Wishing you all a Happy Valentine’s Day with this sweet moment from Mr. Deeds Goes to Town. Chokes me up every time!
Posts Tagged ‘gary cooper’
I feel a little bad about making this the “All Gary Cooper, All the Time” blog! Not everybody is as crazy about him as I am, after all. Still, I can only motivate myself to write about the things I’m interested in at any particular moment, and right now I’m very focused on Cooper and his films. It’ll pass eventually, but for the time being the obsession continues.
I do plan to devote a post each Friday in February to another actor whose work was little known to me until fairly recently, but whom I’m enjoying more and more – Fred MacMurray. So even if you’re all Cooped out, there’s at least that to look forward to. This Friday I’ll be writing about a charming, funny and very romantic 1935 movie starring MacMurray and the lovely Carole Lombard – Hands Across the Table.
In the meantime, back to Gary!
Ten North Frederick (1958)
Ten North Frederick has to be one of the saddest movies I’ve seen in a long time. The sadness is multi-layered too, since not only is the story itself a melancholy one, but a knowledge of Gary Cooper’s real life at this stage of his career hangs over everything and gives the film even more resonance.
Based on a novel by John O’Hara, Ten North Frederick tells the story of Joe Chapin (Cooper), a wealthy and prominent attorney with political goals he’s somewhat ambivalent about. His wife, Edith (Geraldine Fitzgerald), is the one with the real ambition. She is ruthless and calculating, pushing her husband relentlessly toward the future she wants for him. She’s also hard on their two teenaged children, Ann (Diane Varsi) and Joby (Ray Stricklyn), directing their lives so that the Chapins look like the picture-perfect family they need to be to make it big in politics.
Joe is weak and easily manipulated by his wife. He loves his children and seems to be a decent man, but when Edith pressures him to handle things a certain way – either in politics or in their family – Joe complies. Joe’s career begins to unravel when he follows Edith’s guidance and makes a play to become the nominee for lieutenant governor, a move which involves making a $100,000 “campaign contribution” to a corrupt party operative.
At about this time Ann, with whom he has always had a very close, sweet relationship, rebels against her restrictive upbringing and gets pregnant by a trumpet player she picked up at a dance. Ann and the musician quickly marry, then just as quickly annul the marriage thanks to the Chapins’ interference. Ann has a miscarriage and runs away to New York, vowing never to return to her parents’ house again. Joe’s political ambitions are thwarted too, in large part because of the scandal in the family.
All of this causes the already cold Chapin marriage to fall apart even further. Edith tells Joe that she hates him , calling him a failure and admitting to a past affair. Joe is stunned but resigned. They’re both too old to do anything but carry on together, no matter how unhappy they may be.
When a business trip leads him to New York and what he hopes will be a reconciliation with his daughter, Joe is particularly vulnerable and lonely. Ann is not at home when he visits, but her kind, intelligent roommate Kate Drummond (Suzy Parker) is. They spend the evening together – talking, dancing, and falling in love. Despite their better judgment, the two are soon conducting a secret affair and hoping to marry. Unfortunately their time together is brief, with convention and self-sacrifice getting in the way of a happy ending.
According to Cooper’s Women (the veracity of which is clearly without question, ha!), Ten North Frederick was snidely referred to in Hollywood as The Gary Cooper Story because of its similarity to Cooper’s own recent history. While filming The Fountainhead in 1949, Cooper fell in love with his young co-star, Patricia Neal. Their three year affair led him to separate from his wife and placed a strain on his relationship with his beloved daughter. In the end Neal and Cooper saw there was no future for them and went their separate ways, Gary returning to his wife and family, Patricia eventually marrying author Roald Dahl. Ten North Frederick’s story must have hit very close to home for Cooper.
As much as my preference is for Cooper’s movies of the ‘30s and ‘40s, when he was young, attractive and in his prime, there’s something so moving about his later performances. He gives us such a sense of resignation, loneliness and world-weariness in those films. By that point Cooper’s looks had faded, his health was rapidly deteriorating, and his years as a serial philanderer had taken a toll on him and his family. On screen, that’s all there in his eyes and in the way he moves. Coop thought all that Method stuff was a lot of hooey, but surely his real life experiences greatly affected his portrayal of Joe Chapin — a man who made mistakes, estranged those he loved the most, and experienced only a short period of happiness afterwards before succumbing to ill health.
Geraldine Fitzgerald is brilliant as Edith Chapin. She’s an awful, icy woman, yet Fitzgerald manages to demonstrate that without making her a one-dimensional or clichéd villain. Diane Varsi and Ray Strycklyn are good as the Chapins’ children, who grow closer to each other because of their shared troubles. They display a believably loving brother/sister bond throughout the film
Suzy Parker gives a touching performance as a young woman who sees the good and the kindness in Joe and can’t help falling in love with him, despite their age difference and the obstacles between them. She’s also unbelievably beautiful, of course. Her character is “a photographic model,” and when they first meet Joe says he thinks he’s seen her on some magazine covers. I’m sure audiences must’ve chuckled when they heard that, since Parker was the most famous model of the 1950s and had been on the cover of Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar and many other magazines innumerable times.
