Wednesday, March 16, 2016


Owen Wister's 1902 novel The Virginian is one of the ur-texts of the western genre. It contributed a phrase to the American language -- "When you say that, smile!" usually paraphrased as "Smile when you say that!" and formed the basis for at least four movies and one long-running TV series. I happen to be more familiar with the TV show than the book, which the show of necessity adapts very loosely in order to last for nine years. While the TV Virginian is one of the greatest westerns in that medium, it very quickly ceased to have anything to do with Wister's story. It can be jarring to watch an adaptation that comes closer to the source, though Victor Fleming's 1929 film is twice removed from the novel, being adapted from a more action-oriented 1904 play that Wister co-wrote. The essence of the story remains: the ever-nameless Virginian (that wouldn't be allowed to stand in a modern TV show) feuds with the rustler Trampas (who on TV was never anything but the hero's pal, and often the hero of his own episodes) and is forced to hang his feckless friend Steve (who was written out of the TV show, presumably still alive, after two seasons). The hanging complicates his courtship of Molly Wood, the new schoolteacher from the east (on TV a journalist until she's murdered offscreen in the second season) but everything turns out right after the archetypal showdown in the street with Trampas.

What surprised me about the 1929 Virginian is how much of a coming-of-age story it was. This comes through the most when the film focuses on the title character's friendship with Steve. As the Virginian -- he's never called by that title but is once referred to as "that Virginia boy" -- Gary Cooper is approximately the same age James Drury was when he commenced the role on TV, but compared to Cooper, who shows some early-talkie rawness here, Drury's Virginian seems like a much more mature man. My impression was that this was the film that typed Cooper as a cowboy, but his Virginian isn't the laconic Cooper cowboy ("Yup.") of caricature, and in any event Louella Parsons suggests that Cooper got the part because he was typed already, as a he-man if not a cowboy.

Still, Cooper's Virginian is a flirtatious prankster in the first half of the film, fond of practical jokes like switching a room full of babies awaiting baptism so they'll get the wrong names. For all that, he has an ambition that Steve (Richard Arlen) lacks, perhaps because Steve has a fatalism the Virginian lacks, a feeling that it makes no difference what you do when you end up dead anyway. Like many a modern gangster or gangbanger, Steve drifts into crime because he doesn't really give a damn about anything, not even himself. There's something about him I think audiences would recognize today, while by comparison Trampas (Walter Huston) is a stock villain. The best part of the 1929 film is the sequence leading to Steve's lynching, and this is where Cooper really shows his acting strength. The Virginian is doubly horrified by the necessity of hanging a rustler and his friend's apparent indifference to his feelings or his own imminent death. The scene is softened when someone slips him a note from Steve explaining that he actually couldn't face his friend without "playing the baby," and it closes on a bromantic note when our hero after the hanging hears the call of a quail, which had been his and Steve's private code, as a kind of epitaph for Steve's untamed nature. Corny, but effective.

"Virge," as I call him, is going to take it all out on Trampas, but the bad guy drygulches him first, forcing our hero into a recuperation period under Molly's (Mary Brian) anxious care. The showdown when it comes is a nice climax to some well paced build-up of tension as Virge wanders the streets and Trampas builds up liquid courage. It can't live up to the same scene in the novel, which is the one substantial section of it that I've read, in which Wister gives us a psychologically convincing look into the mind of a man watching the minutes drain away before possible death, from Trampas's point of view. But it's still nicely put together by Fleming, and the film as a whole is pretty fluent for a 1929 all-talking picture mostly shot outdoors. I like it better than the bland 1945 remake with Joel McCrea and Brian Donlevy as hero and villain. On the level of pure story and performance, there are some episodes of the TV series I like better still -- but that's another story.

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