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Ten-Gallon Tux

Gary Cooper
Foreign Intrigue: In his early films, Gary Cooper ranged far from the American West, even playing a French Legionnaire.

Before he stiffened into a heroic icon, Gary Cooper often played elegant, rakish romancers

By Richard von Busack

AFTER STARRING in one of his biggest successes, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, Gary Cooper underwent a change. Before the Frank Capra hit of 1936, in which he starred as a small-town naïf, Cooper had been a versatile actor who could play, with equal success, Westerners and Manhattanites, Foreign Legionnaires and aristocrats.

In the wake of Mr. Deeds, he became a shoegazer. The long, long legs tangled. He forgot so much about the ways of womenfolk that his Wild Bill Hickock in The Plainsman (1937) compares torture by savages and women: "I could tell you what an Indian'd do to you, but I can't tell you what a woman would do to you."

Now, when people hear the Irving Berlin song "Puttin' on the Ritz" (performed memorably by Peter Boyle in Young Frankenstein), the line "All dressed up like Gary Cooper" is cause for confusion. Those who don't remember Cooper in his days as a sophisticate imagine a cowboy in travel-stained leathers and a gun belt ambling down a dusty main street in High Noon.

The Stanford Theater's miniretrospective (July 17­Aug. 19) features nine Cooper films (possibly an even 10 if you believe the rumor that Cooper was an extra on the 1926 silent film Old Ironsides). Eight of these nine films show Cooper before he became the shy hero of Sergeant York, The Pride of the Yankees and High Noon.

These pictures turn back the clock to expose us to a Cooper who was young, elegant and even a little insinuating, with enough devil in him to have turned Marlene Dietrich over his knee. It didn't happen on screen, but there's a line referring to the incident in the movie Desire: "Where I come from," Cooper's character comments, "I'm not exactly considered bashful." That was all going to change in his future.


Bio of Gary Cooper, with emphasis on silent-film career.

Cooper filmography.

The Stanford Theater.


COOPER WAS BORN in Helena, Mont., in 1901. Like another Westerner, Raymond Chandler (who spent a stretch of his youth in Nebraska), Cooper was sent to England to be educated. The key to Cooper's aloofness is the effect of a very rude century on an Edwardian public-school boy. In the 1920s and '30s, when he was the Gary Cooper who wore a tuxedo, there was a mid-Atlantic quality in his diction, a pattern of speech somewhere between the West and Wimbledon Common.

In the early years of his career, Cooper delivered some surprisingly smoky moments. Observe Cooper in two heavy-cream confections made with Marlene Dietrich: 1930's Morocco (July 17­18) and 1936's Desire (Aug. 9­12).

According to his biography, director Josef Von Sternberg claims that the Pasha of Marrakech assured him that he must have actually made the movie in Marrakech, since one of his favorite streets in the city appeared on screen. Either the Pasha or Von Sternberg was jesting; Morocco is a famously studio-bound confection. Dietrich's own judgment was that the play the script was based on was "schwache Limonade" ("weak lemonade"). But the ambiance, the shadow-and-smoke cinematography, the direction and the stars overcame the story to create a waking dream about a hopeless romance between a world-weary demiprostitute, Amy Jolly, and a smitten French Legionnaire, Tom Brown.

In Frank Borzage's Desire, set in modern Spain, Dietrich wears marabou plume epaulets as big as feather dusters. Despite the glamour, her darting eyes give away her guilty secret. She's a jewel thief clinging to Cooper because he unwittingly carries a pearl necklace she's stashed on him.

The artifice of these two movies can be summed up by one of Dietrich's lines. She complains that Cooper looks so bad in the sunlight that she wishes the moon would come out again. The famous ending of Morocco has been given away by too many critics; suffice it that Desire reprises that ending: Dietrich gives up Paris to follow Cooper into the desert of Detroit.

Cooper as smoldering lover may be unusual enough; Cooper as supernatural lover is even rarer. In 1935, he starred in the little-seen and exceedingly bizarre fantasy Peter Ibbetson (July 31­Aug. 1), based on a work by George du Maurier (Trilby). It is a romance carried on entirely in the mutual dreams of two star-crossed lovers.

