Back When Decency Was Glamorous

Susan King is a Times staff writer

Few American screen stars have amassed as expansive a gallery of memorable characters as Gary Cooper. From his doomed pilot in “Wings” to the vulnerable and sweet poet Longfellow Deeds in “Mr. Deeds Goes to Town” to his Oscar-winning portrayal of World War I hero Alvin York in “Sergeant York” to his moving performance as baseball legend Lou Gehrig in “The Pride of the Yankees” to his Academy Award-winning turn as the courageous sheriff Will Kane in “High Noon,” 'Coop” was the embodiment of Everyman, adored and admired by female and male moviegoers.

Though he died 40 years ago of cancer--just six days after his 60th birthday--Cooper’s star power remains very much alive. His movies are popular sellers on DVD and video, and are played continually on television. Cooper memorabilia--everything from photos to a copy of his will--goes for top dollar on such Internet auction sites as EBay.

Film critic and historian Richard Schickel believes the public’s love affair with Cooper continues “because I don’t know if there is another actor, maybe in all of movies, who had more good movies to his credit.

“There are maybe 15 or 20 movies of Cooper’s that really continue to be movies that you watch with pleasure. I don’t know anybody other than Cary Grant who had a similarly strong filmography,” Schickel says.

So it’s not surprising that Hollywood is pulling out all the stops to celebrate Cooper’s 100th birthday. On Thursday, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is holding “A Centennial Tribute to Gary Cooper” at the Samuel Goldwyn Theater in Beverly Hills. Hosted by Robert Osborne, columnist for the Hollywood Reporter and on-air host of Turner Classic Movies, the event will feature clips from some of the actor’s best-loved films as well as reminiscences from his daughter Maria Cooper Janis, actresses Frances Dee and Joan Leslie, actors Karl Malden and Robert Stack, producer A.C. Lyles, and Schickel, who also produced the 1991 TNT documentary “Gary Cooper: American Life, American Legend.”


The sold-out evening will also herald the opening of a new exhibition at the Academy Gallery of Cooper memorabilia and photographs.

On Friday, the UCLA Film and Television Archive kicks off its three-week “Gary Cooper: Man of the West” film festival at the campus’ James Bridges Theater. The festival will feature such beloved Coop flicks as “The Pride of the Yankees,” 'High Noon,” 'Ball of Fire,” 'For Whom the Bell Tolls,” 'Friendly Persuasion” and “The Hanging Tree,” as well as newsreels and trailers.

The academy will reprise its Cooper tribute May 31 at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, followed by a film festival at the American Museum of the Moving Image in Queens.

Cooper isn’t the only screen legend celebrating a 100th birthday this year. Clark Gable’s centennial was in February. But his birthday didn’t attract nearly the attention of Cooper’s.

Schickel chalks up the hullabaloo over Cooper’s birthday to the actor’s appealing screen character.

“He didn’t have the kind of rough edges that Gable had--the kind of roughneck air about him. There was something very sweet and very decent about Cooper’s character no matter what he was playing,” Schickel says. “I think that inherent sense that this was a nice guy has made him wear well. People who have a more adverse edge to them wear out their welcome sooner, whether they are alive or dead. Cooper has movies that are played constantly, commented upon, kind of iconic movies of their types.

“There are great westerns, great sophisticated comedies and unsophisticated comedies .... [‘In Pride of the Yankees’] he brought all that was him to that kind of decent, not entirely articulate guy, who rises to that moment of immortal articulation at the end of the movie.”

Tall and lanky, with thick dark hair, blue eyes and a dazzling smile, Cooper was one of the screen’s handsomest actors.

“He really cuts an incredible figure,” says Andrea Alsberg, head of programming for the UCLA Film and Television Archive. But she notes that Cooper never played off his looks.

“I think that is one of the reasons he was so popular,” says Alsberg. “There seem to be no vanity around him at all--with those downward glances and that ‘aw shucks’ personality.”

Joan Leslie was only 15 when she was cast as Cooper’s love interest, Gracie, in 1941’s “Sergeant York.” She was understandably nervous because she was a huge fan of the actor. “I had seen ‘The Plainsman’ 10 times and so many other of his pictures,” she recalls.

But Cooper put Leslie at ease immediately by addressing her as Gracie. “He said to me, ‘Well, howdy-do, Miss Gracie.’ I said, ‘I’m sure pleased to meet you, Alvin.’ We never called each other anything but Gracie and Alvin through the whole production on and off the set.”

Cooper, she says, was a real charmer with “that beautiful smile and those twinkling eyes and the strong, reassuring manner. His charming personality is what got him started, but with all of his experience, he turned into a most gifted actor.”

To Maria Cooper Janis, who wrote the 1999 book “Gary Cooper Off Camera: A Daughter Remembers,” her father had the rare ability to communicate a great deal without speaking. With certain actors, she says, “something happens that is more than the way they look or their measurements or their voice--there is something magical or charismatic about them.”

Born Frank James Cooper in Helena, Mont., on May 7, 1901, Cooper was a gifted visual artist who was educated in England and at Grinnell College in Iowa. He began his acting career in 1924 as an extra in Hollywood westerns. Two years later, he landed the second lead male role in the Henry King western “The Winning of Barbara Worth,” with Ronald Colman. But it was his endearing appearance as a young World War I flier in 1927’s silent film classic “Wings” that made him a star.

Producer Lyles recalls that Adolph Zukor, then president of Paramount Pictures, knew even before “Wings” was released that Cooper was something special.

