DVD Review HTF DVD REVIEW: Stagecoach (Criterion Edition)

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  1. Matt Hough

    Matt Hough Executive Producer
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    Stagecoach

    Directed by John Ford

    Studio: Criterion
    Year: 1939
    Aspect Ratio: 1.37:1
    Running Time: 96 minutes
    Rating: NR
    Audio: Dolby Digital 1.0 English
    Subtitles: SDH
    MSRP: $ 39.99

    Release Date: May 25, 2010
    Review Date: May 6, 2010
     
     
    The Film
    5/5
     
    There are westerns (Silverado), there are great westerns (Unforgiven), there are iconic westerns (Red River), and then there is Stagecoach. The grandfather of the adult western directed by the genre’s greatest master creator, Stagecoach has everything you’d want in a film of this genre: interesting characters, plenty of action, comedy relief, and location photography that sweeps you up and out in its evocation of time and place. Many westerns have tried to surpass the qualities that have made it such a classic (a foolish remake was even attempted). A few have come close, but Stagecoach even today retains its status as the pater familias of the genre.
     
    Nine people undertake a hazardous journey through hostile Indian country without the benefit of the cavalry to protect them in an effort to reach the town of Lordsburg. There is town whore Dallas (Claire Trevor), run out of town by the ladies’ morals league. Also tossed out of town is the drunken Doc Boone (Thomas Mitchell). And then there are mild mannered liquor salesman Mr. Peacock (Donald Meek), bank president Mr. Gatewood (Berton Churchill) secretly absconding with the bank’s assets, Marshal Curly Wilcox (George Bancroft) who’s taking the wanted Ringo Kid (John Wayne) to town for transfer to prison (though the Kid is anxious to settle the score with the Plummer brothers there), Lucy Mallory (Louise Platt) who’s unusually eager to join her wounded cavalry officer husband at the end of the line, charming gambler Hatfield (John Carradine) with an eye on Lucy, and eternally gabby stagecoach driver Buck (Andy Devine). Along the way are surprises galore including proposals, attacks, and attempted escapes.
     
    John Ford took his cameras into the legendary Monument Valley for the first time to film location scenes for the film, and one imagines how audiences of the day must have been thunderstruck by what they saw. It’s a common sight now in westerns to see those majestic peaks and beautifully expansive vistas (and it’s a location Ford would return to again and again over the years), but this film got there first (apart from a long forgotten silent film). The character types represented by the actors in the film weren’t new to westerns, but Ford and screenwriter Dudley Nichols use them so interestingly that these are the characters that stick in one’s mind forever after. In the end, the slick gambler isn’t exactly whom we were expecting him to be and neither is the marshal or the young wife. Ford’s brilliant handling of the show’s two most famous action sequences: the Indian attack of the stagecoach and Ringo’s inevitable face-off with the Plummer brothers are both still so edge-of-seat worthy that one marvels at his brisk, sure hand. Victor Fleming may have walked away with the Oscar for Best Director that year for Gone With the Wind, but the New York critics saw it differently: John Ford won for his direction of Stagecoach.
     
    John Wayne had been too young and inexperienced to pull off the starring role almost a decade earlier in Fox’s The Big Trail, but after all the intervening years in B-westerns, he had honed his craft so successfully that he’s a major star presence in this film as the Ringo Kid. Full of self confidence and swagger, Wayne’s star career was justifiably reborn with his work in this movie. No less effective is Claire Trevor’s Dallas whose tough on the outside, sensitive on the inside prostitute gives the heart o’gold stereotype a fresh coat of paint. Thomas Mitchell’s Oscar-winning Doc Boone is unparalleled in both comedy and pathos while Donald Meek and Andy Devine do their same patented character work that kept them employed for decades. In much smaller roles, Tim Holt as a cavalry officer and Tom Tyler as the intimidating Luke Plummer make strong impressions with minimal screen time or dialogue. You’ll also walk away remembering the effective and affecting work of John Carradine and Berton Churchill.
     
     
    Video Quality
    3/5
     
    Though it’s obvious that a great deal of work has gone into bringing the 1.37:1 transfer of this film into shape for today’s demanding home theaters, no amount of work is going to make it look pristine. Though there are reels that feature good sharpness, good grayscale rendering, and excellent black levels with nice shadow detail, there are plenty of scratches and age-related artifacts that no amount of digital scrubbing are going to be able to eradicate, and there are more than a few scenes that are soft and lack detail, likely several generations removed from the original camera negative (which no longer exists). The film has been divided into 20 chapters. Criterion has slightly windowboxed the film in its usual fashion with Academy ratio features.
     
     
    Audio Quality
    2.5/5
     
    The Dolby Digital 1.0 audio track has notable hiss throughout. Dialogue is always discernible, and the track has otherwise been cleaned of crackle, pops, and flutter. There’s little in the way of dynamic fidelity, of course, and certain strains of the Oscar-winning music score can sound tinny and a bit shrill.
     
