Tag Archives: Gary Cooper

The Virginian (1929)

Nicholas Chennault ~ August 28, 2016

The Virginian (1929)—Gary Cooper, Mary Brian, Richard Arlen, Walter Huston, Eugene Pallette, Chester Conklin, Jack Pennick, Randolph Scott, Charles Stevens (1929; Dir:  Victor Fleming)

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This early talkie version of Owen Wister’s oft-refilmed 1902 western novel provides Gary Cooper with one of his signature roles in westerns, along with perhaps The Plainsman and High Noon.  At 28, he had been appearing in movies for about five years, many of them westerns.  And he had broken through to initial stardom with his role in The Winning of Barbara Worth (1926), a western of sorts.  A lanky native of Montana, he proved to be a natural in westerns, starring in many of them for the rest of his career.  Although the tale seems old-fashioned now and provides the basis for some of the oldest clichés in westerns, many think this 1929 film is the best version of the story on film.  It was also the first major sound film to be shot outdoors, made on location in Sonora, California.

Most fans of westerns will be familiar with the outlines of the story.  Beautiful young Molly Stark Wood from Vermont comes west to Wyoming Territory to teach at a remote school.  The biggest rancher in the vicinity is Judge Henry, but despite his title there is little law in the territory.  Molly (Mary Brian) meets Judge Henry’s foreman, known only as the Virginian (Gary Cooper), and his sunny-tempered friend Steve (Richard Arlen).  Originally put off by the Virginian’s informality, Molly nevertheless develops an affection for him.

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The Virginian (Gary Cooper) and Trampas (Walter Huston): “If you want to call me that, smile.”

That affection is tested twice.  In the first instance, Steve is corrupted by the rustler Trampas (Walter Huston).  When Judge Henry’s riders capture three of Trampas’ rustlers red-handed, one of them turns out to be Steve.  According to the rules of the time, they are all hanged, and the Virginian takes after Trampas.  As he tracks the rustler chief, Trampas shoots him in the back from ambush.  The Virginian’s horse takes him to the school, and Molly nurses him back to health, only to be horrified when she learns that he led those who hanged his friend Steve.

They manage to get past that, but on their wedding day in Medicine Bow, Trampas shows up in town and orders the Virginian out of town by sundown.  He actually says that the town isn’t big enough for both of them.  Molly tries ineffectively to talk her man out of doing what we all know he has to do.  As the sun goes down, Trampas shoots first, again from ambush, and the Virginian returns fire in a classic street shootout.  As the Virginian returns to Molly at their hotel, they fall into each other’s arms and the film ends.

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Molly (Mary Brian) reasons with the Virginian, to no avail.  And Trampas (Walter Huston) shoots the Virginian in the back from ambush.

The production seems a bit stilted by today’s standards, and the makeup (especially on Brian and Cooper) is clearly of the 1920s.  But this is still a very good western.  There has probably never been a better Virginian on film than the young Cooper, and the film made Cooper a bigger star.  This was his second talking western, after Wolf Song, also directed by Fleming.  He reportedly had trouble remembering his lines, now that he actually had to say lines.  The most difficult part in this story is usually that of Molly, who can easily seem priggish and overly Victorian to current audiences.  Mary Brian is adequate and sometimes spirited in her way, especially when compared with, say, Barbara Britton from the 1946 film version with Joel McCrea.

The supporting cast is very good, too.  Richard Arlen is good at showing Steve’s good nature and making him sympathetic as he falls under Trampas’ sway.  At the time this was made, Walter Huston was better known than Cooper, mostly from working on Broadway; he was paid $20,000 to Cooper’s $3,400.  (Director Victor Fleming was paid $75,000, so we know who had the real clout here.  A prominent director since 1919, Fleming, of course, was connected with some of the best-remembered films of the 1930s and into the 1940s, such as Captains Courageous, The Wizard of Oz, Gone With the Wind and A Guy Named Joe—hardly any of them westerns.)

Rotund, gravel-voiced Eugene Pallette is one of the Virginian’s principal supporters in the film.  You’ll recognize him from the later Errol Flynn version of Robin Hood and the Tyrone Power version of The Mark of Zorro.  Silent comedian Chester Conklin makes a fleeting appearance.  Geronimo’s grandson Charles Stevens is in the cast as a Mexican.  North Carolina native Randolph Scott worked on the film as a dialect coach teaching Cooper how to speak as if he were from Virginia, and in a brief non-speaking part early in his career.  There had been earlier silent versions of the story in 1914 and 1923, but this one is better.  The film is in black and white, at 91 minutes.

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Initially Molly (Mary Brain) is torn between the Virginian (Gary Cooper, left) and his pal Steve (Richard Arlen, right), but she chooses well.

This is probably one of the three foundational westerns from the 1920s.  If you want to see how many of the tropes, archetypes and lore of the modern western were developed, watch The Covered Wagon, The Iron Horse and this.  If you want to watch Cooper in another western from the early talking-movies stage of his career, try Fighting Caravans (1931).  If you want to watch another version of The Virginian for purposes of comparison, try Bill Pullman’s television version from 2000 with Diane Lane, which tries to make the language and situations more relatable to modern audiences, with some success.  The 1946 remake with Joel McCrea, Barbara Britton and Brian Donlevy is less successful.

This can be very difficult to find, since it’s not available on DVD.  Sometimes you can catch it on TCM or on the Starz Encore Westerns channel, and it’s said to be on YouTube.

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Shooting Stars, Part 1

Nicholas Chennault ~ April 13, 2015

Shooting Stars: A Ranking of the 29 Greatest Western Actors Since 1939
Part 1—The Top Five

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1.  John Wayne  [The Big Trail, Stagecoach, Red River, Fort Apache, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, Rio Grande, Angel and the Badman, The Searchers, Rio Bravo, The Horse Soldiers, The Alamo, North to Alaska, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, McLintock!, The Sons of Katie Elder, The Comancheros, El Dorado, The War Wagon, Chisum, Cahill US Marshal, Rio Lobo, The Train Robbers, Big Jake, The Cowboys, The Shootist, et al.]

Wayne’s image is the first that comes to mind when we consider westerns between 1939 and the present.  He made many forgettable westerns while learning his craft during the 1930s in low-budget quickies, but beginning with Stagecoach in 1939 he made a surprising number of appearances in really good westerns.  While his career in westerns included a number of duds and clunkers, particularly toward the end (The Undefeated, Rio Lobo, The Train Robbers, etc.), for a long period he was consistently good—and often great.

Although, like most male stars, he sometimes seemed to show up in roles too young for him as he aged, he was more successful than most at playing age-appropriate roles as he grew older.  He successfully played older than he was in Red River and She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, and he moved into more mature roles naturally in The Searchers and Rio Bravo.  (He’s probably too old for Angie Dickinson in Rio Bravo, but somehow it works.)  He even made a couple of great westerns during the final stage of his career (The Cowboys, The Shootist).

