Friday, April 29

Gary Cooper

I guess I just never caught that great wave that was Gary Cooper, an actor of undeniable mythic legend both on and off the screen. Once said, I did like him and enjoyed many of his films.  A two-time Academy Award-winning best actor, he was much admired for his minimalist (yup, nope, uh) acting style and I just never understood the acclaim.  I likened him to his hunting buddies Clark Gable and Robert Taylor... big, big movie stars but best to find the great acting chops in others. His offscreen antics put him in good standing to be included in this month's postings on Hollywood's horniest philanderers.

Before he became impotent in the 1950s, he was, as one of his directors said, probably the greatest cocksman that ever lived.  He was also a very boastful one.  His conga line of conquests was legendary, both before and after his only marriage, and women regularly threw themselves at him as the news spread of his sexual prowess and his member of good standing.  When he left them, they screamed and yelled and his fighting matches with some of them made the headlines.  And all this came in the face of a screen image that certainly bordered on wholesome.

He was born a cowboy and died one. He first saw life in 1901 in Helena, Montana, and lived much of the time there on a 600-acre ranch. His father was not only a rancher but also a lawyer who eventually sat on Montana's Supreme Court. With his mother and older brother, Cooper moved to England in his early years. By 15 he was back in Montana where he was involved in an automobile accident that gave him a limp for the rest of his life.

A high school teacher suggested he try some acting... surely a push to get the youngster to come out of his shell.  But it was art that captured his imagination and in a short time he was excelling in watercolors and drawings.  He worked some at Yellowstone National Park and sold editorial cartoons to the local newspaper.

In 1924 his parents moved to Los Angeles and shortly thereafter Cooper joined them. He met up with some old pals from home who were working in the movie business as extras and stunt riders. They got Cooper on board, jobs he took only to save enough money to take an art course. His skills on horseback got him a deal of employment but soon art became an avocation (and one he would forever pursue) and the movies became his focus after he was given a more visible role in The Winning of Barbara Worth (1926). 

Paramount Pictures was suitably impressed with the lanky, laconic cowboy to sign him to a contract.  Once on the lot, resident nymphomaniac Clara Bow spotted him and wanted him in her next film, It (1927) and in her bed.  The same year they made Children of Divorce and then Wings, the winner of the first Oscar for best picture. Bow was probably America's first sex symbol and had a reputation to back it up.  

Her kick was to demean him sexually.  She frequently accused him of being a bit lavender, which may have stemmed from the fact that Cooper roomed with a fellow Paramount newcomer who was gay. It also would be completely in line with the times that someone like Cooper would have traded favors with some of the wheeler-dealers at the studio or around town.  He had what they wanted and they had what he wanted.  He was getting bored with his silly roles. Most everyone told him that with his looks, he could be a big star. He also had a voice that people commented on and when movies began to talk-- and wouldn't they?-- he'd be an asset.  So while Cooper's always been Super Stud with the ladies, who's to say that aw-shucks, country-bumpkin manner hadn't made some room for learning the ropes of Hollywood instead of twirling one in Montana? It was beyond simple whispering about it when designer Cecil Beaton said he knew Cooper that way.  Regardless, to pay back Bow for castigating him, he cheated on her.  More.

In 1929 he appeared nude in a scene in Wolf Song but it was cut from the final print.  He was pleased with top billing, one of the first times.  He was even more pleased with his leading lady, a fiery Mexican actress (weren't they all?), Lupe Velez.  He plays a cowboy who feels a need to decide between her and being alone with his horse in the great outdoors.  He knew he had to have Lupe, would have her, as he did with most of his leading ladies.  Soon, they were involved in an even more acrimonious relationship than the one he had with Bow.  One thing after another hit the papers with their battles which largely stemmed from infidelities and his unwillingness to marry her. She even took a shot at him once. After more stormy relationships, Velez committed suicide at age 36, her career long over.

Looking peaceful with Lupe Velez

While still with Velez, although things were sliding downhill quickly, Cooper began seeing Countess Dorothy di Frasso, frequently at her villa in Rome. The countess taught him how to cook and he taught her how to muffle her screams. He knew that she had a lot of influence in Hollywood and he was determined to take advantage of it.

