Gary Cooper

High Noon (1952, Fred Zinnemann)

High Noon is a film all about courage and cowardice, so it’s appropriate the film starts with the most courageous thing it’s ever going to do and it does a few. It commits to its theme song. Not a piece of music from Dimitri Tiomkin, but a country song (written by Tiomkin, lyrics by Ned Washington, sung by Tex Ritter). It’s about the movie. It’s the story of the movie, sans specifics, from the perspective of the protagonist.

And High Noon uses the song throughout when lead Gary Cooper is walking around alone. Only the character in the song is nothing like the character in the movie so it creates this disconnect. The song lionizes, Cooper humanizes. Fits sort of perfectly in with the Western hero, which the film comments on rather quietly. High Noon is an intentional metaphor for the HUAC witch hunt. It’s all about Cooper needing help from his neighbors and his neighbors chosing their own self-interest, with a lot of excuses.

In those excuses, screenwriter Carl Foreman comes up with a great deal of transcendant material. Noon becomes not just about a person’s cowardice in HUAC, but about a community’s cowardice in general. There’s a lot of little stuff in High Noon–the film’s not even ninety minutes and it often refuses exposition–and there’s the steady theme about how greed and racism fuel self-interest. The racism comes in with Katy Jurado, who plays a Mexican businesswoman. She gets one of the four plot lines. Well, she sort of shares it with Grace Kelly but Jurado gets the better character.

Let me back up.

The film opens with the song and Lee Van Cleef. Van Cleef is by himself, waiting, playing with his gun or something. Just being creepy and ominous. As the song plays, the lyrics soon confirm the ominous. But Van Cleef does it on his own. Along with Zinnemann’s stark composition. The settings aren’t neccesarily stark, but Zinnemann and cinematographer Floyd Crosby shoot the film with completely empty skies. It’s bright and unforgiving, intensely examining its characters.

Cooper is marshal in a developing frontier town. Thanks to him, decent women can walk the streets during the day. Not sure about night time. After Van Cleef joins up with two other villainous types–Sheb Wooley and Robert J. Wilke–they ride into town and passed the justice of the peace where Cooper is getting married to Kelly. The song has already let us know what’s going to happen in the movie and introduced at least two characters–Cooper and wife Kelly–so the actual introduction to Cooper and Kelly is… not strange, but startling. It’s a long song. It takes Van Cleef and pals a while to get through the opening titles and into town.

The three bad guys are going to the train station to meet another bad guy. That bad guy is the one who’s going to come after Cooper. He just got out parolled from prison (“up north,” where the bleeding hearts free killers) and so he’s on his way home to kill Cooper. Or so everyone assumes.

And so the good townsfolk put Cooper and Kelly on their wagon and send them out of town. They were leaving anyway. Cooper just resigned as marshal. In addition to being half his age, Kelly’s a Quaker. No more gunfights for Cooper.

Only then Cooper decides he can’t run. So he turns back, confident the good townsfolk will help him. They’re all neighbors and friends.

The first friend to turn Cooper down is judge Otto Kruger, who hightails it. Then there’s Harry Morgan, Thomas Mitchell, and Lon Chaney Jr. They’re all good friends with Cooper, but none of them will help. See, the town doesn’t have enough deputies and the only other active one, Lloyd Bridges, picks that day to finally lose it.

See, Bridges is jealous of Cooper and wishes he could be Cooper but resents Cooper for his envy. Bridges wants to be the next marshal, Cooper thinks he’s too immature. Of course, Bridges has already proven his manhood by shacking up with Jurado, who had a romance with Cooper a year before. Pre-Kelly. Jurado’s aware of Bridges’s personality flaws, but apparently finds him amusing. It’s in Jurado’s performance. She has a patience with Bridges.

So Bridges isn’t going to help Cooper. Bridges has a fantastic character arc in the film. Probably the best. It culminates in a great fist fight where Zinnemann and editor Elmo Williams show off. High Noon’s fist fight is better than its gun fight, because Zinnemann’s got a reason not to glamorize the gun fight but the fist fight is fair game.

