Ford & Duke Bromance: STAGECOACH (1939)

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Hollywood is known for many storied collaborations. Duos that worked together so well that the results are of cinematic legends. Such is the case of director John Ford and actor John Wayne aka Marion Robert Morrison aka ‘the Duke.’ Theirs was a rugged bromance, often contentious and many would say dysfunctional; but hardly like those BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN boys.

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The two experienced a lifelong partnership that began with filming STAGECOACH (1939). Prior to this filming partnership, John Wayne had made eighty films yet was not even a big name. Up to that point, he only starred in various small roles and dozens of B level westerns. When David O Selznick was originally offered producer role, he wanted Gary Cooper (producer Walter Wanger’s pick) as the Ringo Kid and Marlene Dietrich as Dallas. Both Errol Flynn and Joel McCrea were considered for Ringo and Katherine Hepburn as Dallas. But Ford insisted on Wayne as soon as he felt the actor was ready. This was Ford’s first sound western. It was STAGECOACH (1939) that made John Wayne a household name.

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The story is a dramatic ride across the high desert, forcing a diverse group of strangers to get to know each other better, as they fight off their own prejudices, naive assumptions, the harsh terrain and waring Apache. This majestic western takes eight passengers on the Overland stage from Tonto to Lordsburg, New Mexico. Our diverse and fascinating travelers are: “Doc” Boone, a doctor with a drinking problem; Major Hatfield, a professional gambler and Southern gentleman; Dallas, a lady of ill repute forced out of Tonto by the gossiping spinster hens of town; a pregnant Mrs. Mallory, enroute to find her Army officer husband; Mr. Gatewood, a grouchy and absconding banker; Mr. Peacock, a feeble business man from Kansas City; Marshal Wilcox; his prisoner, the Ringo Kid, and Buck the driver.

  • Claire Trevor ~ Dallas
  • John Wayne ~ Ringo Kid
  • Andy Devine ~ Buck
  • John Carradine ~ Hatfield
  • Thomas Mitchell ~ “Doc” Josiah Boone
  • Louise Platt ~ Mrs. Lucy Mallory
  • George Bancroft ~ Marshal Curley Wilcox
  • Donald Meek ~ Mr. Samuel Peacock

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A critical character in this film not mentioned above is Monument Valley. Just like STAGECOACH (1939) marks the first collaboration of the Wayne-Ford partnership, it’s also the first of many historic Ford films on location in the spectacular Monument Valley in Arizona. As a matter of fact, there were no paved roads leading into Monument Valley prior to making this film. The visions of sagebrush, panoramic array of buttes, and the most stunning clouds billowing across the horizon defies the art of a Van Gogh. Its beauty is so striking it often distracts, taking center stage in every scene possible.

What works well in this film besides the dramatic plot points and thundering action is the breaks of comedic moments mingled amongst the colorful cast of characters. The contrast and tension between the characters is as palatable as it is charming. A stand out pairing contrasts John Wayne as the Ringo Kid and Claire Trevor as Dallas.

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Sometimes the social outcasts are the most well-mannered and hardest-working in the bunch

She’s been kicked out of town for her ‘whorish ways’ as is the doctor for his drinking and unconventional style. It’s fugitive the Ringo Kid, picked up along the way, who acts more humanely and well-mannered to Dallas than the others. He only sees her kindness, strength and beauty while the others shun her. He chooses to view her as a lady and naively never realizes she’s a prostitute. Based on her behavior on the ride, she deserves his admiration. Ringo Kid is treated with greater esteem, ironic for being a man who just escaped prison, attempting seek revenge against the men who killed his family. But based on his behavior on this journey, he earns his respect. Ultimately, despite all the contrasting personaes, tight quarters and shared life-altering experiences, it brings each a slightly more enlightened understanding. And Ford more Oscars to come, and Wayne a launch to mega stardom.

