Combustible Celluloid
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With: Gary Cooper, Walter Brennan, Joan Leslie, Phyllis Thaxter, Lon Chaney Jr., Patricia Neal, Raymond Massey, Charlton Heston, Ruth Roman, Steve Cochran
Written by: Abem Finkel, Harry Chandlee, Howard Koch, John Huston, Frank Davis, Sloan Nibley, Charles Marquis Warren, Ayn Rand, John Twist, Eric Ambler
Directed by: Howard Hawks, Andre de Toth, King Vidor, Stuart Heisler, Michael Anderson
MPAA Rating: Unrated
Running Time: 538
Date: 03/19/2013

Gary Cooper: The Signature Collection (2006)

3 Stars (out of 4)

Coop Dreams

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Legend has it that, while acting in his many movies, you can actually see Gary Cooper thinking. And it's true. Cooper is at his best when at rest. He can take a pause and make it into something truly extraordinary. But this thoughtfulness did not necessarily translate into action. He was a huge star, and it's not a popular thing to say, but Cooper could be awfully stiff in certain roles. His laconic style could just as easily turn wooden. Jimmy Stewart had patented the same kind of aw-shucks Americana, but imbued it with a barely hidden dark fury. With Cooper, that thoughtfulness just didn't translate quite as well.

This wasn't always the case. In his early pictures, he showed a surprising masculine sensuality, especially opposite Marlene Dietrich in Josef von Sternberg's great Morocco (1930), and a playfulness in Ernst Lubitsch's Design for Living (1933). Like other 20th century actors (Gregory Peck and Meryl Streep are the most notable examples), he had greatness thrust upon him with an Oscar nomination (for Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, in 1936) and found himself stuck in very important pictures, trying to win Oscars each time out. This restricted Cooper, and sometimes left him with that bewildered, wooden performance.

Howard Hawks' Sergeant York (1941) is another example of this. Hawks was one of the two or three greatest directors of the studio system, able to treat his pet themes (friendship between sexes, codes of honor, etc.) across all types of genres. Sergeant York brought him his one and only Oscar nomination for Best Director, and it's arguably his least interesting film. Based on the true story of World War I hero Alvin York, Cooper stars as a man who becomes a hillbilly marksman before finding religion. When the war comes, he refuses to fight because the Bible states "Thou shalt not kill." But fight he does, and his sharp-shooting skills make him a hero. Hawks was under pressure to turn in a propaganda film, tuned in to the mood of World War II, and it went against his best instincts. The film begins well, but gets more and more preachy as it goes. Fortunately, Hawks and Cooper were able to make up for it a few months later with the wonderful screwball comedy Ball of Fire, in which Cooper's stiffness was put to good use in the role of an out-of-touch professor.

Sergeant York is the lead item in this new Gary Cooper DVD box set ($49.98), comprised of five movies and six discs. It comes with a commentary track by film historian Jeanine Basinger, two documentaries, a featurette on Cooper, a Porky Pig cartoon, a short and a trailer gallery.

I was interested in looking at King Vidor's The Fountainhead (1950), which cult author Ayn Rand adapted from her own novel. Cooper plays architect Howard Roark who refuses to compromise his original vision, and goes so far as to burn down a building that made changes in his plans. I confess, however, that I only made it through twelve minutes of this film. Talking of preachy, Sergeant York is a model of loose, casual humor compared to this thing. Characters continually prod Roark to sell out, to join the mainstream. It plays a lot like Invasion of the Body Snatchers, a paranoid vision of Communists coming to get us all. Even weirder is Vidor's decision to shoot the film in Expressionist angles and stark lighting. It's beautiful, but to what end? This disc comes with a making-of featurette.

Fortunately, the box set moves on to one genuine item, Andre de Toth's Springfield Rifle (1952). Apparently, producers tried to convince de Toth not to hire Cooper because the lead character is a man posing as a spy during the Civil War; Cooper's untarnished image could not hold up to the ambiguous scrutiny of such a role. (Apparently audiences and critics did not think so either.) But he does, and beautifully. This solidly constructed Western is a tense and exciting drama, revealing one surprise after another. Cooper plays Major Kearney, who attempts to deliver a much-needed herd of horses to Union soldiers, but backs down when the Confederate bad guys show their faces. He faces a court-martial and winds up joining the enemy, but his real aim is to find the Union spy that has been selling information to the other side. A master action director, De Toth (perhaps best known today for his one horror film, House of Wax) shoots in bright Technicolor, but also making startling use of deep shadow. His experience as a "B" movie director gives the film a brisk pace, finishing on just the right note at only 92 minutes. Lon Chaney Jr. (The Wolf Man) co-stars, and fans will want to see the knockdown, drag-out brawl between the two icons. This disc contains no extras.

The fourth and fifth films, a minor Western, Dallas (1950) and Cooper's penultimate film, The Wreck of the Mary Deare (1959), are of little interest. There are still many Cooper films unavailable on DVD, or otherwise out of print, and it would have been great to see: Morocco (1930), Today We Live (1933), Desire (1936), Ball of Fire (1941), Good Sam (1948), Distant Drums (1951) or Man of the West (1958) instead.

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