- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 20, 2009

The first sounds heard in the 1929 movie version of “The Virginian,” over the Paramount logo, derive from a cattle herd. The first human sounds that emerge from the setting of this early talking picture derive from cast members playing cowboys driving the herd, notably snatches of song entrusted to the title character.

The young foreman of a Wyoming ranch, the Box H, he is known only as the Virginian, introduced in the saddle and portrayed by Gary Cooper, at 28 still very much a stellar work in progress. The popularity of this remake, adeptly reinforced by an ensemble that included Richard Arlen, Walter Huston, Mary Brian, Eugene Pallette, Chester Conklin, Helen Ware and George Chandler, gave Mr. Cooper’s career a significant boost.

The director, Victor Fleming, seemed to have responsibility for nurturing that career at the end of the 1920s. He and the leading man had collaborated a year earlier on a partial talkie, “Wolf Song.” Sound technology was still so new that “The Virginian,” which had been filmed twice before in the silent period, was released in both talking and silent versions when it appeared in the fall of 1929. Mr. Fleming’s recent biographer, Baltimore Sun movie critic Michael Sragow, speculates that Gary Cooper, among other distinctions, might have been the screen’s first singing cowboy on the strength of his serenade in the opening scene of “The Virginian.” It’s possible that the same piece of footage makes him the first actor to address moving stock with the line, “Git along there, little doggie.”

As it approaches an 80th anniversary, coinciding with the first systematic year of conversion from silent to talking motion pictures, “The Virginian” remains one of the vintage Hollywood classics that has yet to be transposed to DVD. I’m not sure if the surviving negative and print material is a stumbling block, although the pictorial quality in the VHS edition is uneven enough to suggest that a major video restoration might be helpful — and a boon to several branches of film history. Wonders seem to have been done with the DVD edition of Raoul Walsh’s “The Big Trail.” It would be gratifying to possess a comparable replica of “The Virginian.”

Based on perhaps the most influential Western novel ever written, the Fleming version resonates more impressively than earlier and later adaptations of Owen Wister’s 1902 prototype, largely because the career achievements of Gary Cooper, Walter Huston and Victor Fleming still cast long and endearing shadows. There’s also ample testimony that the production, which used locations in the Sierra Nevadas to double for frontier Wyoming in the 1870s, was exceptionally troublesome and demanding for director and cast, who were expected to adapt to the new sound technology. The director was willing to force a showdown to defend his prerogatives against the newly contrived dictates of sound technicians on a power trip. His judgment was allowed to prevail in disputes over whether what was seen took precedence over what was heard.

In retrospect, you’re surprised at how much dialogue the young Cooper was obliged to finesse. The echoes of a certain struggle remain in many readings. It would be several years before his sheer presence was considered so quietly eloquent and reassuring that words might be more intrusive than explanatory. But in this context, the awkwardness is often reconciled with some of the conflicts and compromises faced by his character and by one’s sense that the expressive drives of the entire company are sometimes at the mercy of an untried and even unforgiving way of shooting scenes.

Despite the obstacles, “The Virginian” remains an exceptionally disarming and stirring movie. The disarming elements include an abundance of social comedy and interplay in the early stages, which revolve around a fleeting romantic rivalry between the Virginian and his saddle pal Steve (Richard Arlen). Both are attracted to Mary Brian’s Molly, the Eastern schoolmarm who has arrived to teach the children of Medicine Bow. The prevailing tone is so sociable that the grave episodes tend to sneak up on you, even when clearly foreshadowed, starting with the famous saloon run-in between Gary Cooper and Walter Huston, a peerless diabolical choice as the depraved, contemptuous gambler-rustler Trampas.

The latter’s insult prompts the Virginian’s reminder, at gunpoint, “When you call me that, smile.” Rarely at a loss for words, Trampas grins grotesquely and replies, “With a gun against my belly, I always smile.” Mr. Huston was presumably the first film actor fortunate enough to speak Trampas’ climactic threats for a soundtrack: “This country ain’t big enough for the two of us; I’m givin’ you till sundown to clear out.” It’s interesting to recall that this ultimatum originated with a terminally lawless character.

Victor Fleming’s version of “The Virginian” runs only 90 minutes, but this duration is sufficient to persuade you that so much civilization has infiltrated Medicine Bow that the enmity and nihilism of a Trampas are intolerable and indefensible. If not the Virginian then some agent of law and order will need to stop him cold. Having witnessed the corruption of his friend Steve and survived one murder attempt by Trampas, the hero is emphatically well qualified to remove this personal and social threat.

The Virginian heads for a showdown uncertain whether his sense of honor and duty has estranged Molly, the fiancee who has yet to accept the necessity of occasional violence and peremptory justice in her new surroundings. The movie fades with her assurance that the hero retains her love. Nothing has occurred over the last century to diminish the nobility of his resolve or her devotion.

TITLE: “The Virginian”

RATING: No MPAA Rating (released by Paramount in 1929, decades before the advent of the film rating system; fleeting violent episodes)

CREDITS: Directed by Victor Fleming. Produced by Louis D. Lighton. Screenplay by Howard Estabrook and Edward E. Paramore, based on the novel and play by Owen Wister. Cinematography by J. Roy Hunt and (uncredited) Edward Cronjager. Assistant director (uncredited): Henry Hathaway.

RUNNING TIME: 90 minutes


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