Coop’s first sound Western – though not really
Wolf Song, released in March 1929, dates from the period of transition between silent and talkie movies, and it used the Western Electric Sound System for singing sequences, the musical score and sound effects but was still largely a silent film with ‘dialogue’ on title cards. It was a 93-minute 8-reeler, though sadly only 65 minutes of the footage remain today, and that wholly silent. Studios were making huge strides in the technology and only eight months later Paramount would release a version of The Virginian, starring, as Wolf Song had done, Gary Cooper, and that would be a full talkie (and a great picture).
As it is, Wolf Song is an interesting film, what there is of it, and you can view it free on the Internet Archive.
Gary Cooper had been appearing in films since 1923, as a stuntman and extra, and he had got a good part third-billed in The Winning of Barbara Worth, directed by Henry King, in 1926 (a film we’ll soon be reviewing). In 1927 Paramount had him lead the cast in three Westerns, Arizona Bound (April), The Last Outlaw (July) and Nevada (August). 1928 turned him into a big star, and he did seven (non-Western) pictures which were favorably reviewed and sold well. So by 1929 he was the talk of the town, enough to get top billing in Wolf Song over glam Lupe Velez. Nevertheless, Coop was paid $2,750 to Ms Velez’s $14,000.
One of Lupe’s more famous pictures was Mexican Spitfire and that was apparently aptly named. Still only twenty-one at the time of Wolf Song, she had beauty, glamour and electricity. She loved boxing matches, collecting perfumes and stock car racing, and she had limited English but a quick wit. She once shocked William Wyler by showing him a breast which Coop had drawn a face on with lipstick. Already a star, she’d topped the billing for DW Griffith in the rather sensational Lady of the Pavements early in 1929. Cooper fell for her hook, line and sinker, and it became one of the most celebrated affairs in Hollywood. They didn’t wed – she would eventually have a stormy marriage with Johnny Weismuller and die young in suspicious circumstances in 1944, perhaps at her own hand, when she claimed she was pregnant by another actor.
She plays the upper class Lola Salazar, in 1840 Taos, whose dumpy duenna (Ann Brody) is unable to prevent her falling, despite her stern father Don Solomon (Michael Vavitch)’s severe disapproval, for the young, handsome and womanizing Sam Lash (Coop), a common trapper and mountain man. The couple elopes.
We’ve already seen in flashback how Sam, fleeing another father cradling a shotgun back in Kentucky, met up with two larger-than-life mountain men in a St Louis saloon, and managed to get off with the girl the two were fighting over.
These mountain men, who like “strong likker and weak wimmen”, were the classic colorful character parts that would have suited Ernest Torrence and Tully Marshall, who had done so well in Paramount’s The Covered Wagon in 1923, but instead the roles went to Louis Wolheim as Gullion (Motion Picture News described him as “giving the best performance of the entire cast”) and Constantine Romanoff as Rube. Wolheim had got his face crushed playing football and Lionel Barrymore saw the potential for parts like this, telling him, “With that face you could make a fortune in the theater.” He would be outstanding in the 1930 All Quiet on the Western Front. Romanoff wasn’t of Russian royal descent but actually German-born Friedrich William Heinrich August Meyer, and he’d been Aeneas in Korda’s The Private Life of Helen of Troy in 1927. Together Wolheim and Romanoff do a good job, overacting, I suppose, but no more so than was typical then, as the boisterous mentors of the young Sam.
Of course the lovers find a preacher and marry, at Fort Bent. You couldn’t have them living in sin. The proprieties must be observed.
The picture was directed, as The Virginian would be, by Victor Fleming, who had taken over as lover of Clara Bow, Coop’s previous amour, and had also had a fling with Lupe, so that was a bit awkward. Fleming was a former race-car driver who had been a cameraman on many Douglas Fairbanks pictures, directing himself from 1919. He’d helmed early-20s Westerns such as Law of the Lawless, To the Last Man and The Call of the Canyon.
As Gullion and Rube predict, the call of the wild, symbolized by the wolf song (presumably heard on the soundtrack), is too strong for young Sam and he deserts his love to go off trapping, but finally returns, wounded, after being attacked by fearsome Indians led by the appropriately-named Black Wolf (George Regas), though these action scenes sadly have not survived into the extant version. Nor has the part where he finds his wife gone, taken back home with her father, and when he goes back to Taos to claim her, Don Solomon threatens to shoot him. In the end, though, forgiveness prevails.
Lupe had a song and Coop too sang in the sound version, My Honey, Fare Thee Well, though his voice was dubbed by Russ Columbo, who also had a part in the film. Fleming received some ridicule from reviewers for a Coop/Lupe kiss that went on too long. He also rather daringly showed a naked Cooper bathing in a river (discreetly done, of course), a standard of cleanliness offensive to the unwashed Gullion and Rube. As we discussed in our riveting article on baths, Westerns often felt free (or obliged) to show the hero taking a bath.
The reviews were negative. The motion picture trade journal Harrison’s Reports said, “It is doubtful if Wolf Song will make a hit, for several reasons. The first reason is this: because of the fact that talking pictures are uppermost in the minds of the people just now, almost everyone who will go to see it will expect to see the characters talk … and they will be disappointed when they see only a silent picture synchronized with music. The second reason is the fact that the hero loses sympathy with the audience because he decides to desert his wife.”
Motion Picture News opined that “it isn’t a picture that [audiences] will go out raving about, and it is certainly far from being $2 material for a Broadway house.” The reviewer added that the film “should be about 80% of what a good talker should pull. Lupe and Gary Cooper may get the younger flapper element and they will like the love stuff.”
Mordaunt Hall in the New York Times said “There is, as a matter of fact, little real suspense throughout this tale of the Southwest in the Spanish forties.” Hall added, “The story, like the actions of the players, is extremely sluggish.” He also wrote, “The singing is quite good, but the whole idea of it is about as human as the action in a musical comedy. When Lola begins to sing everything must stop until she finishes. Her “Yo te amo,” which means in English “I Love You,” is all very well, but it does not help to make the story particularly stirring.”
Lastly, Variety at the time called it “a sluggish western of undistinguished caliber” and said that “those 93 minutes could stand some paring by at fully 20”, adding “picture cried for real punch which never happened.”
Despite all this, Coop and Lupe, by then Hollywood’s glitziest couple, made personal appearances in various cities for the screening, and that helped box-office. The picture ended up doing well. Coop told a journalist, “The Depression hit pretty hard and people needed romance. Seeing us in love on the screen and then in person was proof that movies are not all make-believe.”
To be brutally frank, seen now, especially in the rather jerky silent footage that remains, Wolf Song isn’t terribly good. But it is interesting as a late-20s Western and an example of early Cooper. Worth at least one watch!
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