Unlike the May/December romance in 1957’s Love in the Afternoon, I thought the relationship between the characters played by Parker and Cooper was believable and romantic. It’s always been hard for me to see the fifty-something Cooper as carefree bachelor Frank Flanagan, flitting from woman to woman until he’s captured by the girlish Audrey Hepburn. It’s much more believable to see him as Joe Chapin, a flawed but decent older man finding a brief moment of happiness with the young but womanly Kate. Parker was even younger than Audrey Hepburn, but the age difference doesn’t feel so jarring to me. The chemistry seems right and the two were physically well matched. Suzy Parker was so tall and striking, and though Cooper wasn’t what he once was, he was still Gary Cooper, quite capable of making women weak in the knees when he wanted to.
Although the story is supposed to take place from 1940 to 1945, there’s no attempt to make it look or feel like that time period. Everyone’s clothing and hairstyles are pure late-‘50s, with the men in suits with the narrower lapels and ties that were then in style and women in cinched-waist, full-skirted New Look fashions and cute little cocktail hats. Other than mentions of Roosevelt’s reelection and Joby’s joining the army, the story felt very much like a 1950s one à la Douglas Sirk, with its themes of forbidden love, illicit sex, and the overbearing influence of a repressive, judgmental society.
Tracking this one down to watch took some doing! I don’t recall seeing it on the TCM schedule lately, and the version someone has uploaded to YouTube is too low quality to bother watching. I finally found it online through Comcast.
I really wasn’t expecting much from the movie, but I ended up enjoying Ten North Frederick a lot. It made me cry, and as Louis B. Mayer once said, “If a story makes me cry, I know it’s good.” Like L.B., I’m a sucker for a well-made tearjerker!
Devil and the Deep (1932)
This movie is a total hoot! A hoot and a half, you might even say. Don’t mistake me, it’s not exactly good. In fact, it’s completely ridiculous. But it’s also fun – nutty, only-in-Hollywood fun, with star power galore, a crazy story, and quite a bit of pre-code sexiness.
In a nutshell: Tallulah Bankhead plays the wife of Charles Laughton, a submarine commander stationed in North Africa. He is insanely (and I mean insanely) jealous of every man who looks at, speaks to, or breathes the same air as his wife, even though she is faithful to him.
After Laughton falsely accuses her of having an affair with one of his officers (Cary Grant), Tallulah runs off into the night, meets Gary Cooper, and has an evening of passion with him. Of course Cooper turns out to be one of Laughton’s officers too, and all hell breaks loose when the truth comes out.
The plot is melodramatic and improbable, but there are so many things to love about Devil and the Deep. For instance:
* Cary Grant. He only has a small part at the beginning of the film, but he acquits himself quite nicely and is very young and handsome. He’s not the Cary Grant we all know and love quite yet, but it’s still a pleasure to see him — especially looking so spiffy in his uniform.
* Charles Laughton in his first movie role. Paramount gives him a big, over-the-top introduction in the titles, befitting the big, over-the-top actor he was. As soon as I saw the below pop up, I figured this movie was going to be the aforementioned hoot and a half and I was not disappointed.
Laughton chews the scenery like nobody’s business, especially in his final scene of the picture. I don’t want to spoil things by giving it away, but it’s truly fantastic. I laughed so hard, even though I’m sure I wasn’t supposed to.
* Tallulah Bankhead. She’s mesmerizing to watch, with her husky voice and drawn on eyebrows, slinking around in bias-cut evening gowns that leave little to the imagination. She even wears one of those gowns while escaping from a submarine at the bottom of the sea! That’s glamour. She’s also quite touching in the early scenes with Laughton – you can feel her weariness at putting up with his constant, unfounded jealousy and her helplessness to do anything about it.
Watching her love scenes with Gary Cooper, I couldn’t help remembering that Bankhead famously said the only reason she came to Hollywood was “to f—k that divine Gary Cooper.” Asked about her comment by a reporter years later, she simply stated “Mission accomplished.” She was something else, that’s for sure.
* Gary Cooper, who is so drop dead gorgeous in this movie that Tallulah’s ambition, while vulgarly phrased, is quite understandable. This is far from Cooper’s best role – in fact he is a bit wooden at times. Still, it’s still a treat to see him in seduction mode: rescuing Tallulah from being jostled to death by a crowd of Arab men filling the streets for a festival, lingeringly checking out her clingy gown/no underwear ensemble, buying her a bottle of exotic perfume, and leading her off to a desert oasis for a magical night of passion.
Pre-code movies are so shameless sometimes! They fade to black, sure, but not before they make certain you know exactly what is going on. Devil and the Deep is no exception and it’s pretty steamy. Also interestingly pre-code is the fact that in the end Tallulah is not punished for her illicit behavior. She’s able to take up with Cooper again once Laughton is out of the way. Post-code she’d have had to die or lose her lover forever as punishment.
Cooper cuts a dashing figure, whether in his naval uniforms or in his civvies. He even makes an ascot look masculine and sophisticated instead of foppish. He filmed this movie shortly after returning from time spent with Countess Dorothy DiFrasso in Europe and Africa. The Countess had transformed his way of dressing and carrying himself, Pygmalion-style, and it shows in the newly elegant and easy way he wears his clothes here. The cowboy from Montana had taken on a dapper, European style.
* The submarine scenes. Although the sets and effects were fairly hokey, it still freaked me out to imagine those poor souls trapped at the bottom of the sea under the command of a raving lunatic. From the time Laughton destroys the ship in a fit of jealous rage until his final hammy moments (glug, glug), Devil and the Deep is nerve-wracking, inadvertently hysterical entertainment.
I found the movie totally entertaining. It’s part of the recently released Cary Grant: The Early Years collection, which is a bit misleading. His part is very small and this is much more Gary Cooper’s movie than it is Cary Grant’s. Of course the truth is that Charles Laughton steals the show from Gary, Tallulah and Cary. There’s definitely nothing subtle about his performance.
