Popinjay's and shaketails

Popinjays and Shake-tails

by digby

A reader sent in this blog post at bright lights after dark about John Ford's epic western Stagecoach, a movie which I've seen a half dozen times, but failed to recall its memorable speech by "the banker" Henry Gatewood:

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):

Henry Gatewood: [clutching valise with embezzled funds] I can't get over the impertinence of that young lieutenant. I'll make it warm for that shake-tail! I'll report him to Washington - we pay taxes to the government and what do we get? Not even protection from the army!

I don't know what the government is coming to. Instead of protecting businessmen, it pokes its nose into business! Why, they're even talking now about having *bank* examiners. As if we bankers don't know how to run our own banks! Why, at home I have a letter from a popinjay official saying they were going to inspect my books.

I have a slogan that should be blazoned on every newspaper in this country: America for the Americans! The government must not interfere with business! Reduce taxes! Our national debt is something shocking. Over one billion dollars a year! What this country needs is a businessman for president!

Of course during that era, and for decades after, that character was considered to be an ass by virtually everyone. People knew very well who the enemy was. Today, he would be a Galtian hero and a prime candidate for elective office. The press would consider him a deep thinker and highly influential voice on the economy.

The funny thing is that John Ford is one of the people who created the "America" these people think used to exist. His myth of the West and the cowboy individualist forms the basis of their own self-image as self-reliant loners who don't need help or interference from the government. They never really understood it.

As the author of the piece observes:

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.