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Like most young actresses starting out with a studio contract during Hollywood's golden age, Donna Reed had to pay her dues with leading roles in low-budget genre films like the 1942 Western Apache Trail. Although far from her Oscar®-winning turn as the small-town girl turned "hostess" in From Here to Eternity (1953), parts like the Spanish-American beauty Rosalia gave her training and exposure, while MGM got a rousing second feature and the chance to see how audiences responded to the young actress. But though she carried the film's love story -- a triangle involving her, as the daughter of the cook at a stagecoach station, with stagecoach guard William Lundigan and gold-digging widow Ann Ayars -- the real focus was the relationship between Lundigan and his outlaw brother, Lloyd Nolan. All four principal actors were contract players in their early years at MGM.
Writer Ernest Haycox's story "Stage to Lordsburg" and his novel Trouble Shooters had been instrumental in the box-office revival of the big-budget Western in 1939, serving as the sources for Stagecoach and Union Pacific, respectively. So, when his story "Stage Station" appeared in Collier's Magazine in April of that year, it was snapped up by independent producer Samuel Goldwyn. After commissioning a treatment from Haycox, Goldwyn sold the package to MGM two years later. Originally, Apache Trail seemed slated as a vehicle for Hedy Lamarr, who was announced to star, along with John Carroll, later that month. By December, however, the focus had shifted to the good and bad brothers, roles announced for Robert Taylor and Wallace Beery. By the time the film went into production in March 1942, however, the leading roles had been earmarked for the studio's less-established players.
Richard Rosson was the first director assigned to the film, and he shepherded it through pre-production and the first month of shooting. During that time, Reed's character underwent a nationality change at the urging of the Production Code Administration. Concerned that presenting Rosalia and her mother (played by Connie Gilchrist) as servants would offend Latin American audiences (an important demographic at the start of World War II), the PCA suggested MGM make them Spanish and avoid presenting them "in such a matter that might make them appear grotesque, inferior or servile." That sensitivity did not, apparently, extend to the Native American characters. Although the Apaches at least have a reason for their attack on the station - Nolan's character has murdered some of their tribesmen - the film was promoted with a tagline that seems unbelievably racist by contemporary standards: "The Apaches are coming!...and a group of whites, joined by fate, battle for survival."
Apache Trail featured exterior footage shot near Tucson, Arizona, where MGM built a complete stage station. Then production moved to the studio for most of the shoot on a set supervised by art director Cedric Gibbons. In addition, the picture used stock footage originally shot for Stagecoach. After a month of shooting, Rosson fell ill and was replaced by Richard Thorpe, who was given sole directing credit despite the fact that he had only worked on the film for about two weeks.
The film received respectable reviews, with Variety commenting that Reed, Nolan and Lundigan "all acquit themselves well." Reed certainly did well enough to stay at the studio through her seven-year contract, though she would grow to resent her type-casting in good girl roles. Her romantic rival in the film, Ayars, wouldn't continue at MGM. After a few films, she left for New York to pursue a singing career, eventually becoming one of the leading sopranos at the New York City Opera. She would return to films in 1951 as one of the lead singers in Michael Powell's production of The Tales of Hoffmann. MGM returned to Haycox's story in 1952 for Apache War Smoke, though the remake only retained the idea of Apaches laying siege to a stage station because somebody there had murdered some tribe members. Instead of a sibling rivalry, the film featured Gilbert Roland as a reformed bandit and Robert Horton as his son, the station master. Reed's character was nowhere in sight.
Producer: Samuel Marx
Director: Richard Thorpe
Screenplay: Maurice Geraghty
Based on the short story "Stage Station" by Ernest Haycox
Cinematography: Sidney Wagner
Art Direction: Cedric Gibbons, Stan Rogers
Music: Sol Kaplan
Cast: Lloyd Nolan ("Trigger" Bill Folliard), Donna Reed (Rosalie Martinez), William Lundigan (Tom Folliard), Ann Ayars (Constance Selden), Connie Gilchrist (Senora Martinez), Chill Wills ("Pike" Skelton), Miles Mander (James V. Thorne), Gloria Holden (Mrs. James V. Thorne), Ray Teal (Ed Cotton), Grant Withers (Lestrade), Fuzzy Knight ("Juke"), Byron Foulger (Clerk).BW-66m.
by Frank Miller