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!