Check this one out if you get a chance. It’s kind of fabulous.
Well, the Gary Cooper Collection is turning out to be one of the greatest DVD bargains ever! (Looks like it’s even cheaper on Amazon today than when I bought it, too.) Not only does it feature the sublimely funny Design for Living and the entertaining adventure movie that got me started on my Cooper kick months ago, Beau Geste, but it also includes a beautiful, ethereal film I saw a few weeks ago and haven’t been able to stop thinking about since – 1935’s Peter Ibbetson.
Based on an 1891 novel by George du Maurier (Daphne’s grandfather), Peter Ibbetson tells the story of two childhood friends and next door neighbors – Peter, nicknamed Gogo, and Mary, known as Mimsy. The two argue and bicker, but they’re also deeply attached and love each other with a sweet, childish intensity.
Peter’s mother dies, and the two children are cruelly separated when Peter is taken away from his home in France to live with an uncle in London. Gogo is played by Dickie Moore and Mimsy by Virginia Weidler. Both are wonderful, natural child actors. The scene of their parting ripped my heart out! Oh, it was so sad.
I got a particular kick out of seeing Weidler, who a few years later memorably played Katharine Hepburn’s mischievous little sister, Dinah, in The Philadelphia Story. (“It was all certainly pretty rooty-tooty!”) She was very cute and very blond in Peter Ibbetson.
Peter grows up into a tall, handsome architect, played by a mustache-sporting Gary Cooper. Poor Peter is never able to forget Mary, comparing every woman he meets to his beloved friend and finding them all lacking. In his heart he believes Mary was his soulmate, and that he is destined to be without love forever because he lost her so many years ago. Little does he know that an assignment from the architecture firm he works for will bring his beloved Mimsy back into his life.
The job is to build an elaborate barn on the estate of the Duke and Duchess of Towers. It will require him living in the couple’s home for months while the work is underway. Peter and the Duchess (Ann Harding), a cool and beautiful blond, meet and instantly begin to spar over the barn’s construction. He wants to build it his way, according to his artistic vision. She has her own ideas about keeping the existing structure and simply adding to it.
During the film’s opening scene, Gogo and Mimsy fight over some boards she wants to use to build a dollhouse and he wants to use to build a wagon. Peter and the Duchess’s bickering over the barn has an eerily similar quality, and is our first clue that they may already be more connected than they realize.
When they can’t agree about the barn’s construction, Peter prepares to leave the job. As he packs his bags and waits to depart, he decides to send the Duchess a humorous cartoon he drew, making a joke of their silly quarrel. The Duchess is so amused by the drawing, and by his nerve in sending it to her, that she decides to give him another chance.
Peter stays on for weeks and weeks. During the construction of the barn, he and the Duchess spend time together — talking, sharing meals, going over architectural plans. The Duke (John Halliday) watches all of this unfold, not saying much until one evening when the three are dining together. He then bluntly states that his wife is in love with the architect and accuses them of having an affair.
In fact, Peter and the Duchess have never even touched, but it’s obvious that they do love each other and have formed a very deep bond. At one point earlier in the film they have the exact same dream on the same night, about a terrifying, violent thunderstorm. The next day, a storm arrives. They are fascinated and disturbed by this strange connection. The Duchess, in denial, tries to pass it off as a coincidence, but Peter believes there is more to it than that.
Confronting the Duke’s allegations, the pair deny having an affair but admit their love for each other. Peter tells of the childhood friend he lost, saying he never thought he’d be able to forget her and love someone else until he met the Duchess. As he tells his story, the puzzle pieces come together for both of them. They aren’t just Peter Ibbetson and the Duchess of Towers — they are Gogo and Mimsy, who loved each other as children and have found each other again, improbably and much too late.
Hearing this, the jealous Duke kicks Peter out of his home, insisting that he never see or talk to Mary again. Peter and Mary can’t resist seeing each other one last time, however, and when the Duke finds the lovers embracing in Mary’s room he pulls a gun on them. He is about to shoot when Peter attacks and kills him in self-defense. Peter is imprisoned for life for the Duke’s murder. Mary returns home alone, a widow seen by society as an adulteress.
In prison, which is about as terrible a bread-and-water, rat-infested place as you’d imagine a mid-19th century English prison to be, a cruel guard brutally beats Peter and breaks his back. No one expects him to live through the night. Mary comes to Peter in a dream, urging him to escape the prison walls and be with her. In the dream she tells him she will send him her ring, so he’ll know their connection is real and is happening to them both. Holding on by a thread, waiting to see if the ring will arrive, Peter lives until morning.
Sure enough Mary does bring the ring, which a guard delivers to Peter. From then on Peter and Mary meet on another, spiritual plane each night. He slips through the prison’s bars, able to walk as he is no longer able to walk in real life, meeting Mary in a beautiful dream world. They visit their childhood home, amble through idyllic landscapes together, and sometimes encounter storms and terrifying separations when their belief in the truth of their shared dream grows weak.
They live like this for many years, meeting in their dreams at night and spending a lifetime together that way. Eventually their real-life selves grow old and sick. Mary dies. She comes to Peter one last time, telling him that their dream meetings must now end, but that they will be together again in the future. Hearing this and feeling reassured, Peter dies in prison. At last the two are reunited forever.
