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Mr. Movie: Gary Cooper

He wasn’t really an actor in the same sense as Dustin Hoffman or Meryl Streep. He didn’t disappear into roles; he always played himself, much like John Wayne or Sylvester Stallone. 


He was often horribly miscast — see, for example, Love in the Afternoon (1957) or The Fountainhead (1949). In his prime he still belonged to the studio system and so he did what he was told. 


But in the right part, Gary Cooper was splendid. And at his best, he almost seemed to symbolize the American hero. 


It’s hard to pick the best from over 50 movies, but here goes.


There is no better place to start than High Noon (1952). Cooper is the retiring sheriff of a small western town. On his wedding day (and last day on the job), he learns a killer he put away is coming for revenge. Nobody will stand with him or even help him (including Grace Kelly, in a somewhat less than heroic turn). He could run, he could hide — but it is his duty to stay and fight. His steely determination coupled with a winning humanity marks his best role. He deserved, and won, the Oscar.


Lou Gehrig was certainly an American hero. Not just anyone could pull off that “today I think I’m the luckiest man on the face of the earth” speech that a dying Gehrig spoke in Yankee Stadium, but Cooper does it. The baseball parts of Pride of the Yankees (1942) aren’t really that great, but the people part is unmatched as a sports biography. Teresa Wright is quite good as Eleanor Gehrig, and Babe Ruth is pretty good as himself.


Cooper is the father of a Quaker family in Friendly Persuasion (1956), conflicted by his non-violent faith amid the American Civil War. Dorothy McGuire, Marjorie Main and Anthony Perkins ably assist as members of the family, but it is Cooper’s character that epitomizes the dilemma still being faced by many.


For Whom The Bell Tolls (1943) is the best Ernest Hemingway film adaptation and Cooper carries it on his back as an American fighting with a bunch of ragtag Spanish rebels in their civil war. That the combatants include Ingrid Bergman is a lucky break, as her love affair with Cooper has enough chemistry to stock a good-size laboratory.


Some other good Cooper vehicles include Ball of Fire (1941), Mr. Deeds Goes To Town (1936) and Sergeant York (1941) (an Oscar for Cooper).


All of the movies in this column are available, some for free, some not.  All are fine for 10 and up.