Virginian, The (1929)

Gary Cooper’s first talking picture was "The Virginian," directed by Victor Fleming.   It was the third film version of Owen Wister’s 1902 popular novel.  The first adaptation was in 1921 with Dustin Farnum, and the second in 1923 with Kenneth Harlan.  In 1946, there was a fourth version with Joel McCrea in the lead, and in 1962, the story became a TV weekly series with James Drury.


Cooper plays a foreman of the Box H ranch near Wyoming's Medicine Bow, who gives his old buddy Steve (Richard Arlen) a job.  Soon after, they meet and fall in love with Molly Wood (Mary Brian), the newly arrived schoolteacher from Vermont. 


In the local saloon, the Virginian meets Trampas (Walter Huston, father of director John) and they quarrel over a dancing girl.  Meanwhile, Steve and the Virginian attend a christening and both dance with Molly.  As fun-loving boys play practical jokes on each other, but Molly finds Steve out and lets the Virginian take her home.


When the Virginian catches Steve putting Trampas' brand on Box H stock, he warns him, believing his friend has gone straight–until a posse of ranchers seizes Steve and two other rustlers.  The Virginian is forced to superintend the hanging of the three men, but he knows that Trampas, who escaped, is to blame, swearing to get him.


When Molly learns that the Virginian participated in Steve's hanging, she spurns him.  However, when he is wounded by Trampas, she nurses him back to health.  Later, on their wedding day, Trampas comes into town and orders the Virginian out by showdown, which ends with Trampas' death.


The actor Randolph Scott, a native of Virginia who made several Westerns himself, worked with Gary Cooper as a coach for the proper accent required of the Virginian.


Hollywood did not follow Wister's book to the letter.  Each version introduced alterations from the original, and the changes reflected that change in the Western mythology and our attitude toward it.  The first version emphasized the sexual-cultural clash.  The Virginian is shown to be wild, romantic, primitive; he's free and in harmony with his environment.  What is consistent in all screen versions is the juxtaposition of East versus West. Wister tested the code of the western hero by placing it in opposition to the code of Eastern civilization, usually represented by women (here the schoolmarm Molly Wood)


For the feminist scholar Joan Mellen, "The Virginian" outlined a new, unrelentingly male personality.  Cooper plays an innocent singing cowboy who enjoys the camaraderie of his best friend.  He is a man of action, not words–  “Would book learning do a cowpoke any good” He is tough with men, but behaves like as gentleman with women.


The role of Molly (and women in the West) is to tame and educate the Virginian. To that extent, she gives him Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet" to read.  What he likes about Romeo, he says, is that he has the courage to kill his enemies. According to his common sense, Romeo wasted time causing them both to die. Moreover, "real men" do not show feelings, because feelings get in the way of action, of what the hero must do.  The Virginian hangs his best friend, Steve, for cattle rustling, but his loyalty to his dead friend leads to revenge, inspiring him to do what a man must, just as killing his buddy fulfills the same imperative.


"The Virginian" poses the kind of moral conflict that Gary Cooper would confront in future films, such as his 1952 Oscar-winning Western "High Noon."   Torn between his conscience, which tells him he what to do, and his new wife, who tells him he must not do it, he opts for the former, because he knows that won't be able to live with himself if he doesn’t.


"The Virginian" was a commercial success, and Paramount reissued the film nationally in 1935 by popular demand.




Gary Cooper (The Virginian)

Walter Huston (Trampas)

Richard Arlen (Steve)

Mary Brian (Molly Wood)

Chester Conklin (Uncle Hughey)

Eugene Pallette (Honey Wiggin)

E.H. Calvert (Judge Henry)

Helen Ware (Ma Taylor)

Victor Potel (Nebraskey)

Tex Young (Shorty)

Charles Stevens (Pedro)

Jack Pennick (Slim)

George Chandler (Ranch hand)

Willie Fund (Hong, the cook)

George Morrell (Reverend Dr. McBride)

Ernie S. Adams (Saloon singer)

Ethan Laidlaw (Posseman)

Ed Brady (Greasy)

Bob Kortman (Henchman)

James Mason (Jim)

Fred Burns (Ranch Hand)

Nena Quartero (Girl in Bar)




Paramount Picture

Director: Victor Fleming.

Producer: Louis D. Lighton.

Screenplay: Howard Estabrook, based on the novel by Owen Wister and play by Kirk LaShelle.

Photographers: J. Roy Hunt, Edward Cronjager.

Editor: William Shea.

Sound Recorder: M.M. Paggie.

Assistant Director: Henry Hathaway.

Titler: Joseph L. Mankiewicz.