Classic Film Guide

Gary Cooper

Gary Cooper is a Hollywood legend, and one of my favorite actors. He most often played a plainspoken everyman that (frequently) found himself in an heroic-making circumstance. Exuding charm and simplicity, this tall handsome actor was perfect for playing humble yokels, who were oftentimes (at least temporarily) taken advantage of by streetwise women. He also excelled in portraying loners, whether the characters were fictional or real historical figures.

Even in those roles ill-adapted to his more typical onscreen persona, "Coop" was able to deliver a credible performance. For his career that spanned more than 35 years and a 100+ movies, he received two competitive Best Actor Oscars (out of five nominations) and an Honorary Award from the Academy - shortly before he died in 1961 - "for his many memorable screen performances and the international recognition he, as an individual, has gained for the motion picture industry", which was appropriately accepted on his behalf by James Stewart, history’s other great classic movie everyman.

Cooper had a small part in Wings (1927), the first production to win the Academy Award for Best Picture, but otherwise played a cowboy (and/or extra) in several silent films and sound era Westerns like The Virginian (1929) before making his way into leading (non-Western) roles opposite Hollywood starlets: playing a legionnaire in lust with Parisian singing sensation Marlene Dietrich in (director Josef von Sternberg’s) Morocco (1930) and a cowboy for New York socialite Carole Lombard in I Take This Woman (1931); he also appeared in films with Silvia Sidney, Claudette Colbert, and Tallulah Bankhead before scoring the lead Lieutenant in his (future) hunting pal Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms (1932) opposite stage thespian Helen Hayes and Adolph Menjou’s womanizing Major. Even early in his career, he was able to credibly play the romantic lead in dramas or comedies, a diversity shown in Ernst Lubitsch’s comedy Design for Living (1933) through director Henry Hathaway’s drama Peter Ibbetson (1935).

He received his first Academy Award nomination playing the title role in Frank Capra’s delightful Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936) in which Jean Arthur plays a reporter that surreptitiously makes fun of him to sell newspapers before (naturally) she falls in love with his simple charming character. Merle Oberon (in The Cowboy and the Lady (1938)) and Barbara Stanwyck twice, also as a reporter in Capra’s Meet John Doe (1941) and as a sassy nightclub singer in the Samuel Goldwyn-Howard Hawks essential comedy Ball of Fire (1941), similarly played streetwise women who used Cooper’s naive characters for their own purposes before inevitably falling in love with them.

Though he could buddy parts in films like the aforementioned Design for Living (1933) with Fredric March and Miriam Hopkins, in Hathaway’s The Lives of a Bengal Lancer (1935) opposite Franchot Tone and Richard Cromwell - which predates the more well-known adventure Gunga Din (1939) - with Ray Milland and Robert Preston as Beau Geste (1939), and several with ‘sidekick’ Walter Brennan, Coop was often best cast as a loner who must wrestle with his own conscience before performing heroically against the odds (and evil) to succeed. He earned his first Oscar playing just such a character, a World War I hero from humble beginnings named Alvin, in Hawks’s Sergeant York (1941), and his second as Marshal Will Kane in (one of the best Westerns ever made) High Noon (1952), which was produced by Stanley Kramer and directed by Fred Zinnemann. Some historical persons he played that also exhibited such qualities included baseball legend Lou Gehrig in Goldwyn’s The Pride of the Yankees (1942), another Oscar nominated performance, the fictional Jonathan Scott who championed the aircraft carrier before it became such a strategic part of our military capability in Task Force (1949) and the real-life Colonel who was ahead of his time when he predicted the use of airplanes in warfare (including the Pearl Harbor disaster prior to 1941) in director Otto Preminger’s The Court-Martial of Billy Mitchell (1955). I’ve yet to see Cecil B. DeMille’s The Story of Dr. Wassell (1944) - a biography about the famous World War II life-saver who was awarded the Navy Cross.

I’d also recommend the following: his other Oscar nominated role opposite Ingrid Bergman in Sam Wood’s For Whom the Bell Tolls (1943) written by Hemingway with his friend in mind, The Westerner (1940) - the Goldwyn-William Wyler directed film that won Brennan that last of his three supporting Oscars, director Anthony Mann’s Man of the West (1958), and Cooper’s second-to-last effort, a thriller with Charlton Heston titled The Wreck of the Mary Deare (1959). Some other Gary Cooper films which are also very good include: Vera Cruz (1954) opposite an exceptionally white-teethed Burt Lancaster, as the Quaker husband of Dorothy McGuire and father to Anthony Perkins in Wyler’s Friendly Persuasion (1956), and in Billy Wilder’s Love in the Afternoon (1957) with Audrey Hepburn.

It’s been written that Cooper’s directors and even fellow actors often missed the subtleties of the actor’s gestures and mannerisms which conveyed his character’s human nature so well; thankfully the camera picked these up for all of us to enjoy and/or cherish.

© 2006 Turner Classic Movies - this article originally appeared on TCM's official blog

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