Perhaps not so coincidentally, Cooper soon began making his biggest film to date and his first talkie, The Virginian (1930). Imagine. The first talkie for the man who didn't talk much. Little more than another laconic cowboy role, the public turned it into a certifiable hit. Coop was on his way up. They put him in one movie after another, eight in 1930 alone. The most talked about of those was Morocco with Marlene Dietrich. The Teutonic temptress road roughshod over the cornball cowboy. She told him to show up when she told him to and be ready. She didn't have a lot of time. Soon it was longer assignations and Lupe at home was getting pretty loopy as she heard whispers about the affair. One day she charged onto the set and she and Dietrich got into it. Cooper took it all in stride. 

The episode actually points out a strong Cooper trait.  He not only loved strong women but he rather liked being bossed around by them.  His mother was a take-charge person... no dumbass man was gonna get in her way.  Of course, she pushed her boy around (she hated Lupe... calling her vulgar) and he came to play it as it lays. Most of his lovers were strong women, his wife was, his primary mistress was and I suspect his daughter is.

He had a couple of antidotes for all the strong-arming.  The first was that there would be other women. It was simply understood... that's what he did... take it or leave it.  In the late 40s, there would be a little deviation from the normal policy.  He actually fell deeply in love with one of his girlfriends.  His other passion was being with his guy pals in athletic endeavors, around the card table and especially hunting.  His best friend was Jimmy Stewart, the total opposite of Cooper as a husband.

In 1931 he was well-matched opposite Carole Lombard in I Take This Woman... and he certainly did.  I'm sure she insisted. They were so good together... she was so wired, he was so droll... that they were teamed again in Now and Forever (1934), adding little Shirley Temple for a little insurance.

In 1932 he made The Devil and the Deep about a naval commander and his jealousy over his wife.  Costars Tallulah Bankhead, Charles Laughton and Cary Grant all likely wanted to get to know Cooper better but apparently only Bankhead did.  The same year he played Frederic, the wounded ambulance driver, in Ernest Hemingway's A Farewell to Arms opposite Helen Hayes.  I expect she was one his few costars he did not bed but he did form a lifelong friendship with the author.

In 1933, he married Sandra Shaw or Veronica Balfe (your pick... she went by both) but was always known by the decidedly unfeminine name of Rocky. The word obey was taken out of their marriage vows and it's been said theirs was an open marriage from the beginning. Despite some bumps and at least one three-year separation, they remained married until he passed away.

He canoodled with Dietrich again on the Desire set in 1936 and then went to work for director Frank Capra, the voice of the common man, in Mr. Deeds Goes to Town. Cooper was perfectly cast as a simple guy (I can see the piece of straw out of the corner of his mouth now) who inherits a fortune and has to contend with a world of BFFs. His casting opposite Jean Arthur was a stroke of luck. Her comic genius, something akin to Lombard's, brought out the best in the affable Cooper. It's highly unlikely she became a notch on his gun. This film would cause more attention in Cooper's life than any thus far.

The same year, 1936, he starred alongside Madeleine Carroll in the somewhat overlooked The General Died at Dawn. The plot of an American mercenary v.s. a Chinese warlord has been done many times but these two gave it some panache.  His last film of 1936 was his first film for director Cecil B. DeMille, The Plainsman. Coop was a perfect DeMille hero... stalwart, pensive, brave. Cooper played Buffalo Bill, Arthur was back, this time as Calamity Jane, and there was Wild Bill Hickok and Custer and a whole lot of fun.

Everyone was talking about the romance he and Merle Oberon (who also would have fit in nicely in this month's postings) were having while making The Cowboy and the Lady (1938) and his only contribution to those famous 1939 movies was Beau Geste, another of the big Cooper crowd-pleasers.  Make a note that he turned down Stagecoach and Gone With the Wind.

