Coop’s first big role
It is often said that Samuel Goldwyn’s The Winning of Barbara Worth is not a Western, and indeed it is billed as Drama in terms of genre. It has a contemporary setting and is in many ways a star-vehicle romance featuring Ronald Colman and Vilma Bánky. It was particularly noted for the flood scenes in the last reel when the Colorado River bursts a dam and destroys a town.
But I reckon it’s a Western alright. It is set in the West and contains many tropes of the oater, such as corrupt Easterners needing to be combated, outlaws and gunfights, Gary Cooper in a Stetson, and more.
We open with intrepid settlers led by Jefferson Worth (Charles Lane) moving West and in the desert coming across a young woman who has perished in a sandstorm, leaving her baby daughter alone.
Worth adopts the girl, who calls herself Barba, and this toddler grows up to be Barbara Worth aka famed beauty Vilma Bánky. Austro-Hungarian Bánky, who came to be known as ‘The Hungarian Rhapsody’ had starred in European films and was then ‘discovered’ by Goldwyn in Budapest, and signed in 1925. She had been a big hit with Valentino in The Son of the Sheikh three months before Barbara Worth. She and Colman co-starred in five films between 1925 and 1928 (though only two survive).
The Worths settle in Rubio City where Barbara becomes friends with young Abe Lee (Coop), the son of an engineer who has dreams of bringing water from the Colorado to the area and turning the desert into a garden. This was really Cooper’s first big picture. He had been appearing in films since 1923, as a stuntman and extra, and he signed with Goldwyn for $50 a week as an extra, but ended up third-billed behind Colman and Bánky – in many ways he is the hero of the movie – when Monte Blue, who had been given the part, didn’t show. So Coop got lucky. He’s noticeably good in it already, even at that early stage of his career famously underacting and bringing power to the role. He doesn’t get the girl and he dies at the end but it was a great part for him. After it, Goldwyn offered him $65 a week and he held out for $75. While this humming and hahing went on, Jesse Lasky stepped in and offered him $175. Coop went to Paramount.
We meet the appropriately but actually ironically named Greenfield (EJ Ratcliffe), a grasping Eastern banker who sees an opportunity to make a fast buck by financing the waterway, and his adopted engineer son Willard Holmes (Colman). Of course Willard’s eye falls instantly upon the fair Barbara, which puts Abe’s nose out of joint, and a love triangle is the result. Barbara is at first cold to the handsome Willard, for he hates the desert land as a “hell hole” while she and Abe (and the director) love its beauty. Barbara and Abe converse (on the title cards) in Spanish, which Willard does not know, so he is excluded. However, gradually Willard becomes less Eastern and more Western, riding, learning Spanish, and becoming more decent, all symbolized by his abandonment of sharp suits and collars and his adoption of range duds. But who will win the hand of la belle Barbara?
Colman was a top star. He had set out from England, where he was doing well on the stage, for New York, looking for fame and fortune. After two years of not much, he was cast in a Broadway hit, La Tendresse, where director Henry King spotted him and cast him as Lillian Gish’s leading man in The White Sister (1923). His success in that film led to a contract with Goldwyn, and his career as a Hollywood leading man was launched. He became a hugely popular star of silent movies, in romances as well as adventure films. He’s rather good in Barbara Worth, his only Western, quite restrained and with a real presence. He gave Coop advice which the young man took: “Easy does it, old boy.”
Comic relief is provided by Clyde Cook as Tex and Erwin Connelly as Pat, especially when Pat falls for a girl twice as tall as he is.
The present print, on the Warner Archive DVD, and maybe it was so at the time too, is not straight black & white but strongly tinted, a bold yellow for the hot desert scenes, bright blue for nighttime, a garish pink for daybreak, and so on. The changes are too abrupt and the colors too strong for my taste. Certainly, however, there is some fine photography. The picture was directed by Henry King and he used George Barnes and Thomas Brannigan as cameramen, as well as the great Gregg Toland, uncredited. Barnes had started photographing for Thomas Ince and became Goldwyn’s principal cinematographer in the 1920s. He would be nominated eight times for an Oscar, winning for Rebecca. Brannigan was less well known and this film was probably his most notable. Toland, of course, started as an office boy for William Fox, devised a cabin to mask the noise of movie cameras, would earn his first Oscar in 1939 for his photography on William Wyler’s Wuthering Heights and won enormous recognition for Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane in 1941, working also with Hitchcock (Notorious) and John Ford (The Grapes of Wrath). Westernistas will think particularly of The Westerner (again with Coop) in 1940.
It wasn’t an easy shoot, with temperatures reaching 130°F by day and below freezing at night, and sandstorms (one did $10,000 worth of damage) and thunderstorms interrupting filming. The picture was shot in the Black Rock Desert, Nevada and Imperial, California, the actual setting of the original novel, which was by best-selling Harold Bell Wright, these days pretty well forgotten but then enormously popular and said to be the first American writer to sell a million copies of a novel and the first to make $1 million from writing fiction.
The book was adapted by Frances Marion, a top screenwriter of the day, then Mrs Fred Thomson. Goldwyn built a whole town for the shoot, dug wells and even had built a spur of the Western Nevada Railroad. Twelve hundred people spent ten weeks there.
The titles are verbose and faux-poetic, rather tiresome, in fact. I also didn’t like the organ music on the DVD, apparently a 1971 recording of a performance by Gaylord Carter. Certainly in the grander houses of the time the audience would have had a full orchestra but many showings might well have been accompanied by a piano or organ.
Well, Worth and banker Greenfield fall out. Greenfield is only interested in profit and he won’t pay to have the waterway shored up for safety. Worth can’t meet his payday and the workers are mutinous. They are fingering lynch ropes. Worth manages to get alternative financing from another financier (Fred Esmelton) and rivals Lee and Willard have the job of undertaking a 20-hour ride with the money. This is where it gets properly Western because the bad guys get the Rosebud outlaw gang to waylay the riders and steal the cash. There’s a gunfight in Devil’s Canyon, Abe is hit, breaking a leg in a horse fall, and Willard nobly helps him, then sets off, gallantly getting the money through. Of course, now that he’s heroic, and a Westerner, Barbara can’t resist him.
They were right about shoring up that waterway because very heavy rains arrive, the dam won’t hold and there’s a dramatic flood, excitingly photographed – it was the main attraction of the film at the box-office. Greenfield is caught up in it, hoist with his own petard as it were.
There’s a slight cop-out, plot-wise (spoiler alert), when Coop conveniently declares to Barbara, “I realize now that your love for me is a sister’s love for a brother,” thus leaving the way open for Ronald to scoop up the fair Vilma in his arms. We are left with a picture of connubial bliss as Willard and Barbara settle into a posh home and have a little girl (probably named Barba).
Goldwyn had high hopes of the film: “Barbara Worth will be a great epic. It shows and proves what a great menace the desert can be without water, if not properly controlled by dams. In this picture will be shown an entire town swept away because of the faulty dam construction. The menace of the elements is a real life problem of everyday and ten times more impressive to people than the menace of all the villains who ever played in pictures.”
However, critics were lukewarm at the time, though the picture has grown in stature. Film historian Kevin Brownlow, for example, calls the film “extraordinary” and says that the “documentary reconstruction of The Winning of Barbara Worth is of such a high standard that it places the film on another level with the other Western epics, The Covered Wagon and The Iron Horse.”
Well, well, it’s a big-budget picture with strong cast, well directed and photographed, and certainly worth a look, though at bottom it’s really just another love-triangle romance, I suppose. But you can’t turn down a picture with Gary Cooper in it, can you?