Molly Wood arrives in a small western town to be the new schoolmarm. The Virginian, foreman on a local ranch, and Steve, his best fiend, soon become rivals for her affection. Steve falls in with bad guys led by Trampas, and the Virginian catches him cattle rustling. As foreman, he must give the order to hang his friend. Trampas gets away, but returns in time for the obligatory climactic shootout in the streets. Written by
John Oswalt <email@example.com>
Gary Cooper's first all-talking film. He felt that sound would ruin him, believing his voice wasn't adequate to the task. Yet, it was "The Virginian" that turned him from a promising young leading man into a full-fledged star. See more »
Although the story spans the late 1870's through the early 1880's, Molly refers to her grandfather being killed in the Cherry Valley Massacre. As that took place in 1778, at least 100 years earlier, that seems highly unlikely. See more »
The coming of the talkies is often looked on as a sad time, when silent stars were washed up, stalwart filmmakers tried and failed to fight the change, and movies in general became a little awkward. But for every tragic failure there was a success story, and there were just as many actors and directors who were able to adapt and even thrive in the new medium.
One such star was Gary Cooper. Coop had been around a while, working his way up from bit parts in the silent era, eventually garnering a few lead roles but not making a huge splash. The Virginian was his third sound picture but it was the one to make him a star. The title role allows him to show off the two main facets of his appeal an assertive (but not uncouth) manliness, and a charming shyness around the opposite sex. However it is the quality of his voice that completes the persona, one of the warmest and most trustworthy voices ever recorded. You would happily follow that voice into battle, or let it talk to your kids. Such is Cooper's effortless demeanour and naturalism, you could believe he is an old pro, and he shows none of the stiltedness associated with early talkie performances.
On the other side of the camera we have director Victor Fleming, a man who has been largely ignored by film historians despite his importance, although thankfully that trend is starting to be reversed. Fleming did not compose the most elegant shots or weave in clever bits of symbolism, but his pictures are almost invariably excellent. His overriding principle seems to have been to never let the audience get bored. It's documented that Fleming coached his actors a fair bit, and it appears the main thrust of his coaching was to make them act at a snappy pace. There are few pauses in a Fleming picture, and sound is particularly useful to him, because we can hear the actors spit their dialogue at each other or punctuate the drama with gunshots and slammed-down whiskeys. Whenever a scene threatens to drag, Fleming literally keeps it moving. For example, when Cooper and co. first meet Mary Brian, the train she is on keeps chugging along, keeping some constant movement in the shot. Whenever the actors stand still, he has a horse or an extra trot past in the background.
But Fleming is wise enough to know when to calm things down, and indeed the more sedate scenes have a greater impact after the usual flurry of action. When Cooper and Brian sit together among the trees, the only movement is the wind gently rustling their clothing, giving a quiet tenderness to the moment without quite allowing things to be completely still. The real highlight is the overwhelmingly poignant hanging scene, composed almost entirely of facial close-ups, highlighting the different emotions. The sequence seems eerily drawn out, but again without the drama slowing to a standstill.
The view of the Old West we get in this version of The Virginian is not quite the romantic evocation of freedom tinged with danger that we normally see in the genre. While the picture does display a kind of moral simplicity (notice for example how all the good guys wear white, and the bad guys black, with the occasional moustache just to clarify) it is an incredibly mature and almost bitter portrayal. Fleming, Cooper and the rest of the cast have really brought out the tragic aspects of Owen Wister's novel, the sense of loss and betrayed friendship. But this is far from a melancholy meditation. They have also given punch and excitement to the presentation, something which works equally well for action sequences like the tense final standoff, as it does for dramatic scenes, such as the verbal showdown between Mary Brian and Helen Ware. You will not be bored for one minute. And who says the talkies were static?
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