May 7, 1901– Gary Cooper:
“In Westerns you were permitted to kiss your horse but never your girl.”
He is my favorite male movie star.
Okay, let’s just get some of this stuff out of the way right off: In 1929, Gary Cooper met the fellow actor Anderson Lawler, and they soon set up housekeeping together. Shades of Randolph Scoot and Cary Grant, except that Lawler was open about his gayness. He introduced Cooper to Hollywood society, but their closeness caused considerable conversation in the early film business.
Cooper was born Frank James Cooper in Helena, Montana. His parents were recent immigrants from England, and after nine years they returned home. But, with the start of WW I, the family moved back to Montana and Cooper enrolled in college to study agriculture. Helena is the capital of Montana, a big state with very few people. Cooper’s father became a farmer, then a lawyer and then a Montana Supreme Court justice.
The myth around his Montana childhood (ignore those pesky British years) provided the raw material for the features about him in the fan magazines. A Photoplay piece, purportedly penned by Cooper, highlighted his rugged upbringing on his Montana ranch.
In 1924, Cooper’s father moved the family from Montana to Los Angeles. Cooper met up with two friends from Montana who were working as film extras and stunt riders in low-budget Western films. Cooper had his heart set on being a painter, and wanting money for art school, he took film extra work for five dollars a day, and as a stunt rider for twice that amount.
After kicking around town and doing bit parts, Cooper was offered a larger role in The Winning Of Barbara Worth (1926) with Ronald Colman and Vilma Bánky, playing a young engineer who helps a rival suitor save the woman he loves and her town from an impending dam disaster. Cooper’s experience living among the Montana cowboys gave his performance authenticity. He was singled out as a bright star of the future.
His next standout role was in Wings, the first Academy Award winner for Best Picture. He plays a WW I flyer, and although he only has one scene, he looks gorgeous, a gorgeousness compounded by his character’s tragic fate.
He appeared full-frontal nude, standing shaving in a river in something called Wolf Song (1929). No copies exist today, only a few images remain, but none with his full nakedness. Trust me, I searched. This was “pre-code” Hollywood and there were no rules yet about film content. Let’s talk straight: there was no cowboy handsomer than Cooper. In these early films, even with his eyes heavily lined and his face powdered, he somehow still looked hot in the saddle.
Over the next three decades, he played variations on the cowboy: cowboy goes to war, cowboy goes to the big city, and he not only won the girl, but he did so righteously. Unlike other major stars, who reveled in the opportunity to play against type, Cooper kept things simple. He played slight variations on the same character, but their moral center remained constant: as he once told a screenwriter attempting to fine-tune his character: “Just make me the hero.”
Cooper became a hero in the movies, even as he developed a reputation as one of the great lovers in Hollywood. He had stiff competition from Clark Gable, but Cooper was rumored to have slept with every single co-star. Studio fixers, the gossip magazines, and the system ensured that Cooper was never caught, or denounced, and he was held up as a paragon of American values. Of course, he looked good in tight pants, which didn’t hurt him none.
He received massive amounts of fan mail, at a time when fan mail was one of the main indicators of what an actor under contract should do next. After Wings, Cooper appeared in film after film, playing variations on the rugged, yet sophisticated hero. He embodied Jazz Age masculinity; he was tall and dressed impeccably but wasn’t a dandy.
The Virginian (1929) was his first real talkie, and audiences swooned for his voice as well as his looks. It was a huge box-office hit and cemented the foundation of Cooper’s image: volatile, a secret romantic, yet always the hero.
Once his studio, Paramount Pictures, knew what to do with him, they made him work for his money. In 1930 alone, Cooper starred in Only The Brave, The Texan, The Spoilers and A Man From Wyoming, all exploiting his cowboy image. The same year, in Morocco, he played a taciturn cowboy in a soldier’s uniform, only this time he is up against Marlene Dietrich. This film is awesome.
Cooper and Josef von Sternberg, the director and Dietrich’s Svengali, did not get along because von Sternberg insisted on filming Cooper in passive positions, always looking up at a beautifully lit Dietrich. I love this, I love it so much.
Cooper had an affair with Lupe Vélez; he wanted to marry her, but Vélez was a hot mess. In keeping with her onscreen image as the fiery Latina, she threw wild parties with cock fights and showed stag films. She was extremely jealous of Cooper’s closeness to Lawler and supposedly unzipped Cooper’s fly at a Hollywood event and sniffed his crotch, claiming she wanted to smell Lawler’s cologne.
