Monday, October 27, 2014

Westerner, The (1940)

Director: William Wyler


Hollywood loves a good legend and in the Samuel Goldwyn production The Westerner we are told a tale of a legend in the wild west of a saloon keeper that makes himself the unrestrained law of his sparsely populated community in West Texas. The pictured starred two long time favorites of Hollywood westerns, Gary Cooper, establishing himself as a great of the genre, and Walter Brennan, one of the more lovable character actors of westerns playing the villain, in a classic picture that reminds us of the pure joy of watching movies.

The Westerner is a… well a western, of a crooked saloon keeper who appoints himself “judge” and the man that attempts to stop and reason with this man of the wild west. Judge Roy Bean (Walter Brennan) is a saloon-keeper how makes a living as the corrupt “law west of the Pecos” holding court in the saloon with a jury of his cattlemen patrons. He and his men have a vendetta of driving the homesteaders from their newly built fenced in farms to keep the vistas open for his cattlemen stooges to roam their herds freely across the plans of West Texas. Known as a judge that hangs each of the helpless defendants in his “court,” one man, Cole Harden (Gary Cooper), is able to outsmart the judge by playing on his effects towards an English performer named Lily Langtry.

Despite being enemies, the Judge actually likes and admires Harden who attempts to help keep the Judge from destroying the homesteaders’ land. Having kindled a romance with a young and pretty homesteader, Jane (Doris Davenport), who lost her father to the Judge’s men, Harden works to become appointed a Texas Ranger and plans on stopping the Judge. Harden does so when Lily Langtry is to perform in a nearby town and the Judge buys out the theater for himself only find Harden standing on stage when the curtain rises. A gunfight ensues between the two in the theater and the Judge is mortally wounded, but in compassion for his failing foe Harden carries the Judge to meet Lily Langtry, making it the happiest moment in the Judge’s life before her dies. This leaves Harden and Jane to rebuild the farm as homesteaders once again begin to spread west.

The picture is not overly elaborate or majestic in any manner, but with good writing, some interesting characters, and fine acting we receive a very fine western. We have the classic hero played by Gary Cooper and a crooked villain played by Walter Brennan, himself a pillar of westerns with his classic drawl. The feature is not over the top as many films can be, but is a rather well contained tale starring the classic good vs. evil storyline.

The feature is directed by one of the most established directors of the time in William Wyler. While in the director’s chair he was known for getting some of the finest performances out of his actors and that is evident in his performers’ works. Utilizing high depth of field, which keeps much of the frame in focus, Wyler does a superior job at framing shots, both to make the frame pleasing to the eye as well as establishing emotion and carrying the story and thought pattern of the characters with the subtlety of his camerawork.

Actor Walter Brennan had established himself as a regular in many westerns in his massive résumé. Although only at the age of 46 Brennan usually played character much older with his slight frame, thinning gray hair, and his ability to create a distinct southern drawl that made the New England born performer appear as an old man of the western frontier. His characteristics and mannerisms made the actor usually in line for lovable side characters, as he can be a jolly old guy whose qualities would be copied by many for years to come by a number of future performers. Here he plays a villain in the crooked Judge Bean, and he does so very finely, being absolutely wicked, while at the same time showing glimpses of that lovability that makes him fascinating as a character.

Already a two time Academy Award winner for his supporting roles the appearance of Brennan in casting made Gary Cooper hesitant to sign on to the project, anticipating Brennan’s performance to overshadow the role of Harden. Cooper appealed to be released from his obligation to the picture, but producers promised Cooper’s part would be expanded upon and he would remain the main focus of the picture.

Gary Cooper by this time was a major leading man in Hollywood. In his vast array of work in the past Cooper had been in his fair share of westerns as a rising actor in the studio system, but here in The Westerner he establishes himself as a major face in the genre of westerns. The Westerner would bring Walter Brennan his record third Academy Award, but Cooper’s future career would bring him many more pictures as the hero in the old west, perhaps his most popular being 1952’s High Noon. Although Cooper was originally opposed to the idea, the teaming Cooper and Brennan would prove to work so well they would be paired up in five more future films together.

As with many western the hero must find love in some innocent young lady in the picture. In The Westerner Cooper finds his love interest in Doris Davenport. A struggling actress and part time fashion model, Davenport would land herself the role opposite Cooper from her audition work for the Gone With the Wind. Although she would not be signed to play Scarlet O’Hara Samuel Goldwyn saw promise in the actress and gave her the chance in The Westerner. Despite her big break being teamed with some larger stars her time on screen is rather forgettable as the usual damsel in distress. She would go on to appear in one more picture as offers for roles dried up and she would retire from acting.

Judge Bean and Lily Langtry, who we see only for a moment in a few final moments near the end of the film, were based on two actual people who built legends for themselves enough so that it would inspire the story of The Westerner. The feature proves to have been a well-received picture in its day. Aside from Walter Bennan’s award for Best Supporting Actor, the film would be nominated for two more Oscars in the categories of art direction and story. The feature continues to stand the test of time as a well-made western out of this classic period of Hollywood.

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