If you wanna call me that, smile!
The Virginian in its 1929 incarnation was a milestone in the history of the Western for many reasons. The famous novel by Owen Wister, the first really successful Western story, had sold an astonishing 1.6 million copies by 1929.
It was the Western. A young Cecil B DeMille directed a silent movie version of the book, with Dustin Farnum in the title role, as early as 1914, only 12 years after the book came out. In 1923 it was remade, and the new Tom Forman-directed picture starred Kenneth Harlan (and Russell Simpson as Trampas!). This talkie Paramount treatment was therefore already the third filming, still only 27 years after the novel’s publication. (There was yet another remake in 1946, starring Joel McCrea, and then of course the almost entirely unrelated 1960s TV series, which took some of the characters’ names but otherwise had little or nothing to do with the novel.)
The 1929 film was a first in many ways. It was the first major talkie ever shot outdoors and the first seriously famous Western on a worldwide level. Gary Cooper was already quite well known but this made him a major star. And The Virginian became in a way the definitive Western movie: it established the famous Western code of honor, it treated the basic themes of good and evil and the struggle for law and order on the frontier, and it established that a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do. The final walk-down shoot-out was prototypical. The heroine is a virginal schoolma’am. The rustlers drink whiskey and play cards. The rough justice, the cattle drive, it’s all there.
One of the great Western movies
Certain lines have passed into legend, notably when Trampas calls the Virginian “You long-legged son of a –“ and Coop draws a pistol on him, slightly adapting Wister’s famous line and saying between clenched teeth, “If you wanna call me that, smile!”
Sadly, it’s quite hard to get. As far as I know it’s not on DVD. Mine is a very old VHS. They need to re-issue it!
It was directed by Victor Fleming who had been a cinematographer on The Half-Breed in 1916 and had directed four silent Westerns. Henry Hathaway was assistant director. It was shot in only 24 days for a budget of $415,000, quite big money for those days but still peanuts by later standards. Coop got $3,400.
At the time Coop had been miscast in various glitzy jazz-era comedies in which he felt uncomfortable and he was thrilled to be doing The Virginian where he could work outdoors, wear comfortable clothes and ride. He used to say that it was his favorite film.
Co-stars were Richard Arlen as Steve, Mary Brian as Molly Stark Wood and Walter Huston, in his first of eight Westerns, as the villain Trampas. Huston got to say the famous line, “This town ain’t big enough for the both of us.”
Coop too good to risk being upstaged by the villain...
Arlen said, “There was some concern … that Walter Huston might steal the picture, but, as usual, Coop underplayed. He never tried to shout, snarl or rush. He didn’t have to.”
Thin, tall and with that loose-limbed stride, Cooper speaks, almost drawls, slowly when he speaks at all. He got voice coaching from a real Virginian, Randolph Scott. He is shy yet self-assured. It must be said that Huston did a great job alongside him. He gives the Virginian “till sundown to get out of town.” These phrases sound very clichéd and corny now, don’t they, but they work in this film which is still a good watch today more than 80 years on. As Molly begs him not to go and the townspeople flee, High Noon is prefigured. He walks rangily down the wooden sidewalk…
Prefiguring High Noon
In his biography of Gary Cooper Gary Cooper, American hero (Robert Hale, London, 2001), Jeffrey Myers writes, “The romantic image of the cowboy as the embodiment of male freedom, courage and honor was created by men who had lived a rugged life in the West: in words by Teddy Roosevelt and Owen Wister, in art by Frederic Remington and Charles Russell, and in film, preeminently, by Gary Cooper.” Coop is truly magnificent in The Virginian – in fact he is the making of it. No other actor, in all those versions, came even close to his Virginian.
Of course in a 91-minute talkie, only a selection of the novel’s episodes can be included but Victor Fleming and his many writers (Kirk La Shelle, Grover Jones, Keene Thompson and Howard Estabrook) did a good job. They highlight the rustling and lynching, of course, and the love story with Molly, and they include the baby-swapping incident for light relief, as well as the famous saloon scene with, “If you wanna call me that, smile!”
Take your dirty hands off her!
The New York Times review of the time makes quite amusing reading now. Mordaunt Hall (what a name!) wrote,
Paramount-Famous-Lasky have produced a noteworthy talking film, in which the voices are nicely modulated and the acting pleasingly restrained. The story is cleverly developed by the director, Victor Fleming, who deserves great credit for the production and especially for the effective but at the same time gentle humor that pops up periodically. It is also a capitally timed picture, with characters going here and there with natural movements.
There is good suspense when the Virginian gets the drop on Trampas and in the latter stages of this film the glimpses of Trampas looking for the Virginian recall the doings of Wild Bill Hicock [sic], Bret Harte's men and even Buffalo Bill's thrilling encounters. It is a picture with a fine conception of the necessary atmosphere and one in which Mr. Fleming has happily refused to introduce extraneous incidents.
Hall approves of the acting:
Aside from the intelligent acting of Mr. Huston and Mr. Cooper, Richard Arlen gives an agreeable portrayal of Steve. Mary Brian does her share to help the picture along, but she might have been more persuasive with less rouge on her lips.
And in 1929 the critic was still marveling at the talking picture:
The sounds, whether footfalls, horses' hoofs, rumbling wheels or voices, are really remarkably recorded and reproduced. A good deal of this film was made in the open and it would seem that stories of Western life, if pictured in a rational fashion, would be unusually successful, for they are aided immeasurably by the audibility of the screen.
The 1929 Virginian is one of the great examples of the Western genre and very much worth the effort of getting hold of a copy if you possibly can.