His decade was certainly the 40s.  He would be on every Top 10 list that came out during the decade.  Many of the films he made during the 40s stand among some of the best films ever made.  First up was The Westerner, Cooper's first time working with the acclaimed director, William Wyler.  It was a dark piece with Walter Brennan (an 8-time Cooper costar) as Judge Roy Bean stealing the show.  

He joined up again with DeMille and Carroll for North West Mounted Police (1940), adding feisty Paulette Goddard along for color.  It was a routine story about a Texas Ranger mixing it up with the hostiles in the beautiful Canadian outdoors but another crowd-pleaser.  

I always thought Barbara Stanwyck was the actress who was the best fit for Cooper. He must have loved it, too, given how he liked to be bossed around by a woman.  The first of their three teamings arrived in the form of 1941s, Meet John Doe. Capra directed the tale of an everyman who inadvertently creates a political movement. Next, Howard Hawks directed Cooper in his Oscar-winning portrayal of hillbilly/sharpshooter/pacifist Alvin York who becomes a war hero in Sergeant York (1941).  Hawks and Stanwyck joined Cooper and a cast of fabulous character actors for a most delightful and intelligent comedy called Ball of Fire (1941).  It concerned a group of fussy old lexicographers who need to learn something about modern-day slang and in the course of things get mixed up with a stripper and a gang of thugs.  

One of his most famous performances was as baseball player Lou Gehrig in 1942s The Pride of the Yankees.  Try not to cry at the end.  Hemingway's look at Spain's civil war, For Whom the Bell Tolls (1943), featured Cooper and Ingrid Bergman (another easy inductee into this month's postings) as lovers but, popular as it was, it paled in comparison to their affair offscreen.  Tongues were wagging again and Cooper always loved it when they did. Who, other than perhaps Errol Flynn, loved his stud reputation more than Cooper?  He and Bergman got together over the years and culminated their passion by making Saratoga Trunk in 1945 but it wasn't a great success.

With Ingrid Bergman

His affairs with Loretta Young in Along Came Jones and Lilli Palmer in Cloak and Dagger, both 1946, were more interesting to him than the films.  These films are proof that not all of his 1940s films were big successes... just most. He returned to DeMille and Paulette Goddard for 1947's Unconquered, very similar to North West Mountain Police in some ways, but this time concerning the French and Indian War.  The colorful opus is a sure cure for a rainy weekend.
Writer Ayn Rand was thrilled when Warner Bros signed Cooper (he was now under contact to the studio) for the role of Howard Roark in her famous novel, The Fountainhead (1949).  The story of a visionary architect who struggles to maintain his integrity was something Cooper was greatly looking forward to doing.  The role of the willful Dominique, a socialite-columnist, was played by a blonde Patricia Neal who never looked more appealing.  Her love scenes with Cooper were as lusty as they came in 1949.  They were repeated often in real life as the two fell madly in love.

Their relationship got so serious that it caused a serious rift in his marriage and the Coopers separated for three years. While apart from his wife, Cooper and Neal went everywhere, did everything together and the following year made another film, the tobacco saga, Bright Leaf.  The roles for both were similar to The Fountainhead but Lauren Bacall was added to the mix for Bright Leaf. It wasn't as popular as the former but I enjoyed it more.

He fell hard for Patricia Neal

As the relationship with Neal wound down (she would allude to the fact that it never really did for her), his work took on a different hue.  One could correctly state that he clearly was not offered the kind of superb films he was offered in the 1940s.  And yet, five of his 1950s films were some of the favorite fare of my then young life. Something that might have affected his following was that those looks that the ladies once drooled over had surprisingly and seemingly quickly vanished. Cooper would live the rest of his life looking far older than he was and in some cases embarrassingly playing opposite some actresses young enough to be his daughters.

One of those was Grace Kelly (22 to his 51) in High Noon (1952). She was likely one of his last affairs. I know the film is considered a classic and while I enjoyed it well enough, I found it to be an utterly routine western and I didn't think Cooper as the beleaguered sheriff deserved his second Oscar.  

He squawked to the House Un-American Activities during the communist witch hunt period but apparently didn't name names and he didn't support the idea of blacklisting. He was a little too friendly for some of liberal Hollywood, but his star wattage dimmed any doubts the public may have had.  

