Thursday, July 14, 2011

The Virginian (1929)

Laconic screen legend Gary Cooper is in fine form in this stand-out early work.
It occurs to me, watching this film, that the appeal of westerns is much like that of police dramas. Both take as their central themes the conflict between law and order and the forces that threaten it, primal human instincts of greed and self interest. But whereas police dramas have the framework of civilization to sanitize the violence of retribution that drives the actions of the detectives, westerns rely on a more ephemeral idea of right and wrong, as interpreted by a handful of individuals. Their judgments and actions may be arbitrary, but they are no less rigid. Ultimately, there is a line you just don't cross.

In The Virginian, that line is cattle rustling. To our modern sensibilities it seems horrifying when a band of cowboys tracks down a group of cattle thieves and hangs them in the woods. Shouldn't there be a trial, a defense, an opportunity for redemption? More importantly, should not the punishment of their crimes come from an impersonal collective rather than the direct response of the victims? Civilization has taught us that, but in a world without jails and law courts and state-sponsored attorneys justice must be harsh and immediate or it doesn't exist at all. Moreover, is the judge who condemns a man any less responsible for his death than the vigilante who takes him into the woods and hangs him? In both cases the killing is sanctioned by a society that recognizes that an individual's right to life is less important than a community's right to security.

Such is the moral compass that drives The Virginian. Victor Fleming's 1929 film was the third of six screen adaptations (four film, one TV series, and one TV movie) of a landmark 1902 novel by the same title that helped to define the modern western genre. The nameless title character (Gary Cooper) romances Molly, a pretty young schoolteacher from Vermont (Mary Brian) against a background of frontier justice. As the voice of civilization, Molly does not understand the violent behavior of her lover and repeatedly tries to change him. He is not moved. Like Cooper's Marshall Kane in High Noon, the Virginian's love of a woman will not shake the guiding principles of his world view. Allowing thieves to operate either through the inability of the community to apprehend them or through some misguided sense of mercy challenges the very notion of property. In an isolated society disconnected from traditional supply chains and support systems, property is as fundamental as life.

Discussing poetry with the pretty schoolteacher.
In a key scene, the Virginian tries to explain to Molly why he must shoot and kill a local no-good named Trampas (Walter Huston). Trampas is a known cattle thief; he is a liar who let his associates take the fall for crimes which originated with him, and he shot the Virginian in the back earlier in the film. Any one of these would seem to be ample justification for the sort of justice under which this story operates, but he doesn't mention any of these things. No, in this case he is responding purely to Trampas' accusations of cowardice. This one is harder for us to accept, just as it is for Molly. "If anybody happened to say I was a thief," Cooper drawls,  "I couldn't let 'em go on sayin' it. It wouldn't matter what other people thought, but I'd have to know inside of me, that I thought enough of my own honesty to fight for it." In reality, the Virginian has a whole hat-full of reasons to kill Trampas, but purely hypothetically, is it that much of a stretch to say that slander is as much a danger to society as theft? At its essence, slander is theft, theft of a man's good name, his reputation. His integrity.

This sort of moral dilemma gives a psychological richness to the film that makes its otherwise simple story thoroughly engaging. There is a relatively small amount of action in the film. There are no elaborate gun fights or show downs, no attacks by bands of Indians, no cattle stampedes. The story positively smacks of realism, albeit a harsh sort of realism we'd rather not think of as part of our nation's heritage.

Twenty-eight year old Cooper, who got his start in movies as a stunt rider,
is a natural cowboy.
There is a lighter side to the film as well, which is charming and inventive, even funny. The Virginian and his pal Steve (Richard Arlen) decide to play a trick at a community baptism, by mixing up all the babies "so they'll all get christened wrong." The children's parents don't think this is very funny--"Oh, you unchristen this child right now or you won't get another nickel out of me!" one of the fathers threatens the minister. Meanwhile, the two mischievous cowboys laugh at the mayhem from the sidelines. The romance between Molly and the Virginian is sweet and cute, and never heavy-handed, beginning when the Virginian rescues the skittish newcomer to town from a little girl's pet cow, which has her reduced to panic. Later, she makes him give her his opinion of Romeo and Juliet. Needless to say, the hard-nosed Wyoming cattle man does not see Romeo as an ideal of masculinity.

Like most early talkies, The Virginian suffers somewhat in production quality. The sound is muffled and unclear in places, with excessive background noise throughout. With no music integrated into the soundtrack, it comes across as a bit stale, and does not have the polish shown in either the silents of the late 20's or sound films of the mid 30's. These technical difficulties are only a minor hindrance, as the story, direction, and performances are all excellent.

"With a gun against my belly, I always smile."
For whatever reason, Cooper did not think his voice would record well, and believed that the coming of sound would ruin his career. He underwent extensive coaching in the making of this film in order to perfect his Virginia accent, and his vocal performance is absolutely first rate. It is particularly interesting to compare his voice to the description of it given in the novel. In the most well-known (and often imitated) scene in the book, the Virginian draws a gun on Trampas, who has just begun to insult him, the epithet not even out of his mouth: "And with a voice as gentle as ever, the voice that sounded almost like a caress, but drawling a very little more than usual, so that there was almost a space between each word, he issued his orders to the man Trampas: 'When you call me that, SMILE.'" Cooper's soft-spoken drawl is dead on.

Unfortunately, The Virginian is a public domain film, so quality DVD releases are hard to come by. The version I saw was faded and with inadequate contrast throughout. Combined with the sound issues inherent in films of the era, it makes watching The Virginian something of a challenge. Ultimately, though, it is well worth the effort, and ranks among the better westerns I have seen to date.

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