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The MGM boxed set Gary Cooper MGM Movie Legends Collection celebrates the still-popular star with three titles from the Sam Goldwyn Company and one returnee from the United Artists library. All are reasonable entertainment although the earlier pictures have all dated somewhat. Most interesting for fans will be the opportunity to catch up with one of Coop's earliest silent successes.
The Winning of Barbara Worth is Cooper's first credited role, and he makes a strong impression as, what else, an honest cowboy type who pines for the lovely Wilma Banky but ends up losing her to the top-billed Ronald Colman. Sam Goldwyn's expensive production was released through United Artists and directed by Henry King. It's a prestigious silent made by top names -- photographed by George Barnes and Gregg Toland and edited by Viola Lawrence. The original novel is by Harold Bell Wright, the popular author of The Shepherd of the Hills. Instead of Wright's favored Ozarks location, Barbara Worth takes place in either Arizona or California, when major aqueducts were built to irrigate open desert using water from the Colorado River.
A stirring opening sequence shows baby Barbara (Vilma Banky), the only survivor of a desert dust storm, being adopted by Jefferson Worth. Fifteen years later, she's mooned after by local boy Abe Lee (Gary Cooper). Eastern investor James Greenfield plans to fulfill everyone's dreams by 'turning the desert into a garden', but because he represents a 'soulless corporation interested only in profits' 2, trouble lies ahead. Engineer Willard Holmes (Ronald Colman) is immediately enchanted by Barbara but thinks she loves Abe, a romantic triangle that is resolved with noble actions all around.
Unfortunately Greenfield fires all the workers before the dam is properly reinforced, and in protest Worth has his men establish a new town on higher ground. Abe and Willard must avoid Greenfield's hired guns to bring the payroll through, a dramatic climax topped by the breaking of the dam and the flooding of the entire area via not-bad special effects.
The three leads act in time-honored silent manner, with some mis-heard words the only thing that keeps Barbara and Willard apart. It now seems rather unfair for the equally saintly Cooper to lose the girl, just because he got shot in the leg and has to sit out the last act. As soon as Willard's wounded arm is bandaged, he's energetically participating in the rescues. Among the rest of the cast, Erwin Connelly is excellent comedy relief as Pat, a grizzled old hand. He finds Barbara when she's a baby and is there at the big rescue. In a funny silent-comedy gag, Pat washes the mud from a newly rescued man. When he discovers that it's the villain Greenfield, Pat just plops a handful of mud back in his face.
MGM's disc of The Winning of Barbara Worth is in perfect shape, with hardly a scratch. It's also tinted orange, pink, blue and purple depending on the time of day. A mono organ score fits the film beautifully. It's source is unclear, as it sounds too clear to be from an early talkie reissue. There are no extras. 3
The Cowboy and the Lady (1938) is an uncomplicated bon-bon of a romance that could have been a remake of a silent movie. Cooper plays Stretch Willoughby, a wholesome, honest all-American rodeo rider who just wants to settle down to an idyllic life on a ranch in Montana. Merle Oberon is Mary Smith, the sheltered, romantically challenged daughter of a possible Presidential candidate. They meet up when she pretends to be a lady's maid on a blind date between her kitchen staff (Patsy Kelly, Mabel Todd). Cowpoke pals Walter Brennan and Fuzzy Knight are surprised when Mary follows Stretch from West Palm Beach to Galveston, and marries him on the boat. But Mary is terrified that Stretch will reject her when he finds out that she's a 'show horse' instead of a 'work horse.' Events lead to a Capra-esque collision between straight-talking Stretch and Mr. Smith's phony politician pals.
The story and screenplay list over a dozen uncredited contributors, who jam The Cowboy and the Lady with overly cute scenes. Mary has a sympathetic Uncle Hannibal (Harry Davenport) who intervenes with good advice like a fairy godfather, and Mary's stuffy dad finally melts to become a good-old Joe. If one wants just to relax and enjoy Cooper's aw-shucks act, the movie can't be beat. The only dated aspect is that it is assumed that Stretch and his western values are unquestionably superior to high-toned eastern attitudes; Mr. Smith's cronies are all condescending snobs, like Mr. Deeds Goes to Town's Algonquin Round Table. Cowboy doesn't have Stretch solve his differences by punching anybody out, which is what separates this picture from Frank Capra's problematic universe. 1 Merle Oberon is charming trying to adapt to her new husband, tearing up her dress in the Galveston rodeo camp and terrified that Stretch will turn against her when he finds out she's a liar. But we know better than to worry.
H.C. Potter directs well but invisibly; the script and stars are the whole show. The film is a perfect example of an entertaining, classy Hollywood star vehicle.