The story lines are Cooper, Bridges, Jurado and Kelly, and Van Cleef and friends. Everyone except the bad guys intersect throughout the film, which is fairly real time and has Cooper trying to find people to help him before the bad guy arrives at, well, High Noon.

And there’s the song to accompany Cooper when he’s out alone. Until it’s not there anymore. The film picks just the right time to eighty-six the song and let Cooper’s performance take over. And it’s no different in how it handles Cooper, other than the song being gone. He’d been doing this performance the whole film. The film just decides it’s time to stop talking about Cooper and instead be about him.

And the other story lines. Though the bad guys’ waiting for the train one is pragmatic and Bridges’s masculinity one is truncated (and very nicely echoed through a lot of the rest of the town, definitely in the bar scenes), the one with Kelly and Jurado gets a lot of attention. It’s the film’s main subplot, specifically Jurado. She connects to all the characters, eventually.

Cooper’s great. A lot of his part is reactive and the film never gets too interior–Cooper’s experiencing a lot of fear, anger, and disappointment. He ought to be seething, but he doesn’t get to seethe because he’s got to be the guy in the song. The song haunts him. And hounds him.

Kelly and Jurado are good. While Kelly will break down in front of Cooper, she won’t in front of anyone else. Jurado doesn’t break down in front of anyone. So when they finally get together, Kelly and Jurado are adversarial. Only Foreman’s script has much higher ambition for the characters. It gives Jurado a great arc in the film too. Cooper and Kelly end up with the least impressive character development arcs in the picture. They still have perfectly good arcs, Foreman just concentrated on Jurado and Bridges. Because Cooper and Kelly’s arc is tied and very complicated. She doesn’t just object because he’s outnumbered and she’s a Quaker. There are things going on. With Cooper too. Their arc builds–is surface, is subtext–it even echoes.

Foreman’s script is really, really good throughout and especially on that arc.

Bridges is fantastic. Mitchell, Chaney, Morgan. They’re all good. They’re kind of cameo parts though. Kruger’s fine. He’s a lot better being a weasel than not, however.

High Noon’s great. Zinnemann, Foreman, Cooper, producer Stanley Kramer. They make something singular. And not just because they get away with that song.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Fred Zinnemann; screenplay by Carl Foreman, based on a magazine story by John W. Cunningham; director of photography, Floyd Crosby; edited by Elmo Williams; music by Dimitri Tiomkin; production designer, Rudolph Sternad; produced by Stanley Kramer; released by United Artists.

Starring Gary Cooper (Marshal Will Kane), Grace Kelly (Amy Fowler Kane), Katy Jurado (Helen Ramírez), Lloyd Bridges (Deputy Marshal Harvey Pell), Sheb Wooley (Ben Miller), Robert J. Wilke (Jim Pierce), Lee Van Cleef (Jack Colby), Thomas Mitchell (Mayor Jonas Henderson), Lon Chaney Jr. (Martin Howe), Harry Morgan (Sam Fuller), and Otto Kruger (Judge Percy Mettrick).



Along Came Jones (1945, Stuart Heisler)

Along Came Jones gets by on its gimmick and its charm–it’s got a lot of charm, both from the cast and Nunnally Johnson’s screenplay, which is good as director Heisler doesn’t bring any. Jones is a lower budget Western, lots of rear screen projection, lots of boring setups from Heisler. He prefers medium long shots, avoiding close-ups for most of the supporting cast. He also doesn’t have much of a feel for the material.

Gary Cooper plays the titular Jones. He stumbles his way into a mistaken identity story–everyone thinks he’s gunfighter Dan Duryea but he’s actually just a bit of a doofus. Cooper has fun with the role. It’s thinner than it should be since Heisler isn’t doing much directing of the cast. Johnson’s script has something approximating an arc for Cooper but it doesn’t really come off. As the film resolves itself, it gets its pass not for a creative conclusion but for everything leading up to it. Maybe if the film weren’t so breezily paced, the soft ending might hurt it more. But Jones moves along–the middle section is a lot of lengthy action sequences and they’re solid. Johnson knows how to pace the dialogue and the action. Heisler handles that section best, though just as indistinctly as the rest of the picture.