All of this sounds ridiculous and melodramatic, I imagine, but in truth it’s beautiful and shamelessly romantic. The movie’s cinematography by Charles Lang and special effects by Gordon Jennings are famous, and rightfully so given the technical limitations in 1935. There are some gorgeous scenes during the dream-life sequences, especially during the storm. Peter walking through his prison bars is beautifully done as well. The movie’s score by Ernst Toch is haunting and stayed with me for days afterward.
With Peter Ibbetson, Gary Cooper once again proved how versatile and sensitive an actor he truly was. It would’ve been easy to be overwrought and too dramatic in a role as tragic as that of Peter, but overdoing things was not part of Coop’s acting vocabulary. With his quiet manner and sad, soulful eyes, he brought Peter Ibbetson’s plight to life without resorting to histrionics.
There seem to be an endless number of stories out there about the striking subtlety of Cooper’s acting, as observed by his directors and fellow actors. Like many others, Ann Harding was initially disturbed by the fact that Cooper didn’t seem to be doing anything or giving her anything with which to connect during their scenes. Peter Ibbetson’s director, Cooper’s friend Henry Hathaway, told her not to worry about it — Cooper’s work would not be evident until she saw it onscreen. And of course what turned up on the screen was an excellent, affecting performance.
This film was the first time I’d ever seen or really even heard of Ann Harding, but since watching and being so struck by her turn as Mary I suddenly seem to run into mentions of her everywhere! First she showed up in 1947’s It Happened on Fifth Avenue, which I’d recorded over the holidays and finally watched the other day. (It’s a very cute Christmas movie, by the way!) Then I read this great piece about her on TCM’s Movie Morlocks blog. The above anecdote about her reaction to Cooper’s acting was gleaned from that article.
Harding was evidently Paramount’s attempt to cultivate their own version of Norma Shearer, the queen of MGM dramas at the time. Although she never became as famous as Shearer, I think she was really much better, at least from what I’ve seen so far. Harding is more natural and subtle than the overdramatic Shearer. (Sorry, Norma fans! She’s just not my cup of tea.)
Peter Ibbetson is so unusual for a studio picture of that time period. It doesn’t feel like an American movie, actually, having a much more European look and tone. The dream sequences are poetic and surreal, reminding me at times of Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast. The feeling of romantic fantasy is similar in both films, although Beauty and the Beast is obviously much more surreal and otherworldly.
It’s a lovely, strange, moving story. Not the most flawless movie I’ve ever seen, but one that has lingered with me afterward in a way many other films haven’t. I think you probably have to be in the right frame of mind to appreciate the movie, because if you go into it with a cynical, mocking spirit it could very well seem silly. But if you give yourself over to the lush, sentimental romanticism of it, you might find yourself as taken with Peter Ibbetson as I was.
City Streets (1931)
In City Streets, gangster’s daughter Sylvia Sidney wants her boyfriend, easygoing shooting gallery employee Gary Cooper, to make something of himself by joining her father’s Prohibition-era beer racket. When her father allows her to be imprisoned in connection with a murder he himself committed, Cooper is unwillingly drawn into mob life, thinking the fast money he can make will help him free her.
In the scene linked here, Cooper visits Sidney in jail, decked out in his new mobster finery. Her time in prison has led her to see how terrible mob life is and to want no part of it. When she realizes that her sweet, innocent boyfriend is now a racketeer, she is horrified. It’s such a great scene – their initial happiness at seeing each other, their straining to touch and kiss each other through the wire that separates them, and Sidney’s growing dismay at what she’s gotten him into.
Directed by Rouben Mamoulian, City Streets is surprisingly modern and technically sophisticated for such an early movie. (It boasts the first use of a voiceover to indicate a character’s inner thoughts in any talking picture.) The performances are really good too, especially Sylvia Sidney’s. She transforms from a shallow girl who goes along with a criminal life because of what it can get her, to someone who sees how rotten her father’s business is and wants only to get herself and her boyfriend out of it.
Gary Cooper was so young and beautiful. I feel shallow always going on and on about his looks, but it’s impossible not to gush. His introduction in the movie (about 30 seconds into the below clip) will take your breath away. The way the moment was staged was obviously meant to do just that. There are a lot of actresses who would’ve killed for such loving treatment by the camera. That smile!
For Whom the Bell Tolls (1943)
I had to watch For Whom the Bell Tolls over the course of three days, because it’s just too long! Parts of it drag, most of the political motivation of Robert Jordan and his band of Republican guerillas was drained out of Hemingway’s story, and it all goes on and on. And on.
What makes For Whom the Bell Tolls worth watching is the romance between Gary Cooper’s Robert Jordan and Ingrid Bergman’s Maria. Their scenes together are incredible. The rumor is that the two of them had an affair during filming. Bergman later said she fell in love with Cooper, but because they were married to others nothing happened. Given both of their reputations, that seems unlikely.
Whatever the truth is, there’s definitely a lot of heat between the two of them on screen. The way they gaze at one another, drinking each other in like they can’t get enough, is amazing. Frankly, Maria often seems too smitten and blissful every time she looks at Jordan, given her terrible recent history of rape and imprisonment at the hands of the Nationalists. It’s as if Bergman’s feelings for Cooper are too overwhelming, perhaps spilling over into her acting a little more than they should have.
The movie is a bit of a mess overall, but scenes like the ones below make up for that. Even if I never sit and watch the whole 2 hours and 45 minutes again, I can certainly see myself fast-forwarding through the battle scenes and endless talk of El Sordo’s horses to get to moments like these. “If there’s nothing to do for you, I’ll sit by you and watch you. And in the nights, we’ll make love.”
