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

Monday, October 19, 2015

Gary Cooper


Gary Cooper was, in my view, the greatest of all the Western stars. Partly this was because of his height and good looks, partly because he was modest, taciturn, rangy and slow-moving by nature and suited cowboy roles, and partly because he was a true Montana-born Westerner and fine horseman. But mostly it was because of his supreme acting ability.
The Western actor par excellence
With the single and wonderful exception of High Noon, one of the greatest Westerns ever made (some consider it the very pinnacle of the genre and they may not be wrong), most of Cooper’s films were good rather than brilliant. He worked with some ho-hum directors and iffy screenplays. It wasn’t the films that made Coop such a great Western star, it was the man. He was so convincing and so strong in every picture he made, even the silly ones. He famously underacted, to the point where his fellow members of the cast thought he hadn’t done anything at all, just said the lines. When they saw the finished result on the screen, however, they perceived how very much he was transmitting with his face and in particular his eyes. Every kind of expression was there: fear, affection, anger, whatever the scene called for.

He always seemed authentic, not acting at all. He managed to project his own persona onto the roles he played and, attractive to men and women alike, he seemed the quintessential American hero.

Early life

Frank James Cooper (he changed his name because there were already two Frank Coopers in the film business and he chose his first name at the suggestion of his agent who was from Indiana; later he changed his name officially) was born in 1901 in Helena, MT. His parents were of English extraction and Gary spent some early years in England where he went to school. He was quite a talented artist and considered a career in drawing. He greatly admired the work of CM Russell and Frederic Remington. He grew up working on his dad’s Montana ranch and was a true Westerner. “Getting up at 5 o'clock in the morning in the dead of winter to feed 450 head of cattle and shoveling manure at 40 below ain't romantic.”
He started Westerns young
He had an auto accident as a boy and damaged his hip. The doctor recommended horseback riding for therapy which was a big mistake and it left Coop with a permanent problem which also accounted for his (rather endearing) shambling walk and lopsided riding style.

His father was a justice of the Montana Supreme Court but moved to California in the early 1920s where Gary joined his parents. He did various dead-end jobs before meeting Jay ‘Slim’ Talbot, a Montanan, on Poverty Row on Gower Street which turned out cheap silent Westerns. Slim managed stuntmen and extras for cowboy movies. Coop’s height, good looks and horsemanship (not to mention his Montana background) got him jobs as extra ($5 a day) and stuntman ($10) in various silent pictures.

The movies

In 1925 he was in The Vanishing American and in Tom Mix’s Riders of the Purple Sage, as ‘Rider,’ although I have the latter on DVD and couldn’t see him. There followed Drug Store Cowboy, starring Franklyn Farnum, Wild Horse Mesa with Jack Holt, The Lucky Horseshoe (Tom Mix), The Trail Rider (Buck Jones), The Thundering Herd (Jack Holt), Warrior Gap (Ben F Wilson) and Tricks (J Frank Glendon), all in 1925.

He was one of the uncredited riders of the purple sage in 1925
At last, in early 1926, he was third-billed for Samuel Goldwyn (who pumped a lot of money into the project) playing steady ranch foreman Abe Lee in the Henry King-directed The Winning of Barbara Worth, with Ronald Colman starring as Willard Holmes, Coop’s rival for the hand of the fair Barbara (Vilma Bánky). It was basically a romance, set in the context of building a dam on the Colorado River. The movie was a hit, chiefly because of the exciting flood sequence as the climax.
Third-billed in a hit movie
Leading man

All through the rest of 1926 and early ’27 Coop continued stunting and extra-ing on silent Westerns for a variety of studios, including Poverty Row ones. Finally, in 1927, came a lead role in a Paramount Western, Arizona Bound. It was a routine 53-minute silent oater shot in fifteen days in Bryce Canyon, Utah on a total budget of $73,000. Coop played Dave Saulter, a driftin’ cowpoke who rides into town the day a big gold shipment is leaving by the stage. He did his own stunt when leaping from horse to stagecoach.
His first lead role in a Western, 1927
It was quickly followed by Nevada, another Zane Grey story (Lasky had bought the rights to Grey’s Western tales). Cowpoke Nevada is rival to a rather smarmy William Powell for the hand of Thelma Todd. The movie was remade, again as Nevada, by RKO in 1944 with a young Robert Mitchum in the lead.
The 1927 Nevada was a slightly bigger affair than Arizona Bound, with a three-week shooting schedule and a $165,000-budget (Coop was paid $1,200, which he probably regarded as wealth). There was a mystery connected with Nevada: in one scene a cowboy fell off his horse, as planned, but when director John Waters called ‘Cut!’ the extra was found to have been murdered. There was some local feud, apparently, and all the cowboys knew who had done it but no one could prove it.