Some of his position at the top of this list is due to his long-time relationship with John Ford, the greatest director of westerns, which helped both of them earn their pre-eminence in the field.  But he also made very good westerns with directors Howard Hawks, John Farrow, Don Siegel and others.

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2.  Clint Eastwood  [A Fistful of Dollars, For a Few Dollars More, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, Hang ‘Em High, Paint Your Wagon, High Plains Drifter, The Beguiled, Joe Kidd, Two Mules for Sister Sara, The Outlaw Josey Wales, Bronco Billy, Pale Rider, Unforgiven; Rawhide on television]

Eastwood is the greatest living star in westerns, although he is now in his 80s and is unlikely to make any more westerns either as a leading man or as a director.  Remarkably, he accomplished this mostly during a period when westerns were out of cinematic fashion; although he didn’t appear in nearly the number of westerns John Wayne did, his high position on the list results from the unusually high quality of the few westerns he did make.  Beginning with his central role in Sergio Leone’s influential Man With No Name Trilogy in the 1960s, he went on to appear in good westerns in the 1970s (Hang ‘Em High, for example) and to direct better ones with himself as the star (High Plains Drifter, The Outlaw Josey Wales, Pale Rider, Unforgiven).  Director Eastwood benefited from having an iconic western star (actor Eastwood) at the center of his films, and he knew how to use him.

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3.  James Stewart  [Destry Rides Again, Winchester ’73, The Naked Spur, The Man from Laramie, Night Passage, Two Rode Together, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, Bend of the River, The Far Country, Shenandoah, How the West Was Won, Firecreek, The Rare Breed, Bandolero!, The Cheyenne Social Club, The Shootist, et al.]

Before leaving for World War II, he made his reputation in modern films by Frank Capra and The Philadelphia Story (1940), directed by George Cukor.  His only western in that period was 1939’s Destry Rides Again.  Upon returning from the war, he revived his film career once again with Capra (It’s a Wonderful Life) and by working with such directors as Alfred Hitchcock, Delmer Daves and Anthony Mann.  His high position on this list is due to the five films he made with Mann, in which he usually played a character on the psychological edge in some way.  Between them, Mann and Stewart re-defined in many ways the world of western movies and the stories they told.  The quality of westerns he made in the 1960s after his relationship with Mann fell apart tails off noticeably, although he made three late westerns with John Ford, one of which is particularly memorable (The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance).

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4.  Gary Cooper  [The Virginian (1930),The Spoilers (1930), Fighting Caravans, The Plainsman, The Westerner, Along Came Jones, Dallas, High Noon, Garden of Evil, Springfield Rifle, Vera Cruz, Man of the West, The Hanging Tree, They Came to Cordura, etc.]

Dave Kehr sees him as John Wayne’s principal rival.  “Cooper, for whom the words lanky and laconic seem to have been invented, was identified by the Department of the Treasury as the nation’s highest paid wage earner in 1939….the mildly satiric Westerner (William Wyler, 1940) already finds Cooper playing an inflated archetype — the Man of the West — rather than a character, much as he would in his most overrated film, Fred Zinnemann’s didactic political fable High Noon (1952).”

In his biography of Gary Cooper, Gary Cooper, American Hero (Robert Hale, London, 2001), Jeffrey Myers quotes Robert Warshow’s essay on westerns:  “The romantic image of the cowboy as the embodiment of male freedom, courage and honor was created by men who had lived a rugged life in the West:  in words by Teddy Roosevelt and Owen Wister, in art by Frederic Remington and Charles Russell, and in film, preeminently, by Gary Cooper.”  Cooper was an authentic westerner from Montana, and he had a natural way with western roles.  Cooper would challenge John Wayne for the top spot on this list, except that he didn’t make many westerns during the 1940s when his career was at its peak.  His reputation in westerns was substantially made by movies released before 1939, until he revived his career in the 1950s beginning with High Noon.  One consequence of this career arc is that in several of his best westerns from the 1950s he seems too old for the roles in which he’s cast.  He’s good enough that we mostly look past that, though.

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5.  Robert Duvall  [True Grit, Lawman, The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid, Joe Kidd, Tender Mercies, Lonesome Dove, Geronimo: An American Legend, Broken Trail, Open Range]

His position on this list comes from what Duvall refers to as his Trail Boss Trilogy (Lonesome Dove, Broken Trail, Open Range).  In all of them he plays a trail boss moving his herd somewhere against considerable obstacles.  These three are of surprisingly high quality, despite the fact that two of them were not movies but were made-for-television miniseries.  Like Wayne, Eastwood and Stewart, Duvall has benefited from working with unusually capable directors of westerns, John Sturges, Simon Wincer, Walter Hill and Kevin Costner among them.  His Augustus McCrae (Lonesome Dove) is one of the most indelible characters in the history of westerns.

At an age similar to Eastwood’s, his career also took place largely during a period when not many westerns were made.  His Best Actor Oscar comes from a modern western of sorts; he played country singer Mac Sledge in Tender Mercies (1983).  If you like him in more traditional westerns, give Tender Mercies a try.  He is one of the pre-eminent movie actors of his time generally, not just in westerns.  Unlike the others this high on the list, he has seldom played a conventional romantic lead.

To continue the list of top stars in westerns, see Shooting Stars, Part 2 and Shooting Stars, Part 3.

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Fighting Caravans

Nicholas Chennault ~ December 29, 2014

Fighting Caravans—Gary Cooper, Lili Damita, Ernest Torrence, Tully Marshall, Eugene Pallette (1931; Dir: Otto Brower, David Burton)

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During the first half of the 20th century, Ohio-born dentist Zane Grey was the best-selling author of wildly popular novels, most of them set in the American west.  Beginning with Riders of the Purple Sage in 1912, the public had an apparently unquenchable appetite for his stories.  His 1929 novel Fighting Caravans was hot off the presses when this western was made based on it.  In all, as of 2012 112 western movies had been based on his works.

In 1931, Gary Cooper was an up-and-coming star in Hollywood at the age of 30.  His breakthough had come in 1926’s silent movie The Winning of Barbara Worth, a sort of western about the reclamation of California’s Imperial Valley.  He had always done westerns, including early sound versions of The Virginian (1929, now thought to be lost) and The Spoilers (1930), among others.  In 1930 he had appeared as the romantic lead in the popular Morocco, along with Marlene Dietrich.  Cooper had made it.  He was the biggest name in Fighting Caravans.  In the early sound era of the 1930s, most westerns were B-movies, quickly and cheaply made with poor writing and routine direction.  They had no cinematic prestige.  Fighting Caravans was more ambitious, shot on location in Sonora, California, with a big star like Cooper.

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Bill Jackson (Ernest Torrence, left) and Jim Bridger (Tully Marshall, right) connive to get Clint (Gary Cooper) and Felice (Lili Damita) together and then to keep them apart.