Saratoga Trunk (1945)
Saratoga Trunk is such a strange movie – almost like two movies stuck together. In the first half of the film, Clio Dulaine (Ingrid Bergman), illegitimate daughter of a Creole aristocrat and a lower class French woman, returns to New Orleans bent on revenge against the aristocrat’s family for their part in destroying her mother’s life.
Clio runs into Texas gambler and con-man Clint Maroon (Cooper), and sparks fly between the two of them. It’s sort of a Rhett/Scarlett thing, with him not being the marrying kind and her determined to avenge herself on the family that did her wrong, then marry a man much richer than Clint.
Clio is accompanied by her bossy, superstitious maid, Angelique (Flora Robson in disturbingly bad makeup meant to indicate her mixed race), and a mischievous dwarf manservant, Cupidon. Their presence gives an especially bizarre tone to the movie.
The second half of the film takes place when Clint and Clio make their way to Saratoga, he to exact his own revenge against the railroad magnate who ruined his father, she to beguile and marry a wealthy railroad heir. Clint and Clio are of course madly in love with each other, even if they won’t admit it, and are at cross-purposes all the time. They finally make their way into each other’s arms, but not before a (literal) train wreck.
It’s a big, sweeping story, though a bit disjointed. The tone of the New Orleans half of the movie is noticeably different than the Saratoga half. It just doesn’t quite flow. And though it seems they were going for the sort of sparring romance Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh had in Gone With the Wind, Gary Cooper is by nature too laid back for that to really work for the Clio/Clint relationship.
Nonetheless, the chemistry he and Bergman exhibited in For Whom the Bell Tolls is still there. This scene, in Clio’s New Orleans boudoir, is a good example. I love the possessive way he grabs her hair and wraps it around her neck, and the way she bats his hand away with her brush. Sexy!
The camera spends a lot of time leisurely taking in Cooper’s long-legged frame in Saratoga Trunk. When we first see him it’s from Clio’s point of view – a slow, sensual sweep from his cowboy boots to his big white hat as he sits on the edge of a barstool and leans back against the bar. At another point, a middle-aged busybody in Saratoga tells Clio she’s foolish not to drop her rich suitor in favor of Clint, longingly describing his broad shoulders and narrow hips.
I’ve noticed that Cooper is often ogled by the camera and lusted after by female characters in his films of the ‘30s and ‘40s, in a blatant way usually reserved for actresses. He is almost too beautiful, but he carries it off with total nonchalance, as if he has no idea how gorgeous he is. Or, if he does know, he doesn’t really care. Which of course makes him that much more attractive, doesn’t it?
Design for Living (1933)
Two American expatriates in Paris, best friends Tom Chambers (Frederic March) and George Curtis (Gary Cooper), meet beautiful fellow American, Gilda Farrell (Miriam Hopkins), on a train. Tom is a struggling playwright. George is a struggling painter. Gilda is a commercial artist with wit to spare, strong opinions about life and art, and an independent streak a mile wide.
Soon both Tom and George are in love with Gilda, and Gilda is in love with both Tom and George, much to the chagrin of her boss and admirer Max Plunkett (Edward Everett Horton). Tom and George secretly make love to Gilda behind each others’ backs. When the truth about that comes out, the fun really begins.
A thing happened to me that usually happens to men. You see, a man can meet two, three, or even four women and fall in love with all of them, and then by a process of interesting elimination he’s able to decide which one he prefers. But a woman must decide purely on instinct, guesswork, if she wants to be considered nice. Oh, it’s quite all right for her to try on a hundred hats before she picks one out…
Rather than risk losing either of them and not wanting to ruin Tom and George’s long friendship by coming between them, Gilda suggests an unorthodox arrangement. She will move into the run-down bohemian garret the boys share, providing them both with encouragement and criticism for their work. She will be a “mother of the arts.” There’s only one proviso – there must be no sex involved. The three make a “gentleman’s agreement” that they will keep things platonic.
Gilda is true to her word. She pushes George and Tom to pursue their art, at times encouraging them and at times criticizing them mercilessly. She uses her moxy to make sure the right people know about George’s paintings and about Tom’s play, Goodnight Bassington: a comedy in about three acts with a tragic ending. (Ha! I wish I could see that one.)
Soon, thanks to Gilda’s help, Tom’s play is set to be produced on the London stage. He reluctantly parts ways with Gilda and George, planning to see them in five weeks at the play’s premiere. Being alone together proves to be too much temptation for George and Gilda, however, and the two are soon throwing over the gentleman’s agreement and moving in alone together to pursue their passion. Tom is heartbroken when he hears the news in a letter from George and Gilda, just days before Goodnight Bassington’s premiere.
Nearly a year later, Tom returns to Paris. When he visits Gilda and George’s apartment, George is out of town. There is still a lot of sexual attraction between Gilda and Tom, and they spend a passionate night together before George comes home unexpectedly early the next day.
Once again Gilda has come between the two friends, and this time she tries to spare them from the destruction of their friendship by running away to marry Max Plunkett. Max is all business and no passion, and soon Gilda is bored out of her mind by the endless dinner parties at which she is forced to play “20 Questions” and other idiotic parlor games with Max’s advertising clients.
Luckily Tom and George return from China, where they’ve been off licking their wounds, and rescue her. They all decide they’ll give it another try as a threesome, moving back into their old garret apartment. There’s just one thing – no sex. It’ll be a gentleman’s agreement. And so it begins again.