There’s also a love triangle–Cooper gets himself into the mess over Duryea’s girlfriend, played by Loretta Young. It’s mildly successful. Duryea’s got no personality in Jones; he’s okay, but unenthusiastic. Young’s enthusiastic. She and Cooper have enough chemistry they keep bumping against Heisler’s plodding direction. Especially since doofus Cooper is magic with the ladies. It ought to be a lot funnier, but it isn’t. When he’s not pressed for time, Heisler misses the script’s beats.

William Demarest plays Cooper’s suffering sidekick. It’s William Demarest, he does fine. It’s not a particularly good part though. Johnson’s script is more concerned with the pace than the characters. It’s not a bad script, it’s just overly pragmatic, overly confident in its actors to give it more heft than it might deserve. It’s a mildly successful move from Johnson and Cooper (who also produced). Overall though, Jones just seems like a missed opportunity. It’s got a great cast, it could’ve been more than a diverting comedy Western.

Along Came Jones moves well, it’s got a solid supporting cast (especially Don Costello), it’s got Cooper and Young. It’s just a shame it’s not a better made film–Heisler’s mediocre direction, Milton R. Krasner’s strangely boring photography (he doesn’t do anything with the sets) and Thomas Neff’s awkward editing. Heisler doesn’t know how to direct a gun fight. Even if Jones is a comedy, it’s a Western. You need a competent gun fight.

Anyway, it’s cute. It’s cute enough.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Stuart Heisler; screenplay by Nunnally Johnson, based on a novel by Alan Le May; director of photography, Milton R. Krasner; edited by Thomas Neff; music by Arthur Lange; produced by Gary Cooper; released by RKO Radio Pictures.

Starring Gary Cooper (Melody Jones), Loretta Young (Cherry de Longpre), William Demarest (George Fury), Dan Duryea (Monte Jarrad), Frank Sully (Avery de Longpre), Don Costello (Leo Gledhill), Russell Simpson (Pop de Longpre) and Willard Robertson (Luke Packard).


Meet John Doe (1941, Frank Capra)

There’s something off with Meet John Doe. Director Capra can’t find a tone for the film, but he also can’t find a pace for it. He tries to find the tone, over and over, usually with excellently directed sequences, but he just throws up his hands as far as finding the pace. If Robert Riskin’s script didn’t have strong moments for background characters, it would just be a bunch of great monologues for the actors. But Capra wants to step too far back from it all–John Doe has a wonderful cast and all Capra wants to do is rant about the Illuminati.

At its start, John Doe is simple. Barbara Stanwyck is a reporter. She loses her job. Angry–because John Doe takes place in a time when it seems like the Great Depression isn’t actually going to end, a forlorn attitude permeating throughout the film–she fakes a letter from someone fed up with the state of the world and promising to kill himself. Turns out the letter’s a hit, so Stanywck has to turn up the writer. She hires Gary Cooper. It’s Gary Cooper after all.

There’s a little humor with Cooper and sidekick Walter Brennan getting into a posh hotel and doing nothing. Riskin’s really good at these scenes. Well, then something happens and Cooper quits for a bit then he joins back up for a bit then it turns out the Illuminati have plans for him so he has to make a big decision. Along the way, he falls in love with Stanwyck (it’s Barbara Stanwyck after all), losing Brennan, and falls under the spell of Edward Arnold, the evil Mr. Big running this nameless city’s Illuminati chapter.

The nameless city should’ve been a bigger giveaway for the film’s problems. Capra doesn’t want anything to have personality except the concept.

Only, Riskin’s script has those amazing monologues I mentioned. James Gleason, who plays Stanwyck’s editor and Arnold’s reluctant stooge, gets at least two great scenes. His second one, where he gets wasted and talks about the Great War, is phenomenal. Gleason’s great and all, but that scene is phenomenal. Riskin’s dialogue is great, Capra’s patience is great, everything’s great. It just doesn’t belong in the movie. John Doe’s so lost, having every actor (except Cooper) directly address the camera when talking to Cooper’s character might work better. First person for the audience. Why? Because, while Capra’s interested in shooting the film well, having fantastic performances from his cast, he’s not actually interested in the film. It’s like he’s avoiding the lack of story.