In the Civil War era (1862), a wagon train is about to leave Independence, Missouri, bound for Sacramento in California.  Scout Clint Belmet, who tends to drink too much and raise hell in a recreational sort of way, is being held by the local marshal.  Belmet’s mentors, old scouts Bill Jackson (Ernest Torrence) and Jim Bridger (Tully Marshall) persuade Felice (Lili Damita), a young French woman with a wagon train that is about to leave, that she will be left behind if she has no man to help her, so she tells the marshal that she and Belmet were married the previous night.  Belmet is released, and he and his two older friends arrange to scout for Felice’s wagon train.

Although he is not interested in marriage, Belmet finds that he is interested in Felice.  The old scouts scheme to break them up, so Belmet will maintain his freedom and remain with them.   Ultimately, Felice and Belmet have a falling-out over his refusal to contemplate marriage and family life.  Meanwhile, the wagon train is hounded by Kiowas, which is unusual on the Oregon-California Trail; the Kiowas ranged farther south and were much more likely to be found in the areas of Texas, Oklahoma and New Mexico, near the Santa Fe Trail.  Belmet leaves the wagon train because of Felice, but he, Jackson and Bridger rejoin it when they see an Indian attack coming, inspired by white renegades.

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Belmet (Gary Cooper) takes aim at hostile Kiowas; Felice (Lili Damita) and Belmet (Cooper) have a difference of opinion.

Bridger and Jackson are among those holding off the Indians at a river crossing while the last of the wagons get over.  They are killed, but Belmet scares off the Indians by exploding a wagonload of gunpowder.  Later, Felice loses control of her wagon heading down a steep incline, and Belmet saves her.  The train makes its way over snowy passes and finally to its destination, where we get the following sophisticated multilingual exchange:

Clint Belmet:  “I’m asking you a question and the answer can’t be maybe.  I’m asking you straight out—will you marry me?  Yes or no?”
Felice:  “Oui, Monsieur!”
Clint Belmet:  “Huh?”

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A couple of shots of Cooper behind the scenes.

The obvious comparison for this film is with The Big Trail, made the previous year with larger-than-usual ambitions.  Both are wagon train westerns from the early sound era, with virtually the same plot–getting from Missouri to northern California, with a young scout.  The Big Trail, in which director Raoul Walsh was experimenting with making a 70 mm. movie, bombed at the box office because theaters didn’t have the equipment to show it, but it was superior visually.  Fighting Caravans, with its more prominent star, did much better commercially.  The Big Trail was supposed to make John Wayne a star; it didn’t because few saw it, but he wasn’t bad.  Compare his straight-ahead acting with the hokiness of Gary Cooper in Fighting Caravans, although some of that is the result of the writing.  Tully Marshall plays the scout/wagonmaster’s mentor in both films, but he’s more significant in The Big Trail.  Film technology of the early sound era makes both movies seem somewhat dated, but the dialogue and social attitudes (heavy recreational drinking as one of life’s prime objectives, for example) of Fighting Caravans have aged more.  There’s a certain amount of overacting in both.  The lively Lili Damita (who became Errol Flynn’s first wife in 1935) is more interesting than Marguerite Churchill as the romantic object of John Wayne’s attentions in The Big Trail.  Taken as a whole, The Big Trail is longer, better and more significant in the history of western movies.  The principal reason for watching Fighting Caravans now is to see Gary Cooper, one of the greatest of western stars, in the early stage of his career.

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Lili Damita joins a string of French women in westerns:  Denise Darcel in Westward the Women (1951) and Vera Cruz (1954), Nicole Maurey in The Jayhawkers (1959), and Capucine in North to Alaska (supposedly from New Orleans), 1960.  She can hold up her head in that company.  Gravel-voiced Eugene Pallette, who would show up later in the decade as Friar Tuck to Errol Flynn’s Robin Hood and a Mexican soldier in The Mark of Zorro, is mild comic relief here.

The original title of the production was Blazing Arrows.  Three years later, a lower-budget remake was released as Wagon Wheels, using stock footage from Fighting Caravans and with Randolph Scott in the Clint Belmet role.  Filmed in black and white on location near Sonora, California, at 81 minutes.

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Unconquered

Nicholas Chennault ~ November 17, 2014

Unconquered—Gary Cooper, Paulette Goddard, Howard Da Silva, Ward Bond, Boris Karloff, Mike Mazurki, Katherine DeMille, Cecil Kellaway (1947; Dir: Cecil B. DeMille)

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Gary Cooper had made a reputation in a variety of film genres in the 1920s and 1930s, including upscale westerns.  By the 1940s he was among the biggest stars in Hollywood, and he only made four westerns during the decade:  The Westerner and North West Mounted Police in 1940, Along Came Jones in 1945 and Unconquered in 1947.  North West Mounted Police and Unconquered were not the low-budget productions typical of the genre then.  They were directed by Cecil B. DeMille, and Unconquered was DeMille’s usual self-conscious epic, made with a large budget, in color and with a long playing time of 146 minutes.

Unconquered begins in 1763, the time of Pontiac’s Uprising in the northwest frontier of Britain’s American colonies, more than a decade before the Revolution.  Comely young English woman Abigail Hale (Paulette Goddard) is sentenced to death or transportation to the colonies in indentured servitude for helping her dying brother resist impressment into the Royal Navy.  She chooses transportation.  As the ship carrying her and other convicts nears the colonies, Abby attracts the interest of smooth but nefarious Indian trader Martin Garth (Howard Da Silva), who bullies the slave trader on the ship into auctioning her prematurely.  Unexpectedly, she is bought by Virginia militia Capt. Christopher Holden (Gary Cooper, not young at 46), who distrusts and wants to frustrate Garth.  Holden arranges for her to receive her freedom when he leaves the ship the next day, since he’s meeting his fiancée.

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Abby (Paulette Goddard) catches the eye of Indian trader Martin Garth (Howard Da Silva).

Holden’s plans go astray.  His fiancée Diana (Virginia Grey) reveals that she has married Holden’s brother, and Garth bullies the slave trader into giving him Abby’s freedom papers and reselling her to his henchman Bone (Mike Mazurki).  Holden ends up inland at the Peaketown Fair, where he meets his blacksmith friend John Fraser (Ward Bond), sees Abby again, meets with Col. George Washington (Richard Gaines) and Sir William Johnson, the King’s premier Indian agent.  They hear of Pontiac’s plans to inflame the northwestern tribes (western Senecas, Shawnees, Ottawas) in the western Pennsylvania, Ohio and Michigan areas.  Holden agrees to carry wampum belts inviting the chiefs to a meeting, although he knows Garth’s Indian allies will be trying to kill him.  They do get his two scout comrades, but Holden makes it to Fort Pitt in western Pennsylvania.