Though it was based on Noel Coward’s play of the same name, little of the original play remains in the movie version of Design for Living. Just one line is the same, in fact. Gone are the hints of homosexual attraction between Tom and George. Also gone is Noel Coward’s particular brand of English wit. In its place is a delightful combination of the sassy, fast-talking American style of Ben Hecht’s screenplay with director Ernst Lubitsch’s European sophistication.
The performances are all top-notch. Frederic March and Gary Cooper are very funny, especially together. The scene in which they drown their sorrows after Gilda ditches them both is easily one of most amusing drunk scenes I’ve seen anywhere. The two actors have a marvelous rapport and make it easy to believe that Tom and George have been friends for many years. March is great as the more cerebral, verbally witty of the two. Cooper displays a gift for light comedy as the slightly less bright but more sexily “barbaric” George.
Most sparkling of all is Miriam Hopkins’ Gilda. If it had been played differently, the character could’ve been unlikeable – a flirtatious, loose woman toying with the affections of two men. (Three if you count Max Plunkett, though it’s hard to care too much about the feelings of a man who goes around saying things like “Immorality may be fun, but it isn’t fun enough to take the place of one hundred percent virtue and three square meals a day!”)
But Hopkins makes Gilda very likeable. You understand why Tom and George are both so taken with her. She’s flirty and fun, but also passionate and serious when it’s called for. She’s sexually free and not ashamed of it, but she never comes across as a floozy at all. You can understand and empathize with Gilda’s inability to choose between these two talented, ridiculously attractive men, both of whom she genuinely loves. She’s honest with both of them and doesn’t play games.
Plus, Gilda is very, very funny. Miriam Hopkins’ delivery of her lines is deliciously sharp and zingy. She is a great physical comedienne in the role as well, throwing herself dramatically onto dusty settees, gesturing wildly with her small, expressive hands while arguing with Max.
Now listen, Plunkett, Incorporated. You go to those customers of yours and give ‘em a sales talk. Sell them anything you want, but not me. I’m fed up with underwear, cement, linoleum, I’m sick of being a trademark married to a slogan! Don’t you tell ‘em I’ve got hiccups. Tell them I’ve got the advertising blues. The billboard collywobbles! Slogans and sales talks morning, noon, and night, and not one human sound out of you and your whole flock of Egelbauers!
(Is that Ben Hecht or is that Ben Hecht? Love it!)
Gilda Farrell is supposed to be from Fargo, North Dakota, but Miriam Hopkins was from Georgia and hearing her deliver her feisty dialogue with the hint of a Southern accent in her voice is completely adorable throughout the film.
Sometimes pre-code movies can still surprise me with just how racy they are. Of course by the standards of our depressingly vulgar times Design for Living seems fairly tame. But the frank sexuality of the characters, especially Gilda, with her ideas about trying on multiple “hats” before buying them, is impossible to imagine in a post-code movie. Sometimes when watching classic films it’s easy to imagine that nobody before the 1960s knew what sex even was. Pre-code movies take those illusions away pretty quickly.
I highly, highly recommend this movie. It’s witty, silly, quotable, scandalous, and thought-provoking when it comes to the topics of romance, art and friendship. Most of all, it’s just plain fun.
* Saratoga Trunk (1946), co-starring Ingrid Bergman. This is one of the Warner Archive movies that’s been on my wish list for a while now. I can’t wait to watch it!
* The Gary Cooper Collection, containing five movies: Design for Living, The Lives of a Bengal Lancer, Peter Ibbetson, The General Died at Dawn, and Beau Geste. Over 8 hours of Coop at his 1930s prettiest! It would’ve been worth the $19 for Design for Living alone. That movie is perfection.
* Cooper’s Women by Jane Ellen Wayne, a book I’m embarrassed to have purchased even though it was a cheap used copy. It’s so trashy, it really is! I knew as soon as I read this review and excerpt by Sheila O’Malley that I would have to track it down, however. Cooper’s Women is a gossipy accounting of his many love affairs, written in a way that at times has an almost fanfiction-y vibe. Oh, I’m so ashamed! Honestly though, it’s hard not to have at least a little bit of prurient interest in Cooper, given his insanely good looks and his legendary status with the ladies. Let’s just say that acting wasn’t the only thing at which he excelled.
* Gary Cooper Off Camera: A Daughter Remembers by Maria Cooper Janis, with an introduction by Tom Hanks. This is a touching, lovingly written tribute to Cooper by his daughter, full of beautiful photos. Reading this sweet book will, I hope, make me feel less guilty about reading Cooper’s Women. Heh.
So far this is one of my favorite pictures from the book – Gary Cooper crossing a stream in Sun Valley while on a hunting trip with Ernest Hemingway, 1941.
What a great photograph by Robert Capa. Cooper displays such an attractive blend of masculinity and gracefulness. There are many hunters in my part of the country, but I’ve never seen any of them looking one iota as dapper and well dressed when heading out to shoot and fish, that’s for sure!
Yeah, I’m pretty smitten. Brace yourself for more crazy Coop chat – I’m sure it’s coming.
Director King Vidor’s 1935 movie, The Wedding Night, is perhaps best known today (if it is known at all) for the fact that it was mogul Samuel Goldwyn’s final failed attempt to turn his discovery and protégée, Russian actress Anna Sten, into the next Greta Garbo.
Having put her under contract in 1931, Goldwyn invested much time and money in his attempts to groom Sten into an exotic, glamorous star. However, none of the projects he put together for her seemed to work, she continued to struggle with English, and audiences just weren’t buying what Goldwyn was trying to sell them.
