The Return of Frank James (1940).

In the 15 years, he was in 120 movies. He died in 1946 at the age of 68.

The stagecoach driver was Buck. He was the comic relief for the movie. He was cracking wise and acting afraid. He had a large Mexican family and was always hungry. The role was performed by Andy Devine. Devine was a large American actor that had a unique voice and might be considered authentic frontier gibberish. Devine started with small roles in silent films and finally was in a talkie, The Spirit of Notre Dame (1931) because he was a good football player. His voice almost derailed his career. However, he turned it into a positive and spent the next 45 years being a much in demand character actor especially in westerns. He became hugely popular when he was teamed with Guy Madison from Episode 60 – The Command (1954), in television and radio in the ‘Adventures of Wild Bill Hickok’ 1951-1958. He remained active in films until his death in 1977.

Cavalry Lieutenant Blanchard was played by Tim Holt. Holt was the son of western actor Jack Holt. He started acting as a kid. He had a good career prior to World War II including: Stella Dallas (1937) with Barbara Stanwyck, The Law West of Tombstone (1938), Stagecoach (1939) 5th Ave Girl (1939), Swiss Family Robinson (1940), Back Street (1941), and The Magnificent Ambersons (1942).

World War II interrupted Holt’s career but not John Wayne’s. He was highly decorated during the war and returned to movies in My Darling Clementine (1946). Holt was great in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948) but following Desert Passage (1952) he left film work. In 1957, he came back for The Monster That Challenged the World (1957) and again in 1971 for a moonshine film called This Stuff’ll Kill Ya! (1971). The next year he was diagnosed with cancer and died in 1973.

William Hopper played an uncredited cavalry Sergeant. Hopper was the son of early gossip columnist Hedda Hopper. However, he is best known as Perry Mason’s television investigator, Paul Drake 1957-1966.

Another UCLA football star, Woody Strode, played a bit part in the background. This African-American became part of the Ford “family” and appeared in four of the director’s films. He is probably best known as the gladiator that fought Kirk Douglas in Spartacus (1960).

The great stuntman Yakima Canutt played an uncredited cavalry scout. He was also in charge of the stunts and performed all of the tough ones himself.

The wonderful cowboy bit actor Hank Worden was also one of the cavalry troopers. He was discussed in Episode 49The Alamo (1960)

Steve Clemente from Episode 1 – King Kong (1933) had a small part in this film as well.

I started watching this John Ford classic and was immediately struck by some similarities. I might be critiqued for putting these two movies together but they stole a lot of Stagecoach(1939) for Billy the Kid Versus Dracula (1966). Yeah, that’s right I said it. John Carradine played a mysterious southern gentleman with an overdeveloped interest in a young lady in Stagecoach (1939). In BTKVD (1966) he played a vampire, which is a type of southern gentleman with an overdeveloped interest in a young lady. In BTKVD (1966) and Stagecoach (1939) there was a whiskey salesman on board.

Thomas Mitchell played a drunk in Stagecoach (1939) and in It’s a Wonderful Life. Traveling on the stage with the doc was a bank embezzler and Mitchell played a bank embezzler in Lost Horizon (1937). Are these mere coincidences. Why yes, I believe they are. But there fun anyway.


Director Ford, the master of the wide shot shows cavalry, stagecoaches, and Indians moving among the mesas. Two scouts speed into the cavalry camp and report that Geronimo is on the move. They get a telegraph with one word Geronimo.

The overland stage pulls into Tonto, Arizona Territory driven by Buck (Andy Devine) who’s voice is the second best style of authentic frontier gibberish. There are two passengers on the stage that will be continuing the journey to Lordsburg, New Mexico Territory. They are Mrs. Lucy Mallory (Louise Platt) the pregnant wife of a cavalry officer and Samuel Peacock (Donald Meeks) a mild-mannered whiskey salesman. A tall slender drink of water studies Lucy and when she asks who he is, they tell her that he is not a gentleman and i, in fact,t a notorious gambler. Going only by the name of Hatfield (John Carradine) is of course modeled on Doc. Holiday.