There he finds the garrison is both depleted and reluctant to believe him.  He also finds Abby working in Bone’s tavern, and he abducts her to use as bait for Garth.  At a ball, Holden manages to challenge Garth to a duel, but Garth and Bone make off with Abby to the camp of Guyasuta (Boris Karloff), chief of the western Senecas and Garth’s father-in-law.  They leave Abby with Guyasuta, but his warriors and women begin to torture her.  Holden finds her and uses apparent magic (gunpowder explosions, a compass) get her released.  Pursued by Guyasuta’s warriors, they head downriver in a canoe, shooting rapids and going over a waterfall where Holden arranges a wildly improbable grab of a conveniently overhanging tree branch just in time.

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Abby (Paulette Goddard) and Holden (Gary Cooper) head for the falls.

As they make their way to the fort at Venango, Holden and Abby find evidence of Indian raids and slaughtered settlers.  At Venango, evidence suggests that the fort surrendered when given promises of mercy but the inhabitants were slaughtered by the Indians anyway.  However, the garrison at Fort Pitt refuses to believe them, and Holden is court-martialed and imprisoned.  Abby promises Garth she’ll stay with him if he’ll arrange for Holden’s escape.  He does, but also arranges for sharpshooters to ambush Holden during the escape.  Garth’s spurned Seneca wife Hannah (Katherine DeMille, Cecil’s daughter) re-directs Holden but is shot herself.

Holden makes it to Col Henry Bouquet at Bushy Run looking for reinforcements for Fort Pitt, but finds Bouquet’s ranks depleted, too.  He arranges to borrow Bouquet’s drummers and pipers and a hundred dead men, using them to feign a relief column to chase off the Senecas now besieging Fort Pitt just as Fort Pitt is on the verge of surrendering as Venango did.  As Garth and Bone try to escape with Abby, Holden catches them in a stable and finally shoots it out with Garth.

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Holden (Gary Cooper) has it out with Garth (Howard Da Silva), as Bone (Mike Mazurki) and Abby (Paulette Goddard) look on.

Although this is watchable, it has a few elements that don’t work well with modern audiences.  The color cinematography by Ray Rennahan is excellent.  The heavy-handed introductory narration and the dialogue can be clunky, and the Indians are mostly evil stereotypes, as one might guess from the casting of Karloff.  Some critics at the time referred to this as “The Perils of Paulette,” because of the way she seems to move from crisis to crisis.  The production design is good; DeMille gets the uniforms, forts and firearms right.  Cooper and Goddard are both a little old for their roles, but they work well enough.  Goddard had several fights with DeMille during filming, and he would never cast her again in one of his movies.  Her accent in this film is decidedly not English.  This was also the last of Cooper’s four films with DeMille.  Howard Da Silva makes an excellent villain.  In his memoirs, DeMille said that he was not completely satisfied with the ending and thought it needed to be stronger.

By this time, Cecil B. DeMille had been making westerns for more than thirty years, since The Squaw Man in 1914, the first feature-length movie of any kind.  This was his last western, but not his best.  Both The Plainsman (1936) and Union Pacific (1941) are watched more than North West Mounted Police (1940) and this.  Unconquered was based on Neil Swanson’s novel The Judas Tree; he also wrote Allegheny Uprising, another colonial-period western starring John Wayne and Clair Trevor.  The river scenes were shot on the Snake River in Idaho, and look very good.  Iron Eyes Cody is both in the cast and listed as an Indian language consultant, but we now know that Cody, despite making a career as a cinematic, advertising and television Indian, was in fact the son of Sicilian immigrants.

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Guyasuta (Boris Karloff) with daughter Hannah (Katherine DeMIlle); and Cecil B. DeMille directs Paulette Goddard in her bath scene.

Although Pontiac never actually shows up in this film, the traditional historical work on his wars is Francis Parkman’s The Conspiracy of Pontiac, first published in 1851 but still readable.  Guyasuta was not the unrelievedly evil character depicted here although he consistently opposed the expansion of American settlement in the Ohio country.  For a recent biography see Brady Crytzer’s Guyasuta and the Fall of Indian America (2013), which not only describes his role in Braddock’s defeat, Pontiac’s uprising and the Battle of Bushy Run as mentioned in this film, but takes him all the way up through the American Revolution and the Battle of Oriskany (see Drums Along the Mohawk) to his participation in the Indian defeat at the Battle of Fallen Timbers in 1794 by Mad Anthony Wayne.  For a description of the situation on the American frontier in 1763, see Colin Callaway’s The Scratch of a Pen: 1763 and the Transformation of North America (2006).

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Friendly Persuasion

Nicholas Chennault ~ September 10, 2014

Friendly Persuasion—Gary Cooper, Dorothy McGuire, Anthony Perkins, Robert Middleton, Phyllis Love (1956; Dir: William Wyler)

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Not much of a western, this slow-moving story of a family of Quakers during the Civil War is set in southern Indiana.  The father is Jess Birdwell (Gary Cooper, looking pretty old for the part at 55 but a good actor; even at his age he didn’t want to play the father of grown-up children as he does here).  The mother and authority figure is Eliza Birdwell (Dorothy McGuire, effective in an unusually sedate role for her), a frequent preacher in the local Quaker congregation.  The Quakers are determined pacifists in a world spinning toward conflict in the Civil War.

“I want you to know, sir, I honor your prejudices–um, uh, convictions.”

Most of the tension, such as there is, comes from the non-conflict between hyper-religious Eliza and slightly more worldly Jess, who likes fast horses and buys a showy (to Eliza) small home organ.  Any potential conflict is muted, since it is made clear that the two are united more by their affection for each other, even when arguing, than they are divided by their different interpretations of what their religion requires.  The implication is that the two occasionally even, well, you know ….  It is a given that their religion sets them apart from their neighbors and is not understood by others.

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Parents Jess (Gary Cooper) and Eliza Birdwell (Dorothy McGuire) sort things out.

Meanwhile, their two older children Joshua (Anthony Perkins) and Mattie (Phyllis Love, a weak spot in the cast) are more affected by the Civil War than the parents are—Joshua by the necessity to fight when Confederate raiders under John Hunt Morgan approach, and Mattie because she is romantically attracted to a young local officer (Mark Richman, who seems too old for her even by 19th century standards).  Jess confronts violence when a Confederate raider kills his friend (Robert Middleton); he lets the soldier go.  Eliza confronts the raiders when they approach the family farm. Jess has to go off to the fighting in search of Joshua eventually.  They both come back.

The reticent but sly chemistry between Cooper and McGuire works.  The movie seems designed more to be heart-warming than anything else.  It was put together from stories by Jessamyn West, who also worked (uncredited) on the screenplay with the director’s brother Robert Wyler.  Music is by veteran composer Dimitri Tiomkin, the theme song sung by Pat Boone.  It is expertly directed by William Wyler, who would soon make the epics Ben Hur and The Big Country.  It also features the most effective cinematic use of a goose in the last 70 years.

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Son Joshua Birdwell (Anthony Perkins) does not fare well in the war.

