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Sunday, November 20, 2016

Where Paramount Put Westerns On The Talkie Map

The Virginian (1929) Looks/Sounds Like True West

This was widely famed when new in 1929, so much so that Paramount brought it back in 1934, then did a remake in 1946. Outdoors never sounded so good, opening titles scored by mooing cows. This is where Yup/Nope got hung on Gary Cooper for keeps. He'd live with, sometimes spoof, that image all the way to the end. It's so pervasive as to obscure the performance he gives as The Virginian, so halting, so naturalistic, as to seem almost like "bad" or inexperienced acting. But Cooper was experienced by this time, for that matter understood new rules of screen talk better than vets that played opposite him to their peril (John Barrymore said Cooper was the best bar none, including himself). I think Coop based his Virginian on genuine articles he'd met growing up in Montana. No talking cowboys had so far registered like this. Compare Cooper with Warner Baxter overreach as the Cisco Kid the previous year (Fox's In Old Arizona). Cooper's so raw here as to be without even mannerisms he'd develop as stardom was consolidated. Compare The Virginian with later The Plainsman, Along Came Jones, or Dallas, and see him apply tricks to a point of being mechanical. Problem for Coop was his knowing it had come to that, freshness of The Virginian not to be fully had again.

Not to say he'd ever be less than great. I looked at him recent in Garden Of Evil and ... monumental. In fact, monument was the word to describe this star by 1954. Cooper knew he was relying on repeated effects by then, and sat in on acting classes (with coach Jeff Corey) to improve. His efforts went right through the career. It wasn't insecurity, but a genuine humility. Did greats like Cooper fully realize that it was cumulative effect of all their roles that moved us so, redoubled each time we saw a new one? I'd grow up with his on syndicated TV, one week Vera Cruz, then The Hanging Tree, backward to Sergeant York or High Noon. Each built upon the last, as brick was laid by Cooper to his screen persona. I missed that initial impact, am sorry for it, can but imagine going to each of his when new, as well with Bogart, Gable, Flynn, Cagney, the rest, were unfurling at a same time. These were method actors in a far truer sense than would be the case after it became a self-conscious, if not destructive, cult.

Everything Cooper and peers experienced in turbulent lives was reflected by performances, not an affect, but genuine and to large extent unconscious. We saw what smoking and alcohol did to these faces. Almost all of them would die comparatively young. Whatever disturb went on in private lives translated right to the screen in expression if not interpretation of roles. Authenticity rather than affect. While Method-ers plowed childhood for emotional guideline, these had but to recall last night's assignation or unwelcome flap at Ciro's to create mood for a working day. Cooper and peers were pros, but they hauled rocks from personal life and habits, all shared, if unknowingly, with ones of us (especially now with benefit of candid bios) that knew what went on back of scenes. Cooper was especially colorful, if unwise in some of indulgences, but each were plasma to feed unimpeachable authority of his screen self. Anthony Perkins once recalled telling Cooper how great it was to work with such a living legend in Friendly Persuasion, to which Coop replied, "How about we leave off that legend s--t." Cooper knew that to analyze his gift was to jeopardize it, and hardly needed to be told he was a legend.


Blogger Mike Cline said...

Brilliant article.

10:27 AM  
Blogger Reg Hartt said...

I am often called a legend. I reply that that plus $50.00 will buy a case of beer. Some get really upset when I say that. They are the ones who want to be legends I guess. I never set out to do anything except the best I could and better when I can do better. I'm with Gary Cooper on, "Cut out the legend crap." I like best the people who have heard nothing about me. Their reactions are honest. Though I will say when the story got around that journalists who wanted to interview me had to bring a case of beer I did nothing to stop it. In those instances being a legend does get me a case of beer. I found THE VIRGINIAN on youtube. Picture quality too poor to waste time on. Will have to find a good one. Liked what I saw though. Thanks.

1:59 PM  
Blogger Rick said...

Yes, great stuff.

Back in the '70s i was present (though very much on the outside) at a conversation between Tab Hunter and King Donovan. They'd evidently not met before and were comparing experiences and acquaintances, so lots of famous names were mentioned. Ultimately, though, the talk became all about "Coop". Coop this and Coop that and How Great was Coop and Coop was Great.

Afterward, a friend who'd also been listening in said, "awful lot of name-dropping going on there."

I replied, "if I could drop the name 'Coop' it'd be every third word I said."

I don't remember anything specific that was said, but I clearly remember the smiles and nostalgic laughs and the genuine and deep affection that both of those guys had for Gary Cooper.

2:34 PM  
Blogger Kevin K. said...