The DVD of The Cowboy and the Lady is another pristine B&W transfer from the Goldwyn library. No extras are included, but full tracks are present in both French and Spanish.
The most dated film in the collection is The Real Glory (1939), a story of a 1903 'native uprising' in the Philippines. Although adapted from a book by Charles Clifford, the story resembles an Americanized rehash of British Colonial tales from India that were so popular in the 1930s. After winning the Spanish American War, the United States reneged on promises of independence and kept the nation as a 'protectorate' territory. Resistance to occupation was savagely suppressed, as documented by none other than Mark Twain.
The Real Glory instead presents a plantation-like colonial fantasy. The Americans are naturally superior to the 'quaint' natives, and only the Army can hold back bloodthirsty Moro fanatics who want chaos and anarchy. Present-day political parallels proliferate, especially when the Moros make use of suicide killers. Their favorite tactic is dispatching a solitary maniac assassin to charge into camp and hack up a high ranking officer with a machete. The killers are so pumped with adrenaline and kill-crazy energy that they continue to attack even when shot.
The Real Glory never really gets beyond its political dimension. Gary Cooper plays Dr. Bill Canavan, one of three men handpicked to help hold off the Moro onslaught in a lone Philippine outpost. Slightly goofy Lt. Larson (Broderick Crawford) is crazy about growing orchids, and jolly good pal Lt. Terence McCool (David Niven) is ... a jolly good pal. Commanding officer's daughter Linda Hartley (Andrea Leeds) arrives and is romanced by all three, although there's never a doubt which officer will get her. The hearty McCool has 'selfless sacrifice' written all over his face.
Naturally, Cooper's commanding officer has all the wrong ideas, and Canavan must buck authority to do what's right. The loyal native army contingent is terrified of the near-demonic Moro bandits. Canavan finds out that Moros are afraid of being buried in a pig's hide, and forces a demonstration with a prisoner. Seeing the invincible Moro reduced to a blubbering baby greatly benefits troop morale. The movie ends with a series of desperate suicide missions and fairly exciting battles. Everyone including Cooper plays a proper cardboard character. As an action piece, the movie is pretty good, yet old-fashioned, even for 1939.
Vladimir Solokoff (For Whom the Bell Tolls, The Magnificent Seven) is Datu, a nasty double agent for the Moro chieftain Alipang (Tetsu Komai of The Island of Lost Souls). The Evil Moro uprising is suppressed, guaranteeing that the Phillipines will remain a Yankee possession.
The disc of The Real Glory looks great; Rudolph Maté's jungle scenes glow and his bamboo interiors are very good too. This was Henry Hathaway's sixth outing with Cooper; his last would be the CinemaScope Garden of Evil in 1954. No extras are included.
We leap ahead fifteen years, past WW2 and into the Eisenhower era for Vera Cruz (1954), an atypical Western in all respects. Robert Aldrich's film is violent, political and basically subversive; and its constant ruthless double-crossings provide a template for the ultra-cynical Spaghetti Westerns that would follow a decade later. Savant gave Very Cruz a thorough analysis back in his earlier (2001) review. It's still one of the dynamic westerns ever.
MGM's disc of Vera Cruz is identical to the earlier release, right down to the obsolete MGM logos and the old internet bug that Savant did the sound effects for. Yet the movie overall could have used a new compression, or even a new transfer. It's enhanced at the original SuperScope aspect ratio (with the original SuperScope logo cut off, unfortunately) and certainly looks good enough. The track is a bit rough in spots, probably due to a lack of optimal sound elements -- an entire vault of UA 'odds and ends' was simply thrown away when MGM became part of MGM/Pathe in the early 1990s. A terrible waste.
The Gary Cooper MGM Movie Legends Collection boxed set is more happiness for Cooper fans. It will fit well alongside Universal's The Gary Cooper Collection and Warners' Gary Cooper, the Signature Collection. MGM has also been releasing separate Cooper pix lately, like Casanova Brown and The Adventures of Marco Polo. They would have fit into this set nicely.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Gary Cooper MGM Movie Legends Collection rates:
1. Capra's 1930s heroes are usually charismatic visionaries that spring forward as 'natural' leaders. Longfellow Deeds in Mr. Deeds Goes to Town has been endowed with an innate sense of right and wrong, and feels he has the right to punch out snobs and other people he doesn't like. It's really an incipient form of Fascism: Know-nothing men of the people are superior because they have some kind of indefinable instinctive nobility. Some 'natural force' chooses them.
2. That's a direct quote from one of the film's inter-titles ... in 1926!
3. A note from reader Randy Byers, 6.26.07:
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