     
    Special Features
    5/5
     
    The audio commentary is by renowned western historian and scholar Jim Kitses who does a fascinating scene-by-scene analysis of the movie and also offers plenty of anecdotal information about the director and the stars.
     
    The film’s theatrical trailer runs 3 ½ minutes in 4:3.
     
    All of the other bonus materials are contained on the second disc in the set:
     
    Bucking Broadway is one of the earliest westerns by John Ford filmed in 1917 and presented here with new intertitles, a new music score by Donald Sosis, and with tinted frames featuring excellent sharpness and depth (in many ways sharper and cleaner than Stagecoach). It runs for 54 ½ minutes in 4:3.
     
    A 1968 interview with John Ford finds the celebrated director in an acerbic, combative mood with his British interviewer, but together they do manage to discuss his early career in movies and his working relationships with such stars as Will Rogers and John Wayne. The 72 ½-minute interview is presented in 4:3.
     
    Director Peter Bogdanovich speaks about John Ford  in a 14 ¼-minute interview in which he also discusses the movie Stagecoach and his encounters with him on the set of Cheyenne Autumn. It’s presented in anamorphic widescreen.
     
    “Dreaming of Jeannie” is critic Tag Gallagher’s 21 ¾-minute celebration of the film Stagecoach with extensive flip clips illustrating his critique and analysis. It’s in 4:3.
     
    The grandson of director John Ford, Dan Ford presents home movies of his celebrated grandfather on board his boat the Aran with celebrated friends like John Wayne, Ward Bond, and cinematographer Gregg Toland. The clips run for 7 ¼ minutes in 4:3.
     
    “True West” is author Buzz Bissinger’s tribute to Harry Goulding and his influence on Ford in convincing him to make Monument Valley the primary location for this classic western. It runs for 10 ¾ minutes in anamorphic widescreen.
     
    A tribute to legendary stuntman Yakima Canutt is delivered by stuntman Vic Armstrong in an interesting 10-minute featurette presented in anamorphic widescreen.
     
    The radio program “Screen Director’s Playhouse” presents the 1949 radio version of Stagecoach with John Wayne, Claire Trevor, and Ward Bond in leading roles. Director George Marshall introduces director John Ford who introduces the play.
     
    The enclosed 33-page booklet contains complete cast and crew lists, a chapter listing, some tinted stills from the movie, an adulatory essay on the movie by filmmaker David Carins, and the short story which was the basis of the film’s script, “Stage to Lordsburg” by Ernest Haycock.
     
     
    In Conclusion
    4.5/5 (not an average)
     
    The first and in many ways the best of the modern class westerns Stagecoach comes to DVD looking the best it’s ever looked and with a package of copious bonus material that’s well worth the price of the package. Highest recommendation!
     
     
     
    Matt Hough
    Charlotte, NC
     
  2. Dave B Ferris

    Dave B Ferris Supporting Actor

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    Excellent review.

    One suggested edit: I think Red River is an iconic western (instead of ironic western).

    Also, one question: is the British interviewer's last name 'Jenkins'? If so, then this must be the same supplement that is on a German release of 'She Wore a Yellow Ribbon', which was widely praised by John Hodson and some of our other overseas members.
     
  3. Richard--W

    Richard--W Banned

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    A most welcome release.

    Isn't this the same transfer as Warner Brothers 2-disc DVD, now discontinued?
     
  4. Matt Hough

    Matt Hough Executive Producer
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    Thanks for catching that typo. [sigh] No matter how many times one proofreads, he invariably misses something.

    The interviewer's name is Philip Jenkinson.
     
  5. Dave B Ferris

    Dave B Ferris Supporting Actor

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  6. Jeff Newcomb

    Jeff Newcomb Second Unit

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    No, it's brand new. It doesn't even use the same source elements.
     
  7. Richard--W

    Richard--W Banned

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    Thanks.

    Do explicate.
     
  8. Matt Hough

    Matt Hough Executive Producer
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    The enclosed booklet explains that the primary source used for their new high definition transfer is a 1942 nitrate duplicate negative which they further cleaned and spruced up without leaving behind obvious signs of their own remastering (which accoounts for lingering scratches and other artifacts).
     
  9. Rodney

    Rodney Supporting Actor
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    Must buy for me, though I do wish Criterion would stop windowboxing the films.
     
  10. oscar_merkx

    oscar_merkx Lead Actor

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    That's why I love these non US / UK releases, best interview ever from the 60s so far


    Great to see that Criterion are releasing it
     
  11. John Hodson

    John Hodson Producer

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    It's a hoot. It was first broadcast as My Name Is John Ford; I Make Westerns as a half-hour interview in '68, Tag Gallagher quotes extensively from it and excerpts have been used in various other documentaries down the years, but this is practically the whole thing unedited/uncut, curmudgeonly insults, rough edges and all. I expect Jenkinson loved it - unimissable.


    BTW, I always liked Jenkinson, part of my movie education. He was pretty chuffed to be immortalised by Monty Python!
     

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