The Wedding Night was Goldwyn’s final stab at making his hopes for Anna’s stardom come true – the movie was mockingly referred to in Hollywood as “Goldwyn’s Last Sten.” While the film and Sten received decent reviews, the audience didn’t come and the movie, like the Goldwyn/Sten alliance, was a flop.
That’s too bad on both counts, because Anna Sten turns in a beautiful performance in a movie that’s sensitive, heartbreaking, and surprisingly realistic about its characters’ fates for a Hollywood movie of the time period.
The movie starts out with the trappings of a “city slickers in the country” comedy. Gary Cooper plays Tony Barrett, a Fitzgerald-esque writer whose life of partying and drinking with his shallow but not unlikeable society wife, Dora (Helen Vinson), has undermined his talent. His latest book is rejected by his publisher and he is flat broke. The only thing to do is pack up and head to his country home in Connecticut, where he can try to get some writing done.
Tony’s marriage isn’t particularly troubled as the movie starts. He and Dora bicker, she’s not as supportive of his work as he would like, and the wild life they’ve been living in New York is obviously taking its toll on them, but there seems to be an underlying affection there as well.
Tony sells part of his land for some much-needed cash and Dora somewhat reluctantly decides to take the money and return to New York without him. Tony doesn’t seem surprised or especially angry about this. Dora likes the city and he needs to stay in the country to work on his novel, so they part ways for a while. Little do either of them know how much this separation will affect their lives and their marriage.
Tony has sold his land to a local family of well-to-do Polish immigrants, the Novaks. The patriarch of the Novak family is still steeped in Old World customs, treating his wife like a servant and dictating how his family will live. He has arranged a loveless but financially prudent marriage for his daughter, Manya (Sten), to a loutish young man, portrayed by Ralph Bellamy in what surely has to be one of the most thankless second banana roles in a career full of second banana roles.
When Tony’s manservant decides he too has had enough of country living and abandons his job, Tony hires Manya to come to the house every day and do the cooking and cleaning. They get to know each other over the course of the winter. Tony gains inspiration for his novel and for his life from her sweetness and spark. Manya begins to realize that the flippant young man she wasn’t impressed with at first glance is at heart a sensitive artist and a gentle soul. They are snowed in at his house one night, and though they share no more than a kiss when Tony tucks Manya into the guest bed, it’s clear that they’ve fallen in love.
It’s very romantic and lovely to watch unfolding, except for the pall cast over their burgeoning relationship by Tony’s marriage and by Manya’s betrothal. Tony knows Manya doesn’t love her fiancé and that he’s not at all good enough for her, but circumstances don’t allow him to do much to help her out of it. After the blizzard, Manya’s father is enraged and demands that she marry her fiancé right away, before the shame of her spending the night alone with a married man ruins her chances forever.
Dora unexpectedly returns to the country and, after reading Tony’s new novel about a man falling in love with an immigrant girl, realizes that she is on the verge of losing her husband. The scene in which Dora talks to Manya about the novel, asking her how the book should end, is very well done by both Vinson and Sten. Dora is not unkind, but she makes it clear that Tony is not going to rescue Manya from her upcoming marriage. The marriage does indeed take place, leading to a tragic final act when Manya’s wedding night takes a terrible, violent turn.
The beauty of this movie, for me, was in the realistic portrayal of the conflict between the Old World values immigrants brought with them to America and the temptations their children encountered here. Manya is different from her parents. She yearns for a life of more freedom, where she can marry for love. Before meeting and falling in love with Tony she was willing to stoically marry as her father wished, in spite of her distaste for her future husband. She believed it was her duty and didn’t know any other way of life. But after her time with Tony performing that duty becomes incredibly difficult for her. She has had a taste of freedom and romance, and after that it’s hard for her to go back to a life of being bullied by her father and pawed at by her brutish fiancé.
Anna Sten frustrated her director and fellow actors with her struggles to speak English in this movie, but those behind-the-scenes problems don’t take away from her portrayal of Manya. If anything, they add to the character’s vulnerability as a young woman new to America and still learning its ways. Sten’s Manya is intelligent, feisty, loving, and ultimately self-sacrificing. It’s a very good performance.
Gary Cooper is also wonderful and so natural onscreen. At a time soon after the end of silent movies, when many actors were still hamming it up in a very stagey way, Cooper is completely real and subtle, giving a nuanced and touching performance. His gorgeous, long-lashed eyes were so expressive that he could say a lot without uttering a word.
In his autobiography, King Vidor talked about directing Cooper for the first time on the set of The Wedding Night. Initially he was worried by Cooper’s mumbling and the fact that he didn’t seem to be doing anything at all. “Imagine my amazement,” Vidor wrote, “when I watched our first day’s work on the screen and observed and heard a performance that overflowed with charm and personality.” Cooper’s work in this movie does overflow with charm and personality. He was so good, and there was much more to him than just the quiet cowboy he portrayed so often.
I don’t feel like my summary of this movie does it justice at all. It can sound like a typical romantic melodrama in its particulars, but the way it is played out on screen is truly beautiful. When I started watching it I had no idea what the movie was about, or even whether it was a comedy or a drama. Going in with no expectations, I was very happily surprised by what a hidden gem The Wedding Night is.
Sometimes what you need is a bit of silly, lighthearted romantic fluff at the end of a long day. Luckily I had just that waiting in my mailbox when I got home from work, in the form of a Netflix envelope containing 1938′s The Cowboy and the Lady. It’s not the greatest movie of all time, but it’s amusing and cute. I smiled a lot while watching it.