“He realized that he had a new star on his hands,” Lyles says. “I think Zukor put him in five features that year.”

Cooper had the good fortune of becoming a favorite leading man of several directors, including Frank Capra (‘Mr. Deeds Goes to Town,” 'Meet John Doe”), Ernst Lubitsch (‘Design for Living,” 'Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife,”), Cecil B. DeMille (‘The Plainsman,” 'North West Mounted Police,” 'The Story of Dr. Wassell,” 'The Unconquered”), Howard Hawks (‘Ball of Fire,” 'Sergeant York”), William Wyler (‘The Westerner,” 'Friendly Persuasion”), Sam Wood (‘For Whom the Bell Tolls,” 'Saratoga Trunk,” 'The Pride of the Yankees”) and William Wellman (‘Wings,” 'Beau Geste”).

Besides receiving two Academy Awards, he was also nominated for best actor for “Mr. Deeds,” 'Pride of the Yankees” and “For Whom the Bell Tolls.”

Janis says that her father always wanted his characters to illustrate “the best a man can be--the best human behavior as possible. So I think he chose the roles that exemplified that. But being a hero doesn’t mean you are unflawed. We are all very human.”

But at a crunch moment, Janis says, his characters “behave in ... a noble way [where] you put right and wrong and principals before personal needs or satisfaction or comfort.”

And she says he attempted to carry those principles over in real life, especially when he stood up for “High Noon’s” blacklisted screenwriter Carl Foreman. (Cooper, though, was a friendly witness at the Congressional hearings on Communist influence in Hollywood.)

“He had a lot of pressure to dump Foreman,” Janis notes. “They said he [Cooper] was un-American. He turned on his heels and walked away, but he did not walk away from Carl Foreman.”

“High Noon’s” Will Kane was very much cut from Cooper’s own cloth, echoes Lyles. “In ‘High Noon’ he played an honorable person who was just married. He had every reason in the world to leave that town, but he felt obligated and dedicated to stay behind. That was pretty much his own character. If someone said, ‘Let’s write a story about Gary Cooper and his beliefs,’ it would have been ‘High Noon.”’

Cooper used various methods to prepare for his roles. “With Lou Gehrig, he was not a great baseball player,” Janis says. "[New York Yankee] Bill Dickey came up to Sun Valley to coach him to throw and practice catching. Where there was a physical element, he worked at it.”

And any time he played a historical figure, he would research the person. “I believe he felt if he knew who the person was, he wouldn’t have to think acting,” Janis explains. “He would trust his intuition.”

To be sure, though, Cooper wasn’t a Method actor. “They could be lighting him and he would put his head aside and he would fall asleep,” Lyles recalls. “I never saw anybody who had the ability to just cast off in a way at the drop of a hat and then come to and be completely alert.”

Despite his enormous success, Janis admits that one of the things that always frustrated her father was “that he knew that the public would never let him be a villain. He had to end up being the good guy. I think, sadly, the last film he made, ‘The Naked Edge,’ didn’t work for that very reason. The whole movie hinged on you believing Gary Cooper was the murderer. Well, no way. The public didn’t buy it and rightfully so, you might say.”

It’s difficult for Janis to pick out her favorite film of her father’s. “I think obviously ‘High Noon’ and ‘Pride of the Yankees.’ ‘Friendly Persuasion’ is a film I love. Willy Wyler was a wonderful director, my father loved working with Willy on that. I think ‘Ten North Frederick’ was underappreciated at the time.

“I saw it a few months ago on television. I couldn’t believe how much I didn’t get out of it when I first saw it [in 1958]. There is nothing like being older and wiser.”


‘A CENTENNIAL TRIBUTE TO GARY COOPER,” Samuel Goldwyn Theater, 8949 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills. Date: Thursday at 8 p.m. Admission: $5. The event is sold out, but a standby line will be formed that evening. Phone: (310) 247-3600. Also: The exhibition “Gary Cooper: American Icon” runs Friday through July 8. Gallery hours are 10 a.m.-5 p.m., Tuesday-Friday; 10 a.m.-5 p.m. on weekends.


Screening Schedule

May 5: “Morocco” (1930) ‘Beau Geste” (1939) (Introduced by Robert Rosen, dean of the UCLA School of Theater, Film & Television, and Maria Cooper Janis) May 6: “Wolf Song” (1929) ‘The Virginian” (1929) ‘Lightin’ Wins” (1926)

May 8: “Lilac Time” (1928) ‘The General Died at Dawn” (1936)

May 12: “Desire” (1936) ‘Love in the Afternoon” (1957) ‘What’s My Line” (excerpt, 1959)

May 13: “Mr. Deeds Goes to Town” (1936) ‘Ball of Fire” (1941) ‘Christmas Greetings of 1937"

May 15: “Sergeant York” (1941) ‘The Pride of the Yankees” (1942)

May 19: “High Noon” (1952) ‘The Hanging Tree” (1959) ‘Gary Cooper in the News, 1932-1961" (Introduced by Karen Kramer, widow of “High Noon” producer Stanley Kramer)

May 20: “For Whom the Bell Tolls” (1943)

May 24: “Man of the West” (1958) ‘Friendly Persuasion” (1956) (Introduced by Richard Schickel) “Gary Cooper: Man of the West” takes place at the James Bridges Theater, Melnitz Hall, northeast corner of UCLA’s Westwood campus. Tickets are available at the theater an hour before show time. Admission is $6; $4 for students and UCLA Alumni Assn. members with ID. For information, call (310) 206-FILM, (310) 206-8013 or go to https://www.