Unfortunately, the rocky pace means no one gives an overall great performance. Brennan disappears, then comes back with nothing to do. He’s good, often really good, but the film doesn’t give him enough time later on. It never establishes who’s supposed to get the most time–even Cooper and Stanwyck manage to disappear from the story. The present action’s a mess. The film goes on for months and months and doesn’t let the characters grow.

It’s too much story. There are a half dozen points throughout the two hour runtime where Riskin and Capra could’ve focused for a far better experience.

Capra’s direction is outstanding. Riskin’s monologues are great. Cooper, Stanwyck, Gleason, Brennan, all great. Arnold’s not, but it’s hard to fault him. He’s got no part. He’s not even a caricature. He’s just “rich bad guy.”

Dimitri Tiomkin’s music has a few missteps, but it’s generally okay. It tends to stumble through the parts where everything else stumbles. Except maybe George Barnes’s photography and Daniel Mandell’s editing, their work is always strong.

Meet John Doe doesn’t work out. I wish it had, but it’s still one heck of a swing.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Frank Capra; screenplay by Robert Riskin, based on a story by Richard Connell and Robert Presnell Sr.; director of photography, George Barnes; edited by Daniel Mandell; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Gary Cooper (John Doe), Barbara Stanwyck (Ann Mitchell), Edward Arnold (D.B. Norton), Walter Brennan (The Colonel), James Gleason (Henry), Spring Byington (Mrs. Mitchell), Rod La Rocque (Ted Sheldon), Irving Bacon (Beany) and Gene Lockhart (Mayor Lovett).


Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936, Frank Capra)

Mr. Deeds Goes to Town is astoundingly (and rightfully) confident. Director Capra and screenwriter Robert Riskin don’t shy away from anything in the film–Capra’s more than willing to go with sentimentality, but the film isn’t often sentimental. Even when Jean Arthur’s world-weary reporter breaks down, she doesn’t get sentimental.

Most of the film involves Arthur deceiving Gary Cooper’s titular Mr. Deeds–he’s a small town guy who’s just inherited twenty million dollars–for her story. He becomes infatuated, she starts to regrow her heart. Riskin’s script runs these two subplots parallel to one another, but somehow not concurrent. Deeds maintains three perspectives throughout–Cooper’s, Arthur’s and, in the beginning, Lionel Stander’s.

Stander is sort of Cooper’s sidekick (a rich man’s press agent) but he’s also the first one to come around to Cooper’s way of doing things. Capra and Riskin take the Hollywood norm–the New York newspaper picture–and mix in the social commentary of the Depression, while bringing in a big question of town vs. country values. It’s a very tricky combination and they always do it perfectly; Deeds is a marvel of filmmaking construction. The way Capra uses sound–Cooper and Arthur are romancing in a picturesque New York landmark, the hustle and bustle around them, but the sound just has them. The lovely Joseph Walker photography just adds to it. Lots of quiet moments for Cooper and Arthur, who both give marvelous performances.

Everything about Mr. Deeds is fantastic. It’s an exceptional motion picture.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Produced and directed by Frank Capra; screenplay by Robert Riskin, based on a story by Clarence Budington Kelland; director of photography, Joseph Walker; edited by Gene Havlick; released by Columbia Pictures.

Starring Gary Cooper (Longfellow Deeds), Jean Arthur (Babe Bennett), Lionel Stander (Cornelius Cobb), Douglass Dumbrille (John Cedar), Raymond Walburn (Walter), Ruth Donnelly (Mabel Dawson), George Bancroft (MacWade), Walter Catlett (Morrow), John Wray (Farmer) and H.B. Warner (Judge May).


Garden of Evil (1954, Henry Hathaway)

For a while it seems like the third act of Garden of Evil will make up for the rest of the film’s problems. Or at least give it somewhere to excel. Sadly, director Hathaway and screenwriter Frank Fention inexplicably tack on a terrible coda–tying into the title no less–and effectively wash away any advances they’ve made for the film.

