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?