The Marshal Curly Wilcox (George Bancroft) tells Buck that the shotgun rider is out looking for the escaped Ringo Kid (John Wayne) and he finds out that Ringo is after the Plummer brothers for killing his father and falsely sending him to prison. When the marshal finds out the Plumbers are in Lordsburg and he says he will go along as shotgun.

Elsewhere in town, banker Gatewood (Berton Churchill) receives a $50,000 payroll shipment. He says what is good for the banks is good for the country. This line must have been a riot in the middle of the Great Depression.

A group of church ladies from the “Law and Order League” escort Dallas (Claire Trevor) to the stage and insist that the women of ill repute leave town. Festus I told you to hustle up some rustlers, not rustle up some hustlers.

About that time, the drunken Doc Josiah Boone (Thomas Mitchell) is being evicted. Dallas ask for his help but instead, the pair walk across the road to saloon to wait for the stage followed by the church ladies as “Shall We Gather at the River” is piped in the soundtrack. Boone gets right into Peacock’s whiskey samples.

Lucy is already snotting up at Dallas. A cavalry patrol comes in led by Lt. Blanchard (Tim Holt). He lets them know Geronimo is about and says they will escort them to Dry Fork where another escort is to be waiting. Hatfield joins the stage and says he will protect Lucy. At the edge of town banker Gatewood flags them down and gets aboard, of course he has the $50,000 in a small bag. Gatewood says he got a message from Lordsburg although the telegraph line was down.

Buck says he only took the job 10 years ago so he could marry his Mexican girlfriend. He has to take care of her whole family. You will see this theme again with Andy Devine in about three more episodes. Marshall Curley is suspicious of Gatewood.

The Ringo Kid (John Wayne) fires a gun to flag the stage down because his horse has gone lame. Curley, although a friend of the Kid, arrests him. Easiest capture ever. Curley and Buck talk about what a great guy Ringo is. Boone knows Ringo’s family and mentions being discharged from the Army after the “War of the Rebellion.” Hatfield chimes in saying you mean the “War for the Southern Confederacy.” I thought it was called the “War of Northern Aggression” or the “Late Unpleasantness” in formal company. Curley makes small talk with Buck about how much he likes the Kid and how he use to ride with his dad.

The stages makes it to Dry Fork and find out that their cavalry escort has moved to Apache Wells and the troops with them have orders to leave. Curley has the group vote on going forward or going back. Curley disrespects Dallas and Ringo calls him out. They vote to go forward. When Dallas sits at the table, Lucy and Hatfield move to the other end of the table as if they are too good. Ringo thinks it’s him. Hatfield tells Lucy he was in her father’s regiment during the war. Ringo makes sweet talk to Dallas.

The group heads on to Apache Wells and the escort leaves. The name of that place makes me think maybe the Cowboys weren’t the good guys. Peacock is scared and the Doc dotes over him and steals his whiskey. The banker goes on about America for American (While on the way to Apache Wells), the national debt, too much regulations, and needing a business man for president. Man that’s scary.

As they get cold in the mountains, Dallas tries to befriend Lucy, but is rebuffed. Lucy recognizes Hatfield’s family crest on his cup. They dis Dallas and Ringo makes them pass the water to her. Dallas and Ringo keep making eyes.

When they get to Apache Wells the Mexicans are well armed and let them know that the soldiers left for Lordsburg after Lucy’s husband was wounded. Lucy again rebuffs Dallas and then she faints. She is having her baby and the drunken doctor with the help of Dallas must deliver the baby. The doc calls for black coffee and Ringo is sent for boiling water. I’m not sure what the hot water is for. said it may be to sterile the doctors hands and instruments although bacteria was just being understood around this time.

The Mexican station manager’s wife comes in and she is an Apache. The whites get a little freaked out. The Doc goes in and manages to get the job done. In the night the vaqueros run away with the spare horses.

That night Dallas comes outside with a healthy baby. Ringo gets all twitterpatted. The Doc goes right back to drinking. A little later Ringo ask Dallas to marry him. He tells her about his ranch on the Mexican side of the river. Short courtship. Dallas won’t give him an answer because of her past.

In the morning they do a little racial stereotyping with the Mexican stage manager when his Apache wife runs off. Gatewood wants to push on but Lucy’s condition keeps them in place. The doc finds out that Dallas has been taking care of the baby all night. Dallas tells doc about the proposal and ask if a girl like her should marry someone that doesn’t know her past. Dallas tells Ringo that she will marry him if he gives up his plan to kill the Plummer’s. Dallas convinces him to run away but says she can’t leave Lucy and the baby yet but will join him later.

