Day six of our visit to Christmas Past, Hollywood style, finds us visiting a genial but understandably sheepish looking Gary Cooper in a hospital bed in 1951. Recovering from a hernia operation, the actor would undergo four of these "procedures", as the more callous medicos like to term them, between '51 and '54. With practiced politeness, he seems to be enduring the oh, so spontaneous visit of these seven gals at his bedside with tense aplomb that day in December. Call me clairvoyant, but the way that he is fingering that unlit cigarette, (those were the days in the hospital, eh?) and that uneasy little smile playing across the actor's face has caused me to muse a bit. Do you think it might be possible that Coop may not have planned on having his picture snapped in this awkward, vulnerable position? Yet, when the Roosevelt Hospital staff of over one hundred nurses came around to the wards and private rooms to spread some Christmas cheer by warbling a few Carols for the defenseless
At fifty, I suspect that Gary Cooper was tired, bone tired, feeling like a horse who'd "been rode hard and put up wet." The last year had seen his marriage of two decades badly shaken by his involvement with Patricia Neal, and the actor was reportedly devastated by the potential impact of these events on his beloved daughter, Maria. On top of all this, he was constantly fighting an ulcer, a nagging hip pain, and then, this, his second operation of the year, scheduled just after he completed his work on High Noon for director Fred Zinnemann.
Knowing that he was the fourth choice for the role of the beleaguered sheriff of that lousy town probably didn't make the veteran Western star feel overconfident either. The fingerprints of John Wayne, Charlton Heston and Marlon Brando were said to have been all over that dog-eared Carl Foreman script prior to Coop's receiving an offer for this part. Even when the film was released, the tense watchfulness that Cooper may have been experiencing in real life had begun to show on screen. Still, his work in the last decade of his life, accompanied by a growing discontentment with his own life, and considerable searching, showed in his face magnificently. Despite the fact that near the end of that decade, he would reportedly have some kind of plastic surgery (deemed unsuccessful by many), it is the very wear and tear and, yes, anguish, that showed in his face that sometimes gave his roles a gravitas beyond the often trite scripts he was offered. While few of his roles in that period offered him the traditional hero parts that had made him a star, this viewer finds his affecting presence throughout this last act of his career to be truly moving. His work as the lone symbol of honor in High Noon (1952-Fred Zinnemann), as the conflicted Quaker father and husband in Friendly Persuasion (1956-William Wyler), as the aging roué beguiled by Audrey Hepburn in Love in the Afternoon (1957-Billy Wilder), as a successful man whose hollow life brought him anguish in Ten North Frederick (1958-Philip Dunne)--in a part that he believed was "wrong for him", yet which mirrored aspects of his own life--and as a haunted doctor trying to outrun his past in The Hanging Tree (1959-Delmer Dave) to be among his best and most nuanced performances, with the lines in his face and expression in his blue eyes often more eloquent than any of the words he spoke on screen.
As an unusually sensitive New York Times critic Bosley Crowther noted in a review of that period, "There is something about the sadness that appears in Mr. Cooper's eyes, something about the slowness and weariness of his walk, something about the manner that is not necessarily in the script, which reminds the middle-aged observer that Mr. Cooper had been at it for a very long time." Public comments such as that must have made the actor wonder how he'd fit in during the new decade. According to one account, his explanation for his success lay in his ability to keep "playing the part of Mr Average Joe American." Well, hardly average. Dismissive of movie acting as "a pretty silly business for a man because it takes less training, less ability and less brains to be successful in it than any other business I can think of", Coop believed that no "player ever rises to prominence solely on talent. They're molded by forces other than themselves. They should remember this - and at least twice a week drop to their knees and thank Providence for elevating them from cow ranches, dime store ribbon counters and bookkeeping desk."
A star since popping up in a brief sequence of Wings (1927-William Wellman), the Montana bred, English educated Cooper only seemed a simple man, a quality that translated his natural grace and endearing reticence into an unlikely but long lasting stardom, though, according to Coop, that ascent had little to do with him. Driven to Hollywood in the '20s by a desire to be a cartoonist, and working his way into acting due to his riding ability, he said that he stayed in California in part because "[g]etting up at 5 o'clock in the morning in the dead of winter to feed 450 head of cattle and shoveling manure at 40 below ain't romantic." After becoming someone who received attention wherever he went, things may have seemed more complex. As he later acknowledged in one of his more unguarded remarks, "You've got to have a fire under you, and when you're beginning, you've got one all the time. After you get established, you have to create your own fire, and it's never easy."
He may have had good reason to believe his words when he said that the town he lived in as a star was "a terrible place to spend your life in. Nobody in Hollywood is normal. Absolutely nobody. And they have such a vicious attitude toward one another ... They say much worse things about each other than outsiders say about them, and nobody has any real friends." However, since he died in 1961, observers of his films, who never knew him or even lived during his lifetime, would like to feel that they have become among his lasting friends.
Addendum: While few have seen one of Cooper's most interesting Christmas-themed films in recent years, Good Sam (1948-Leo McCarey), this movie--if you can find it--is an episodic take on the consequences of altruism, for good and ill. The star's acting and that of his co-star, the always droll and deft Ann Sheridan, deserves to be seen again.
Please click here for previous entries in The Christmas Album series on this blog.