Tag Archives: Gary Cooper

Meet John Doe (1941)

downloadFrank Capra and Christmas go together like baked apples and cinnamon. Even some of his non-Christmas films have a Christmas vibe. But I’ve always had a slightly ambivalent feeling about Capra’s films, partially because I can never figure out exactly what he’s trying to say. There often seem to be contradictory messages. I like to be able to take the meaning of a film and crystallize it and no film defies crystallization more than Frank Capra’s Meet John Doe.

And after watching it this morning on TCM, I still can’t decide whether I like Meet John Doe or not. Barbara Stanwyck and Gary Cooper are adorable together (two of my favorite actors), the cast is good and it is certainly a thought-provoking movie. Heart-warming, humorous, cynical, sentimental and totally irritating. I am eternally fascinated. It’s also a Christmas film.

When a newspaper is taken over by the wealthy business tycoon D.B. Norton, Ann Mitchell (Barbara Stanwyck) loses her job along with many other people. In revenge, she writes one last column, purportedly from a man threatening to commit suicide by jumping off City Hall on Christmas Eve in protest against the current state of society. The column causes a sensation, with people writing and calling in, begging “John Doe” not to jump and the paper is besieged with accusations that John Doe is a fraud. The frazzled editor Henry Connell (James Gleason) finally manages to find Ann, who tells him that she made the letter up, but she has an idea to capitalize on it. Why not find a man to play John Doe and milk the sensation for all it’s worth? If Connell isn’t willing, she threatens to tell their rival paper that it was all a fraud.

download (1)What they first have to do is find a man who looks like an all-American John Doe and Connell and Ann interview various tramps who show up at the newspaper looking for work or claiming to be the “real” John Doe. The man they ultimately choose is John Willoughby (Gary Cooper), a baseball pitcher turned tramp who hurt his arm and is looking for work so he get can get enough money to have a specialist fix it. Ann talks him into being John Doe and they put him in a hotel, get him new clothes and coach him on how to act.

But John Doe fever catches on beyond anyone’s expectations, especially after he makes a speech over the radio (written by Ann) about the average guy. It causes such a sensation that J.B. Norton (Edward Arnold) takes notice of how people are reacting. Perhaps he can use the sensation for his own ends, riding the new John Doe wave to the White House, and maybe beyond. He enlists Ann to handle Willoughby, despite Connell’s growing discomfort with the direction the fraud is taking and the increasing complexity of the lie, which is only resolved in a riot and an attempted suicide.

The film’s message is all over the place.  It is a warning that fascism could come to America, media exploitation, a call to the working man to stand together, a protest against commercialism and greed, a tender romance. Capra believes in the common man’s capacity for kindness and at the same time their capacity for mobbing and naivete. He also seems to be warning against the danger of centering a movement on the appeal of one person (John Doe) and at the same time asking if an ideal or principle can still be valid when it is based on a lie. But Capra never seems to fully develop any of these themes.

Annex - Cooper, Gary (Meet John Doe)_03My biggest frustration with the movie is the character of Ann Mitchell: a living contradiction. She is part cynical newspaper exploiter and part sentimental idealist who supports her mother and two sisters. The reason she’s so desperate for work is because her mother is always giving away their money to help people. There’s some irony there. Her father was an idealist who was generous to a fault. Is her money-at-all-costs attitude a reaction against her father’s excessive generosity? This unspoken tension is never resolved. She seems to idealize her father. One moment she’s flatly telling Norton what she wants is money and the next she is starry-eyed with enthusiasm for John Doe and what he stands for. It’s like a reverse Pygmalion; she’s in love with the man she created…who she created somewhat in the image of her father.

Also interesting is that John Willoughby seems to lose his identity in John Doe. By the end, he believes completely in what John Doe stands for and that he really is John Doe. He has no identity apart from that and whether or not Ann loves him for being John Willoughby or John Doe is never answered. The ending is downright confusing. Even Capra said he tried various endings and never could figure out how to bring it to a satisfactory close. There are messianic overtones. Ann basically asks John to take on the mantle of John Doe; he sort of dies and is reborn on Christmas Eve as the man of the people.