Modern audiences may have forgotten what an effective character actor Robert Middleton was.  He was always reliably good (see him in a small part in The Law and Jake Wade and in Big Hand for the Little Lady, for example), and he’s excellent here.

The film was nominated for Best Picture, Best Directing, Best Supporting Actor, Best Sound Recording and Best Song Oscars.  This movie is still surprisingly effective at what it’s trying to do. It’s said to have been the favorite film of Ronald Reagan. In clear and beautiful color if you’re watching a good print or decent DVD transfer.  137 minutes long.

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The marketing of this movie overseas clearly rested more on Cooper’s image from prior films than it did on the pacifist plot of the actual movie.  For another story about Quakers on the frontier, see them trying to convert John Wayne in 1947’s Angel and the Badman.

 

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North West Mounted Police

Nicholas Chennault ~ June 27, 2014

North West Mounted Police—Gary Cooper, Robert Preston, Madeleine Carroll, Paulette Goddard, Preston Foster, Lynne Overman, George Bancroft, Montagu Love, Akim Tamiroff, Robert Ryan, Lon Chaney, Jr., Wallace Reid, Jr. (1940; Dir: Cecil B. DeMille)

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This is a typical Cecil DeMille production for its time, with a large cast and shot in Technicolor at a time (1940) when that was still rare for westerns. Gary Cooper stars in the second of his three DeMille westerns. The first was The Plainsman (1936), and the third would be Unconquered (1947), set in colonial times. Cooper was a big star, and, although he initially made much of his reputation in westerns, he only made a handful of them in the 1940s. (See The Westerner, 1940, and the western comedy Along Came Jones, 1945.)

It is 1885, and the Second Riel Rebellion is brewing among the mixed-ancestry Metís (pronounced “meet-us” in this movie) people of Saskatchewan in Canada. Louis Riel (Francis McDonald) is retrieved from Montana, where he has been teaching school, by Dan Duroc (Akim Tamiroff) and Jacques Corbeau (George Bancroft, who had played the good-hearted sheriff in Stagecoach the previous year).  Riel has reservations about any association with the rough Corbeau, who has a history of running liquor and guns to the Indians, but Duroc persuades him to go along because Corbeau has a gatling gun which will equalize things with the Queen’s forces.

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Ronnie Logan (Robert Preston) and the fiery Louvette (Paulette Goddard).

Two red-coated Mounties, Sgt. Jim Brett (Preston Foster) and Ronnie Logan (Robert Preston) discover in Batoche, the Metís capital, that the rebellion has reached dangerous proportions, with Big Bear’s Crees on the verge of joining the Metís. Romantic interests are established for both of them, Logan with Metís maiden Louvette Corbeau (daughter of Jacques Corbeau, played by Paulette Goddard as kind of a dark-skinned, blue-eyed Gypsy) and Brett with Logan’s sister April Logan (Madeleine Carroll), a selfless nurse among the Metís in Batoche.  She doesn’t seem convinced that Brett’s for her.

Into this cauldron of brewing rebellion and budding romance rides a Texas Ranger, Dusty Rivers (Gary Cooper), who is looking to arrest Corbeau for a murder in Texas.  He is received dubiously at Fort Carlton, especially by Sgt. Brett, when he develops an immediate attraction to April Logan. Brett goes off to persuade Big Bear to remain allied to the Queen, but when Corbeau promises to bring him red coats covered with blood, Big Bear gives him three days to do that before he will join the rebellion.

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Sgt. Brett (Preston Foster) negotiates with the Crees for Rivers (Gary Cooper) and a Scottish scout (Lynne Overman).

Ronnie Logan and another Mountie are sent off to remote guard duty at Duck Lake.  When April hears of the seriousness of the rebellion, she sends Louvette Corbeau to warn Ronnie.  Instead of warning him, she lures him into a situation where she can take him prisoner.  In his absence, a column of Mounties are mostly massacred at Duck Lake, including the commander (played by Montagu Love).  His dying command to Brett is that he get Ronnie and make him pay for his desertion.

While Sgt. Brett takes command of the few surviving Mounties left at Fort Carlton, heading on an apparent suicide mission to Big Bear, Rivers helps April flee the burning fort and heads for Batoche, where he distracts the defenders by cutting their canoes loose and destroying the gatling gun.  He helps Ronnie escape the clutches of Louvette, only to see him cut down by an Indian assassin hired by Louvette to get Rivers.

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Rivers liberates Ronnie Logan from his scheming captor Louvette;  River woos nurse April Logan (Madeleine Carroll).

At Big Bear’s camp, Brett is improbably successful at retrieving the Crees’ loyalty and the rebellion seems to be over, with Duroc dead and Riel and Corbeau captured.  A Mountie tribunal is on the verge of convicting Ronnie of desertion, until Rivers comes in and attributes to Ronnie his own efforts in destroying the gatling gun at Batoche, saving Ronnie’s reputation.  At the end, he abducts Corbeau to take him back to Texas, but as he leaves with his prisoner, Brett and April find him and announce that April is marrying Brett.  But Brett allows Rivers to take Corbeau and leaves Rivers’ version of Ronnie’s heroism to stand even though he suspects otherwise.

Joel McCrea had starred for DeMille in Union Pacific in 1939 and was the first choice to play Rivers.  But he dropped out to do Alfred Hitcock’s Foreign Correspondent and was about to be cast in two Preston Sturges films (all included in the best work of his career), so the role went to Gary Cooper.  English actress Madeleine Carroll had made her reputation working with Alfred Hitchcock as the first of his cool blondes (The 39 Steps, Secret Agent) and in costume dramas (Prisoner of Zenda, Lloyd’s of London).  By 1938 she was said to be the highest-paid actress in Hollywood.   After her sister Marguerite was killed in a London bombing raid, she spent the rest of the war as a field nurse and in other war efforts.   She became a U.S. citizen in 1943, but her career never revived after the war.  At this stage of his career, Robert Preston often played the friend or brother who went bad (Union Pacific, Blood on the Moon, Whispering Smith), and his character usually died because of that.  Several young actors, including Robert Ryan, Lon Chaney, Jr., Regis Toomey, Rod Cameron and Wallace Reid, Jr. (son of a silent star who died of drug addiction) play young Mounties or Indians.

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DeMille directs Carroll and Cooper as they flee Fort Carlton in a canoe.

One of the screenwriters here is Alan LeMay, author of the novel The Searchers was based on.  But the dialogue is clunky, and Cooper’s, in particular, is excessively of the aw-shucks homespun variety.  Between that and his character’s too-precious name, it’s not one of his more successful performances.  He could play frontier characters naturally and was doing so convincingly at this time in his career (playing western in The Westerner the same year, and playing Appalachian backwoods in Sergeant York, for which he won the Best Actor Oscar the following year), but it doesn’t work well here.  Neither the abrupt end of the rebellion nor the abrupt change of heart by April Logan are entirely convincing, either.  After the opening scene, Riel largely disappears, and we never discover why he’s essential to the rebellion.  He certainly has little charisma as depicted here.