Part of what made these two- Ford and Wayne- click was a mutual admiration and some commonalities. Both were no-nonsense fellas that leaned into the bigger-than-life imagery they enjoyed projecting on-screen. The fact that they were both Americans proud of their Irish heritage later resulted in their legendary collaboration, ensembled in an Irish dream team, for THE QUIET MAN. John Wayne’s Irish ancestry can be traced to his great-great-grandfather, Robert Morrison; who was born in County Antrim, Northern Ireland in 1782. His grandmother Maggie Brown was an Irish Catholic born in County Cork in 1848.

Ford was even more enthusiastic about his Irish roots. According to the Irish American Heritage Month site:

John Ford was born John Martin Feeney in Cape Elizabeth Maine on February 1, 1894. His parents were Gaelic speaking immigrants; Ford’s father, a saloonkeeper and a Democratic Party Ward boss, was born in Spiddal County Galway, his mother from the isle of Inishmore in the Aran Islands. Despite being one of eleven children, several of his siblings not surviving childhood, Ford grew up in reasonably comfortable surroundings. However, the slights and offenses that he and his family endured as Irish Americans in Yankee dominated New England forged a pugnacity that would mark his later life. In an era when all Americans were expected to assimilate, Ford took a defiant pride in his heritage and culture. As actor and fellow director, Orson Welles would observe, “(Ford) had chips on his shoulder like epaulets.”

Ford was a tough director and a tough man. He knew how to push actors’ buttons in order to get the results he desired on screen. It generally didn’t win him any popularity contests, especially from his female cast members as he was known to be notably harshest on them. (Maureen O’Hara being the rare exception because Ford knew she was as tough as the boys and the mutual respect was there, although neither were likely to admit it.) But for those who knew how to handle his gruff and bullying ways, those were the actors who remained loyal and could be seen repeatedly in his films for they knew he was one of the most skilled directors in Hollywood. This resulted in some of the most beautiful and iconic films ever made. John Wayne became synonymous as the face of these Ford classics.

Ford on the Duke:

“Duke is the best actor in Hollywood.”

Ford kept baiting Wayne during filming STAGECOACH, yelling at one point: “Don’t you know how to walk? You’re as clumsy as a hippo. And stop slurring your dialogue and show some expression. You look like a poached egg.” Privately Ford said of Wayne at the time: “He’ll be the biggest star ever”.

According to imdb on their relationship on this set, Ford called him a “big oaf” and a “dumb bastard” and continually criticized his line delivery and manner of walking, even how he washed his face on camera. However, at least part of this was to provoke the actor into giving a stronger performance; Claire Trevor recalls how Ford grabbed Duke by the chin and shook him. “Why are you moving your mouth so much?” he said. “Don’t you know you don’t act with your mouth in pictures? You act with your eyes.” Wayne tolerated the rough treatment and rose to the challenge, reaching a new plateau as an actor. Ford helped cement the impression that Wayne makes in the film by giving him plenty of expressive reaction shots throughout the picture.

Duke on Ford:

His behavior on set angered Wayne, who said of the director “I was so f–king mad I wanted to kill him.”

“I don’t think John Ford had any kind of respect for me as an actor until I made “Red River” for Howard Hawks. I was never quite sure what he did think of me as an actor. I know now, though. Because when I finally won an Oscar for my role as Rooster Cogburn in “True Grit”, Ford shook my hand and said the award was long overdue me as far as he was concerned. Right then, I knew he’d respected me as an actor since “STAGECOACH”, even though he hadn’t let me know it. He later told me his praise earlier, might have gone to my head and made me conceited, and that was why he’d never said anything to me, until the right time.”

