secret that John Ford’s 1939 Western classic Stagecoach was based on a magazine story by Ernest Haycox called
“Stage to Lordsburg.” Until this month I’d never read any fiction by that
author, but a friend recommended Bugles
in the Afternoon, which inspired a mediocre 1952 movie starring Ray Milland
and directed by Roy Rowland. The story takes place ten years after the Civil
War and deals with a man who enlists in the U.S. Cavalry at a remote outpost in
North Dakota, little dreaming that he will be a participant in the battle of Little
Big Horn. He is deliberately quiet about his past, including a blood feud that
drove him out of the Army a decade ago and soured him on women.
There’s nothing much to recommend about the movie, a standard-issue Warner Bros. production with a capable cast, credited to two experienced screenwriters: Geoffrey Homes (a pseudonym for Daniel Mainwaring) and Harry Brown. But the book is a revelation.
Not only does Haycox understand the disposition of career soldiers and the mundane but revealing details of life at a dusty fort: he knows the West, from its appearance to its smells, from sun-up to sundown. He is a keen observer of human nature, to boot. One wouldn’t seek out a “Western writer” for nuanced prose about the looks that pass between a man and woman—what they tell, and what they withhold—but Haycox is a masterful weaver of words.
Here’s how his book opens, with a chapter titled “That Bright Day—That Far Land:" "The town had a name but no shape, no street, no core. It was simply five buildings, flung without thought upon the dusty prairie at the eastern edge of Dakota, and these stood gaunt and hard-angled against the last of day’s streaming sunlight. The railroad, which gave the town a single pulse beat once a day, came as a black ribbon out of emptiness, touched this Corapolis with hurried indifference, and moved away into equal emptiness. The five buildings were alone in a gray-yellow space which ran outward in all directions, so empty that the tiring eye never saw where earth ended and sky began. There were no trees in this world, no accents, no relieving interruptions; nothing but the gray soil rolling on and a short brown grass turned crisp and now ready to fade when winter temperatures touched it.”
It’s at this remote weigh station that we’re introduced to the hero and heroine who happen to be traveling West on the same stagecoach.
I enjoyed the book so much I dove into another of his novels right away: Canyon Passage became a movie in 1946 starring Dana Andrews, Susan Hayward and Brian Donlevy, adapted by Ernest Pascal and directed by Jacques Tourneur. I haven’t seen it in many years; I remember it being good, but I doubt that it can compare to the feast that Haycox provides on the printed page. His characters soar with life and never fall into the realm of stereotype; they are a mass of contradictions, for this man truly understands human nature.
Another friend who shares my passion for old-time radio suggested I read Frederic Wakeman’s best-seller The Hucksters, which MGM adapted in 1947. Having revisited the film just months ago (thanks to a recent release by Warner Archive), I was keen to see how the book differed. The story takes place in the waning days of World War Two, and its protagonist, who’s just returned to civilian life after working for the Office of War Information, has no use for rationing and other such annoyances. For instance, he expects his secretary to do whatever is necessary to book him the proper accommodations for his trip to the West Coast.
The narrator explains, “Now that airplanes were impossible to ride without priorities, it was again fashionable to ride the Twentieth Century Limited and the Santa Fe Chief or Super Chief for the trip between coasts. All the radio and movie people spent a lot of time, thought, and bribe money finagling space on those deluxe trains. One of the reasons was that you traveled with your own kind. Especially on the Super Chief, which was a sort of exclusive club for the Hollywood-New York commuters. It was one of the symbols of the entertainment fraternity, like gold Dunhill lighters, glossy women and hand-painted neckties.”
Naturally, the novel is much more frank about sexual matters and even deals briefly with anti-Semitism. But I was pleasantly surprised to see how skillfully Luther Davis, Edward Chodorov and George Wells maintained the thrust of the novel in their screenplay, while devising a new and (to my mind) improved love story to replace the lackluster one in the book.
Wakeman was one of the 1940s “Mad Men” who decided to expose the advertising game and with it the inner workings of network radio, which was under the control of ad agencies back then. Much of this is maintained in the film, including the portrayal of an outrageously despotic soap manufacturer played by Sydney Greenstreet—and based on American Tobacco’s notorious George Washington Hill. (MGM was not inclined to replicate another character plainly inspired by MCA’s Jules Stein, however.) The film is well-cast up and down the line, with perfect parts for two leading ladies, Deborah Kerr and Ava Gardner. Reading the novel, I couldn’t help but picture Adolphe Menjou as Clark Gable’s business partner; that’s how perfectly suited he is to that character.
This is a rare instance where Hollywood was forced to sanitize a candid and racy book but managed to maintain its cynical tone.
Nowadays, if I know that film rights have been optioned for a novel, I usually avoid reading it. I don’t want to be forced to make comparisons; I’d rather form an independent opinion of the movie. But dipping back into the past and making those comparisons has proven to be a refreshing and rewarding experience.