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The Cowboy and the Lady (1938)

Prior to becoming a star in his own right, Gary Cooper, had appeared in one silent production brought to the screen by Samuel Goldwyn. 1926’s The Winning of Barbara Worth where Coop played support to matinee idol, Ronald Colman. Once elevated to star status, Coop, was employed by Goldwyn in a pair of misfires. A rather dull The Wedding Night (1935) and being miscast in The Adventures of Marco Polo (1938) that I’ll admit to enjoying but it cried out for Errol Flynn. Especially considering Basil Rathbone was the villain.

I guess the third times the charm. For his third outing as a star player for Sam’s company someone got it right by casting our legendary leading man as a cowboy. Seems so obvious doesn’t it. Now add a dash of Mr. Deeds into the script where Coop is playing a modern day rodeo rider on the circuit with pals, Walter Brennan and Fuzzy Knight and we have the makings of a sure fire success. Bringing the beautiful Merle Oberon into the story as an heiress hiding her identity from Coop and falling for him adds that crucial screwball element which brings out the laughs and romance.

Oberon is the bored daughter of the wealthy Henry Kolker who is looking to make a move into politics. Under the circumstances, Kolker, is demanding that his daughter not cause any public embarrassment pending his nomination to the state senate. From the outset that could be a problem when she’s thought to have been in an illegal gambling establishment during a raid. She freely admits to Kolker that she was there much to the delight of her devil may care Uncle played by Harry Davenport. Kolker goes into damage control and flies her out of town to the summer house in Palm Beach.

It’s while in Palm Beach that Oberon will pal around with the hired help, Patsy Kelly and Mable Todd. The pair take her down to the traveling rodeo show where they have dates set up with a trio of riders. It’s a blind date that at first doesn’t sit well with our leading lady, She’s been paired with grinning Walter Brennan (thankfully with teeth) but fortunately Kelly is willing to switch cowpokes. And there you have it. It’s Merle and Gary. Coop’s the classic fish out of water when they all go back to Oberon’s estate. While he’s lost in the high tech world of kitchen gadgets she’s keeping her identity hidden and pretends to be just a working gal.

Leads to a great exchange that got by the sensors…. Merle, “I’m just a working girl.” …. Coop, “Well you are and you aren’t.” …. Pretty sure I get his meaning on that one. Yup.

Coop wants nothing better than to settle down in Montana and run a ranch with a special gal and a posse of children. Oberon’s in love though we’ll have a couple hurdles to get over before the pair are married. And marry they do but she’s still holding out on her real background as an heiress and a wealthy one at that. She’ll beg off from Coop to quietly return home and confide in Uncle Davenport but when daddy Kolker gets the news he wants an annulment.

While she’s contending with dear old Dad, Coop is having a ranch house built in Montana. Strangely enough the real life Gary Cooper was indeed born in the state of Montana and was essentially a cowboy at heart. That ranch house leads to an amusing scene where Coop gets caught playing “house” by his fellow cowboys and invites Walter and company in for a cup of imaginary coffee as if they were all little girls having a tea party.

Still to come is the truth being revealed of Oberon’s true identity and Coop delivering a Deed’s like speech to his father-in-law and the politicians at a swank dinner party. Could there be a happy ending in store for the young couple and all us viewers voting for true love to conquer all?

I’m not giving up the answer but you should know on whom to place your bet.

While H.C. Potter directed the film, the original story is credited to Leo McCarey who was already a noted director himself having won the directing Oscar for 1937’s The Awful Truth and would claim a second statuette for 1944’s classic Crosby effort, Going My Way. With Oscar winner Gregg Toland serving as the director of photography, the film and Miss Oberon look splendid. With a star of her stature we should expect multiple costume changes on our leading lady and we get just that.

For the balance of the Cooper-Goldwyn association, the producer wisely kept Coop in roles that worked. The action packed war film, The Real Glory, another cowboy in The Westerner, a comedy classic in Ball of Fire and lastly one of Coop’s finest films over the course of his entire career, The Pride of the Yankees, as the doomed Lou Gehrig. Famed character actor, Walter Brennan, would become a familiar face in Coop films. The pair would be featured together in Goldwyn’s Wedding Night, Westerner, Pride of the Yankees as well as  Meet John Doe and Sergeant York.

Merle Oberon who was about to marry producer Alexander Korda would follow up this comedy with the acclaimed 1939 production of Wuthering Heights opposite Laurence Olivier. For a friendly bit of trivia, the 1987 made for TV mini-series, Queenie, was loosely based on Miss Oberon with Mia Sara starring in the title role opposite screen icon Kirk Douglas.

The Cowboy and the Lady is an entertaining entry in the career of Gary Cooper and if you look hard enough you can locate a copy of the film in a box set of Cooper titles released a number of years ago to home video on DVD from MGM.

5 Comments »

  1. I love this film! On paper it sounds like this film would never work, but it does. Even the pairing of Cooper and Oberon sounds off, but on screen they sizzle! It’s certainly a whole lot of fun and there’s some really beautiful camera work by Toland. I’m glad you are shedding light on it as it really does need more attention! I can’t wait to review it myself.

  2. This one sounds like a lot of fun, even though I’ve never really pictured Merle Oberon in a comedy. And I know this may sound odd and off-topic, but I really like the look of the artwork on that Screenland magazine cover!

  3. Merle Oberon was a great beauty, with a beautiful speaking voice, and few men could compare in looks to the young Gary Cooper.

    Miss Oberon was a fine dramatic actress – but also a gifted comedienne. I can recommend three of her other comedies, more entertaining I think, than this one: ‘The Divorce Of Lady X’ (1938), ‘Over The Moon’ (1939), and: ‘That Uncertain Feeling’ (1941).

    Coop was also clever in comedy, e.g. : ‘ Desire’ (1936), with Marlene Dietrich at her best. He also makes a splendid job of his role as a naval officer, in love with Tallulah Bankhead, in: ‘Devil And The Deep’ (1932), an excellent melodrama. Charles Laughton plays Tallulah’s literally insanely jealous husband (what a couple, Laughton and Tallulah!). One regrets his being relegated to westerns.

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