“John Ford was like a father to me, like a big brother. I got word that he wanted to see me at his home in Palm Springs, and when I got there, he said, “Hi Duke, down for the deathwatch?” “Hell no,” I said, “you’ll bury us all.” But he looked so weak. We used to be a triumvirate – Ford and me and a guy named Ward Bond. The day I went to Palm Springs, Ford said, “Duke, do you ever think of Ward?” “All the time,” I said. “Well, let’s have a drink to Ward,” he said. So I got out the brandy, gave him a sip and took one for myself. “All right, Duke,” he said finally, “I think I’ll rest for a while.” I went home, and that was Pappy Ford’s last day.”

Obviously their love/hate relationship was one only they fully understood. Or perhaps they didn’t. Perhaps they were just a couple of good drinking buddies that knew how to bring out the best in each other, even if in dysfunctional ways; to make memorable movie magic. To sum up the symbiotic collaboration of the John Ford/John Wayne filmography, all you really have to do is watch all of their mutual films. The results speak loud and clear up on that silver screen.

*Tandem Tumbleweed Thought to Consider~ Quentin Tarantino’s recent HATEFUL EIGHT features eight characters who are mostly strangers to each other, all thrown together as traveling companions along in an Overland stagecoach who make a pitstop and face extreme danger which forces them to learn more about each other. Sound familiar? It’s a surprisingly similar parallel to the basic story structure in STAGECOACH. While the social dynamics in HATEFUL EIGHT are much more ‘hateful’ and bloody, it makes me wonder if QT is a fan of Ford’s STAGECOACH, in addition to his spaghetti western love, and found some inspiration here.

**This was my contribution to CINEMAVEN’S ESSAYS FROM THE COUCH, Symbiotic Collaborations Blogathon, Jan 23-24, 2016. Explore all the fun and creative contributions on Theresa’s site this weekend.

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Bloody Snow Drifts in Rare View: THE HATEFUL EIGHT

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Quentin Tarantino simply put, “gets it.” Not just a great filmmaker who ranks at the top of any list of the best of them, this writer/director is a true film fan, too. So when he set out to make his eighth film, Quentin Tarantino doesn’t let a leaked script draft get him down. He takes it up a notch by not only shooting it in a format rarely seen in the last half-century, but he also takes it for a spin with a good ole fashioned roadshow.

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THE HATEFUL EIGHT (2015) gives us a Reconstruction era whodunnit in glorious Ultra Panavision 70 mm format. Everything old is new again for Tarantino (and us) when he gives a retro fit to his story of what happens when a bounty hunter, a hangman and a prisoner get snowed in along with others in a blizzard along the stagecoach trail in rustic Wyoming. Like other films shot in this beautiful screen experience like BEN-HUR (1959) and IT’S A MAD, MAD, MAD, MAD WORLD (1963), he wanted to present his latest film in the widest cinematic experience (aspect ratio of 2.76 to 1) to a limited number of screens across the country just prior to its wide release, even including a musical ‘Overture’ and ‘Intermission.’

I even heard tale of a special program souvenir*, just for the lucky roadshow attendees. Just when I didn’t think I could possibly be one of those lucky few as I am located smack-dab in the middle of the country, far from what is typically a ‘chosen city’ for such engagements, lo and behold we found a participating theater a mere 30 miles from our town. This is again thanks to the unique and strategic planning of Mr. Quentin Tarantino and Weinstein Co. distribution.

Unlike such roadshow engagements of the decades past which only targeted the very biggest of select cities, this time the roadshow was expanded up to one hundred theaters. Which undoubtedly was a hefty expense to equip and train projectionists to this rare 70mm technology for all the locations not already fitted. (I imagine this would be needed for quite a few of them). But just imagine how this additional expense has now benefited these venues for future filmmakers to hopefully continue this idea?

HatefulEight_betteroutdoors

Now back to that HATEFUL EIGHT. I promise not to give away major spoilers here. Like other QT films, this one certainly did not disappoint. It possesses the same masterful storytelling, colorful characters, distinct style, a splendid score, and a signature wealthy dose of violence. And he slows down the pace just enough so we can get cozy with this snowed-in tale.