Ringo escapes but only goes about 60 feet when he sees Apache smoke signals and stops. As quickly as possible everyone gathers their belongings and they head for Lee’s Ferry. The group is at each other’s throats as the tension builds.

When the stage pulls into Lee’s Ferry, the buildings and the ferry have been burned. Curley lets Ringo out of his handcuffs in case he needs to fight. Hatfield sees the Apache moving along the mountain crest. The rest of the group lashes large logs to the side of the stagecoach so it will float across the river. This is the greatest example of basic Boy Scout skills I have ever seen. The horse swim and pull the stagecoach across the river. This is an incredible pre-CGI stunt with at least three stuntmen including Yakima Cunutt, on the stagecoach. If you haven’t seen this, watch the movie as soon as this podcast is over.

They now head to Lordsburg and all believe the danger has passed as they have safely crossed the river. The stagecoach is then attacked by a band of mounted Apaches. Peacock is hit by an arrow in the chest at the beginning of the fight. Buck drives the coach at full speed while Curley provides covering fire with his double barrel shotgun. Ringo climbs on top of the stage and uses a Winchester rifle. Hatfield is firing a pistol from inside the stagecoach. As the Doc treats Peacock he has to knock Gatewood out to keep him from jumping out of the stagecoach. One of the Indians jumps on the lead pair of horse of the stagecoach to slow them down. Ringo shoots him and the stuntman, Yakima Canutt, hits the ground and is passed over by 6 horses and the stagecoach wheels. And there was no nice rut dug in the ground for the stuntman like when this stunt was duplicated with a truck in Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981). Hatfield is showing pure joy as he fires. Even doc joins in on the defense after he gets Meeks stabilized. Buck is hit and Ringo has to jump from the stagecoach and then to each of the three pairs of horses to retrieve the reins. This is another great stunt. The stagecoach riders begin to run low on ammo. Hatfield has a single bullet left. He looks to Lucy, who is praying, and holds the gun to her head. Just before he fires Hatfield is hit by an Indian bullet. At just that instant Lucy hears the cavalry trumpet and they chase away the attackers. Just before he dies Hatfield admits to which family he belongs.

The stage makes it to Lordsburg and Lucy finds that her husband is only slightly wounded. Lucy is finally kind to Dallas. Some men recognize the Ringo Kid and run to tell Luke Plummer, the meanest of the brothers, that he is in town. Luke is playing poker and has aces and eights. Another player comments saying a dead man hand. Luke sends for his brothers.

Ringo tells Curley to take Dallas to his ranch in Mexico. Gatewood was arrested for robbery when he gets off the stage. Curley gives Ringo a rifle and ten minutes. Ringo shows that he has saved three rounds. Dallas begs him not to do it. He sees that she lives on what looks like cat house ally but he doesn’t care.

The two other Plummer brothers show-up as does Doc. Luke gets a shotgun from behind the bar. Buck comes in and tells them that Ringo is on his way. The Doc stands up to Luke and forces him to leave the shotgun. The local newspaper editor says to print that the Ringo Kid was killed even before the fight starts.

Ringo faces down the three brothers and kills all three is a fair fight. The shadows and lights of the pre-fight play like a film-noir classic. Ringo walks back to Dallas and they embrace. Curley and Doc arrive on a buckboard and Ringo gets on board to go to jail. Curley says Dallas can ride a bit with the kid. When she gets on the Doc and Curley throw rocks at the horses and let the pair get away. Curley says he will buy Doc a drink and Docs says just one. The buckboard with the lovers rides into the rising sun.

The End.

Andy Devine said he got the part over Ward Bond because Bond couldn’t drive a six-horse team. Sadly many horses were killed during the filming of this movie as they used a running W wire to make the horses fall.

Wayne wore the hat from this film for the next 20 years until it was retired after Rio Bravo (1959). This film was lost until 1970 when a positive copy Wayne had was used to restore it.

World-Famous Short Summary – Train (really a stagecoach) moves through Indian territory

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Beware the moors

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