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The Westerner

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Cover of "The Westerner"
Cover of The Westerner

THE WESTERNER

Released: 1940 Production: Samuel Goldwyn for United Artists Direction: William Wyler Screenplay: Jo Swerling and Niven Busch; based on a story by Stuart N. Lake Cinematography: Gregg Toland Editing: Daniel Mandell Art direction: James Basevi Music: Dmitri Tiomkin and Alfred Newman (uncredited) Running time: 100 minutes

Principal characters: Cole Hardin Gary Cooper Judge Roy Bean Walter Brennan (AA) Jane-Ellen Mathews Doris Davenport Caliphet Mathews Fred Stone Southeast Chill Wills Wade Harper Forrest Tucker Chickenfoot Paul Hurst Teresita Lupita Tovar Lily Langtry Lillian Bond Hod Johnson Dana Andrews

The Western had flourished in silent films with such stars as William S. Hart, Tom Mix, and the young Gary Cooper, and with epic productions such as James Cruze’s The Covered Wagon (1923) and John Ford’s The Iron Horse (1924), and it continued to do well through the earliest years of sound films. For some unaccountable reason, however, it fell into a decline between 1931 and 1939, during which time the genre lapsed into B-class productions or serials. During that interval, only four major studio productions were West erns: King Vidor’s The Texas Rangers (1936), Cecil B. De Mille’s The Plains man (1937), Frank Lloyd’s Wells Fargo (1937), and James Hogan’s The Texans (1938). But in 1939, the genre underwent a spectacular revival with such big-budget films as Jesse James, Stagecoach, Dodge City, Union Pacific, and Destry Rides Again. In that year, John Wayne finally became a star, and Henry Fonda, Errol Flynn, James Stewart, and Tyrone Power each made his first Western. The Western continued to flourish until World War II, when war dramas preempted almost all other action films.

After the blockbuster success of 1939′s Westerns, most studios and stars were eager to get into the act, and in 1940, Samuel Goldwyn made The Westerner, his sole talking Western and only his second film in the genre. Goldwyn’s only previous Western, The Winning ofBarbara Worth (1926), was Gary Cooper’s first featured film. Although Cooper made an impressive de but, Goldwyn let him go, observing that his studio did not make Westerns and Cooper seemed typed as a Western star. Cooper then moved to Para mount, and Goldwyn did not get him back until 1935. Actually, although Cooper is the quintessence of the Western star, he did not play primarily in Westerns. From 1926 to 1931, eight of his films were Westerns, but during the next nineteen years, he made only four Westerns (in addition to playing a cowboy in The Cowboy and the Lady, 1939, which is not a Western) and played a great diversity of roles.

Nevertheless, the Western and Cooper put an indelible stamp on each other. Lean, laconic, soft-spoken, steely-eyed, wryly humorous, quick on the draw, and a superb horseman, Cooper epitomizes the image of the Westerner. He starred in The Virginian (1929), the prototypal Western novel and the first talking Western made, and entered legend with his portrayal of Wild Bill Hickok in The Plainsman. He was therefore the only possible star for a film called The Westerner. No other actor, not even John Wayne (who at that time had just emerged from a decade of B pictures), could qualify for that title. Though Cooper is the star, The Westerner is primarily the story of Judge Roy Bean (Walter Brennan), a scruffy Confederate veteran who is self-ap pointed judge and boss of the scratchy, sun-baked hamlet of Vinegaroon, Texas. Bean runs the saloon, which doubles as a kangaroo court where he dispenses vigilante-type justice as the only law “west of the Pecos.” (The actual town, on the Mexican border, is only about ten miles west of the Pecos River.)