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What’s fascinating about Tarantino’s choice for that antique lens of Ultra Panavision, most of the film is not of exterior shots (although the exterior scenes filmed about 30 miles outside of Telluride are truly stunning with that ultra wide screen). Instead, most of the film takes place in a single room, with some inside a stagecoach. In other words, for a film that could easily convert into a stage play, it’s incredibly intimate. For a super wide format, it’s almost claustrophobic to get so chummy with your characters. This closeness snugly builds tension yet keeps the mystery taut.

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In addition to the unraveling story that unfolds like an Agatha Christy mystery peppered with enough brutal moments to make SCARFACE blush, the musical score is also a compelling feature that cannot be ignored. Leave it to Tarantino to convince the one and only Ennio Morricone to compose the theme song and original score. Yes, the same legendary composer to create iconic sounds from those legendary spaghetti westerns for Sergio Leone. Morricone hasn’t done a western score in decades (even though I don’t think I’d label this film as a western, per say). Due to time constraints, Morricone created the theme, nearly half-hour of original score, plus he added some unused material he originally created for THE THING (1982). It’s an appropriate choice considering the isolation of the winter blizzard and the haunting tone of the unraveling mysteries.

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I’d be remiss to not address the choices and performances of this cast, as QT’s films are known for their unique characters portrayed adeptly by each purposeful actor choice. It’s nice to see one of the hardest-working actors in Hollywood, Samuel L. Jackson take the lead in this latest Quentin Tarantino vehicle. They’ve partnered together on six films and it’s no secret that the brotherly love and respect is there. Jackson’s performance is strong as Maj. Marquis Warren, the bounty hunter. He keeps us guessing and that’s exactly what his character needs to do. Kurt Russell is perfectly suited as ‘the hangman’ John Ruth. Beyond his bigger-than-life characterization, his facial hair is practically a role in itself.

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Both Tim Roth as Oswaldo Mobray, ‘the little man’ and Walton Goggins as Chris Mannix, ‘the sheriff’ are unforgettable, quirky and entertaining for comical relief. Before I describe ‘the prisoner’ Daisy Domergue, I must confess my bias in regards to Jennifer Jason Leigh that will likely be unpopular. I just don’t like her. Ever since FAST TIMES AT RIDGEMONT HIGH (1982), I’ve consistently found her to be unattractively and annoyingly unappealing. But here she plays a part where my bias works out. Without giving away too much, I’ll just say that Daisy is a very unlikable, annoying and unattractive character. I’ve never thought she wasn’t a good actress though. So yes, I’ve finally witnessed the perfect role for JJL. (I’ll expect the hate mail to start pouring in now.) The rest of the cast is equally great and I loved seeing Bruce Dern (as Gen. “Sandy” Smithers aka ‘the confederate’) continuing to work his magic, following his career resurgence after NEBRASKA (2013).

While many would describe this film as a western, I hesitate to do so after screening it because that category is too limiting. I think of it as more of a suspenseful mystery, taking place in the Reconstruction era along the Overland Trail in southern Wyoming. When I think of a western I think of a protagonist of moral fortitude pitted against one or several evil-doers. But as the title alludes, perhaps it’s all eight characters that possess a ‘hateful’ edge of antagonism and not so much of the protagonistic nature.

Ultimately, it’s all of these factors- the story, the cast, the music, the characters, the cinematography, and even the special attention to details like the roadshow experience combined- plus Tarantino’s writing that will make THE HATEFUL EIGHT a fan favorite and a timeless classic to come. I for one am grateful that Quentin Tarantino is not just a solid filmmaker, but a true film fan in the classic sense.

*(By the way, I never got that special program.)

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The Charming Psychopath of INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS

There are so many types of villains in the movies- mobsters, monsters, scoundrels, crooks, creeps, vixens, killers… and they come in all persuasions of evil, smarmy, spooky and scary. The variety of ‘bad guys’ reminds me of the scene in Mel Brooks’ BLAZING SADDLES (1974) when Harvey Korman as Hedy (err, that’s Hedley) Lamarr rounds up every nasty ne’er-do-well in the wild west. Check out this clip of:  “Boy Is He Strict” Video.

