Friday, July 18, 2008

The Westerner: If only Judge Bean had a blog

Left: "Judge" Bean surrounded by his impressive Langtree memorabilia collection. Below: Coop and his neckerchief, which can scarcely be contained within any given frame of the film.

The Westerner (1940) was one of the most important films Gary Cooper ever made. It was the follow-up film for the team that made Wuthering Heights: director William Wyler, producer Samuel Goldwyn and cinematographer Greg Toland. I first came to the movie because of the dream team and of course, Coop doesn't hurt either. Billed as a straight-forward western--the posters looked like the cover of a dime Zane Gray novel--The Westerner marks a turning point in the genre. There is ambiguity in heroes and villains alike as well as some very anti-social behavior on the part of cowboys. The opening scene shows cattle ranchers destroying a fence and herding their animals across farmer's fields. When one of the farmers tries to interfere, he is shot at by a cowboy. The Westerner proves itself different from everything that came before it with that brief opening scene.

Gary Cooper, with his enormous neckerchief and buckskin fringe coat would seem to be the obvious candidate for the "hero" but he arrives a very ambiguous character. He may or may not have stolen a horse, which is a crime punishable by death in this part of Texas. Apparently almost everything is punishable by death in this part of Texas, as it is under the control of a self-appointed "judge" named Roy Bean (Walter Brennan). As a villain, Bean is a mixed bag. He's funny, he's pathetic and occiasionally sympathetic. It's hard to hate him. It is particularly hard to hate him as a classic movie fanatic, since Bean is driven by his obsession with the famous English actress Lily Langtree.

The first half hour of the film shows the workings of Bean's "court". After the hapless farmer from the opening scene is given a brief trial, he is hanged. Then Bean and his boys go into the bar to toast to Lilly Langtree. Bean is maniacal, surrounded by dozens of portraits of his idol. One wonders without the benefit of Ebay, how he managed to get a hold of so many pictures of her. Indeed I think if Bean had access to the relatively healthy outlet of a blog, he might not have hanged so many men for so little reason. As it stands, his obsession with Langtree is both funny and frightening and he reveals that he has killed men for disagreeing with his opinion about her. Who can blame him? The guy was probably just a troll anyway.

Cooper is brought in to the midst of this insanity, accused of stealing a horse. He is given a quick trial and about to be hanged. In desperation, Cooper keys in on Bean's obsession with Langtree and uses it to bide for time. He claims to know Langtree and even to have a lock of her hair. Bean becomes obsessed with the idea of buying the lock of hair, which Cooper claims is "with his stuff in Pecos." Bean postpones his hanging until Cooper can retrieve the lock by post. Again, if Judge Bean had a blog, or some other internet outlet for his obsession, he would have already met plenty of other Langtree fans and he wouldn't fall for the tricks of a smooth talking cowboy.

While Cooper is describing Langtree's beauty in intricate detail a man named Evans comes in. Cooper claims that this is the man who sold him the stolen horse. There is a brawl, Cooper wins, and he takes 60 dollars from Evans who has been knocked out in the fight. This robbery is justified with a claim that is what Evans charged him for the stolen horse. Evans wakes up, reaches for his gun and is shot and killed by Bean. Bean fines the corpse the remaining money in his purse, rules him guilty and then orders his men to hang him for theft.

Cooper and Bean head back into the bar to toast again to Lily Langtree, each pouring an entire bottle of whiskey into a beer mug and then downing it quickly. Amazingly neither dies of alcohol poisoning and the next scene is them waking up in Bean's bed together with Lily's picture gazing down at them. Cooper wakes up first and washes his face by waterboarding himself in a bucket of water. He makes enough noise doing this to wake up the judge who doesn't remember him. Cooper tells him that he was the man who won Chickenfoot's horse at cards. Bean doesn't ask why he is in room dunking his head in a bucket. Maybe this kind of thing happens all the time at the Lily of Jersey. Bean asks Cooper to fix his neck which has a crick in it from a hanging mishap a few years back. Cooper obliges then high-tails it out of town on Chickenfoot's horse.

Bean staggers into the bar to get some hair of the dog. He suddenly remembers something about the night before and takes off after Cooper. In an exciting chase he catches Cooper (Chickenfoot's horse probably was tired from being stolen so many times), leaps off his horse and knocks Cooper to the ground. He immediately begins questioning Cooper about the lock of Langtree's hair and Cooper puts him off saying he was just riding to the post office to see about that. Though the sequence is done in a wide shot, with the figures in sillhouette, it's easy enough for me to believe that a 60 year old man would make a leap like that off a moving horse to get a lock of a star's hair. We've all been in serious memorabilia bidding wars at one time or another. I would do the same myself if another fan came between me and a vintage one-sheet that I had my eye on.

So ends one of the most darkly funny sequences in any film to date, and certainly one of the most unconventional openings to a Western, ever put on film. Bean sinks deeper into madness and delusion and throughout Cooper is always able to use his friendship and seeming devotion to Langtree to his advantage. There is a lot more to the plot involving a range war between farmers and ranchers, the love of a good woman and the inevitable confrontation between Bean and real justice. It's that opening sequences which plays oddly like the first-ever Lily Langtree fan convention, complete with drunkeness, awkward accomodation sharing and fisticuffs over memorabilia that makes The Westerner such an apt subject for this blog.


Nancy "Beaky" Bruce said...

NIpper -- Thank you. What a great way to wake up on a Sunday morning... that day that I run (well... scurry?) to the computer thinking "oh! it's Sunday... the new Guess the Movie is out today!" only to be denied because it comes out at midnight California time. :-(

But now I have your blog to satisfy my silly fandom, and how absolutely appropriate for one of my favorite Westerns -- the movie with something for everybody ... & not a wasted scene on the reels... and I'd never fully appreciated the connection between the Lily-vention and Cary-vention or whomeveryoufawnover-vention.

Happy Sunday to you -- and I concur -- Everyone needs to watch the Westerner, it's a beaut.

Jennythenipper said...

Lily-vention! Ha. LOL

Glad I could be of service to a fellow obsessive.