“There are worse things than Apaches,” says Dallas, a fallen woman, looking out at the row of tight-lipped, righteous ladies who are running her out of town. It’s the kind of line and scene that makes me wish modern blockbusters gave women more to do. I just finished watching John Ford’s Stagecoach (1939), a gorgeously-shot film rife with cringe-inducing racial and regional stereotypes that somehow managed to portray the women in it (well, white women) as complicated people. It’s the story of a bunch of passengers — a banker, a lady, a tramp, a Southern gentleman, a whiskey salesman, and a drunk (guess who he sits next to) — traveling in a stagecoach through hostile Indian territory. They are joined by an outlaw, the Ringo Kid, thereby completing the cross-section of society necessary for the film to make all its points about the essential goodness of people, class and station notwithstanding.
Everyone is in this picture and each is doing the thing s/he did the best: John Wayne is the leading man (his breakout role), John Carradine is dastardly, Andy Devine is a dumbass sidekick, Thomas Mitchell (you know who he is, trust me) plays a drunk…again, and Claire Trevor is the prostitute. Ah, Claire Trevor. There’s nothing that woman couldn’t do. She could be cutting, sympathetic, damaged, scheming, bad, mean, sexy, and tired — but always real, human, and female. Nobody writes women like that much anymore and it’s criminal. Sure, a gal would fall in love with a guy she’s only known for 45 minutes and who’s kind of mean to her — just like in today’s pictures — but back then she made you believe it.
Claire Trevor had the kind of career most women of her time had. She worked steadily in substantial roles until she hit a certain age (mine), then shifted to stage or took ever-diminishing secondary roles until the mid-1960s when she dropped out of sight. She reappeared in the 1980s when the likes of Love Boat and Murder She Wrote found something for a woman of 70+ to do.
If you’re interested in Claire Trevor, I recommend Key Largo (1948), because it’s easy to rent and she got an Academy Award for her portrayal of Gaye Dawn, Edward G. Robinson‘s drunken mistress. She’s a peach.