Coop’s last Western of 1927 – in fact his last silent Western – was Paramount’s The Last Outlaw. Cooper’s biographer Jeffrey Meyers, in his excellent book Gary Cooper, American hero (Robert Hale, London, 2001), doesn’t mention it at all, sadly, but Coop (billed as Garry Cooper) plays gun-twirling Sheriff Buddy Hale who has to deal with a crooked rustling judge and evil big rancher – as well as romance the girl, obviously.

The Last Outlaw
Through 1928 Cooper had leading parts in eight films but none of them was a Western. He was a legionnaire, a war pilot, a fisherman and a Viennese artist, among other things, mostly for Paramount, gradually building his fame and fortune. During this time he had a passionate affair with leading lady Lupe Velez and they became a famous couple. At the Trocadero F Scott Fitzgerald “smiled wryly” when a cameraman pushed him aside because Lupe Velez and Gary Cooper had come in.

La Velez was the star of Coop’s first talkie Western, (The) Wolf Song – a part-talkie anyway. She got $14,000 for it while Gary got $2,750. It was directed by Victor Fleming and was an 1840 story of buckskin-clad trapper Sam Lash (Cooper) who in Taos meets the hot-blooded Lola Salazar. They elope but Sam is torn between his passion for Lola and his yearning to ride into the sunset; he cannot resist the wolf song, or call of the wild. There was a sensational long kiss in the movie and even a nude swimming scene for Coop (though filmed in longshot). The lovers’ real-life high-profile affair helped the box-office too. Coop said, “The Depression hit pretty hard and people needed romance. Seeing us in love on the screen and then in person was proof that movies are not all make-believe.” The Wolf Song appears to be lost, though a Vitaphone record of the soundtrack exists.
Wolf Song, Coop's first talkie Western, with co-star Lupe Velez
Lupe Velez was the latest in a long series of off-screen lovers
The many silent Westerns through the late 20s in which he had had bit parts, and the four films he had now led in, had stood Coop in good stead for the great challenge, and opportunity, which was now to come. In 1929 he was cast by Paramount as the Virginian in the first talkie version of the great Owen Wister story – indeed, it was the first major sound film ever shot outdoors.

The Virginian

The actors moved to Sonora, in the High Sierras of California, and were followed by a huge train of trucks carrying generators, microphones, lights and all the equipment necessary. The movie was shot over twenty-four days in May and June 1929 on a budget of $415,000 and directed once more by Victor Fleming. Fleming got $75,000 and Walter Huston as badman Trampas received $20,000 but the Virginian himself, Cooper, was only paid $3,400. Still, Coop loved it and said that it was his best and most enjoyable film to date. He was not far wrong.
The Virginian
You can click the link below for a full review of this great picture. Suffice to say here that The Virginian was a seminal Western that established many of the conventions of the genre which have lasted to this day. The hero is tall, handsome and shy; the villain is ugly and dressed in black. The wife-to-be is innocent and pure. The rustlers play poker, drink whisky and flirt with the Mexican girls. There’s a cattle drive, a posse and a hanging. Most of all, of course, there’s the walk-down and final shoot-out.

The Virginian is still a fine film today. My copy is an ancient VHS; oh, that they would remaster it and release it on DVD!

Seventeen Westerns over thirty years

Gary Cooper played the leading role in 84 films. 25% of these were Westerns. The Virginian was the first important Western that he made. Over the next thirty years he would lead in (depending on your definition of a Western) seventeen more. They were:

The Spoilers (Paramount, 1930, directed by Edwin Carewe, black & white)
The Texan (Paramount, 1930, directed by John Cromwell, b&w)
Fighting Caravans (Paramount, 1931, directed by Otto Brower and David Burton, b&w)
The Plainsman (Paramount, 1936, directed by Cecil B DeMille, b&w)
The Westerner (Samuel Goldwyn/United Artists, 1940, directed by William Wyler, b&w)
North West Mounted Police (Paramount, 1940 directed by Cecil B DeMille, color)
Along Came Jones (RKO, 1945, directed by Stuart Heisler, b&w)
Dallas (Warner Bros, 1950, directed by Stuart Heisler, color)
Distant Drums (Warner Bros, 1951, directed by Raoul Walsh, color)
High Noon (United Artists, 1952, directed by Fred Zinnemann, b&w)
Springfield Rifle (Warner Bros, 1952, directed by André De Toth, color)
Garden of Evil (Fox, 1954, directed by Henry Hathaway, color)
Vera Cruz (United Artists, 1954, directed by Robert Aldrich, color)
Man of the West (United Artists, 1958, directed by Anthony Mann, color)
The Hanging Tree (Warner Bros, 1959, directed by Delmer Daves, color)
They Came to Cordura (Columbia, 1959, directed by Robert Rossen, color).

