Gary Cooper: The Holy Fool

with Jean Arthur in “Deeds”, of course

Some thoughts today on Gary Cooper (1901-1961).

Over a half century after his death, Cooper remains one of the greatest movie stars of all time. Modern stars struggle mightily to fill those big shoes; thus far, no one has. The challenge is that a big star must be both iconic and multi-faceted, and those are two contradictory qualities.

Born in Montana when it was still the wild west (or very nearly) he was very much associated with the western genre, but unlike John Wayne or Randolph Scott, not entirely. Like Cary Grant, he was as handsome as a God. During his silent and early talkie years I would venture to say he was much better looking even than Grant, and that is an astounding thing to contemplate. A human being so close to an aesthetic ideal that all that Hollywood hyperbole actually seems to apply. He seemed descended from Olympus.


Quite young, however, by the mid 30s, his face developed “character”. Those eyes, framed by those pretty, womanly lashes, acquire crow’s feet and bags. This gives the formerly perfect specimen a new vulnerability, and this (just as it had with female stars like Bette Davis and Joan Crawford) becomes an asset, at least when Cooper is in the hands of a good director.

The most ingenious use of this quality was in the service of comedy. The mark of the best actors or stars, I think, is if they can handle comedy as well as any comedian. The very best of them could. When we think of Jimmy Stewart, for example, his comic roles spring immediately to mind, though he had done many dramatic ones. Even Henry Fonda, whom we seldom think of as comic, was extremely funny in The Lady Eve. What’s amazing to me about Gary Cooper is that, despite his VERY limited range, and despite his rather wooden, understated style, comedy became such an important part of his image, of his brand. Unlike so many others, he was really good at it. He (and his handlers) were smart enough to make an asset out of his limitations, to do what was in affect a bit of self-parody, and poke fun at his aw-shucks, Gary Cooperness. And they managed to walk that line without ever tarnishing his image. They went just so far and no further.

The pioneering work seems to have been done by Frank Capra. As he had done earlier with Harry Langdon, the heavily Catholic Capra understood the cinematic power of the Holy Fool, the dope as martyr. Someone who is so honest that people take advantage of him, raising the audience’s hackles. Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936) seems the true formation of this persona for Cooper. “Deeds”: there’s a major Catholic concept. Do good ones! (Interestingly, Cooper eventually converted to Catholicism, shortly before he died).

Cooper went on to several more roles in the Holy Fool vein, in which he played innocent naifs and bumpkins, all-American idealists and dreamers, full of strength of character, so that he can prove them all wrong in the end. The etymological origin of the word “clown”, by the way, carried with it an intimation of being a country rube. Cooper’s comic characters are these sort of pure creatures, unsullied by trickery or cynicism. Other major uses of Cooper along these lines included The Cowboy and the Lady (1938), Meet John Doe (1941), Ball of Fire (1941) and Along Came Jones (1945). Though it’s less of a comedy, I also associate The Westerner (1940), with this thread of Cooper’s work.

The “martyrdom” theme increasingly began to invade his non-comic roles as he grew older. The man who put his foot down and contends that he’s right and everyone else is wrong, and suffers mightily for it, but will not budge. Some of these include The Fountainhead (1949), High Noon (1952), The Courtmartial of Billy Mitchell (1955) and The Wreck of the Mary Deare (1959)

The latter movie was an occasion on which he might have worked with Hitchcock, who was initially supposed to direct it. Hitchcock finally made North by Northwest instead. He had wanted Cooper for the Cary Grant role, but Cooper turned it down because he was uncomfortable with the sexuality. He was protective of his image, but he was also committed to promoting what he saw as virtue.

At any rate, if you have not yet seen Along Came Jones, a perfect melding of Cooper’s western and comic personae, I highly recommend it.

For more on comedy film history please check out my book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube

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