While I’m still in a Gary Cooper state of mind, ever since I hosted last weekend’s all-Cooper film festival alongside his daughter, Maria Cooper Janis, I was thinking about some other Cooper pleasures from his filmography. Having already played The Virginian (1929) and The Plainsman (1936), Cooper quite effortlessly became The Westerner. This Texas-set film’s plot—homesteaders vs. cattlemen, with a stranger (Cooper) stepping in to help resolve the conflict—may be standard fare, and the overall film is certainly a minor work from the great William Wyler, but this is nonetheless a solid entertainment, and not just because of Cooper’s inimitable presence in a quintessentially laconic role.
Alongside Cooper is Walter Brennan as Judge Roy Bean, the role that brought Brennan his third Oscar for Best Supporting Actor (and the only one of his trio of awards that he actually deserved to get). He is outstanding in possibly the best role he ever got. His Roy Bean is a hard, mean, mangy fellow with an unexpectedly soft center aimed solely at Lily Langtry, the actress who is the dream girl of his fantasies. Scary (especially when he’s quiet), cagey, always smart, and surprisingly sympathetic, Brennan is a human villain who comes to a moving end. And Cooper is his perfect foil, with his appealing confidence and casual humor. The relationship between the men is far more complex and interesting than the love story involving Cooper and forgettable Doris Davenport.
As Cooper moves from saddle bum to heroic involvement in the local warfare, he engages in a good dusty brawl with Forrest Tucker, in his film debut. An even more auspicious debut comes from Dana Andrews (in a small role), with Wyler rewarding him six years later with the central role in The Best Years of Our Lives. Despite the quality of the cast and the beauty of Gregg Toland’s black-and-white photography, The Westerner seems a modest work, probably because the so-called big scenes are inferior to the simplicity and satisfaction of the Cooper-Brennan conversations.
The Westerner is one of seven Cooper-Brennan movies, the others including two Cooper biggies: Sergeant York (1941) and The Pride of the Yankees (1942). And Cooper worked with Wyler again fifteen years later in Friendly Persuasion (1956), a much-admired if much-overrated film from the last phase of Cooper’s stardom. For all its admittedly ordinary elements, The Westerner has a lot more to offer than its generic title suggests.