Merle Oberon is Mary, the dutiful daughter of a wealthy judge who is making a play for a presidential nomination. She’s his hostess at political affairs and never gets to have any fun. The one time she tries to have a good time, going dancing at a nightclub with her uncle (the wonderful Harry Davenport), the club is raided for illegal gambling. Before her name can get in the papers and disgrace the judge, Mary is shipped off alone to the family mansion in West Palm Beach.
There she talks her two maids into taking her along on their blind dates with a couple of cowboys from a rodeo that’s in town, and setting her up with a cowboy of her own. Her date is none other than a handsome, long-legged fellow named Stretch Willoughby. (I think he must’ve been related to Long John Willoughby, because they look an awful lot alike. Heh.) Since he’s played by Gary Cooper, Stretch is of course taciturn, shy, honest, kindhearted, and a believer in good old-fashioned values.
Mary, who has been coached on how to catch a man by her maids, uses one of their techniques, the sob story, to capture Stretch’s affections. She spins a yarn about her difficult life as a rich lady’s maid, working to support her alcoholic father and four little sisters. Stretch is touched and begins to fall in love.
He soon proposes and before long a shocked but smitten Mary accepts. Unfortunately her sweet, naive new husband has no idea who she really is or what her life is really like. How can she tell him now? After all, he respects “work horses,” having no use for silly “show horses” whose only purpose in life is to look pretty.
The rest of the story unfolds predictably, with misunderstandings, dashed hopes, revived hopes and a happy ending. Like I said, it’s just fluff, but there are lots of funny and romantic moments that make it worth watching. Gary Cooper is especially charming as the boyish, simple cowboy whose downhome virtues and innate goodness contrast with the snobbish politicians and city slickers in Mary and her father’s circle.
In addition to Harry Davenport as Mary’s kind, fun-loving uncle, the supporting cast also includes Walter Brennan as one of Stretch’s goofy sidekicks at the rodeo. The character actors in old movies are some of the best things about watching them. The ’30s and ’40s seemed to be an especially fabulous time for all the actors whose names you might not know, but whose faces are familiar and always welcome.
I was very amused by Cooper’s costumes in this movie. He’s so cute in his old-fashioned cowboy shirts, jeans with cuffs rolled up about 6 inches, neckerchiefs and huge white hat. The clothes look like the kind of thing little boys dress up in for Halloween.
This definitely isn’t a movie that’s going to make it onto any list of great old masterpieces, but it’s a fun way to spend an hour and a half. Anyway, seeing Gary Cooper as a sweet, gentle lovestruck cowboy isn’t exactly painful.
TCM is showing The Cowboy and the Lady on February 13.
Has it really been almost a year since I posted here? I have such a hard time sticking with projects like this one. I’ve been watching and loving classic movies for the past 12 months, of course, but the time and motivation to write about them have been hard to come by.
But it’s New Year’s resolution time and besides that I’m on a bit of a movie-watching spree right now, so it seems as good a time as any to make another attempt to keep the blog alive. After all, I need somewhere to write about all the wonderful (and not-so-wonderful) things I’ve seen.
Not to mention somewhere to gush without shame about my newest movie star crush, Gary Cooper. I’m completely obsessed with tracking down as many of his movies as I can find and watching them as soon as possible. In the past couple of weeks I’ve seen: Morocco, Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, Meet John Doe, Ball of Fire and Casanova Brown, all for the first time.
My DVR contains Sergeant York and The Pride of the Yankees, and Wedding Night is winging its way to me from Netflix as I type this. I’ve also scoured the TCM listings for the next couple of months and have Along Came Jones, Friendly Persuasion, The Fountainhead, For Whom the Bell Tolls and The Cowboy and the Lady to look forward to.
See what I mean? When I get interested in something, I really get interested! I’d first seen and enjoyed High Noon and Love in the Afternoon years ago, because they co-starred Grace Kelly and Audrey Hepburn respectively, but neither of those movies made in the 1950s gave me a real clue as to how wonderful (and wonderful looking) Cooper had been in his younger days.
Then sometime last year I watched 1939′s Beau Geste on TCM and realized just what I’d been missing. The man was beautiful. Tall, gorgeous and very sexy. Thanks to the Christmas holidays I finally had time to immerse myself in some of the movies on my to-watch list and it was a lovely experience. Not only was Gary Cooper easy on the eyes, he was also an extremely charismatic, subtle, talented actor. Stay tuned for lots of Coop chat in the coming days and weeks!
I also hope to write some more about Joel McCrea, having recently seen him in two fabulous movies (The Palm Beach Story and Foreign Correspondent) and one strange, disjointed film (Preston Sturges’s The Great Moment). I can’t wait to write about those three, especially The Palm Beach Story, which is one of the best movies I’ve seen in ages. It’s absolutely hilarious from start to finish. Plus McCrea once again demonstrates the uber-hotness I first discovered in The More the Merrier.
Not that it’s all about the men! I’ve also been delving into Claudette Colbert’s work quite a bit in recent weeks and having lots of fun getting to know her better. The Gilded Lily, part of the newly released Claudette Colbert and Fred MacMurray Romantic Comedy Collection, was an especially entertaining trifle. Colbert and MacMurray had great chemistry and were always fun to watch together.
So that’s some of what’s coming up here very soon. I have no idea if anyone is even reading this blog anymore, it’s been so long, but I’m excited to give it another try. There are few things I enjoy as much as rambling on and on about classic movies and movie stars.