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Saturday, January 28, 2006

Gary Cooper's Stalking Big Game

I’ve always liked actors who brought a bit of themselves to their roles, allowing us a glimpse of the real person behind the part they’re playing. Some would say this is limiting, that an actor in such circumstance is merely "playing himself". Gary Cooper was dismissed in this way, as was John Wayne, Clark Gable, Cary Grant, and others. This strikes us as a glib putdown of some very complex individuals in extraordinary circumstances who were, in their own distinctive way, living out the drama of their personal lives on the screen. After you’ve read a little about these people, you realize just how heavily coded their performances are, particularly those stars who enjoyed (and that may not be the most appropriate word) successful careers both before, and after, World War Two. Each of them constructed a screen personality over periods of time, the "himself" critics referred to. Wayne was no natural cowboy. He didn’t care for horses at all, and stayed away from them when he wasn’t working. Grant was anything but the suave figure he projected on screen, often tormented by the contradiction between image and reality. Gable and Cooper seem a little closer to the images they maintained, and it’s for that reason I find these two infinitely fascinating, particularly Gary Cooper, whose androgynous beauty mask would transform itself into a virtual roadmap of the actor’s private anguish as each performance revealed the stress of age, career concerns, and domestic conflicts eating away at him.

This first art montage is typical of what Don Lockwood would later call studio "banana oil". So is this hunting display, although the essence of it is true. Coop did actually go on safari, and did indeed hunt and kill big game, but it’s doubtful he "set off for Africa before the studio directors could stop him". That’s something contract players did not do. Actually, Bwana Coop was, in many ways, as mama-dominated as Miss Charlotte Vale herself, for it was Mrs. Alice Cooper (not to be confused with a 70’s rock singer who distinguished himself by being a fan of The Creature From The Black Lagoon) who ran off Gary’s hot tamale mistress, Lupe Valez, an act of maternal interference that led to a nervous breakdown for her boy (that plus the fact that Paramount was working him 16-18 hours a day). Coop was already worn to a frazzle in the wake of affairs with Clara Bow, Evelyn Brent, and who knows how many others (well, just look at the pictures of this guy --- he really needed all those wild animals to fight off the babes!). That "vacation" the fan mags referred to was actually an extended rehab for overwork and exhaustion (yeah, and in the wake of Clara and Lupe, poor spent youth needed some R&R). Mama actually considered taking Boy out of the movies altogether, and repairing to the family ranch back in Montana (just so there’s no doubt about one thing, the Coopers had serious money, so that manure-shufflin’, up-from-the-starving-extra-ranks palaver was, well, just so much manuro). What she didn’t anticipate was Coop’s choice for a vacation destination --- hitting all the high spots among various decadent European playgrounds and getting himself tied up with a jet-set adventuress (thirteen years his senior!) named Dorothy di Frasso, who would later land on the FBI’s Hit Parade for her subsequent liaisons with Bugsy Siegel and a coterie of known Nazi operatives. That little adventure on the continent led to the African excursion referred to on the fan page. When Coop returned stateside, he was hale and hearty, pet monkey "Toluca" in tow, along with enough stuffed carcasses to open his own furrier.

The glossy pics shown here offer a pretty fair glimpse of the eternal tug-of-war among Coop’s feminine influences. First there is Mother. Seems amiable enough, "except when crossed" (to quote Dr. Pretorious). The photo was taken for a compulsory Mother’s Day just-plain-folks sitting at Paramount in 1936. By then, the wandering boy had been subdued and brought into the corral by the lady sharing his carriage ride, Sandra Shaw, former social lioness, and now Mrs. Gary Cooper. We’re struggling for the proper word to describe Coop’s expression in this shot. Sheepish? Bored? Thinking about Lupe? In all the pics we’ve seen of that couple, she looks, well, commanding. After all, they say every boy ends up marrying his mother. Looks like Coop was no exception. The third shot is fairly typical of Gary Cooper on Wolf Patrol. That private party where this was taken was just so much African landscape for the lanky lothario, and it looks like he’s spotted his quarry in comely Joan Crawford (alright, maybe she was never comely, but we like the word). The general posture of these two give a pretty good indication of what’s going to happen within the next hour in some tinsel-town love nest of undetermined (and hopefully discreet) location. Master director Raoul Walsh used to tell how Coop would zero in on a girl by going into his aw-shucks, timid-boy-needs-a-mommy routine while the girl would search for his wandering eyes (always with the head tilted and looking down at his shoes) in an effort to "reach" him. Upon her success in bringing him out of his shell, the two would adjourn to the actor’s dressing trailer, where Coop would take over the instruction. As Walsh had witnessed this routine on so many occasions, he always knew "when the snake was getting ready to strike".

Of course, this was only the first stage of the Cooper drama. Things got more than a little hard after the war, and we’ve got some images from that period that we think are pretty dramatic. If there’s interest in more Gary Cooper, we’d be glad to go for a Part 2. Let us know, readers!


Blogger Michael said...

Weird factoid I discovered about Sandra Shaw (Mrs. Coop) the other day: among her extremely few and minor roles before marrying him was... the woman King Kong pulls out of the building, is disappointed to find is not Fay Wray, and drops to the sidewalk. (There's a metaphor there for Cooper's affair with Patricia O'Neal, I think.)

In any case, everyone should go get the dirt-cheap Gary Cooper DVD set that Universal put out; five interesting movies (some of them fairly hard to see in recent times) from the period when he was the least-fussy pretty-boy in movies. I think he's really underrated in terms of how he constructed an image for the glamorous American male, rugged yet polished and at ease in his clothes, yet not just a boy toy or ornament for his costars like, say, Robert Taylor was. (Or the reverse, the kind of overdone sandpaper-edged manliness like Gable or Tracy had on occasion.)

12:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yes please, more Gary Cooper here!

3:37 PM  
Anonymous Crystal said...

I'd like more Cooper, please!

7:38 PM  
Anonymous cheryl said...

I've just discovered your wonderful site! Enthralling!

And please...more Coop! :)

7:11 AM  
Anonymous Vera said...

very interesting reading. I want more, please.

1:34 PM  
Blogger Thiseas said...

A very special man ! i wish you could give us another insight on his life and work.

2:56 PM  

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