Movie Stars: Cooper, Gary–Screen Image, Sex Appeal

Early on in his career, in the Western The Virginian, Gary Cooper’s heroic character stated: “A man has to do what a man has to do,” and this became his motto for the rest of his life.

Cooper achieved sex-star status in his early roles by playing romantically dying or romantically wounded heroes.

But later on, as the author Malone has shown, at the prime of his career, he played either shy, naïve, decent men, who fell in love with sophisticated women, like the thief that Marlene Dietrich played in Desire, or the worldly stripper that Barbara Stanwyck played in Ball of Fire, where she gave him (a virginal lexicographer) his very first kiss.

Cooper embodied competent men of great integrity who operated in rather simple environments.

In his sexual screen image, Gary Cooper shared some characteristics with Henry Fonda, which differ radically from that of Clark Gable.

Like Henry Fonda, when Cooper was at his most handsome and appealing, in the 1930s, he was also at his most shy and ignorant phase with women.

It was the women who taught Cooper about sex, love, and life.  They were not necessarily older than Cooper, but they were certainly more experienced and worldly, treating their love interests as boys-men.

King Vidor, who directed Cooper in The Wedding Night, observed that the star’s distinctive quality was, “being extremely photogenic,” and that he had difficulties speaking more than a few sentences at a time.

Ernst Lubitch, who heled Cooper in the sophisticated comedy, Design for Living, almost echoed that sentiment when he noted: Cooper and (Greta) Garbo were “essentially photographic creatures, bland, almost dull, except when a camera is aimed at them.”