There are lots and lots of problems. Hathaway’s CinemaScope composition is poor (except the finish), even though Milton R. Krasner and Jorge Stahl Jr. shoot the film beautifully. It should have been Academy Ratio and black and white. But those technical choices don’t really make any difference when it comes to the actors.

Cameron Mitchell’s expectedly lame–he’s lame from his first line–but Susan Hayward’s pretty weak too. It seems like she should do well as a jaded woman forced to confront herself and persevere. But she doesn’t. Maybe because Fenton’s plotting doesn’t allow her character to grow naturally. There’s a really good moment towards the end, but she’s otherwise constantly scowling and calling it a performance.

Worse, Gary Cooper’s disinterested. He’s not bad as clearly bored. Garden should have been about his friendship with Richard Widmark–and does start with that emphasis… but it all gets confused.

Widmark’s amazing. Even when the script goes silly on him, he delivers it beautifully.

Great music from Bernard Herrmann, wonderful locations and a somehow not bad script from Fenton make Garden pass, but its defects don’t let it pass well.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Henry Hathaway; screenplay by Frank Fenton, based on a story by Fred Freiberger and William Tunberg; directors of photography, Milton R. Krasner and Jorge Stahl Jr.; edited by James B. Clark; music by Bernard Herrmann; produced by Charles Brackett; released by 20th Century Fox.

Starring Gary Cooper (Hooker), Susan Hayward (Leah Fuller), Richard Widmark (Fiske), Hugh Marlowe (John Fuller), Cameron Mitchell (Daly), Víctor Manuel Mendoza (Vicente) and Rita Moreno (Vicente’s girl).


Design for Living (1933, Ernst Lubitsch)

From the first third of Design for Living, it’s impossible to think it might not be absolutely fantastic throughout. Eventually it does hit a dry period and it’s impossible to think it’s going to pull out of it. Then it does and it’s impossible to think… well, you get the idea. I don’t know why I wasn’t fully trusting of Lubitsch, but during that dry spell, I really did think he’d lost control of the film.

The problem he–and the characters–needs to work out is a familiar one, the love triangle, but here with the added complication of the two male legs being best friends. I’m not sure how much of the solution Lubitsch got from Noel Coward’s source play (Ben Hecht’s adaptation only retained one line of dialogue and I can’t find any information on the plotting), but Lubitsch’s resolution is perfect. The film’s already over its bumpy period and it’s already assured he’s going to end it well, but the way he does is even better than expected.

The bumpy period–which probably only lasts fifteen minutes, at most, of the film’s ninety minute running time–is distinct because of what it lacks. The film opens with Miriam Hopkins sitting down across from Gary Cooper and Fredric March. The opening minutes are silent, followed by a minute of Cooper and Hopkins speaking French, then it’s the trio full steam. They all play perfectly off each other, so when the film’s without them–when it’s just March or just Cooper–it doesn’t work right. Hopkins works great with both of them, but they don’t work quite so well when they aren’t together. In fact, there’s a whole scene emphasizing that point.

Seeing Cooper and March–two leading men–sharing a film like this one, complimenting each other so well, it’s hard to believe they never reunited. The film only spends thirty seconds establishing the friendship–silently no less–between the two. While March went on to do a lot of comedies, Cooper only did them in his (relatively) early career, at least playing up his abilities as a physical comedian. Both of them are superb; hearing them fire Hecht’s dialogue back and forth is joyous.

What’s so frustrating about not knowing how Hecht’s adaptation works is in terms of discussing the scene structure. If I didn’t know the film came from a play, had I missed the opening titles, I might have guessed it. The scenes have a lot of dialogue and a lack of mobility–even if it’s a multi-room setting, the action takes place in the same areas. But then there are other touches–Lubitsch communicating the passage of time with an advertisement on a bus, for example–which are entirely filmic.