A hanging judge. Bean is less interested in evidence, legality, and justice, than in the cash in his victims’ possession or the value of their horses and outfits. To be accused is to be convicted, and Bean confiscates the victim’s money and possessions for “court costs.” Into his lair comes Cole Hardin (Gary Cooper), a rootless drifter captured by Bean’s men and unjustly ac cused of stealing a horse. This is a hanging offense, and the undertaker gallops up with his hearse, ready like a vulture for its prey. During the jury’s delib erations, Jane-Ellen Mathews (Doris Davenport), daughter of a homestead­ing farmer, comes to town to denounce the judge for having his cattlemen harass the homesteaders in the area. She condemns Bean’s travesties ofjustice and sympathizes with Hardin’s plight, but believes he is as good as dead. Meanwhile, Hardin discovers Bean’s one soft spot, an idolatry of Lily Langtry (Lillian Bond), the British actress known as the “Jersey Lily” and the reigning beauty of the day. In her honor, Bean has renamed the town “Langtry.” Hardin persuades Bean that he knows Lily personally and that he has a lock of her hair, which he will give to Bean, but that he unfortunately does not carry the lock with him. Accordingly, although the “jury” has con victed him, Bean postpones the execution. Sizing up each other, the two men develop a grudging admiration for each other, and Bean celebrates their temporary alliance with a bottle apiece of a local rot-gut whiskey called “Rub of the Brush.” The next morning, they are horribly hungover, but Hardin manages to get up first and ride off. Fearful of being betrayed and losing Lily’s lock, Bean gallops after him, leaps onto Hardin’s horse, and knocks him sprawling into the sand. Fortunately, Hardin has taken the precaution to steal Bean’s revolver, and he persuades him that he has merely gone to get the lock of hair, though his real plan is to move on to California. Hardin’s first stop is at the Mathews farrft, where Jane-Ellen is startled to see him alive. Her father induces her to persuade Hardin to join the farmers in their fight against Bean’s cattlemen. She is embarrassed to have to flirt with him, but they are genuinely attracted to each other. Wade Harper (For rest Tucker), her frustrated suitor, denounces Hardin as a spy for Bean and forces him into a fist fight, which Hardin wins. He agrees to help the farmers and rides back to town to reason with Bean. Baited once more by the lock of hair, Bean promises to have the cattle rounded up and removed from the homesteaders’ farms. Pretending he wants it for himself, Hardin snips off a lock of Jane-Ellen’s hair and gives it to the Judge. Bean, however, breaks his promise and has his men burn the farmers’ homes and fields. While trying to put out the fire, Jane-Ellen’s father is killed, and the men turn against Hardin for allegedly deceiving them with false promises of peace. Realizing that Bean must be stopped, Hardin has himself deputized, gets a warrant for the Judge, and goes to arrest him. He discovers that Bean has gone to Fort Davis to see Lily Langtry, who is there on tour. Wanting Lily all to himself, Bean has bought out the entire house. He is dressed in his Confederate uniform, takes the best seat, and waits eagerly for the show to begin.

After the overture, the curtain rises to reveal Hardin on stage with his guns drawn. “I’m coming for you, Judge,” he says. “Come a-shootin’,” says Bean. As the orchestra dives for cover, the two men shoot it out in the empty theater. Bean is mortally wounded, but before he dies, Hardin takes him backstage to meet Lily Langtry. Bean kisses her hand, falls to the floor, and dies happy, his last vision being of the Jersey Lily. Except for the conflict between the homesteaders and the cattlemen, The Westerner avoids most cliches of the genre. Most previous Westerns were shoot-’em-up action films designed for the adolescent mentality. Goldwyn and director William Wyler were determined to make a sophisticated, adult, psychological Western for a change. The Westerner, therefore, stresses char acterization rather than action; the fist fight, the burning fields, and the final shoot-out provide some excitement, but audiences looking for another slam-bang adventure were disappointed. Director William. Wyler had done his share of two-reel silent Westerns during his apprentice days, but The Westerner was his first major work in the genre (his only other Western was The Big Country in 1958). He directed at a deliberate pace, maintaining tension in the relationship between Hardin and Bean. Rene Jordan says Cooper was discouraged by his initial look at the screenplay, in which he would merely have been providing star assistance to Walter Brennan, who indisputably had the central role as the fabled Judge Roy Bean.

