STAGECOACH (1939) directed by John Ford from a screenplay by Dudley Nichols is generally considered to be the first adult Western – adult in the sense that it took a set of archetypes who were familiar to audiences from Westerns of the past (the dancehall girl/prostitute, the Southern gentleman gambler, the drunken doctor, the young outlaw, the girl from the East), placed them in a quasi-allegorical setting (a stagecoach traveling from one small town to another through hostile territory), and let them interact in such a way as to reveal unexpected nuance and depth.
Even the ostensible villains of the piece, the hostile Indians, are presented with some nuance. Ford treats them as if they were part of the landscape, a force of nature, and when we first see their leader, Geronimo, in close-up, he is presented with great dignity.
Not so the film’s real villain, the banker Gatewood (portrayed by Berton Churchill) who is the closest thing we see in the film to pure, unnuanced evil. He is immediately introduced as a hypocrite, pontificating to the men who bring a $50,000 payroll deposit to his bank about the benefits of savings while he prepares to embezzle that same deposit. As if to extend his hypocrisy to a wider sphere, the banker’s wife is seen as head of the ladies league who forces the poor goodhearted prostitute (Claire Trevor) to leave town. Riding in the stagecoach with the satchel of embezzled loot sitting on his lap, the banker declaims his political philosophy to a captive listener (Louise Platt):
Watching the Criterion Blu-ray* of STAGECOACH in 2010 and hearing these lines, I was immediately struck by how these same two ideas are as relentlessly promoted by corporatist talking heads today as they were by Ford’s banker villain in 1939:
CUT TAXES ON THE RICH!
Of course, in 1939, we were in the middle of the Great Depression, and American movie audiences knew exactly who to blame. Wall Street. The Banks. Big Business. Bankers, speculators, and corporatists were the problem then. They’re the problem now.
Deregulation is responsible for the unhindered growth of monopolies in our era, putting the small businessman and his employees out of work and shipping their jobs overseas. Deregulation is also responsible for such environmental calamities as the recent West Virginia coal mine collapse, and the BP oil leak currently polluting our Gulf.
Cutting taxes on the rich didn’t work in the Hoover era, and it wouldn’t work today. (At least, not for anyone but the wealthy few whose taxes were cut.) The most prosperous time for most people in America history was during the Eisenhower era when tax rates on the wealthy were at their highest!
Corporatists are everywhere in 2010. The U.S. Congress is dominated by Republican corporatists working in league with Democratic corporatists. In my homestate, California, Carly Fiorina, a former CEO of Hewlett-Packard, known for laying off 10s of 1000s of her workers, is running for Senator, while Meg Whitman, the former CEO of E-Bay and a “serial outsourcer,” is running for Governor. Meanwhile, Mitt Romney, another former CEO, is poised to become the Republican nominee for President of the United States in 2012.
All of the characters riding inside Ford’s STAGECOACH are transformed by the experience – class prejudices are dissolved, the prostitute recovers her innocence, the doctor recovers his dignity, the meek man discovers his courage. All of the characters change, that is, except for one – banker Gatewood who remains as obnoxious, hypocritical, and self-serving at the end of his journey as he was at the beginning. “We need a businessman as President,” he declares, thinking perhaps of someone like the future George W. Bush. You remember how that worked out.
*PLEASE NOTE: The screengrabs in this post are not from the Criterion Blu-ray edition, but from the single-disc DVD edition released by Warner Brothers in 1997. To see screengrabs from the Criterion Blu-ray, go to DVD Beaver here.
This post is dedicated to my great friend and fellow film buff, Cornel Wright Arensberg.