The cast – as in all Capra films – is unmatched. Only someone as skilled and genuine as Barbara Stanwyck could make a mess of a character like Ann Mitchell still appealing and interesting. She’s especially great as the fast-talking journalist (listen to her try to sell Connell on her idea, talking a mile a minute…she sells him on it, too). Gary Cooper is earnest and sincere and has adorable chemistry with Barbara Stanwyck (I love them in Ball of Fire, too).

Edward Arnold, Barbara Stanwyck, Gary Cooper, Walter Brennan

Edward Arnold, Barbara Stanwyck, Gary Cooper, Walter Brennan

Walter Brennan plays the tramp who is a tramp by choice and doesn’t believe in civilization. He calls people helots, but even he can’t do without human connections and never does find it in his heart to abandon John, even when John becomes a tacit accomplice in the fraud. Edward Arnold is the would-be fascist with his brown-shirted motorcycle brigade, quietly menacing as he polishes his spectacles. And James Gleason is excellent as the hard-boiled newspaperman whose sympathy is with the people. Even smaller roles, such as Bert, the man who tells John Willoughby what the John Doe movement has meant for him, are well played.

Perhaps what the core of film is about is helping people. It sounds simplistic, but if every single person helped their immediate neighbor the world would be very nearly perfect. The John Doe movement was about the average person helping their neighbors, finding humanity, dignity and comfort among each other, apart from politics, government, the media or corporations. In one of John Doe’s speeches, he talks about what it would be like if the spirit of Christmas prevailed all year long. But Capra also recognizes the many conflicting realities of the world that prevents it. But that does not invalidate the principle. What Capra ultimately seems to want to convey is that no exploitation or lie can invalidate a true principle.


Posted by on December 24, 2015 in Movies


Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,

The Hanging Tree (1959)

Poster_of_the_movie_The_Hanging_TreeI’ve finally realized the reason why I have always assumed that I am not a fan of Westerns. It’s because I’m not really a fan of John Wayne or John Ford (sacrilege, I know), and their Westerns were mostly the ones I’d seen. But I am a fan of Gary Cooper and I’ve found yet another Western that I like. It is Gary Cooper’s 1959 film, The Hanging Tree, directed by Delmer Daves and based on a novella by Dorothy Johnson.

What made me want to see the movie was actually a clip on youtube that I found so striking that I was determined to see what led up to it. And it was exactly what I’d hoped for. It’s a striking movie, not a typical shoot-em-up, with an ending that is all the more romantic and redemptive for the stark background of noose and drunken, gold-lusting mob. There’s also a seriously catchy title song by Marty Robbins that I guarantee will lodge itself in your head…but in a good way.

The setting is 1873 in Montana, during a gold rush. Waver-thin mining towns are set up and abandoned as the miners roam around the state searching for gold. Into the new camp of Skull Creek – which has already set up the obligatory hanging tree – arrives Doc Frail (Gary Cooper), who sets up shop as a doctor, despite the angry and dire prophetic warnings of the local “healer” Grub (George C. Scott), who always keeps a whiskey bottle in his back pocket.

Doc Frail is a taciturn and slightly mysterious man who most of the miners mistrust, though they know something of his background, which is never fully revealed in the film. And they all know that Frail is not his real name, but only what he calls himself. He is both controlling and distant, but also capable of great kindness and gentleness. He treats a young girl suffering from malnutrition for free and loans his cow to her parents so she can regain her strength. He takes in a wounded young man who was shot trying to steal gold from a sluice. His name is Rune (Ben Piazza), who Frail forces to work as his servant in lieu of payment for Frail’s professional services in removing the bullet. Rune initially refuses, but Frail points out that he has the bullet and that if anyone in the town found out that Rune was the sluice robber they shot, he would be hung.

Gary Cooper and Maria Schell

Gary Cooper and Maria Schell

Despite Rune’s sullenness, he can’t help also admiring him at times. Frail also takes in Elizabeth Mahler, a Swedish immigrant who is badly injured when the stage-coach she is in is robbed and her father is killed. The horses bolt and go over a cliff and she is left out in the sun and cold for days, suffering from burns and temporary blindness. Frail, with the help of Rune, gently nurses her back to health.

The trouble is that he’s so much of a controlling man that he keeps everyone away, including the respectable female members of the camp, that he inadvertently gives her a reputation of being a loose woman and people assume he is keeping her for himself.