His final film with Stanwyck, Blowing Wild (1953) was a routine oil wildcatter opus that I loved.  I have a Beta version of it sitting on my shelf and would love to convert it.  The western, Garden of Evil (1954), was popular with audiences but not the critics.  The story of a woman who hires four strangers to go with her deep into the Mexican jungle to retrieve her injured husband before Indians get to him was perfect for Susan Hayward and Richard Widmark, two of my favorites. Cooper didn't appear well.

He stayed in Mexico for Vera Cruz, an exciting western where he seemed invisible alongside Burt Lancaster. A better study of contrasting acting styles couldn't be more available. The story of adventurers out to steal a gold shipment in the midst of transporting a countess to the title city was gorgeously filmed and contained a wonderful western score.  Cooper seemed a bit too old for the role.

He wasn't sure he wanted anything to do with Friendly Persuasion (1956) and I suspect it concerned having a rather grown son in Anthony Perkins.  Luckily director William Wyler was able to talk Cooper into being the head of the pacifist Indiana Quaker family at the start of the Civil War.  Cooper was casting perfection... yup and nope worked pretty well as the Quaker dad. Dorothy McGuire made it even better for me and the film was one of the delights of my movie-going 50s.

His appearances in Love in the Afternoon (1957) opposite Audrey Hepburn and Ten North Frederick (1958) opposite Suzy Parker were dreadful choices for Cooper.  Even though his characters were supposed to be older than the two women, he looked so bad and it was painful watching him with them. Neither film was a success.

He got back in the saddle for three of his last five films.  Man of the West (1958), directed by the fabulous Anthony Mann, is a taut and exciting shoot-'em-up about a reformed outlaw forced to return to his hated old gang in order to survive.  If you cowboys and cowgirls haven't caught this one, get that amended.  It's a goodie.  I also liked The Hanging Tree (1959) mainly because of the luminous presence of Maria Schell.  It concerns a doctor at a mining camp who sets out to restore the sight of a young woman who has been sun-blinded.  The same year's They Came to Cordura featured Cooper, looking dead-tired, as the head of a group of misfits escorting a female prisoner to trial.  Rita Hayworth, Van Heflin and Tab Hunter made it interesting to me.

In 1960 as he was leaving for England to film the thriller, The Naked Edge, with Deborah Kerr, Cooper had surgery for prostate cancer that had spread to his colon.  After filming, he was told the cancer had spread again, this time to his bones and lungs and was inoperable.  His condition was kept fairly quiet but the world that was watching the Oscar presentation was alerted when James Stewart accepted a special Oscar for Cooper (for his life's achievements) and cast suspicions that all was not well with his good pal.

Gary Cooper died on May 13, 1961, in Beverly Hills, California. He was just 60 years old.

The august American Film Institute ranked Cooper 11th on its list of the 25 top male stars of classic Hollywood. Three of his characters, Sgt. York, Lou Gehrig and Will Kane of High Noon made AFIs list of the 100 greatest movie heroes. Gehrig's famous line--- today I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth-- to be the 38th greatest movie quote of all time.  

The Cooper legacy of the great and quiet American hero... moral, upright, true, courageous... is preserved in quite a number of fine, fine films.

Next posting
A Favorite 40s Film


  1. Once again my tastes match so perfectly yours that my comment seems to be almost useless. I think I saw almost all Cooper's films. Those I did not see at a theatre I saw in my DVDs. I found some sex appeal in him in For Whom The Bell Tolls ( maybe my favorite one, with High Noon, The Pride Of Yankees and The Hanging Tree), in Saratoga Trunk and in The Fountainhead. On the other hand I wish I never saw Love In The Afternoon and North Frederick. It was so painful to see him aging so fast!I am glad You wrote about him; we may like him or not, but he was a shining star in Hollywood sky.

  2. How funny, Carlo. A few times while writing this piece I wondered what you thought about Cooper or what you would think about my point of view. Now I know. As always, thanks for commenting.