This is one of the fifty movies listed in The Fifty Worst Films of All Time (and How They Got That Way) by Harry Medved and Randy Lowell (1978).  It’s not that epically bad, but is it worth watching? It is if you are interested in either Cooper or DeMille, not to mention the beautiful Carroll.  For another (and better) story of an American gone north, see Gunless (2010).  For another story of Mounties and Indians, see Raoul Walsh’s Saskatchewan with Alan Ladd (1954).  If you’re interested in the background of Canada’s Second Riel Rebellion, see Strange Empire by Joseph Kinsey Howard (first published in 1952).

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In color, at 126 minutes.  Shot principally around Big Bear Lake in California, San Bernardino National Forest.  The movie won an Oscar for Best Editing.

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The Hanging Tree

Nicholas Chennault ~ June 14, 2014

The Hanging Tree—Gary Cooper, Maria Schell, Karl Malden, George C. Scott, Ben Piazza, Karl Swenson, John Dierkes, Virginia Gregg (1959; Dir:  Delmer Daves)

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Gary Cooper in one of his last roles plays wounded-in-spirit gunslinging frontier doctor Joseph Frail—apparently not the doctor’s real name.  He comes to the Montana gold camp of Skull Creek in 1873 and sets up his medical practice in a cabin overlooking the town.  It’s a rough place, plagued by outlaws, giving rise in turn to a vigilante movement.  We see quickly that this has resulted in a rough, quick and sometimes misdirected form of justice, represented by the hanging tree.

Doc Frail is known by several of the townspeople.  The town itself is full of undesirables; among them Frenchy Plante (Karl Malden), with whom the doc has some history.  We can tell from the beginning that Frenchy is an undesirable because of the ugly ear-flap hat he wears.  We first see him taking shots at a young man stealing gold out of his sluice boxes.  The doctor takes in the young man (Rune, played by Ben Piazza ) and removes the bullet; as payment he says Rune must be his bondservant for an undetermined period of time. 

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Doc deals with Frenchy (Karl Malden); Doc Frail and Elizabeth (Maria Schell)

The haunted doctor gambles (he seems to be good at it) and drinks some, and he’s not very good tempered.  Some of his backstory comes out, involving his dead wife and brother and a house on a hill overlooking the confluence of the Ohio and the Mississippi in southern Illinois, deliberately set on fire.  Meanwhile, a stage is robbed and crashes down a hill.  Passengers include Elizabeth Mahler (Maria Schell), a young Swiss woman, and her father.  The father is killed and Elizabeth is left blind and otherwise in bad shape due to exposure by the time she is found. 

The doctor takes over her care in a cabin near his.  Aside from those consumed with lust (Frenchy), those envious (Society Red, played by John Dierkes, and George Grubb [George C. Scott in an early role], a faith healer and alchoholic who sees the doctor as competition and a tool of the devil), there is also a self-righteous wife, Edna Flaunce (Virginia Gregg), of an otherwise decent general store keeper, suspicious that there’s something improper going on.  After all, the doc was known to treat loose women, too. 

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When Elizabeth can finally see again, she and Rune are released by the doctor, who also, unknown to them, provides them with a grubstake.  They use it to set up a mining partnership with Frenchy.  Just as Frenchy is on the verge of quitting for good, they have a big strike.  In the partying afterward, Frenchy tries to rape Elizabeth and the doc shoots him.  Grubb leads a mob to hang the doc; he is rescued when Elizabeth and Rune give the mob their claim.  Presumably the doc and Elizabeth live happily ever after, even without the claim.

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Delmer Daves directs star Gary Cooper on location near Yakima, Washington.

The story is based on a novel by Montana author Dorothy M. Johnson.  Montana native Cooper seems old for the part, as he has for most of his western romantic leads during the 1950s (High Noon, Garden of Evil, Man of the West, etc.), but he’s still effective.  Although Cooper was ill with lung cancer, he’s ironically shown smoking in several scenes.  Maria Schell is very good as Elizabeth, and Ben Piazza is fine as Rune.  The community seems a little too deliberately loathsome and the doctor a little too unreasonably haunted. 

Not much seen these days, and the print I saw (on TCM, even, which makes an effort to show the best prints available) was not great.  Still, it’s a pretty decent western.  It’s also one of the last westerns directed by Delmer Daves (3:10 to Yuma, Cowboy, The Last Wagon, The Badlanders) in a very productive career as a director of westerns.   In color, filmed around Yakima, Washington.  Score by Max Steiner, with a theme sung by Marty Robbins (better than most such, and nominated for an Oscar).  Finally released on DVD in 2012.

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The Westerner

Nicholas Chennault ~ May 8, 2014

The Westerner—Gary Cooper, Walter Brennan, Doris Davenport, Forrest Tucker, Dana Andrews, Lilian Bond, Tom Tyler, Chill Wills (1940; Dir:  William Wyler)

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This slow-moving and highly fictionalized biopic about Judge Roy Bean (Walter Brennan, 46 at the time he made this movie) is often viewed as a classic, but it isn’t really much watched these days.  Walter Brennan gives a superb performance in the role of a basically unsympathetic character (Judge Roy Bean, the Law West of the Pecos), and Gary Cooper does well as his friend Cole Harden.

In the early 1880s, Harden is brought into Bean’s courtroom/bar in Vinegarroon, Texas, as a horse thief, and is sentenced to hang.  Noting the judge’s fondness for English actress Lillie Langtry, Harden claims to be able to get the judge a lock of her hair.  Ultimately, it turns out that he bought the horse from the real thief, and he and Bean become unlikely friends. 

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Bean (Walter Brennan) in front of his saloon, The Jersey Lilly [sic].

On his way out of town, Harden stops at a nearby homestead, where he is taken with the beauty of Jane Ellen Mathews (Doris Davenport), daughter of Caliphalet Mathews, the leader of the homesteaders generally.  While helping them out, he finds that cattlemen have let their cattle into the homesteaders’ valley and won’t let the homesteaders fence them out of their crop areas.  Basically, the structure of the remainder of the story is as a range war saga, with the cattlemen led by Bean against the homesteaders.  Harden tries to maintain his relationships with both sides and has an idea.  He charms Jane into letting him take a lock of her hair. 

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Harden (Gary Cooper) takes a lock of hair from a momentarily compliant homesteader (Doris Davenport).

When he tries to mediate between Bean and the homesteaders (after he has taken Bean’s gun), the two sides can’t agree.  But claiming that the lock of hair came from Lillie Langtry, Harden gets Bean to promise to have the cattle removed.  They are, and the homesteaders proceed to give thanks, until they see that the cattlemen have started fires to burn them out instead.  Harden fights the fires with the homesteaders, but Jane Mathews’ father is killed and she won’t listen to him any longer.  Most of the homesteaders leave, but Jane is determined to stay.