The Bandit needs no stinkin' badges. Along with Slim Pickins and Harvey Korman, we see villainry in western parody.

This bandit needs no stinkin’ badges. Along with Slim Pickins and Harvey Korman, we see villainry via the western parody.

A truly outstanding villain is pure cinema gold. Audiences root for the courageous and upstanding hero or heroine to save the day and we crave happy endings. But we clamor for a hard-fought battle of good vs. evil along the way. Let’s face it, the good-doer protagonist earns no glory without a truly heinous antagonist in equal measure of nasty.

When I think of all the memorable villains in film, I’m mesmorized by  the charming ones. There’s something fascinating about the hustle of a highly social persona who draws in his/her victims. There’s no need for lurking in dark shadows or ill manners when they lust the dance of enticement, right in the bright spotlight. Christoph Waltz as Colonel Hans Landa in Quentin Tarantino’s INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS (2009) is a perfect example of this particular hybrid of the charming psychopath of the silver screen.

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The story takes place in a parallel universe of nazi-occupied France during World War II where a small troop of Americans, nicknamed the ‘Basterds’, seek to fulfill a heavy thirst of redemption against ‘nazi Jew hunters’ with a bloody vengeance. The year is 1941. We are introduced to their unique nicknames and fighting styles- like “the Bear Jew” who prefers bashing SS skulls with a baseball bat, or their other trademark of scalping nazis upon capture. When it comes to a universally known symbol of villainy, you can’t get much more iconically evil than the nazis.

Tarantino is known for a flair for violence in his filmmaking. INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS is no exception to this reputation and we see violence coming from both sides. This renegade band of soldiers’ gruesome approach to justice is an unorthodox secret weapon. Yet as vile as their violence may be, I can’t help but taste some sour but sweet satisfaction as the Basterds serve up their revenge on the nazis.

While there are many scenes depicting the plotting schemes of the Basterds to counteract the Third Reich’s occupation in France (including a grand plan to take down an entire movie house filled with members of the SS and Hitler himself), some of the most eery and disturbing moments come from Waltz’ portrayal as Landa.

NOT DINNER TABLE CONVERSATION Scene:

In this opening scene, we feel the extreme tension build when a dairy farmer and his family receives a visit from the nazis. Here we get an intimate introduction to the Landa method of the social predator. He starts in by following a strict adherence to formality of cordial manners. He initially speaks in their language (French) not his own (German), then later asks his permission to continue the rest of the discussion in English. He smiles warmly. He’s not just polite, he’s highly complimentary. He’s enjoying himself as he closely examines the farmer and his family, expectant that they should respond in kind like a neighbor dropping in. After this facade of politeness and respect, he firmly controls the conversation and the tone by painstakingly taking his time through every single step of an interrogation. The audience feels the mounting tension in pace with the farmer, Monsieur Perrier LaPadite (Denis Menochet).

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Landa continues his upper-hand by letting it be known to the cautious farmer that there’s absolutely nothing that he can hide from him- in ecsquisite detail as he lights his pipe. Cooly and calmly confident, Landa has complete control. He’s snared his victim into a corner. Swiftly, the Jewish family trapped under the floor boards is gunned down in a shower of bullets. One of the hunted has escaped through the crawlspace, Shosanna (Melanie Laurent) is covered in mud as she runs for her very life across the open field in a John Ford-esque door frame shot. Landa has a clear shot within range, but he chooses to wait; holding his gaze upon her with his pointed gun without squeezing the trigger. He wants this moment to linger, then he calls out to her just to let her know he chose to savor in her horror. She flees but does she ever fully escape from his haunting threat? See a snippit of the scene here and note how the music adds to the emotional horror, as the strings reflect to the chaos and building tension.