And when Elizabeth recovers, she wants to show her gratitude to Frail and assumes that he does care about her, only for him to suddenly become cold and remote. Pushed away by him, Elizabeth and Rune join together with another miner named Frenchy (Karl Malden) to buy a grub stake and look for gold.

One of the things I appreciate about Gary Cooper is how he seems to express so much with his body language and face that by the time he speaks it seems to be an afterthought, as if he’s only speaking for informational purposes and not to communicate his real feelings, which he’s already indicated through other means. He’s laconic, as most leading men in Westerns are, but he has an unspoken eloquence about him.

And The Hanging Tree provides a good role for him as the silent and controlling and even manipulative man capable of making people love him, but who feels compelled to push them away as soon as they do. He’s incapable of receiving anything from anyone. As soon as they don’t need him, he pulls back. There is a wonderful scene where Frail is standing with Elizabeth on a cliff’s edge and encouraging her to open her eyes and see (she’s been temporarily blinded). When she does, she finally sees his face, but he instantly loses his gentle tone and coldly pulls away.


Ben Piazza and Maria Schell offer their gold

But as good as Gary Cooper is, Elizabeth Schell is really who I think makes the movie wonderful. She has that perfect blend of sweetness, friendliness and strength. It can be difficult to portray, in movies and books, sweet characters who also have  inner strength. As soon as she realizes that Frail is pushing her away, she doesn’t try to hang on, but determines to work and she is not afraid of hard work. She is unfailingly friendly, but draws the line with Frenchy, who has been fascinated by her from the moment he first found her half-dead in the woods and has been lusting after her ever since. And she has one of the sweetest, most radiant smiles ever seen on film, but never in a naive or childlike way, but as a woman

Karl Malden is also good as Frenchy, who seems to feel a kind of possession over Elizabeth because he was the one who found her and he calls her “Lost Lady.” His contribution wasn’t only reserved for acting, however. When the director, Delmer Daves became ill, it was actually Karl Malden who finished the film, with a lot of support from Gary Cooper.

And what ultimately sells me on the movie is the ending (Spoilers!). Doc Frail is a man who is only comfortable when people owe him something, if they in a sense belong to him. He must be in control. But in a reverse at the end, it is Elizabeth who is now in control and whom he owes something to. When he shoots Frenchy (who attacked Elizabeth), there is a drunken mob of miners who witness it and decide to hang him, just because they feel like it and don’t like him much. They are drunk because they are celebrating Frenchy, Elizabeth and Rune’s discovery of gold. And where are the respectable citizens, while the drunken ones try to lynch Frail? They’ve formed a bucket brigade and are trying to put out all the fires that the drunken mob started.

But Elizabeth buys Frail’s salvation when she and Rune offer their gold to the angry mob. And now Frail owes her and discovers that it’s okay to be in someone’s debt. In a sense, he now belongs to her and it’s actually a liberation. It’s a beautiful ending and completely satisfying.

The theme song was written by Jerry Livingston and Mack David and sung by Marty Robbins. It was nominated for Best Song at the Academy Awards and essentially summarizes the film’s story and theme. The musical theme is woven in and out of the film’s score by composer Max Steiner


Posted by on September 28, 2015 in Movies


Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

The Lives of a Bengal Lancer (1935)

Bengal.LancerBritish Imperial adventure stories like Beau Geste and Gunga Din now represent a defunct genre, but many of the movies and books of that genre retain their initial appeal much in the way of Arthurian legends: seeking adventure, brotherhood and an overarching ideal. We know it’s not real, but it’s such a lovely thought

The Lives of the Bengal Lancers was released in 1935 and although quite popular then, it lies somewhat under the shadow of the more well-known Beau Geste and Gunga Din. Starring Gary Cooper, Franchot Tone, and Richard Cromwell as three friends in the 41st Bengal Lancers, it differs from other films in that it is not just a buddy film. It is also about the 41st Bengal Lancers, with the emphasis on the three friends.

