Movie Stars: Cooper, Gary–Screen Image Vs. John Wayne’s

In a career spanning over three decades, Gary Cooper was one of the screen’s greatest cowboys.

Next to John Wayne, he appeared in the largest number of “A” Westerns.  There are many similarities between Wayne’s and Cooper’s careers, including the screen heroes they played. Though Cooper was older than Wayne by 6 years—he was born 1901—he, too, started his career in silent Westerns, and like Wayne, he was a genuine creation of the silver screen.

Cooper, like Wayne, made Westerns throughout his career, but especially in the first and last decade of his career; he died in 1961.  In the 1920s, Cooper made 15 Westerns, and he returned to this genre with full energy in the 1950s with 13 pictures.

In their Western portrayals, both Cooper and Wayne were influenced by William S. Hart’s strong, silent cowboys. Indeed, their similar acting style of straightforward naturalism was most appropriate for their characterizations.  To many viewers, Cooper and Wayne looked perfectly natural in the Western prairie, as if they were riding horses all of their lives.

The subtle and sophisticated comedies that Cooper made for Ernst Lubitsch (Design for Living, Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife) displayed another facet of him as an actor, benefiting from the original idea of casting against type.

The screen persona of both Cooper and Wayne is endowed by physical and moral strength, but there are important differences between their heroes. Copper’s Westerners are more laconic– Wayne talked a lot, particularly in the Howard Hawks Westerns. Cooper’s did not talk much and his silences, as the critic Joan Mellen has observed, usually function as meaningful intervals in which he confronted his inner soul.

The quintessential Cooper hero is motivated/torn by an inner conflict: a struggle between his conscience or inner wholeness and his public responsibilities as a sheriff or marshal. In Cooper’s most convincing roles, he undergoes a transformation from a state of domestic privacy, at times renunciation, to social obligations and commitment to action.

For example, in The Virginian, the third (1929) screen version of Owen Wister’s popular book, which established Cooper as a star, his innocent cowboy must choose between the Eastern values of his Pacifist wife and his own conscience, which tells him he must hang his best friend, Steven, for cattle rustling.

Fred Zinnemann’s controversial Western, High Noon (1952), featuring one of Cooper’s best performance for which he won a second Best Actor Oscar, presents a similar situation. Will Kane, an aging marshal, is about to leave town after marrying Amy (Grace Kelly), a pretty Quaker, when he learns that Frank Miller, whom he had sent to prison, has been released and plans to come back to Hadleyville with his gang to get even with him. Burdened with tremendous fear of fighting along, after his plea for help is rejected by every member of the community, Kane must choose between running out of town and saving his neck, as his wife wishes, or face the four villains by himself. True to his nature, Cooper meets the challenge single-handedly, winning in the process his wife’s understanding and ultimately her help.

Cooper’s heroes tend to think and debate with themselves before deciding to act, which makes them more interesting and more human than Wayne’s characters. Cooper, like Wayne, is forceful, but he is more vulnerable, burdened, and less assured.

In William Wyler’s Oscar-nominated Friendly Persuasion (1956), based on Jessamyn West’s stories and Cooper’s most popular film of the 1950s, he is cast as Jess Bidwell, the head of a Quaker family in Southern Indiana at the start of the Civil War. Initially, he is opposed to the use of violence, denying approval of his son’s wish to defend the community. However, holding that, in the final account, every man should be guided by his own conscience, he lends sympathy to his son, especially after the latter is wounded in action.

What makes Cooper’s dilemmas more dramatic is the fact that in both The Virginian and High Noon, he has to make crucial decisions on his wedding day! Thus, whereas Cooper’s Westerners ponder and torture their souls before choosing action, Wayne’s heroes never experience–or at
least never show–such inner turmoil or dilemma. The quintessential Wayne hero is unabashedly committed to action, at all times and at all costs, which is why it’s hard to imagine him philosophizing about his lot, the way Cooper does in his movies.

The heroes that Cooper and Wayne play are determined to see justice done, and there is never doubt as to which side they are on. However, later in his career, Cooper was willing to play more dubious characters: reformed bandits (Man of the West), and even mercenaries (Vera Cruz). More significantly, if the essential Wayne hero is often compared with younger characters, such as children or military recruits, the quintessential Cooper protagonist is often contrasted with his best friend or partner.

In Robert Aldrich’s popular Western Vera Cruz (1954), Cooper and Burt Lancaster play American adventurers in Mexico during the 1866 Revolution. They decide to fight for whichever side pays the best, something that Wayne would never do. However, Cooper is forced to kill his mate when the latter refuses to give the gold back to the Mexican people who Cooper believes rightfully own it.

In Henry Hathaway’s Garden of Evil (1954), ex-sheriff Cooper and gambler Richard Widmark are on their way to California’s goldfields, when a woman (Susan Hayward) asks them to help rescue her husband from a mine trap. Later, Cooper finds out that his partner had cheated him when they drew cards to determine who would stay to cover their escape. In a characteristic manner, he goes back through treacherous Indian territory to straighten out this matter, only to find Widmark dying. Family connections and friendships are never an obstacle to serving justice, as Cooper demonstrates again in Man of the West, killing his own uncle, the head of his former gang.