Friday, August 14, 2015

THE WINNING OF BARBARA WORTH (1926) and The Making of Gary Cooper

Gary Cooper was 25 years old when he made Henry King's THE WINNING OF BARBARA WORTH. He's the third name down in the credits, behind stars Velma Banky and Ronald Coleman. The story is a romantic triangle and (spoiler alert) Coop doesn't get the girl. What he got instead, was a career as a movie star. After this movie, he was on the fast track to becoming an American icon. Before long, his name moved above the title and Cooper started a decades-long career of making movies where he always got the girl. 

THE WINNING OF BARBARA WORTH was one of the first great westerns--it's a film of magnificent vistas, compelling performances, and great spirit--yet it's not a genre piece in the way that we normally regard westerns. It actually takes as its subject the settlement of California's Salton Sink in the early 1900s and the dirty politics behind the bringing of water to the parched valley. It's suspicious of "soulless corporations" and fat cat financiers. In some respects, it plays like a precursor to CHINATOWN.

While I love so much about the movie (including the wonderful performances of Velma Banky and Ronald Coleman), I really want to talk about Gary Cooper.

One of the most compelling elements of silent films is the way they predated a lot of gender stereotypes. In the silent era, androgyny was hot. Cooper was one of the few stars to make the transition from silents to talkies, and along the way his image became more stoic and explicitly masculine. Though he rarely did macho, by the time you get to the 1950s Coop was the living embodiment of the strong and silent type. But there was always something else about him, something that he carried through his Capra films and his screwball comedies--a certain halting shyness. You see this most explicitly in his silent films.

We first see him in BARBARA WORTH as a cowboy. From the very start, though he is almost unbelievably handsome. 

Paired with old codger Paul McAllister, Cooper is both authentic as a figure of the western but also unblemished and beautiful. He both fits the scene and stands apart from it, which might be a good description of "movie star charisma."

Despite some heroic derring-do later in the film (he gets to shoot some bad guys), I would argue that his real starmaking moment comes in a quiet moment when Coop spots Banky and Coleman together. His reaction shots here capture the unheroic essence that always balanced out the more heroic aspects of his later screen image.

Here you have a sequence of emotions -- longing, joy, disappointment, resignation -- in a brief space, demonstrating that the same guy who looks natural on a horse (Coop was born and raised in Montana) could play it soft and sweet. It was this tension between the various, and seemingly contradictory, parts of his own personality that made Gary Cooper pop off the screen and become a great star. 

A certain vulnerability would always be a part of his DNA as an actor. Unlike John Wayne, and even more than Stewart or Fonda, Cooper could be wounded. This quality finds its most masterful expression, of course, in his greatest western, 1952's HIGH NOON, a movie that hinges around social rejection and emotional isolation.

Of course, Cooper almost always played heroes, and he made plenty of wholly conventional entertainments where he functioned as little more than a tall tower of masculine power. His best work, however, remains a fascinating example of how innate aspects of an actor's personality inform and shade his portrayals in subtle ways.


Elgin Bleecker said...

His vulnerability is a very good point. Remember the hearing at the end of “Mr. Deeds Goes to Town” when the villains make a case against Doe’s (Cooper’s) sanity, and he will not defend himself because he was wounded by Jean Arthur? Cooper had something that few actors have, but the truly great stars do have, and that is some strange, secret, magical ability that allows the camera to see what they were thinking. I believe it was Charlton Heston, who worked once with Cooper, and said after the first day of shooting he, Heston, was disappointed because Cooper didn’t do anything in the scene. But when he saw that day’s work in the screening room, he was blown away because all you could look at was Cooper because every thought and emotion played on Coop’s face.

Jake Hinkson said...

Yeah, I've run across a few people--Heston, Welles, someone else I can't remember know--telling the same story of being unimpressed with him on set and then being really impressed when they saw him on film. Coop had a simmer, a slow building fire that was made for closeups.