Call me crazy, but everything you said about Gary Cooper can also be applied to Richard Dix. The older and more alcoholic he got, the better he was. Every line on his old-before-his-time face tells a story. "The Ghost Ship," his "Whistler" movies -- I think Dix is quite underrated.

2:58 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Richard M. Roberts considers "The Virginian" and players who improve as they age:


I have a beautiful old EMKA 16mm original on the 1929 THE VIRGINIAN, and it looks terrific there even for an early talkie. I've never quite understood Owen Wister's story's popularity, it seems to be one of those venerable old stage westerns that William S. Hart and William Farnum probably toured in endlessly (and Dustin Farnum made the first film version for Demille in 1914), perhaps it's more timing as it was one of the early realistic western novels, and it's tropes have been repeated endlessly ever since.

That said, however terrific Cooper is in the film (and he is indeed terrific), the success of this third version of the story has other cohorts in both Walter Huston, a stage actor who figured out film acting nearly immediately and is nice and nasty as Trampas (even with the Yosemite Sam moustache)and Victor Fleming, whose direction makes this one of the most fluid early talkies (and most of the early most fluidest talkies seem to have come from Paramount). Perhaps it gets by with it's early talkie feel seeming right with it's bleak frontier story, but Fleming was also a darn good director who figured out the new medium very fast indeed. Whatever, it is the best of the many versions made.

Note to Kevin K., you're not crazy, Cooper, Bogie, Cagney,even Errol Flynn all got more interesting as they aged, and frankly, MOST actors and actresses if they're worth their salt become more interesting as the years, mileage and experience go by, apart from less sags and wrinkles, youth offers actors little apart from untouched or re-touched beauty if they have any to begin with. That part of the problem with American movies today, especially with actresses, once they hit that American Actor death age of 40, just about the time when they have actually learned something, they get put out to pasture as stars, or trim off or botox huge parts of their faces and bodies to try to maintain a ridiculous standard of corporate-considered attractiveness. Bravo the British who allow their actors to actually age, English Thesps are allowed to wrinkle up, lose their hair and teeth (women too), and keep on working into and past general dodderyness when they really have developed their acting chops, think how many wonderful performances we have had from the likes of Gielgud, Richardson, Michael Caine, Judy Dench, and so many more post and sometimes way-post middle age (Helen Mirren, still a sexy senior citizen).


7:34 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Craig Reardon shares some thoughts about Gary Cooper:

Hi John,

I have to say I loved your piece on Gary Cooper. I did a 180ยบ on Cooper over a lifetime. When I was a kid I found his acting almost intolerable---full of affectations and artificiality, to my taste. Then, something happened. The films he did hadn't changed, but I had. I suddenly saw things I'd overlooked, or been insensitive to. Today I really think that Cooper was one of the finest, perhaps the finest film actor of his generation. If credibility is finally a sense that "I trust this man", he was credible. And acting shouldn't be something we're really aware of, should it? You would rather be taken in by the story and the characters involved in it. Cooper sneaks up on you and you wind up believing everything he says and does. There's something so human and subtle about his interpretations. He's one of very, very few extremely male stars who frequently conveyed tenderness and vulnerability, so poignant and understated that it almost breaks your heart. His line readings and small improvisations are still sometimes peculiar to me, I'll admit, but that strong sense of decency redeems and ennobles everything, somehow. As you have said so well, he draws from real life, not formula or fashion---or, appears to, and that's where the art is. I worked with Anthony Perkins and he did say that he loved Cooper---held him in such high esteem that he was almost a father figure. He said Cooper liked him enough that he wanted to introduce him to his daughter! Perkins said his high opinion of Cooper was generally held by the company on "Friendly Persuasion". However, I think the quote you found is marvelous. He didn't tell me that one! I recall seeing a TV special about the West that was hosted by Cooper, who was attired as a cowboy for the occasion. And I mean I saw it when it was new. This would have been in the very early '60s. I'm sure if I were to trouble to do it I could find it on the IMDB in his credits. It could very well have been the last thing he ever did, before his death from cancer. I'm now older than Gary Cooper ever got to be. How strange that seems. A friend of mine tells me that the new Sony Blu-ray restoration of "Mr. Deeds Goes to Town" is absolutely gorgeous. Got to see it!


8:54 AM  
Blogger Reg Hartt said...

Just watched NOW AND FOREVER. Wow! That is one helluva film. Cooper is great. Temple is awe inspiring.Lombard, well, what can we say? I wondered how Paramount let Temple slip through their fingers so early in her career then found they had her on loan out. Universal must have been furious at having her in shorts only to lose her in features.Would not have looked at it but for this post. Made my day.

6:31 PM  

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