An early Coop Western resurfaces
I have always been a huge admirer of Gary Cooper. In fact I think he was the greatest Western actor of them all. So imagine my frustration at not being able to watch one of his Westerns. For years I couldn’t find The Texan. It wasn’t available on DVD or to download. I’d read about it and also seen some reviews, so I knew it was extant (so many early pictures have been lost) but I couldn’t actually watch it.
Finally, though, it popped up on Encore and now Starz are (or should I say is?) showing it. Hallelujah.
The picture was Coop’s third talkie Western as leading man, after Wolf Song and The Virginian (still today the best ever version of that), both in 1929 and both directed by Victor Fleming. He was now one of Paramount’s hottest properties (he was on contract at $175 a week).
Curiously, though, for a star so identified with the genre, The Texan was one of very few Westerns that Cooper did in the 1930s. The same year as The Texan he starred in that year’s version of The Spoilers, directed by Edwin Carewe, another Cooper Western tragically unavailable – the only surviving print is of the 1936 re-release version, with extensive nitrate decomposition. Otherwise, there would only be Fighting Caravans in 1931 and Cecil B DeMille’s The Plainsman in ’36. All through the 30s he’d be doing other stuff like A Farewell to Arms, Lives of a Bengal Lancer, Mr Deeds Goes to Town and so on, great films, sure, but where were the Westerns? Tsk.
The story of The Texan was based on O Henry’s c 1905 yarn A Double-Dyed Deceiver, adapted by Oliver HP Garrett with screenplay by Daniel N Rubin.
The 1930 film was a remake of a now lost Goldwyn Pictures silent movie of 1920, with Henry’s title.
The story itself is a bit of a meller, to be honest, but the adaptation and dialogue of the 1930 one are actually rather good. It tells of a Texan cowboy (Coop) who falls in with a roguish conman, Abner Thacker (Oscar Apfel) who thinks the lanky cowpoke will do to be passed off as the long-lost son of a wealthy widow in a nameless South American country. It works, yet gradually the Texan develops a conscience at hoodwinking the old lady, and finally wants out of the scam. But Thacker isn’t having that…
The same plot was recycled (let’s call it that) in 1950 for the Alan Ladd Western Branded. That was purportedly based on the 1935 Max Brand novel Montana Rides Again. I don’t know if Brand had read O Henry (I bet he did) but in any case the stories are remarkably similar. I must read both one day and see.
Apfel was quite a character. He started back in 1911, directing, and worked a lot with Lasky, Zukor and Cecil B DeMille in the early days of Paramount. He was co-director on DeMille’s The Squaw Man in 1914. His directing career fell on hard times in the 1920s and he reinvented himself as a character actor. In The Texan he goes for a Wallace Beery vibe, giving it plenty.
But the real co-star was Fay Wray. She plays Consuelo, the cousin (though of course we know, not really) of the now-returned son and heir, with whom he, inevitably, falls in love. Three years later Wray was to find fame in the arms of King Kong but in 1930 she was still considered a ‘starlet’.
She’s actually very good in this. She has her suspicions all along but likes the cowpoke anyway and is ready to overlook any doubts. Wray handled it well. Mordaunt Hall in The New York Times wrote, “Miss Wray has never been more captivating than she is as Consuelo, a rôle which is agreeably unobtrusive.” Not sure feminists would care for that ‘agreeably unobtrusive’ much.
Coop is brilliant, managing superbly the change from gauche young cowboy to confident Don, and from pretty lowdown badman to caring ‘son’.
Other cast members were adequate but little more. Emma Dunn played the mother. She was a noted stage actress who also wrote books on diction and elocution. Unfortunately, she couldn’t speak Spanish worth a damn.
James A Marcus plays the pompous and sanctimonious sheriff/blacksmith hunting for the Texan (Coop is really the Llano Kid and shot a man in a card game). Marcus was famous as Mr Bumble in the 1922 silent Oliver Twist but in The Texan he overacts ploddingly in a very 1920s way.
Yakima Canutt was an uncredited cowboy but I didn’t spot him.
There’s a song crooned by Russ Columbo.
The movie was directed by John Cromwell (James Cromwell’s father) noted former actor and director on Broadway. He would later helm big pictures like The Prisoner of Zenda and Anna and the King of Siam. The Texan was, however, the only Western he did, poor soul.
The plot twists quite nicely (of course O Henry specialized in plot-twists) when it turns out that the fellow the Llano Kid shot in that crooked poker game was in fact the real son and heir. Oops. Then the sheriff turns up in the country, to arrest him. Not only that, Thacker hires gunmen to rob the hacienda and kill the Texan. There’s an action climax with mucho shootin’.
All in all I thought the movie was pretty good. And the print quality is excellent. It’s definitely worth a watch. But then I suppose I’d watch anything with Coop in it.
The picture was well received at the time but has been generally been forgotten since (understandably if we couldn’t see it). Cooper’s biographer Jeffrey Meyers doesn’t even mention it and Brian Garfield in his great guide dismisses it in five lines: “The Llano Kid (Cooper) poses as a rich widow’s son but then reforms on account of love. Wheezy plot was worn-out even then but the young Cooper is dashing and sincere.” But back in the day Variety said that “few westerns are as well made and rate as high in every particular, including entertainment value as The Texan.” The review was actually quite glowing. Motion Picture News talked of “plenty of action and good photography” (actually, that’s not strictly true; there’s action in the first and last reel but the rest is pretty static and talky). The New York Times liked Coop’s performance: “The lean, lanky Mr. Cooper elicits a great deal of sympathy as the double-dyed deceiver”. Screenplay liked him too: “This big boy is becoming a real actor.”
Later, Walter Albert in a longer review says:
Another film from the vaults that has probably not been seen since its initial release. Gary Cooper plays the Llano Kid, an outlaw with a price on his head, who falls in with a crooked lawyer who persuades him to join him in a scam to rob a South American widow by persuading her that the Kid is her long-lost son, returning to his mother after years of wandering.
The plan goes well until the Kid develops a conscience and wants to back out of the agreement. Emma Dunn plays the mother, Senora Ibarra, with Fay Wray her niece, with whom the Kid, predictably, falls in love. There’s a nice O. Henry twist to resolve the story (no, the Kid does not turn out to be the son) and it’s a good-looking production that lets the characters and their relationships build slowly before the action-packed climax.
One reason for the movie being of some note, however, is that it was while being made up for it that Coop was painted by Norman Rockwell.
Paramount remade it in 1939 as The Llano Kid with Tito Guizar in the lead. But there’s another one I can’t find. Amazon informs me that it is on DVD but is “Currently unavailable. We don’t know when or if this item will be back in stock.” Sigh. It won’t be anything as good as the Coop one but still, I’d like to see it.