Other movies that some might regard as Westerns (just) are the Civil War secret agent story Operator 13, the contemporary rom-com The Cowboy and the Lady, The romance Saratoga Trunk, the eighteenth century sword-and-tricorn drama Unconquered, the South American oil and nitroglycerine thriller Blowing Wild, and the hokey Quaker tale Friendly Persuasion.

Tragically, the first on the list above, The Spoilers, is not available. There had already (1914, 1923) been two silent versions of Rex Beach’s 1906 novel. Coop’s in 1930 was the first talkie one. He played the hero Glenister and Kay Johnson co-starred as Helen Chester. Cherry Malotte is played by Betty Compson, who had done five silent Westerns, and Dextry was James Kirkwood, a very early (1909) entrant to the film business who led in quite a few DW Griffith motion pictures and later became a director of Mary Pickford movies.
The Spoilers, 1930 version. Right is the director Edwin Carewe in a rare photograph. It was his only film.
McNamara is the famous William ‘Stage’ Boyd – a judge ordered that the ‘stage name’ be added officially in order to differentiate him from the other, 'Hopalong Cassidy' William Boyd. Stage Boyd was famous for his alcohol and drug abuse, had his RKO contract annulled on ‘morality’ grounds and died young of alcohol-related issues in 1935. He was in three Westerns, The Storm, The Spoilers and Gun Smoke. The 1930 version of The Spoilers was produced and directed by Edwin Carewe. It was not only his only Western. It was his only film.

But very little seems to be known of the movie. Jeffrey Meyers doesn't even mention The Spoilers.
There is no DVD or download available that I am aware of (if you know of one, please let me know by leaving a comment or e-mailing me at westblogger@gmail.com)

However, I have reviewed all the other pictures in the list above, so you can click the links for full reviews. I am just going to say a few words about each here, to give the overall picture.

The 1930s

Gary Cooper starred in only three Westerns (true Westerns) in the 1930s, The Texan (1930), Fighting Caravans (1931) and The Plainsman (1936). This is quite surprising. He had started in Westerns, was an obvious Westerner and had, er, shot to fame in The Virginian in 1929. One would have thought that out of 40-odd films he made in the decade, Westerns would have figured more.

The Texan was a light and low-budget affair, if entertaining, certainly nowhere near The Virginian in scope. It is only really notable because it was while on the set that Norman Rockwell painted Coop being made up.
Gary Cooper by Norman Rockwell
Fighting Caravans, however, was a major work. A wagon-train movie, it was Paramount’s answer to Fox’s The Big Trail of the year before (directed by Raoul Walsh and starring the new discovery, the young John Wayne). It also owed something to Paramount’s own silent The Covered Wagon of 1923.
Fighting Caravans. Coop as Young wagon train scout.
Coop is young Clint Belmet, the scout in buckskins, who falls (naturally) for a pretty girl on one of the wagons. It’s a big picture, and quite a bit more sophisticated than The Big Trail, and Coop is winningly gauche and shy in it.
On the set of The Plainsman with director Cecil B DeMille and Jean Arthur (Calamity Jane)

The Plainsman. Coop as Wild Bill.

The Plainsman was another big picture, directed by Cecil B DeMille, one of those epic efforts to show the whole history of the West in under two hours. Coop played Wild Bill Hickok and was superb – way better than anyone else on the set. Like all DeMille’s work it was a farrago of historical ‘fact’ and absurdities but it certainly did nothing to harm Cooper’s reputation.

The 1940s

In 1940 Gary Cooper starred in two Westerns, one a great picture and the other another overblown DeMille-directed ragbag of nonsense.

The Westerner, directed by William Wyler and Coop’s first big picture away from Paramount (it was a Samuel Goldwyn production released by United Artists), was a Judge Roy Bean story and had an outstanding Walter Brennan (his best ever role?) as Bean. Coop plays happy-go-lucky cowpoke Cole Harden who comes up against the psychopathic and despotic Bean. Cole escapes hanging by claiming to know Bean’s idol Lillie Langtry. 