Bean admits that he was behind the fires, and Harden goes to Fort Davis to get a warrant for his arrest; he’s also appointed a deputy sheriff to serve it.  Meanwhile, Lillie Langtry (Lilian Bond in a very brief and non-speaking role) arrives in Fort Davis to perform.  Bean changes the town’s name to Langtry and buys up all the tickets to her performance so he can enjoy it privately in his Confederate uniform.  As the curtain goes up, it reveals on stage not Lillie but Harden. 

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Bean (Walter Brennan) finally gets to meet the real Jersey Lily.

The finale is a shootout in the theater, and Bean is mortally wounded.  Harden carries him to Lillie’s dressing room, where he meets her and then expires.  Cut to the Jane Mathews homestead, miraculously rebuilt in 1884.  Harden is there with her as they watch the wagons of returning homesteaders to other farms.  Swelling music, fade to credits.

Other than portraying Bean’s cranky, arbitrary nature, this isn’t very factual.  Davenport is effective enough but a bit stodgy.  She never became much of a star because of an automobile accident that forced her into retirement.  Forrest Tucker is Wade Harper, the younger leader of the homesteaders and rival for Jane Mathews’ hand.  There’s an early Dana Andrews role as a homesteader here, too, and Chill Wills.  The first half of the movie, while the sort-of-friendship between Harden and Bean develops, is fairly slow, but the pace picks up in the second half.  In black and white, filmed on location in Arizona. Music is by Alfred Newman and Dimitri Tiomkin.

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Although he was quirky as a judge/justice of the peace, the real Roy Bean wasn’t the kind of quasi-criminal depicted in this film.  He did fight on the Confederate side at Chickamauga, as the film says.  He was not involved in any range wars of the sort shown here, although many Texans were.  Rather than dying in a shootout in the early 1880s, however, he died peacefully in 1903, still a justice of the peace.  His bar, originally in Vinegarroon, was named The Jersey Lily in honor of Miss Langtry, a famous English beauty, royal mistress and sometime actress, but Vinegarroon itself disappeared in 1882 after the railroad bypassed it.  Bean moved his bar to the town of Langtry, Texas, which was named not after the actress but after George Langtry, a railroad foreman.  Lillie Langtry did make a profitable tour of the U.S., appearing on stage in late 1882 and early 1883. 

Although the historical Bean wasn’t much like the character depicted in this movie, Walter Brennan is excellent in the role.  In fact, Gary Cooper was reluctant to take the Cole Harden role because after reading the initial script he thought the story would be too dominated by Bean’s character and there wasn’t much for him to do.  Brennan won his third Oscar (in five years) as Best Supporting Actor for this role, making him one of only three men to win three Academy Awards for acting.  (The other two are Jack Nicholson and Daniel Day-Lewis.  You don’t normally think of Walter Brennan the same way as those two, do you?)  Cooper looked good in this film, and looks particularly good riding a beautiful appaloosa.

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Cooper astride one of his co-stars; and the central relationship of the movie–Bean (Brennan) and Harden (Cooper).

This was shot in just four weeks, with Tucson, Arizona, and surrounding country standing in for Texas.  Cooper was at the peak of his career, but he only made three westerns during the 1940s:  this and North West Mounted Police in 1940, and the comedy Along Came Jones in 1945.   William Wyler did not direct many westerns, but he did do the large-scale The Big Country (1958) with Gregory Peck and Charlton Heston, among many others, almost twenty years later.  And Civil War movie Friendly Persuasion (1956), again with Gary Cooper, if you count that as a western.

For another (and revisionist) take on Bean and his life, see Paul Newman in The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean (1972).  And another deliberately ahistorical Bean appears in The Streets of Laredo (MfTV, 1995).  For another town named Vinegarroon (a type of scorpion, apparently), see Heaven With a Gun, a late (1969) Glenn Ford film with Ford as a preacher-gunman.

 

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Along Came Jones

Nicholas Chennault ~ May 1, 2014

Along Came Jones—Gary Cooper, Loretta Young, Dan Duryea, William Demarest, Arthur Loft, Ray Teal (1945; Dir. Stuart Heisler)

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Although he was known for westerns earlier in his career, Gary Cooper didn’t make many of them during the 1940s when he was at his peak.  He had won an Oscar as Best Actor for 1941’s Sergeant York.  He was nominated again in 1943 and 1944 for Pride of the Yankees and For Whom the Bell Tolls.  He would win again in 1953 for High Noon, of course.  Loretta Young only made three westerns during her entire career.  By this time, they had both been making movies for almost twenty years, since the days of the silent films.  This was the only time they appeared together.

This comedy is an extended case of mistaken identity.  It doesn’t start out as a comedy; in the opening scene, a stage is robbed by a masked Monte Jarrad (Dan Duryea), who shoots both the driver and the shotgun guard.  At least one of them survives to wound Jarrad badly.  Wanted posters go up for Jarrad and his geezer companion Uncle Roscoe.

Cut to a sign outside Payneville (pronounced “painful”), where George Fury (William Demarest) and Melody Jones “out of high Montana” (Gary Cooper) determine that they’ve taken the wrong fork three or four hundred miles back.  In Payneville, the MJ initials on Melody’s gear are taken to mean that he’s Monte Jarrad.  And he spots the beauteous Cherry de Longpre (Loretta Young), with whom he is instantly taken.  What he doesn’t know is that Cherry is Jarrad’s childhood pal and now girlfriend.  She’s caring for Jarrad because he can’t ride, due to his wound.

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George Fury (William Demarest), Melody Jones (Gary Cooper) and Cherry de Longpre (Loretta Young).

Cherry talks Melody into taking Jarrad’s saddle south so the posse hunting Jarrad will follow him, but he goes back to town.  Now he’s caught between most townsfolk, who think he’s Jarrad, and those who know Jarrad, who think he’s killed Jarrad.  Neither side wishes him any good.  This is complicated by the fact that, although Melody carries a gun like everybody else, he’s not very good with it.  Jarrad is very good indeed, and nasty.

Just as one of Jarrad’s gang is about to shoot Melody, he’s rescued by Cherry.  Meldoy notes, “If there’s anything in the world I like, it’s gettin’ saved from being shot.”  Now Cherry wants him to take back the loot from Jarrad’s robbery, which Jarrad has stashed in an old adobe house.  When they get to the hiding place, the express agent is there and takes them prisoner, until somebody from outside the house shoots him.  They don’t get away quickly enough, and the posse finds them and takes them prisoner again, two or three times.  One almost expects the Marx brothers to show up. 

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Cooper as Jones, Duryea as Jarrad.

