"Each man has a song and this is my song." (Leonard Cohen)

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

The Westerner (MGM, 1940)

Coop slightly overshadowed

Although Gary Cooper is the star of The Westerner and received top billing, he really has a subordinate part and Walter Brennan is the leading player. For this is a treatment of the story of Judge Roy Bean, and Brennan, who was a much better actor than many people think, is superb in the role.

The original screenplay did not need Cooper in the part of the cowpoke Cole Harden; any lesser Western actor would have done. The cowboy was little more than a foil to Bean. Cooper said he would not do it. But Samuel Goldwyn assured Coop that his part would be expanded and insisted on Cooper's contractual obligations. Coop bowed to the inevitable and agreed to do the picture but with no good grace, and he said he would ever work with Goldwyn again.

Parallel with the story of Justice Bean and his idolatry of Lillie Langtry, we get an attempt at the serious (but well-worn) theme of ruthless cattlemen for the open range trying to prevent sturdy homesteaders fencing in the land.

The two themes work well enough together in William Wyler’s direction of Jo Swerling and Niven’s Busch’s adaptation of the Stuart N Lake story. Wyler could be a bit heavy-handed. Jeffrey Meyers, in his biography of Cooper, calls Wyler "a laborious plodder with an inflated reputation" but that's probably overstating it. This movie at least is in fact quite taut and pacey.

Cooper is, obviously, magisterial. The greatest Western star of all time, he was not only a true Westerner (and the title fits him perfectly) but also a fine actor. He gives depth and quality to the essentially lightweight part of Harden.

Filmed by the great Gregg Toland in Tucson in luminous black & white and scored by Dimitri Tiomkin and Alfred Newman, it contains some high drama, especially the scene of the fire, all done, of course, before the days of special effects and computer graphics.

There are some excellent character actors in support: Forrest Tucker, Chill Wills, Dana Andrews. It's a great cast.

Judge Roy Bean was, we know, an appalling character but there is always the temptation to portray him as an amusing old scoundrel, in an Edgar Buchanan TV sort of way. Brennan does well to avoid this. His Bean is a vicious, arrogant, drunken sadist yet you almost feel sorry for him at the end. It was perhaps Brennan’s finest ever performance (he won an Oscar for it). Of course the picture plays fast and loose with history but that’s normal. It was in any case closer to fact than 1972’s The Life And Times Of Judge Roy Bean.

In this version Lillie (or Lily) Langtry makes a visit (played by Lilian Bond) and Bean buys all the tickets to her show in order to have her to himself. However, when the curtains open it's Cooper instead of Langtry on stage and the bullets begin to zing. All rather absurd, not to say surreal. In reality Ms. Langtry did visit the 'town' Bean had named for her, but only after the judge's death.

Bosley Crowther, in The New York Times review of the time, said, “The scenes in which these two friendly and mutually respecting rivals [Cooper and Brennan] square off are surpassing cinematic episodes—when they slowly and suspiciously fence with cryptic words for bits of information and oppose with no more than attitudes their dominating personalities. These scenes have been directed by William Wyler at the deliberate, suspenseful pace of a Texas drawl and are beautiful to see.” That says it.

It's a fine picture, in fact, despite the historical nonsense, Coop's less than glorious part and Wyler's direction.


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