The Westerner, with Brennan as Judge Roy Bean, 1940
It was in some ways a curious role for Cooper because despite his top billing, Brennan’s Bean was really the principal character. Brennan won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his role but Coop won nothing. Still, it’s a very fine Western and Coop is wry, drôle, amusing and detached.

The other Western Cooper did in 1940 was North West Mounted Police, a Technicolor farrago in which Coop played a Texas Ranger going up to Canada to bring back a fugitive. It’s another movie that would hardly be worth watching at all were it not for Gary Cooper.
DeMille again, this time in Canada. North West Mounted Police.
Then throughout the war there were fine pictures like Sergeant York and For Whom the Bell Tolls but no Westerns. Audiences had to wait till 1945 for Coop to climb back into the saddle, which he did with a movie he also produced, Along Came Jones. It was light, inconsequential and comedic, and honestly, not excellent, though it did well at the box office.
Along Came Coop
And for the 40s, that’s all she wrote. Curious, then, that possibly the greatest Western star of them all only made six (true) Westerns in two decades. But the 1950s were to change all that.

The Fifties

Before World War II Cooper had made his name in every kind of adventure film (including Westerns), romance, drama and comedy but the number of oaters he led in was relatively limited. Of course before '39 A-picture adult Westerns were a rare bird. After the war, however, Coop seems almost to have deliberately re-invented himself as a Westerner, and chose more and more roles in the genre. The 1950s were the golden age of the Western movie. And indeed, Gary Cooper was to star, in 1952, in one of the very greatest of them, one of those (few) Westerns that are also great films, indeed, works of art. I am talking, of course, about High Noon, the Western some regard as the finest ever made, a rival even to The Searchers or Red River or The Wild Bunch for that accolade. And Coop won an Oscar for it.
The high noon of the Western film
Yet, and it’s a big yet, if truth be told (and what else do we do on this crème de la crème of Western blogs?) in the early 50s Gary Cooper appeared in a series of pretty clunky oaters that would certainly have been classed as B-movies were it not for his presence.

Part of the reason for this is that apart from High Noon Coop’s early 50s Westerns were made for Warner Brothers. Warners just never seem to ‘get’ Westerns in the early 50s. Many were plodding 40s (or even 30s) movies in color. Dallas, Distant Drums and Springfield Rifle were all distinctly ho-hum in quality. Of course, Coop is outstanding in them and his talent managed to raise the quality of average or even less-than-average pictures. Distant Drums, an 1840s Florida Seminole story, was directed by Raoul Walsh (it was in fact a reworking of Walsh’s Objective Burma! of 1945) and Springfield Rifle, which has a Colorado Civil War skullduggery plot, had André De Toth at the helm but it didn’t stop them both being clunkers. And Dallas, a post-Civil War Texas tale, was directed by the very uninspired Stuart Heisler (who had done Along Came Jones). It was very old-fashioned in style and content.
Vin ordinaire: early 50s Westerns for Warners
Dallas, Distant Drums, Springfeld Rifle
If by some awful chance Gary Cooper had died in 1951, before High Noon, he would never have been remembered as a great Western actor. Yes, his 1929 Virginian was fine, as an early talkie, and yes, his 1936 Wild Bill in The Plainsman was memorable (though the movie was pretty dire). But really, that’s about it.

But High Noon was of course utterly splendid and Coop was magisterial in it. Already in his fifties, a little long in the tooth to play a newly-wed, Gary Cooper finally established himself as the town marshal in a classic, almost archetypal Western. And some of the late-50s Westerns he did were also very good indeed.

I’m not thinking of the Robert Aldrich-directed Vera Cruz in 1954, which many admire but I find rather tiresome and even silly. Rather, I have in mind the brooding Garden of Evil (Henry Hathaway), the classic Man of the West (Anthony Mann) and the powerful The Hanging Tree (Delmer Daves). Hathaway, Mann and Daves were excellent directors of Westerns and Gary Cooper was seriously good in these pictures. And, unusual in the genre of Western, he always seemed in these pictures (and in High Noon of course) to use violence as the very last resort.
Garden of Evil, with Widmark, 1954. Excellent.

Man of the West, 1958. Very fine.

Vera Cruz, 1954. Not out of the top drawer.

These movies were a very rewarding late flowering of Cooper’s Western career, and his last one, They Came to Cordura in 1959, though Coop was not at all well during the shooting, is also an excellent picture – tough, uncompromising, very well written and acted.