Finally, Melody, Cherry and George manage to get away and make their way back to Cherry’s ranch.  George has been shot by Jarrad and left for dead until Cherry rescues him.  Jarrad forces Melody to trade clothes with him, and intends to kill him and destroy his face so everyone will think Jarrad is dead.  The posse descends on the ranch, and there is an extended shootout.  Finally, it appears to be Jones against Jarrad, and the odds are all with Jarrad.  He hits Jones three times, calling it each time (much like Liberty Valance would do, twenty years later), when a Winchester bullet comes from behind Jones and catches Jarrad in the forehead.

Melody spends three weeks in jail while all this is sorted out, and he gets the reward for killing Jarrad.  First he figures that George shot Jarrad, but George says he was too weak to move at the time.  Then he realizes it must have been Cherry, shooting at him but getting Jarrad.  After Cherry demonstrates her marksmanship (“When I aim at something, I hit it, and when I hit something it’s what I aimed at“), Melody decides to stay and put down roots with her.

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Cherry takes a hand in the proceedings, but Melody doesn’t see it.

It’s all pleasant enough stuff.  With its time period, the presence of William Demarest and the fact that it’s a comedy, it is reminiscent of the movies of Preston Sturges.  But the producer was Cooper himself, who wasn’t very good at that end of things.  The leads, Cooper and especially Young, are enormously attractive.  Cooper sings “Old Joe Clark” at various points in the movie, and he’s not much of a singer.  He had problems during filming due to lack of preparation and because he often couldn’t deliver his lines in the rapid-fire manner requested by the director. 

One joke usually isn’t enough for a whole movie, but Cooper manages to bring it off.  Joel McCrea called him “the greatest exponent of the manure kicker school of acting ….  The idea is to scuff around barnyard dirt while muttering some phrase like ‘Aw shucks, Miss Nancy.’”  Of course Cooper conveyed much more than that, but he comes closest to that description in this film.  Cecil B. DeMille, who, like the FBI, seemed to have no sense of humor, told Cooper he shouldn’t mock his heroic image in this fashion.  The movie did well at the box office, though.

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For Loretta Young in another good western, see her in Rachel and the Stranger (1947), with William Holden and Robert Mitchum.  Crusty William Demarest makes a fine sidekick; he was good again as the oldest Confederate prisoner in Escape from Fort Bravo.  Duryea could be an excellent villain; see him as Waco Johnnie Dean in Winchester ’73 five years later.  Here he’s unrelievedly nasty.

In an era of singing cowboys, perhaps you could get away with naming one Melody Jones; it wouldn’t work today.  It does seem to be an ironic name, since he can’t sing and shows little talent with a harmonica, either.  The screenwriter was Nunnally Johnson, based on a novel by Alan LeMay (author of the novel The Searchers).  Unusually for a writer, Johnson had enough clout to get his name over the title of the movie in the credits:  Nunnally Johnson’s Along Came Jones.  Norman Rockwell did some of the poster art for the movie.  90 minutes, in black and white.

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They Came to Cordura

Nicholas Chennault ~ April 17, 2014

They Came To Cordura—Gary Cooper, Rita Hayworth, Van Heflin, Tab Hunter, Michael Callan, Dick York, Richard Conte (1959; Dir:  Robert Rossen)

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Gary Cooper is a little old (again) in his last western and one of his last roles of any kind, as Major Thomas Thorn, the Awards Officer of the 1916 Pershing expedition into northern Mexico against Pancho Villa after Villa’s raid on Columbus, New Mexico.  Thorn had been at Columbus, and his conduct there he (and others) viewed as cowardly.  So a coward is in charge of selecting and writing up the heroes of the expeditionary force into Mexico. 

After Thorn’s first hero is killed in subsequent action, he obtains permission from Pershing to take any others he may select with him back to forward headquarters base at Cordura.  As Thorn observes a successful cavalry charge on a rancho at Ojos Azules (“blue eyes”) owned by Adelaide Geary (Rita Hayworth), the alcoholic daughter of a disgraced (and now deceased) former U.S. senator, he selects four or five soldiers for their conspicuous heroism during the charge (historically, the last cavalry charge made by the U.S. army).  But the movie is about role reversal and the transitory nature of both cowardice and heroism. 

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The group of awardees is comprised of Lt. Fowler (Tab Hunter), Sgt. Chawk (Van Heflin), Pvt. Hetherington (Michael Callan), Cpl. Trubee (Richard Conte), and Pvt. Renziehausen (Dick York).  As the six soldiers, now including Miss Geary in their group, move toward Cordura, they are attacked by the remnants of the Villa forces from Ojos Azules and lose their horses.  Under the stress of trying to make it across the Chihuahua desert, the potential awardees all show themselves to be despicable, mutinous and/or weak in various ways, while it is Thorn’s iron will supported only by Adelaide (who knows that she will be imprisoned for aiding the enemy once she is in army custody) that keeps them going.  Thorn asks them individually what led to their heroism in battle, and they don’t know.  They simply did it.  But whatever courage they briefly showed in battle, they don’t seem to have courage with stamina for the longer haul—for the desperate trip to Cordura, once they lose their horses.  The coward Thorn does have that kind of courage. 

In the end he is successful at getting them through despite themselves and presumably submits the miscreants for their original awards as he wrote them up.  But the exact ending is a bit unclear.  The movie, based on a novel by Glendon Swarthout (who also wrote the novel “The Shootist”), is not as good as the novel, which was a best-seller in its time.  Neither the film nor the novel is much seen these days.  Rita Hayworth isn’t bad, but Gary Cooper is miscast; he’s a little long in the tooth at 58 to be playing an army officer in the field.  Tab Hunter is wooden.  Van Heflin, known for being stalwart in Shane and 3:10 to Yuma, is excellent here as the angry and mutinous Sgt. Chawk.   The benediction on all this is pronounced by Adelaide Geary:  “One act of cowardice doesn’t make a man a coward forever, just as one act of bravery doesn’t make a man a hero forever.”  

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Reportedly the film was taken out of director Rossen’s hands by the studio, which cut and re-cut it.  Rossen’s original, about half an hour longer, was said to be a significantly better film.  Even so, the shorter version is more than two hours long.  It’s hard to escape the feeling that it should have been better.  One viewer’s comment:  “There are definite moments of insight and interest in the film, but it tends to wear down the viewer with its nearly relentless cynicism and unpleasantness.”  Even so, it isn’t as downbeat as it could have been.  The studio insisted, for example, that Cooper’s character couldn’t die in the end.  Hayworth is good in this, receiving some of the best reviews in her career for her acting here.  The film was a flop at the box office, though.  This is in need of restoration to a director’s cut.  In color, filmed on location in Mexico, Las Vegas and St. George, Utah.

For other films about the same period, see Bandido, The Professionals, The Old Gringo and various movies about Pancho Villa.  Maybe The Wild Bunch.  The Mexican revolutions in the 1910s seemed to breed cynicism.  Toward the end of her career, Rita Hayworth was in two westerns, both of them set in 20th century Mexico or central America:  this, and The Wrath of God (1972), her last film.

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