The handling of Edward Everett Horton’s character, a ludicrous suitor for Hopkins, is also rather filmic. Horton manages the film’s second most difficult performance (Hopkins having the first, having to convey her conflicted feelings for both Cooper and March in a constantly fresh way); Horton has to both be believable and absurd. The film makes a few drastic changes to the character to keep him in line for the narrative to work and Horton negotiates them well. He’s an amusing, antagonistic buffoon.

The film’s such a success, I’m a little surprised I hadn’t heard of it before. Between the performances–the pairing of Cooper and March and Hopkins in general–Lubitsch’s sublime direction (that opening is masterful), and Hecht’s script… Design for Living should be much better known.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Produced and directed by Ernst Lubitsch; screenplay by Ben Hecht, based on the play by Noel Coward; director of photography, Victor Milner; edited by Frances Marsh; music by John Leipold; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring Fredric March (Tom Chambers), Gary Cooper (George Curtis), Miriam Hopkins (Gilda Farrell), Edward Everett Horton (Max Plunkett), Franklin Pangborn (Mr. Douglas), Isabel Jewell (Plunkett’s Stenographer), Jane Darwell (Curtis’s Housekeeper) and Wyndham Standing (Max’s Butler).


Beau Geste (1939, William A. Wellman)

Beau Geste is a colonial adventure, European soldiers under siege in the Arabian desert. There’s some imagination to the telling, but not at all enough. The strangest thing about the film is the title–Gary Cooper plays Beau Geste, who in some ways is the least of the film’s characters. I think Cooper must get the littlest screen time of the main actors and the film often feels absent of his presence.

The problem stems from the structure. Geste opens with the discovery of a mystery–a desert fort, all the soldiers dead, but a peculiar confession in one of the men’s hands and two shots fired by a ghost. It’s all very Arthur Conan Doyle, except the viewer has to wait almost two hours to discover the solution (well, not really… just the entire solution… from the first flashback, the general answer is clear). After the first scene, the action goes back fifteen years to that revealing flashback. Then there’s a second mystery–this one of great importance–hinted at. It’s not a real mystery because the viewer is deceived into thinking he or she has seen all the relevant action. But it’s of great importance in the end and to a character’s entire motivation. Without it, the film makes little sense–and at the end, there’s a big finger snapping, “of course” moment. It’s a lousy moment, of course, and ruins the film’s already bad denouement.

When the film does get back to the present day and starts toward unraveling the mystery of the first scene, it starts kind of well. The scenes with Cooper, Robert Preston and Ray Milland as wealthy brothers in English luxury are fine. Cooper and Preston have a decent moment together and Milland’s appealing enough romancing Susan Hayward. Both Hayward and G.P. Huntley are useless in any narrative sense, but whatever, the film’s at least trying to be interesting in these scenes.

It lasts only a few minutes, unfortunately. Then there’s another big mystery (tying in to the first scene’s mystery) and it’s off to the Foreign Legion. I always thought Beau Geste was a big adventure story, but the film’s mostly just the three brothers (until Preston goes off to a different fort) and their vicious sergeant, poorly played by Brian Donlevy. It isn’t really Donlevy’s fault–his character has absolutely no depth. He’s a standard movie bad guy, absolutely no redeeming qualities whatsoever (not even after Cooper observes one about him). The film plays him as pure nefariousness and most of the film’s running time suffers from it. Beau Geste is a mutiny thriller.

William A. Wellman does a mediocre job directing the film, which really hurts it. He has some grandiose scale at the beginning, but losses it immediately in the flashback and never gets it back. The film’s beautifully photographed by Theodor Sparkuhl and Archie Stout, but Thomas Scott’s editing is the pits. Every time Wellman’s action scenes start to look good, there’s a distracting jump-cut. Cooper shoots at the left of the screen and his target gets hit from a bullet moving left to right. The sets are nice too.

Preston has some good moments (Milland gets stuck with a lot of weak moments) and Cooper’s fine when he’s around; the film doesn’t really have any standout performances. J. Carrol Naish is bad as Donlevy’s stooge–probably giving the film’s worst performance–and the less said about the cowboy legionnaires the better. Harold Huber does have a nice small role, however.