Various ailments had plagued Cooper for some time, bad back, stomach ulcers, his already bad hip injured again on the set of Vera Cruz, but in the very late 50s he developed prostate cancer and it eventually became inoperable. He was (or became) a religious man - he entered the Roman Catholic church late in life - and this seems to have helped him deal with his inevitable demise with resignation and fortitude. He died in 1961 aged only 60.

Close friends (among the Western community James Stewart, Joel McCrea and Randolph Scott numbered especially amongst them) mourned his passing eloquently, presidents, monarchs and the Pope send their regrets and respects, and ordinary people the world over were saddened by the news.

The end of the affair

So maybe now you see what I meant when I said that Cooper’s reputation as a great, perhaps the greatest Western actor rests not on a long series of splendid movies that he starred in. When it comes down to it, High Noon was the only really major motion picture in the genre that he did. The Virginian, The Westerner and the three late movies Garden of Evil, Man of the West and The Hanging Tree, came close to greatness but in the last resort are probably only very good Westerns. And some of the others were frankly pretty crummy (except for him).

No, it’s not the movies. It’s the man. Cooper was an outstandingly good actor and a true Westerner, and the combination was unbeatable. His modesty and underacting and aw-shucks shit-kicking down-to-earth style were ideally suited to the Western hero, as was his long, rangy build. There have been some wonderful Western leading actors – one thinks in particular of Gregory Peck, Henry Fonda, Clint Eastwood, Glenn Ford, Randolph Scott or William Holden, and you will doubtless highly rate others – but they all have to give way to Coop.
Jeffrey Meyers writes, “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.” 

Larger than Life



  1. Simply one of the best posts in an already outstanding blog. I've been meaning to put some comments below your other Cooper pieces, but was waiting until I could say something substantive. But here -- your distillation of what it was that made Coop so fantastic demands a rousing "Amen!"

    Guilty secret -- for many years, I never understood his appeal. And then, a friend sat me down and screened Mr. Deeds Goes to Town. And it all came into place. First off -- he's beautiful. But not just that, there is this incredible decency and honesty. You don't want to know him because of his witty repartee, or because he would be a good drinking buddy -- nope, you want to know him because he is a good and, essentially, kind man. After that, I've watched Coop in everything and rarely found him anything less than captivating.

    In a later in life interview, Coop said that he loved westerns because, "when they're done right, there's something very real about them." Two of my favorite Western performances are Coop in The Westerner (where he can be strong and funny at the same time) and Garden of Evil, where he seems to be a mixture of action hero and father to the cast. (It's an amazing balancing act.)

    Where Wayne eventually descended into self-parody, Coop just became more of what he already was ... like a layer of varnish over a masterpiece.

    This series has been GREAT!

    1. Thank you , Bob. Very kind.
      Yes, I agree, Coop always comes across as decent, noble even, but yet slightly vulnerable - and often with a shady past he successfully lives down.
      I would hesitate to single out a particular Western performance of his as I never saw a bad one, even in silly DeMille pictures or those clunky Warners early-50s ones. But I suppose it would have to be High Noon and, for me, The Virginian.
      Happy trails.

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  3. I agree wholeheartedly with what you wrote. In my opinion, Gary Cooper was the ultimate Western star. It wasn't the number of Westerns films he made. Only 25% of his films were Westerns, and the vast majority of the films from his impressive and varied filmography weren't Westerns at all. There were plenty of other actors who specialized in Westerns way more than he did (and, frankly, ended up being very one-dimensional). But Cooper had this ability to elevate all of his Westerns, even the mediocre or weak ones. The Plainsman, with all of its flaws, is entertaining because of him, his screen presence, and his chemistry with Jean Arthur. Same thing with The Westerner. Sure, Walter Brennan was the one who received an Oscar for it, but Cooper's star power and his chemistry with Brennan are what made the movie memorable for me.

    I think part of Cooper's enduring appeal is that he essentially laid the blueprint for Western heroes on screen early in his career (starting in the 1920s). He was the original tall and handsome, shy, and honorable cowboy. He established a certain look and moral code for screen cowboys to aspire to--and he set a very high standard for that. You can see how Hollywood subsequently found more guys who resembled him in some way (i.e. Gregory Peck, Clint Eastwood), but I don't think there's been a leading man in Westerns with Cooper's combination of ruggedness, innocence, boyish charm, sincerity, and vulnerability.