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Warners brings together one bona fide Gary Cooper classic, one weird masterpiece and three of his lesser program pictures in Gary Cooper - The Signature Collection, yet another attractive boxed set guaranteed to empty out savings accounts. The idea that Cooper made 'lesser' pictures is probably irrelevant as he's one of the most watchable stars in film history; even when going through the motions in a stock western or just looking stressed in a late-career thriller, he's a pleasure to spend one's time with.
Savant reviews two of the discs in this boxed set separately.
1941 / B&W / 1:37 flat full frame / 134 min. / 2-Disc Special Edition / Available separately at 26.98
Starring Gary Cooper, Walter Brennan, Joan Leslie, George Tobias, Stanley Ridges, Margaret Wycherly, Ward Bond, Noah Beery Jr., June Lockhart
Cinematography Sol Polito
Second Unit Director Don Siegel
Art Direction John Hughes
Film Editor William Holmes
Original Music Max Steiner
Written by Abem Finkel, Harry Chandlee, Howard Koch, John Huston from the diary of Alvin C. York
Produced by Howard Hawks, Jesse L. Lasky, Hal B. Wallis
Directed by Howard Hawks
Sergeant York is reviewed separately at this URL.
1949 / B&W / 1:37 flat full frame / 112 min. / Available separately at 19.98
Starring Gary Cooper, Patricia Neal, Raymond Massey, Kent Smith, Robert Douglas, Henry Hull
Cinematography Robert Burks
Art Direction Edward Carrere
Film Editor David Weisbart
Original Music Max Steiner
Written by Ayn Rand from her novel
Produced by Henry Blanke
Directed by King Vidor
The Fountainhead is reviewed separately at this URL.
1950 / 94 min. / Not available separately
Starring Gary Cooper, Ruth Roman, Steve Cochran, Raymond Massey, Barbara Payton, Leif Erickson, Antonio Moreno, Jerome Cowan
Cinematography Ernest Haller
Art Direction Douglas Bacon
Film Editor Clarence Kolster
Original Music Max Steiner
Written by John Twist
Produced by Anthony Veiller
Directed by Stuart Heisler
Dallas is the least of the films in this set, a western with an unchallenging story that genre critics might say wasn't worth Gary Cooper's time. Yet it's far better than average, the main strength this time around being the colorful dialogue in John Twist's screenplay. Characters throw interesting colloquialisms about like modern slang, keeping our ears tuned to what's going on. Also providing a solid push are Max Steiner's bouncy score and an attractive Technicolor sheen.
Dallas plays like a higher-class version of a series western: A top gunslinger comes to town to get the bad guys and ends up winning the girl as well. There's plenty of thieving and murdering, thanks to Steve Cochran and his evil beard. Just one year after The Fountainhead Raymond Massey seems no competition for Cooper whatsoever. Actually, although there's nothing wrong with his acting, Massey seems out of place just being in a western. He's the brother of Steve Cochran ... ?
The story bounces between chases, kidnappings and dirty-trick gundowns, all energetically directed by Stuart Heisler and 2nd unit pro B. Reeves Eason. Cooper is front and center at least 80% of the time. He'd co-star with Ruth Roman again (in Blowin' Wild, 1953) but she really doesn't add much to the show beyond window dressing. In fact, Roman's character never seems to leave the hacienda set. Leif Erickson has the thankless role of the Easterner who has to stand back while He-moose Cooper moves in and claims her for his own. There's no real conflict in this ... Roman knows who has the Right Stuff West of the Pecos as soon as she kisses Cooper, while Cooper is given his signature 'aw shucks' innocence that makes it seem that stealing the girl wasn't his idea. In an almost parodic finale, Erickson exits to go back East and do something he knows how to do, build that railroad to Dallas.
The ill-fated Barbara Payton has a thankless role as Cochran's double-dealing gun moll. She's given no big scenes and really only gets to complain: "You'd get your pockets picked in a graveyard!" Interestingly, this is one western where the bad girl is a blonde Anglo, and the good girl is a dark Mexican, although Ruth Roman shows no Latin qualities whatsoever.
The DVD of Dallas has excellent color with only one or two shots showing anything like mis-registration. Steiner's score comes across strongly on the sharp Warners soundtrack. This disc has no extras.
1952 / 93 min. / Not available separately
Starring Gary Cooper, Phyllis Thaxter, David Brian, Paul Kelly, Lon Chaney Jr., Philip Carey, James Millican, Guinn 'Big Boy' Williams, Alan Hale Jr., Martin Milner
Cinematography Edwin B. DuPar
Art Direction John Beckman
Film Editor Robert L. Swanson
Original Music Max Steiner
Written by Frank Davis, Sloan Nibley, Charles Marquis Warren
Produced by Louis F. Edelman
Directed by André De Toth
Springfield Rifle is a more ambitious and much more exciting movie than Dallas, yet is not a front-rank Cooper western. The old-fashioned undercover agent story is given a Cold War twist in Charles Marquis Warren's sharp script. Capable director André De Toth puts this Technicolor production together with professional ease.
Charles Marquis Warren is noted for excellent scripts with a strong political undercurrent. His Arrowhead was tabbed by liberal English genre critics as a strong anti-Communist tract: The late Jack Palance plays a Ho Chi Minh-like native American who returns from an Eastern college, lets his hair down and sets out to be a determined terrorist against the peace-loving white occupiers of his homeland.
Springfield Rifle rationalizes the need for the new CIA. Gary Cooper's loyal Union major is point man for a secret counter-intelligence program that Washington would forbid -- if they knew it existed. Spies are needed to fight the war because the "other side" is using them like crazy. Cooper must alienate himself from society -- he's known as a dirty traitor -- and cannot even tell his wife Erin what he is doing. The unknowing (and rather untrusting) Erin condemns him. Coop keeps telling her to stop asking questions and go home to take care of the kids ... the ultimate 50s message to all 'good' American women. By extension, all good 50s Americans are advised to stop worrying, shut up and fund our new secret police entities.
