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Memories of a Trailblazer

Dennis McLellan is a Times staff writer

When the first glimpse of Monument Valley’s towering buttes and arid vastness flashed on the TV screen in her Newport Beach den, Claire Trevor beamed like a Klieg light.

“Oh, beautiful!” she exclaimed, watching Andy Devine as he drove the Lordsburg-bound stagecoach through hostile Indian territory and into movie history. “When I first saw that, I almost fainted. It was the first time anyone saw that.”

Like audiences who flocked to John Ford’s “Stagecoach” in 1939, the first time Trevor laid eyes on Monument Valley was in a movie theater. She and fellow cast members who were stuffed inside that famous Overland stagecoach spent all their time on sound stages and at locations near Hollywood.

“Everyone on top of the coach went out to Monument Valley, but the people inside were never seen [in shots filmed there],” recalled the film’s star, now 89.

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This month marks the 60th anniversary of the release of “Stagecoach,” with top-billed Trevor--as Dallas, the prostitute who is run out of Lordsburg--heading an ensemble cast of misfit characters.

“Stagecoach,” which Newsweek hailed at the time as “a rare screen masterpiece” and the Nation lauded as “the best western in years,” helped usher in an era of adult-themed westerns. It also made an A-level star out of a B-western movie actor by the name of John Wayne.

Nominated for seven Academy Awards, including best picture and best director, “Stagecoach” won two Oscars--for best musical score and best supporting actor (Thomas Mitchell, as the whiskey-soaked Doc Boone, whom the good ladies of Lordsburg also booted out of town).

For film fans, “Stagecoach” may be best remembered for two things: its spectacular Indian chase sequence across the salt flats (actually a dry lake near Victorville) and one of the most memorable star entrances in film history--the rapid tracking shot that ends in a stunning close-up, introducing the 32-year-old Wayne as the Winchester-twirling Ringo Kid.

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“Isn’t it gorgeous?” said Trevor, as the famous close-up of her old friend “Duke” Wayne spooled through her video player.

Today, six decades after “Stagecoach” opened at Radio City Music Hall in New York City, only two of the seven passengers who made that ride to Lordsburg are still around to share their memories of making the film classic: Trevor and Louise Platt, who played Lucy Mallory, the pregnant wife of a Southern cavalry officer.

Platt, who lives in Cutchogue, N.Y., on the north shore of Long Island, confessed she hasn’t seen “Stagecoach” in quite some time.

“I really didn’t like myself in it, so I don’t watch it,” Platt, 84, said. “I didn’t like myself in any movie I ever did.”

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Trevor, too, says she’s never enjoyed watching herself on the screen--even with credits including the worn streetwalker in William Wyler’s “Dead End” of 1937, for which she received an Academy Award nomination, and John Huston’s “Key Largo,” which earned her the 1948 Oscar for best supporting actress as gangster Edward G. Robinson’s alcoholic moll.

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When Ford cast her as Dallas, Trevor had just completed five years under contract to 20th Century Fox, where she made five or six pictures a year.

The director had wanted to make “Stagecoach” since reading Ernest Haycox’s short story “Stage to Lordsburg” in Collier’s magazine in 1937. Ford also had been interested in working with Trevor and had called her to the sets of pictures he was working on a couple of times to talk.

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“I don’t remember how he contacted me about ‘Stagecoach,’ but he did and he said, ‘You’re going to play this girl in “Stagecoach,” the lead, and I’m going to put John Wayne in it.’ They’d been friends for a long time and he believed in John Wayne,” she said.

Not so producer Walter Wanger.

He had wanted Gary Cooper to play the Ringo Kid, but the modest budget for “Stagecoach"--$546,000, according to Randy Roberts’ and James Olson’s “John Wayne: American"--wouldn’t allow for Cooper’s star salary.

As a favor to Ford, Trevor agreed to make a screen test with Wayne to sell Wanger on the idea that Wayne was right for the part. Trevor remembers she and Wayne were “all-business” during the test.

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“There was no joshing around, no jollity,” she said. “It was really for blood, you know. He wanted that part badly, and I wanted him to get it because he was so anxious. And he was so right for the part.”

Trevor had never heard of Wayne before “Stagecoach.” Her initial impression of the 6-foot-4 actor was that “he was enormously athletic-looking and handsome--and sweet, very modest.

“During the [making of the] picture, Ford was very rough with him. Oh, God. Ford would take his chin and shake it, [saying], ‘You don’t act with your chin; you act with your eyes.’ He felt he had to break [Wayne] of some bad habits that he probably got working in those quickies. Ford made his performance absolutely real and simple and true--and very touching, I thought.”

Trevor said the oftentimes-bullying Ford treated her very differently. “He never raised his voice to me; he was just wonderful,” she said.

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Platt recalled that Donald Meek, who played the timid whiskey drummer, Mr. Peacock, “was a real theater person.” So was John Carradine, who played the Southern cardsharp Hatfield and whose love of Shakespeare was legendary.

Platt spent a lot of time talking to Carradine, who introduced her to the theory that Sir Francis Bacon or someone other than the man from Stratford-on-Avon actually wrote the plays of William Shakespeare.

“I was fascinated by that,” recalled Platt. “So for five weeks we were in corners talking about Shakespeare, and this irritated Donny. He couldn’t stand it.”

During filming, Trevor recalled, cast members received word that they were to appear at a benefit at the Shrine Auditorium.

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The idea was for the actors to make their entrance on stage in the stagecoach. But by the time they got to the Shrine, Trevor said, “nobody wanted to sit inside the coach. Everyone wanted to sit on top. John Carradine, Louise Platt and I were the only ones inside.”

As they waited off stage, someone shot a gun loaded with a blank and the six horses bolted, running straight across the stage toward a group of “Meglin Kiddies,” a troupe of child performers who were standing in the wings.

Said Trevor with a laugh: “Those horses had to be turned around and the stagecoach had to be turned around and we had to enter again.”

“Stagecoach” hit theaters the first week of March 1939, but Trevor and other cast members had attended the press preview at the Fox Westwood Theatre four weeks earlier.

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“I usually hate to see myself, but in this picture, I forgot I was in it,” Trevor said. “The picture lifted me up and took me on this wonderful trip. I was overcome by the picture.

“Walking out, [Hollywood columnist] Jimmy Starr said to me, ‘That’s a pretty good western.’ I almost hit him in the face. I said, ‘A western? It’s a classic. It’s a fabulous picture. The dialogue; not one word was extra. Every character was right and beautifully drawn.” Platt at the time thought Wayne brought a “newness” to the screen, and Ford told her he thought Wayne would become “a big star.”

“But I have to tell you, I thought it was Claire’s movie,” Platt said. “I thought she was wonderful in it.”

One of Platt’s favorite scenes occurs after her character gives birth in the stagecoach way station and Trevor comes out holding the baby and says, “It’s a little girl.”

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“That scene was so beautifully lighted, with her eyes sparkling, and she did it so beautifully,” Platt said. “You know she’s going to be a warm, wonderful mother and wife and any man would be lucky to get her--and it’s just that one line. To me, that’s magic.”

The scene is one of Trevor’s favorites too.

“Great close-ups,” she said as the scene unfolded on her TV screen and the Ringo Kid walked down a hallway to rendezvous with Dallas in the moonlight.

“Look at the long legs,” Trevor added, the sight of the youthfully lanky Wayne conjuring up one last memory and another chuckle: “Louise Platt said at the time, ‘I think he has the most beautiful buttocks I have ever seen.’ ”

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