She and Dietrich got into it on the set of Morocco. Vélez insisted on being on-set, given Cooper’s reputation and Dietrich’s je ne sais quoi. She became more aggressive as filming continued and evidence of an affair seemed to materialize. I have no idea what this evidence was; more crotch-sniffing? The fan magazines made a big deal of their competition, and Dietrich later claimed: ”Gary was totally under the control of Lupe.”
I sort of love the idea of these two powerful females doing crazy shit for Cooper’s affection.
He lost 40 pounds during their three-year relationship, and Vélez supposedly shot at him when he fled Los Angeles by train to Chicago.
In 1932, Cooper and his Paramount rival, Cary Grant, were cast with Tallulah Bankhead in Devil And The Deep (1932). Bankhead later said:
”The only reason I went to Hollywood was to fuck that divine Gary Cooper.”
Amid all his onscreen cowboying, Cooper courted Veronica Balfe, best known as the blonde dropped by King Kong. Cooper’s mother approved, and they married in late 1933. Balfe retired from films, fated to become the woman with the least amount of Google results who also slept with Gary Cooper.
Cooper gave up his image as the eyeliner-wearing cowboy for the straight-talking masculine everyman with the values of Depression-era America, starting with Mr. Deeds Goes To Town directed by Frank Capra.
In 1935, Cooper was named by Woman’s Home Companion Magazine to ‘’Hollywood’s Best Dressed List”, and Cooper responded with a Capraesque:
”I don’t know a darn thing about dressing. I just trust in the Lord and keep my shoes shined.”
Mr. Deeds Goes To Town, paired perfectly with Jean Arthur, is one of the first films to show a bit of age around Cooper’s eyes, yet he also looks amazingly attractive.
In 1941 he was back with Capra for Meet John Doe, this time paired with Barbara Stanwyck. Later that year, he appeared in Sergeant York as a conscientious objector who, despite his religion is still forced into the U.S. army. He goes to war morally conflicted, but when his fellow men are cornered by Germans, he proves himself a hero.
More noble roles followed: Cooper as Lou Gehrig in The Pride Of The Yankees (1942), and For Whom The Bell Tolls (1943) with Ingrid Bergman. For these performances, Cooper was Oscar nominated for three straight years for Best Actor.
The films that Cooper made next were an expression of the post-war years. He somehow managed to make The Fountainhead (1949) bearable in adaptation form. The Ayn Rand book is particularly ego-driven American novel, a favorite of Paul Ryan.
47-year-old Cooper had an affair with his The Fountainhead co-star, the 21-year-old Patricia Neal. When Neal became pregnant, Cooper purportedly insisted she have an abortion. Cooper’s wife found out about the relationship and sent a telegram demanding he end it.
Amid all the drama, Cooper had as his defining role: the beleaguered sheriff in High Noon (1952) battling against time to get his passive townsfolk to give a shit. The film, an effective parable of McCarthyism won praise, in part because Hollywood itself was one of the most high-profile targets of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC).
There was something particularly fitting in the choice of Cooper for the role of the Sheriff. Cooper had served as a friendly witness when he was called before HUAC in 1947, and he was part of the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals with Stanwyck, Gable, and Ginger Rogers. While Cooper was against Communism, he did not support the Hollywood Blacklist.
Cooper had an affair with the very young Grace Kelly, who played his very young Quaker wife. Their affair sent Neal over the edge, and she suffered a nervous breakdown and left Hollywood.
High Noon is a near-perfect film, and an expression of the evolution of Cooper’s image: pretty cowboy becomes principled cowboy becomes disillusioned cowboy. John Wayne called it: ”The most un-American thing I’ve ever seen in my whole life”, which means it obviously had a lot going for it.
My favorite of his films is the delirious Ball Of Fire (1941), a satire of Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs directed by Howard Hawks. It concerns a group of professors writing an encyclopedia and their encounter with a nightclub performer “Sugarpuss” O’Shea played by Stanwyck who contributes her own unique knowledge. It is in my Top Ten Films of All Time.
Cooper converted to Catholicism in 1958, reconciling with his wife. In 1960, Cooper was diagnosed with prostate cancer, which spread to his colon, lungs, and bones. He managed to keep his illness from the press until James Stewart had to accept an honorary Academy Award for him in 1961. Stewart said:
”We’re very proud of you, Coop, all of us.”
Then Stewart broke down crying. A month later, Cooper was dead.