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Saturday, February 04, 2006

More On Gary Cooper

The war years were the peak ones for Gary Cooper. Too old to serve (although Gable did, but there were special reasons for that), but still young enough to make a convincing screen warrior. Like everyone else who wanted to stay in the business, he went on the camp tours, but found it rough going at the start, as he was anything but the spontaneous type on stage. Again he would trade on the awkward cowboy shtick, delivering songs as though he were Alfalfa in the Our Gangs (that got lotsa laughs), shucking his way through some mildly raunchy jokes (there’s no Production Code on army bases), and generally spoofing it up in genial fashion. The capper, however, was always played straight, and that was his recitation of the Lou Gehrig speech from Pride Of The Yankees. Rest assured, there wasn’t a dry eye in the house when Coop gave out this. It was as good as Bing popping in to do White Christmas. He liked to chow with the troops as well --- they craved hearing inside Hollywood stuff from a guy who was jes one of the boys (notwithstanding the fact he was routinely getting laid by the most gorgeous women in the picture business). Professional wise, Coop was batting them out of the park right up through the surrender, and it looked like those good times were never going to end.

Cooper seemed ageless through most of his forties, but when it finally caught up with him, that hourglass was a heartless, unstoppable thing. 1948 was the year he signed with Warners, and they launched him in a big prestige item, The Fountainhead. That’s the role Gable had wanted over at Metro --- just another set-back in a race those two had run since they were youngsters starting out --- one would buy a new car, then the other would rush out and get a bigger car, that sort of thing. Their rivalry lasted right to the end. When Gable’s palsy was getting the better of him in the fifties, Coop would actually go see his movies just to watch the poor guy’s hands shaking. Well, Coop’s own situation wasn’t much better. He had stomach ulcers that would fell an elephant, but he was determined to finish High Noon --- all the pain in that weathered face was real this time, but it got the Academy Award, and official living legend status among sympathetic peers. Maybe they felt sorry seeing him mired in a dead-end relationship with much younger WB contract player Patricia Neal, and the public spectacle attendant upon that. There wouldn't likely be more golden statuettes for the pictures he did in the wake of High Noon --- remember Springfield Rifle, Blowing Wild, Return To Paradise? None of these earned plaudits, so why is it I like them best of all? Could it be that Cooper shares our knowledge of their unworthiness? It sure looks that way. Never was he so distracted, so inclined to fall back on mannerisms and put his performance on coast. I just watched the DVD of Distant Drums this week, and sometimes old Coop plays it like he’s ten miles away. And what of those tepid leading ladies riding on his back? --- well, that’s one way of putting it. Rumor has it, he liked to keep his comfort stations close at hand, even in a co-starring capacity if necessary. By this time, Cooper was getting a little testy when other players sought to recognize his elder statesmanship --- on Friendly Persuasion, boyish Tony Perkins got a quick blow-off when he asked "legend" Coop about his own youthful screen exploits, "Cut all this youth shit out" was the actor’s curt reply. Coop never thought much of himself as an actor. He told Jeff Corey in 1950 that I only have two or three tricks at best, and that’s not enough, is it? Nearing death in 1961, he confided to his daughter regret he’d never work again, feeling he was only now beginning to understand something about acting.

This first still was identified as the Coopers and the Stewarts on a tandem date. I think the hand-written back caption is in error as to the marital status of the Stewart couple at the time this pic was taken. It isn’t dated, but if you look closely, you can see there’s a banner just behind them for Warner’s June Bride, the Bette Davis/Robert Montgomery comedy which was released October 29, 1948, and was set to be the "Next Attraction" at this theater. Since James and Gloria Stewart weren’t married until August 9, 1949, that could only mean one of two things --- either the Coopers were chaperoning the dating couple on this particular evening, or the four of them were slumming it, after the Stewart’s marriage, at one of the sub-run grindhouses where June Bride was getting ready to finish off its last run. The latter seems unlikely, as stars generally weren’t photographed at the movies unless attending a premiere, or at the very least a first-run venue. Therefore, we’re going with the chaperone theory. Anybody got any third possibility to propose?

This next one is dated January 19, 1951. The caption reads, "Gary Cooper, in a Voice Of America broadcast to Russia, explains the original version of his film, Mr.Deeds Goes To Town, to show up the distortions in an anti-American version of the picture now showing in Moscow." As you can see, somebody forgot to retouch this one. He was nearing fifty when they snapped him here, a little younger than your humble writer. Boy, does that give me a chill. Cut all that youth shit out, indeed. Coop’s politics were in sync with the Voice Of America, having been a friendly witness for the HUAC a few years previous. His inarticulate cowboy act didn’t play so well in those environs. When a House member inquired as to his profession, Cooper’s one-word response drew gales of laughter from the crowded gallery --- the word was "actor". Amidst the guffaws, a self-deprecating Coop just looked down and registered a sheepish grin. Seeing that newsreel, I wonder how he really felt at that moment.

This next one is Coop getting a little friendly persuasion from high-octane, post-war sensation Burt Lancaster, and I must say, he seems a little dubious. Does he anticipate Burt’s forthcoming bid to change the ending of Vera Cruz at the last minute, allowing his laughing outlaw to survive the final shoot-out with Cooper’s stalwart hero character? Coop nearly walked to allay that possibility, but as to billing, there was never any question. Lancaster ceded first position to Coop, as he later would with Clark Gable in Run Silent, Run Deep.

This final shot speaks for itself, I think. Cooper looks fully aware of the fact he’s too old to play opposite Audrey Hepburn, but here they are on a European location, and it’s too late to back out now. For a so-called illiterate cowboy, Cooper had a remarkably refined taste for all things Continental. His clothing was tailor-made in England, he was a well-known jet-setter over there --- in fact, very much like the character he portrayed in Love In The Afternoon, the film in which, critics maintained, and still do, he was woefully miscast! This was around the time he had a facelift, and that got some rude press, as did his ongoing assignations with various 50’s bombshells. In one instance, a private detective for Confidential magazine staked out Coop and Anita Ekberg (go do a Google image search and imagine the possibilities) at their motel rendezvous for days on end --- bear in mind, the star was around 55 by this time, and Ekberg was twenty-whatever (and to think, Jerry had to drive cross-country with Dean just to get a glimpse of her in Hollywood Or Bust!). When his wife confronted him about the episode, Coop merely hung his head and observed that "it seemed like a good idea at the time". Sometimes it pays to be an inarticulate cowboy.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Good heavens...I never knew he was such a womaniser! I must admit I don't know much about his private life, although I love some of his movies.
Could you throw some light on his family - wife, kids?

6:48 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Another informative and interesting article! Thank you so much!

12:29 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm kind of sad to learn about his personal life, actually! I want to like him. But he was SUCH a womanizer. He almost seems like a sex addict. I guess I'd rather not know the sordid details of celebrities affairs. Or the jerk-y things they did in real life. I can't believe Gary Cooper actually took *pleasure* in poor Clark Gable's palsy! Going out of his way to watch Clark's movies to gloat over his hands shaking? That's ...not nice. I thought Gary Cooper was nice. How am I gonna watch his movies now and not think about all this bad stuff?! Sigh. Yeah, I think it's best to be ignorant about actors' personal lives. Just taints their performances. (For me, anyway)


7:09 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The chaperone theory for the McLean/Stewart date sounds correct to me since Jimmy first met Gloria at a dinner party at the Coopers'.

6:02 PM  

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