Chemistry, the Camera and Cooper

City Streets (1931)

city streets cap

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

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.

Saratoga Trunk (1945)

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?

saratoga trunk


Cary Grant at Paramount

Lately I’ve been making an effort to track down and watch the Cary Grant movies I haven’t yet seen. Last week I watched three of the movies in Universal’s Cary Grant collection, a lovely set of five films from Grant’s early years, when he was under contract at Paramount.

First up, Thirty Day Princess, from 1934.

It’s a little 70 minute trifle, very silly and somewhat amusing, but not especially good. Still, it was interesting to see Cary’s performance, which every now and then breaks away from a more stagey, stilted style of acting to show glimmers of the Cary Grant wit and style that would later emerge.

When he’s on the screen it’s hard to take your eyes off him, even if the amount of makeup he wears in the movie is seriously distracting. He was already gorgeous; adding all that goop to someone so pretty was just gilding the lily, even if it was the norm in movies then.

Grant signed with Paramount in 1932 and this was something like the 14th feature he made. They churned them out one after another in those days! Four or five pictures a year wasn’t unusual for an actor, and sometimes Cary would be working on two movies at once, playing one role in the morning, then heading over to another part of the lot to play in a different movie in the afternoon. The studio really was a factory.

His name wasn’t above the title yet (it was “Sylvia Sidney in ‘Thirty Day Princess’ with Cary Grant”), and there wasn’t a whole lot for him to do other than wear evening clothes, look handsome, and kiss the girl. Paramount didn’t know what to do with him. It’s like they couldn’t get beyond his looks to see the wry, intelligent, comedically gifted guy who would soon shine in screwball comedies. He was more or less wasted there, although I guess you could make the case that the work he did at Paramount was good practice for what was to come. He learned a lot, most of all what he didn’t want – to be stuck in those boring pretty-boy roles forever.

Thank goodness he was smart enough to refuse to renew his contract in 1936. Who knows what would have happened to him if he’d stayed there, forced to take mediocre parts not good enough for Gary Cooper? Maybe he could have signed with another studio that would have understood and appreciated him better. Columbia used him to good advantage right after he left Paramount, after all, but then Cary was choosing those pictures, not just being assigned to them. If he’d stayed in the system he most likely wouldn’t have had the brilliant and varied career he ended up having. He chose his movies, his directors, and before too long he had approval of his co-stars. No studio boss made him – he made himself. I love that about him. It’s hard to express how unusual it was not to belong to a studio in those days. It took a lot of smarts and a lot of chutzpah on his part to break away.

I’m completely fascinated by the studio system. The wheeling and dealing, the behind the scenes scandals and dramas, the nasty but brilliant studio bosses like Mayer, Cohn and Zanuck all intrigue me to no end. In many ways the system worked beautifully. A place like MGM had its roster of stars (more stars than there are in the heavens, etc.), wonderfully talented writers, directors, set designers, costume designers, and cameramen, all under long-term contract. It was a well-oiled machine and they made a lot of quality movies in an amazingly short period of time. (Look at 1939 alone!) They discovered talent, groomed it, fitted it into whatever slot they needed at the time, and managed stars’ careers and images completely.

Many actors and artists hated being so confined but some, like Ann Miller, mourned seeing the system go. She still seemed sad about it when interviewed by Robert Osborne on TCM many, many years later.  The end of the studio system basically meant the end of her movie career.

Sometimes studios got things right and careers like Spencer Tracy’s at MGM and Bette Davis’s at Warner were the result. But sometimes talented people weren’t used to their best advantage, slipped through the cracks and disappeared. Would that have happened to Cary if he hadn’t gone out on his own? It’s interesting to contemplate. To me it is, anyway, geek that I am.

Here’s a clip from Thirty Day Princess. Preston Sturges co-wrote the script and much like with Cary’s performance, you can occasionally catch a glimpse of what was to come with Sturges as well. Mostly though, you just have to shake your head and remember that everyone has to start somewhere.

The most exciting thing to me about seeing early Cary Grant movies (like The Amazing Quest of Ernest Bliss, which I watched the other day – what a stinker!) is realizing how much better, smarter, and more sophisticated his performances would be just a few years later in The Awful Truth, Bringing Up Baby, and Only Angels Have Wings. He learned fast, and when the right combination of material, directors and co-stars came along he took off like a rocket and never looked back.

Reviews still to come for Kiss and Make-Up and Wings in the Dark.