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Like a cat that toys with the mouse, Landa loves the game. It’s not enough for him to catch and kill his victims, he desires to tease and play with the victims’ fears. It whets his appetite by manipulating them into their false sense of security by exhibiting his prowness for charm and social manners. He then turns the table as he eliminates any hope for his victim. But not before he takes little pauses to express child-like joy in watching them squirm. He literally cooes and squeals at times.

I LOST MY APPETITE AT THE CAFE Scene:

In this scene, Shosanna finds herself in another horrific predicament. She’s now operating a local movie theater when a popular German actor/nazi officer has taken a shine to her. He insists that she tag along with him when he joins several SS officers at a local cafe, including Hans Landa. Reunited with her demon tormentor, the tension is nearly unbearable as she finds herself facing the exact same nazi that ruthlessly killed her family.

Yet again, he brings on the charm; showing off his intelligence, culture and appreciation for the ‘finer things’ via his joy for a special dessert. While he regales in his delectable desire for cream topping, she is barely holding it together. Of course she recognizes him instantly and hopes he doesn’t recognize her. The horrors of their last encounter is washing over her in contrast to each of his probing questions masked as superficial chit-chat. This excrutiating verbal dance can be seen in this Video clip.

THE ITALIAN JOB:

In yet another tense scene, the German actress/double agent Bridget Von Hammersmark (Diane Kruger) who is working with the ‘Basterds’ attends the premiere film screening for the grand plan of nazi destruction. She introduces Hans Landa to three of the ‘Basterds’ who are working undercover, as Italian filmmakers- Lt. Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt) as a stuntman, and the other two, Sgt. Donny (Eli Roth) and PFC Omar (Omar Doom) as camera men. Playing with his food like a killer whale with a baby seal, Landa tosses them about and watches them squirm and flail in their awkward attempts to deceive him.

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The Basterds trio pretend to only speak Italian (eventhough they only know a few words between them) assuming the Colonel doesn’t know a single word. But this smooth killer is too slick. Not only does he speak fluent Italian but he further toys with them by asking them to repeat their names, as much as three times over- just to show he’s the one in charge of this ruse. When she lies to him about how she broke her ankle, he laughs hysterically to the point of making a scene. He knows her explanation is incredulous and he drives home that point, abundantly. Another controlling tactic. [See the clip here.]

THAT’S NO GLASS SLIPPER and NO PRINCE CHARMING Scene:

When Hans Landa methodically unveils Von Hammersmark’s  betrayal, he begins the hunt as before. At first he keeps his usual strict code of manners and formality. But he closes in faster this time. Less time spent enjoying the victim squirm. Just enough time to watch her slip into the shoe found earlier where nazis where gunned down in a basement pub (his confirmed evidence of her working with the Basterds). It’s not long before he leaps into his primal side. The beast is now unleashed. His dark side, which is ever-present but usually masked in a different method, is now completely exposed. He feels no need to play the game here- he goes straight for the kill. [See clip here. *Note profanity alert.]

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For any of you who have yet to have seen this film, I chose to only highlight a few scenes as opposed to a detailed synopsis of the full film, in order to focus on this unforgettable villain. But don’t worry, this nazi may have mastered serial killer charm, he also receives his own branding of justice and come-uppance in the end.

Christoph Waltz was relatively unknown to American audiences yet a seasoned actor of the stage before landing this part. It was this talented portrayal of Hans Landa that quickly turned him into an ‘overnight sensation’. He followed by working additional great roles, including partnering again with Tarantino as an atypical hero in DJANGO UNCHAINED (2012). He continues to be a fan favorite at the box office and has become a household name.

This was my contribution to THE VILLAIN BLOGATHON hosted by the lovely ladies at Speakeasy, Shadows & Satin, and Silver Screenings. Explore each of their blogs for complete listings of each day’s recaps (April 13-17) with fascinating contributors. Enjoy!

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