Brennan congratulated himself on having the juicier part, for which he won his third Academy Award as Best Supporting Actor. It is a mistake, however, to dismiss Cooper. Not only is his role the longer of the two, but also in The Westerner, he gave one of his most subtle performances. What makes the film work is the chemistry between Cooper and Brennan. Cooper underplays with a wry sense of humor that provides a necessary foil to the more flamboyant Judge. Without his contrasting role, the story becomes merely the history of a colorful but insignificant eccentric. WhenJohn Huston made The Life and Times ofJudge Roy Bean in 1972 with Paul Newman in the title role, the project misfired, largely because Bean was magnified into a mythological figure. There was no normal protagonist for balance, and there was no central plot to hold his career together; instead, the narrative consisted of a series of vignettes spanning a generation. Newman’s Bean became a symbol of authentic justice and of a West when there were giants in the earth. By contrast, William Wyler opted for an unglamorous realism. Brennan’s Bean is a whiskey-voiced, stubble-bearded, vinegaryx)ld goat who spends most of the time in a flannel undershirt and baggy pants held up by suspenders. What passes for justice in his saloon-court is of the vigilante variety. He is more than a little mad, and there is a manic gleam in his eye. His redeeming traits are a crackerbarrel sense of humor, a feistiness, and his devotion to Lily Langtry. The latter has all the quality of courtly love; like a knight-errant with his lady’s scarf on his helmet who challenges all comers to concede that she is the fairest in the world, Bean adores the “Jersey Lily” with a platonic purity and hangs anyone who dares suggest the slightest disrespect towards her. The incongruity of knightly veneration from such a scruffy source is part of the humor which makes up a good deal of the film. Cooper likewise contributes a more quietly humorous characterization; the scene in which he snips a lock of hair from the farmer’s daughter and the later one in which he reluctantly parts with it to the eager Judge are mas terpieces of comic underplaying. If Brennan’s Judge Roy Bean is a legendary figure, so too Cooper’s Cole Hardin is an archetypal Western hero—like Shane, he has no past, comes from nowhere, owns only his horse and outfit, and becomes involved only reluctantly with the settlers who are trying to put down roots. Cooper plays Hardin with consummate assurance; a decade later, when Clifton Webb was to do a Cooper imitation in Dreamboat (1952), he asked Cooper what film to study, and Cooper advised The Westerner, Cooper and Brennan made such an effective team that they did six films together; the others are The Cowboy and the Lady (1938), Meet John Doe (1940), Sergeant York (1941), Pride of the Yankees (1942), and Task Force (1949), but they were at their best together in The Westerner, where Cooper’s quiet reserve and perceptive understanding of human nature balanced Bren nan’s garrulous and basically childish Judge. It is the combination of appealing and appalling traits in Bean and the friendship/antagonist relationship be­tween him and Hardin that gives the film its tension and provides a richly ambiguous texture. The Old West itself was simultaneously colorful, adven turous, dangerous, dingy, and dull; and The Westerner captures this paradox as few films have done. William Wyler’s direction constructs an authentic blend of legend and un­glamorous realism. The secondary players lend admirable support. Stage actor Fred Stone and newcomers Forrest Tucker and Dana Andrews are in their movie debuts; and as Jane-Ellen, Doris Davenport (in her only film role) is appealing, with a mixture of wistful shyness and spunky indignation. In too many Western films the heroines were spoiled by wearing thick lipstick, elegant gowns, and fancy coiffures; for instance, Calamity Jane in The Plains man never has her lipstick smeared, even when being tortured by the Chey enne Indians. Doris Davenport, however, is refreshingly free from makeup and is dressed like a working farm girl. None of the men wears a fancy costume; they are all dressed in working clothes that show hard wear. The details throughout were so authentic that James Basevi’s art direction was nominated for an Academy Award. Stuart N. Lake was also nominated for his original story. GreggToland contributed strikingly artistic cinematography, but Wyler was dissatisfied with Dmitri Tiomkin’s score and had Alfred New man rewrite it, though Tiomkin received sole credit. Perhaps because of its minimal action and offbeat humor, The Westerner was less successful than the big-budget Westerns of 1939, but it holds up better and is one of the most durable classics in the genre.

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