The Fountainhead (July 19­22), made in 1949, is based on Ayn Rand's Objectivist bestseller, a brick of Nietzschean pulp as big as a building cornerstone. It's about an architect, Howard Roark (Cooper), who endures poverty and treachery for refusing to tailor his designs to the popular taste. The film version, directed by King Vidor, is rendered in meticulous Warner Bros. studio style, including a booming Max Steiner score.

The film is perhaps best read not as a hymn to Rand's enduringly fatuous philosophy but as an allegory for the moviemaking process. The villain, the evil publisher Gail Wynand (Raymond Massey), is called the most powerful man in the world. Who knows who the most powerful man in the world was in 1949? But the best-paid executive in America in 1949 was Louis B. Mayer. King Vidor, a movie director for decades, approaches Rand's massive literary gorgonzola with the conviction of a man who had been told by various executives, "Give in!" "Compromise!" (As Roark is, in exactly those words.)

Even executives at plumbing-supply companies probably face this problem of money versus integrity, but compromise is the special occupational hazard of people in the picture business. Cooper gives Rand's cardboard Michelangelo the same conviction he gave Hemingway heroes. If the measure of a man is how he tackles adversity, the measure of an actor is how well he weathers prime foolishness. You can laugh at The Fountainhead, but you won't be laughing at Gary Cooper.

COOPER'S LANGUIDNESS got more extreme as he got older and sicker. As he aged, he was more inclined to turn his face away from the camera as if it were probing him until it sometimes looked as if nothing were going on. Cooper, like Louise Brooks ahead of him, was undervalued as an actor because of his minimal expressions; he was not given to outsized emotions even, for example, when being hung over a fire and smoked by Sioux Indians in The Plainsman.

Cooper's talent for understatement made him one of the most vivid players of Western heroes. The Stanford series includes only two of Cooper's many Westerns. The 1929 Wolf Song (July 30) is a mostly silent Western set in New Mexico, starring Cooper and his then-lover Lupe Velez.

The Plainsman (July 19­22) features Cooper as Wild Bill Hickock. More importantly, it stars Jean Arthur in one of her most lovable roles, as Calamity Jane. Cooper is already allergic to girls, trying to scrub off a kiss she plants on him. "You ain't wipin' it off, you're rubbin' it in," Arthur taunts him.

That Arthur makes such an impression is partially because of one of Cooper's well-liked habits. He was a great sharer of scenes, even while being impossible to steal a scene from. Fighting Indians of a different kind in 1935's The Lives of a Bengal Lancer (Aug. 9­12), Cooper's reserve supports a jesting Franchot Tone as the practical joker of the company. This is the movie in which an Oxford-educated border chief called Mohammed Khan (Douglass Dumbrille) tells some captured British officers, "We have ways of making men talk." No doubt his other prisoners had been more garrulous than Gary.

In the 1950s, Cooper complained about the excesses of method actors trying to get a handle on their roles through delving into their own personal agony. Method-acting guru Lee Strasberg riposted that Cooper was a natural method actor, but he just didn't know it. As an actor, Cooper went by a very simple code: "You find out what people expect of your type of character, and then you give them what they want." The problem with that formula is that since audiences preferred Cooper as simple as possible, he started to fade out into more routine roles.

Sadly, Cooper died early of cancer, in 1961, before he could play in a movie role he wanted, Sam Peckinpah's Ride the High Country. It was an evil trick of fate. This near-perfect Western would have been made even better by the casting of Cooper in either lead, especially since Peckinpah hired Randolph Scott and Joel McCrea for the two leads, both actors customarily used when you wanted Gary Cooper but you couldn't get him.

This Stanford series shows not only why Cooper was one of the most revered stars in Hollywood but also how stardom as always is paid for with a lack of versatility. How the mask hardens, until, at his worst--as the George Burns jibe had it--Cooper could make a wooden Indian look as if it were overacting.

It happened to Cooper, as it's happening to a half-dozen modern actors. Still, the record of Cooper's early flexibility is here, and it shows the young star in a range of moods that were discarded as he stiffened into fame.

July 17­18: Morocco
July 19­22: The Fountainhead and The Plainsman
July 23: Wings
July 30: Wolf Song
July 31­Aug. 1: Peter Ibbetson
Aug. 6: Old Ironsides
Aug. 9­12: The Lives of a Bengal Lancer and Desire
Aug. 16­19: Beau Geste
All at the Stanford Theater, 221 University Ave., Palo Alto; 415/324-3700.

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From the July 17-23, 1997 issue of Metro.

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