Lieutenant Alan McGregor (Gary Cooper with a mustache) is a hot-headed Scotch-Canadian who is frustrated with his commanding officer, Colonel Stone (Guy Standing), who he calls Ramrod and thinks is a stickler for regulations and not a flexible and compassionate enough commanding officer. But Major Hamilton (C. Aubrey Smith – the quintessential British officer) knows that Colonel Stone will be retiring soon and also knows that Stone has not seen his son in years. Thinking that it would comfort Stone to know that his son is going in his footsteps and provide an opportunity for father and son to reunite, Hamilton has Stone’s son transferred to the 41st Bengal Lancers, though Stone is dismayed.

McGregor is sent to pick up the new soldiers. One is Stone’s son, Donald (Richard Cromwell), and the other is an officer from a more high society division, Lieutenant Forsythe (Franchot Tone). McGregor and Forsthye instantly exchange manly insults, but McGregor soon develops a soft spot for Donald, who is frustrated at the reception he receives from his father and the kind of jobs he is set to do, like overseeing the mucking out of the stables.

Gary Cooper, Richard Cromwell, Franchot Tone

Gary Cooper, Richard Cromwell, Franchot Tone

But while McGregor, Forsythe and Donald begin to form a bond – in between McGregor and Forsythe generally irking each other and engaging in a semi-friendly rivalry – Stone is in the midst of trying to catch Mohamed Khan (Douglass Dumbrille – somewhat improbably cast, though suitably suave and villainous), who is trying to unite various tribes under one banner to oust the British. Khan and Stone are old enemies, circling each other for fifteen years now, both seasoned and clever.

One of the things I appreciated about this film is that the leaders are not total idiots, which seems to happen a lot in films, presumably to boost the heroism of the lead characters. But in The Lives of a Bengal Lancer, Colonel Stone is a wily old soul. Despite their frustration, it is McGregor, Donald and Forsythe who do not see the bigger picture or understand why Stone is doing what he does. The only one who understands Stone is Major Hamilton.

Likewise, there is no one hero who personifies all the positive attributes. McGregor is from Canada, a hot-head, impatient, brave man with an average education and intellect and a caring heart. It’s a slightly different role for Cooper than I am used to. He’s usually the strong, laconic type and in this film he’s a bit more chatty and loses his cool more often than his characters usually do, which was fun to see.

Initially, McGregor does not respect Forsythe because he arrives with tons of baggage and a general playboy attitude. But Forsythe is more erudite, mentally quicker and turns out to be just as game, though he masks his own good heart with sardonic comments about McGregor’s soft-heartedness. 

Richard Cromwell’s Donald is less interesting than the other two. He goes from likable callow youth eager to please his father to resentful, rebellious and rather whiny. But he looks up to McGregor and between McGregor and Forsythe, they manage to mostly keep him out of trouble, until the end, that is, when they disobey orders to go rescue him from Khan.

the-lives-of-a-bengal-lancer-posterBut the most interesting character by far is Guy Standing as Colonel Stone. McGregor calls him Ramrod and assumes that he has no heart. But it’s extremely clear that he does care, he just can’t express it very well and goes from commanding officer to tongue-tied man when he tries. But it is also clear in his actions that he is not as unyielding as McGregor says. He’s simply a man who chose his profession years ago, even over his wife, and he gives his all to it. But on several occasions, it is shown that his bark is worse than his bite. His son doesn’t initially understand that and thinks his father doesn’t care. Stone’s only great fear is of retirement, where he poignantly imagines being put out to pasture, sitting in a club, a tepid ending to a forceful career.

Mercifully, there is no romance forced into the film. They do manage to briefly get a woman in the story, but she has a very specific purpose. The film also has a considerable amount of real footage from India, filmed by Ernest Schoedsack (who co-directed King Kong) and although it is obvious when they are using stock footage, it is woven seamlessly into the film. The poem that Forsythe recites near the end is a bit much (they liked poems in these kinds of stories: Charge of the Light BrigadeGunga Din). The message is that what Stone is doing is more important than anything. He’s one of a few special men who has what it takes to rule 30 million people (though the 30 million people are never in evidence).

But at its core, it is a fun adventure film, with pig hunting, traveling in disguise, an ending battle in Khan’s fortress.There’s not quite as much action as one would suppose, though. Gunga Din has much more, but what I especially enjoyed was the character’s interactions, their imperfections, their misunderstandings, their loyalty and their growing respect for each other.


Posted by on July 27, 2015 in Movies


Tags: , , , , , ,

%d bloggers like this: