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Monday, 29 June 2009

WESTERN ICONS - GARY COOPER


Gary Cooper is an all time great - if you take his westerns alone, of which he starred in over thirty, then his place is assured in cinema history and that's not mentioning the many classics he did in other genres. Noted film critic Pauline Kael, writing of Cooper's solid looks said - "He had the kind of look that made you want to give him power of attorney." And Charles Laughton famously said of Coop, "We act. he just is."

If you think that Eastwood invented the laid back, brooding cowboy then think again. Gary Cooper perfected the lean style of acting decades before Clint - actors who worked with him complained that he was wooden but then changed their minds when they saw the rushes.

Cooper had as a young man worked on his father's ranch in Montana. He became an expert horeseman and knew the arduous side of a cowboys life when he used to have to shovel manure at 40 degrees below.

He started out in showbusiness as a $10 extra in the silent westerns before starring himself in a series of silent westerns- his western breakthrough was an adaption of Owen Wister's The Virginnan in which Coop's trademark slow laconic speech style was developed. In 1936 he played another western icon in The Plainsman in which he took on the role of Wild Bill Hickok.

He became a sensation and his style was often mocked. George Burns used to joke that Cooper was out acted by a wooden indian. For Coop it was very much less is more and he thought the method actors to be idiots but then method guru, Lee Strasberg called Cooper a natural method actor.

In 1940 Cooper surprised everyone by showing uncanny comic timing playing against Walter Brennan in The Westerner. And in 1952 came High Noon which is regarded by many as the westerns finest moment. I wouldn't go quite that far but it would be high in my top ten.

He did several other classic westerns - Vera Cruz and the Magnificent Man of the West. The latter originally flopped because audiences couldn't take Cooper as a troubled ex-outlaw but since the films true worth has been discovered. His last western was the perfectly solid, The Hanging Tree.


Gary Cooper has long departed this world but his soul lives on in his work. The cowboy he created is still out there, riding through the psyche of every western we watch. The legacy of Gary Cooper is strength, dependability, trust worthiness and a good that time will never tarnish.

Thank you Gary Cooper.

4 comments:

Samuel Wilson said...

A really good one from late in the game for Coop is Robert Rossen's They Came to Cordura (1959), which must have been an ordeal for him at that point in his life. It's an interesting meditation on bravery and cowardice and whether they relate at all to other virtues, with Cooper as a disgraced soldier assigned to escort a group of Medal of Honor nominees who seem to be less than meets the eye. Rita Hayworth and Van Heflin, among others, are also very good in this one.

ARCHAVIST said...

Sam - not seen that one. Will have to check it out - sounds very interesting with a solid cast.

Charles Gramlich said...

I must confess taht I've never seen a Gary Cooper movie all the way through. I keep intending to watch High Noon one of these days but it never seems to come on when I've got some spare time.

ARCHAVIST said...

Charles - to my mind the best Cooper western is, Man of the West.