Placing that rather obvious subtext aside, Springfield Rifle is a rousing action saga that's half White Heat and half John Ford-style cavalry western. Ford would never go for a cavalry rife with OSS-style intrigues, plots within plots and commanding officers who happen to be spies for the other side. Just keeping up with who knows what about whom sustains the story, and good casting gives Cooper interesting company whether shooting up the range or brawling at the gates of the fort. Phyllis Thaxter plays the June Allyson role, at least until it comes time to accuse and desert her husband. On the Warners downslide, David Brian is a renegade rancher and Paul Kelly the concerned C.O.. The always-loyal Phillip Carey is an officer who thinks Cooper is a coward and enjoys watching him branded with a yellow streak upon being ejected from the Army post. Guinn Williams, Martin Milner and Alan Hale Jr. have visible bits but favorite Lon Chaney Jr. gets a solid role as a cantankerous horse thief. In one rather sexually interpretable scene, Cooper slashes both of Chaney's buttocks (honest) so that he'll have to walk rather than ride his horse for a few days. Warren's screenplay is dotted with a number of other savage and/or weird violent touches.
For a capper, the new guns that turn 'one man into five, and fifty into an army,' are brought in to give the Army an edge over the horse thieves. I'll be surprised if Springfield Rifle wasn't quietly shaped by the government -- as its notion that America will prevail superior firepower was the Cold War's main battle cry for more military funding. You wouldn't want Coop to go up against a Guatemalan Commie without a bigger gun, would you?
The DVD of Springfield Rifle looks terrific, if a bit more grainy than Dallas -- the photography is much more ambitious. There are no extras.
The Wreck of the Mary Deare
1959 / 105 min. / Not available separately
Starring Gary Cooper, Charlton Heston, Virginia McKenna, Richard Harris, Michael Redgrave, Emlyn Williams, Cecil Parker, Alexander Knox
Cinematography Joseph Ruttenberg
Art Direction Paul Groesse, Hans Peters
Film Editor Eda Warren
Original Music George Duning
Written by Eric Ambler from the novel by Hammond Innes
Produced by Julian Blaustein
Directed by Michael Anderson
Adapted from a popular novel, this maritime thriller is more famous for being turned down by Alfred Hitchcock than it is on its own merits. Hitchcock and Ernest Lehman were supposedly working on it at MGM for months, until they simply told the production office that they were going off in an original direction with what became North By NorthWest. Producer Julian Blaustein and director Michael Anderson came up with a by-the-numbers mystery that's short on real interest and long on waiting around for Gary Cooper's character to give us information he's been withholding. When all's said and done, there's little reason why he didn't speak up with the truth right at the start.1
The Wreck of the Mary Deare gets bogged down in a literal telling of a story that eventually collapses under the weight of logic. There's a certain interest in the realistic scenes aboard the ship in a storm but the only suspense generated comes from the main character's refusal to share information, with both Charlton Heston and with us. The film bounces through a series of big-star cameos that adds little to the film. Alexander Knox has one scene as an angry lawyer, Michael Redgrave says a few words at a trial, and the always-interesting Virginia McKenna is completely wasted as the daughter of the Mary Deare's dead captain.
Also not helping are at least twenty-five minutes of sharply filmed ocean miniatures that forever remind us that what we're seeing is completely artificial. The models look good, but we'd rather see Cooper and Heston on the deck of a real ship to give the story some gravity. Eventually they go on a far-fetched frogman scuba foray, which makes little sense when one considers the age of Gary Cooper's Gideon Patch character.
It's never in doubt that Gideon Patch will be vindicated in the end. Then we find out that the reason he risked both his and John Sands' lives, and dragged the plot out to the violent extremes, is that he didn't know who to trust, he was afraid. That un-heroic stance reveals Cooper's limitations as an actor: Cooper's screen characters can be flawed, but he's almost never convincing as a loser ... we always expect Coop to prevail by some natural inner force. The identical problem damages his other late-career picture, the western near-masterpiece Man of the West.
Charlton Heston gives excellent support, just as he did for Gregory Peck in The Big Country. Somewhere among those films Heston put a lot of hours into work in Italy on Ben-Hur. For a few years he must have been the busiest actor alive. He gets a chance to work with Richard Harris, six years before Major Dundee, but nothing interesting transpires. Harris plays a one-note bad-guy creep and still had a couple more years of glorified bit parts ahead of him in other actors' starring vehicles, such as The Guns of Navarone.
Warners' disc of The Wreck of the Mary Deare looks great in a colorful enhanced transfer. Savant loves elaborate film miniatures but after a while the leisurely views of these boats turns into a dull episode of the Thunderbirds: Too much bathtub water splashing around. This disc also has no bonus material, but the packaging assures us that said bonus material is not rated or closed-captioned.
Gary Cooper - The Signature Collection is a bargain for his fans and an excellent example of Warner Home Video's continued determination to release its immense MGM, Warners and RKO libraries. Some viewers might only want to get the individual releases of Sergeant Yorkor The Fountainhead, but it is true that the fans that go nuts for Springfield Riflebut hate the other titles are going to be out of luck. Confirmed DVD addicts like Savant see an instant benefit to the new slim cases and wishes they'd be adopted as a standard, just to keep the disc population from overflowing one's available storage.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
1. It appears that Hitchcock and Lehman passed the The Wreck of the Mary Deare project on to writer Eric Ambler ... who in 1958 married Hitchcock's long-time assistant (and writer-producer in her own right) Joan Harrison.