Another big problem with Beau Geste is how familiar it all seems… like the source novel was nothing but a creative plagiarism of The Four Feathers. But not having read the novel, it’s impossible to say what went wrong–the adaptation or the story itself. Beau Geste is a monotonous chore to get through, especially as the ending rolls downhill for the last seven or ten minutes.

1/4

CREDITS

Produced and directed by William A. Wellman; screenplay by Robert Carson, based on the novel by Percival Christopher Wren; directors of photography, Theodor Sparkuhl and Archie Stout; edited by Thomas Scott; music by Alfred Newman; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring Gary Cooper (Michael ‘Beau’ Geste), Ray Milland (John Geste), Robert Preston (Digby Geste), Brian Donlevy (Sgt. Markoff), Susan Hayward (Isobel Rivers), J. Carrol Naish (Rasinoff), Albert Dekker (Legionnaire Schwartz), Broderick Crawford (Hank Miller), Charles Barton (Buddy McMonigal), James Stephenson (Maj. Henri de Beaujolais), Heather Thatcher (Lady Patricia Brandon), James Burke (Lt. Dufour) and G.P. Huntley (Augustus Brandon).


One Sunday Afternoon (1933, Stephen Roberts)

One Sunday Afternoon suffers from some of the standard play-to-film problems. The scenes go on too long, especially in the first half, which only contains three real scenes. The opening, which is a lengthy, seemingly direct adaptation from the play, features Gary Cooper and Roscoe Karns talking to each other as way of establishing the characters and setting. It’s problematic to say the least, since their dialogue isn’t particularly interesting and because it just drags the film down, right from the start.

What’s strange about the opening is the make-up. One Sunday Afternoon is told mostly in flashback, with the opening and end in the modern day. The film establishes Cooper and Karns in old age make-up at the start. It’s a conventional narrative move and what’s strange about it has nothing to do with it as a storytelling device. The strange thing is the fantastic make-up work. I can’t find any credits for it, but whoever came up with it did an amazing job. It’s more of a shock seeing Cooper without the make-up on than it is seeing him without.

So after the three or fourth lengthy scenes, the film skips forward a couple years and drastically changes. The scenes are shorter, more filmic, and it has a lot more weight. The long, early scenes seem more like foundation for the brief middle section. It doesn’t seem like an intentional, deliberate move, just fortuitous pacing.

What makes the film is Cooper’s performance. He’s not playing a smart guy here or even a nice one. Cooper does a great job of it, never making his character amusing in his denseness or self-absorbtion. He never makes him entirely bad either, the stupidity excuses just enough of the inconsideration.

It leads to some good scenes with Frances Fuller, who starts the film with a weak character, but–no shock–she strengths in the middle section.

Unfortunately, both Fay Wray and Neil Hamilton are weak. Wray, just like most everyone, is more interesting in the middle, but she’s barely present. The plotting for the first part of the flashback is too melodramatic for Wray’s character in particular. Even though she’s amusing as she leaves the film, she really never brings anything to it. Hamilton’s generally bad throughout, though he’s a little better in the present day setting. His excellent make-up probably helped out a little.

The film greatly suffers from being too short in the good parts and too long in the middling. Cooper’s performance does wonders for it–and the fine production values as well–but there’s no creative direction. As a director, Stephen Roberts is entirely passive. I can’t remember seeing a single surprising frame of film. But the positive elements–running high off the middle–bring the film nicely to its conclusion. The end’s a little stretched, as the film suffers from wholly deceiving the audience until the last act, but it’s solid.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Stephen Roberts; screenplay by Grover Jones and William Slavens McNutt, based on the play by James Hagan; directors of photography, Victor Milner and Karl Struss; edited by Ellsworth Hoagland; music by John Leipold; produced by Louis D. Lighton; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring Gary Cooper (Biff Grimes), Fay Wray (Virginia Brush), Frances Fuller (Amy Lind), Roscoe Karns (Snappy Downer), Neil Hamilton (Hugo Barnstead) and Jane Darwell (Mrs. Lind).


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