Directed by Victor Fleming
Written by Owen Wister & Kirk La Shelle
While there hasn’t been want for greater star power yet in this marathon, no film has perhaps the level of talent involved in this film, on both sides of the camera. Starring in the film is legend Gary Cooper, known for his Westerns, and celebrated for many other roles, including as New York Yankee legend Lou Gehrig in The Pride of the Yankees. We also get tremendous Western contributor Walter Huston, whose performance in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre is memorable. He will pop up a few more times yet. The film is also Victor Fleming’s sound debut. Victor Fleming, of course, has brought us such classics as The Wizard of Oz and Gone with the Wind. But what does bringing all this talent together net? Unfortunately, not a whole lot.
Based on a novel of the same name, The Virginian follows the noble, yet morally confusing stance of a man known simply as “The Virginian” (Gary Cooper). Set in Wyoming, The Virginian is a cowboy who despises known cattle rustler Trampas (Walter Huston). So when his good friend Steve (Richard Arlen) comes to town, The Virginian hopes to steer him his way to make an honest living, but tempted by Trampas, Steve begins life in Wyoming as a rustler, all the while courting with the new school teacher in town, Molly (Mary Brian). But when Trampas and Steve get in the way of The Virginian and his job as cowboy, dire consequences must be paid, and friendship doesn’t mean what it once did as the Virginian has a few tough choices to make, since Steve and Trampas have already made theirs.
The Virginian has been made multiple times, including another version to be a part of this marathon and a popular television program, so its pedigree as a great Western story is all but assured. And I tend to agree with history and say that the setup and story are classic Western ideas with classic Western characters. Victor Fleming’s film, however, hardly does the story justice for everything it has going for it. The dynamic between The Virginian, Trampas and Steve, along with the romantic intrigue of Molly is a sound foundation to explore the loose morals of the West, and how noble men might differ from, and also be similar to, these outlaws. Fleming’s film touches on these points, but overall the acting and staging of the film is seriously lacking, perhaps a product of the transition from silent films to sound. For the record, The Virginian is the first sound film of this marathon.
Gary Cooper is an actor known for his rather stoic and slightly wooden delivery, which made his a silent film star. The demeanor allowed him some great character performances in the era of sound as well, but here the woodeness is surrounded by performances which feel so staged and delivered as to accentuate his already stoic demeanor. What results is a film which feels forced and completely unnatural, making it difficult at times to watch. Add this to the rather slow pace, especially of the first half of the film, and it becomes a little excruciating to sit through until the narrative tension comes to a head in the latter half of the second act with a compelling moral dilemma faced by the Virginian.
I am glad in some ways that there will be another version of this film in the marathon, as I cannot wait to compare the two and see how what I consider to be a great story might be done slightly better than we see here (and no I am not including the Trace Adkins version). The friend turned outlaw and showdown at sundown are classic moments in Western films, and perhaps we can point to this film as the origin of both. Each moment is great in its own way, but they occur within a rather vapid, boring, and slogging movie that could have benefited from a more deft touch behind the camera with a little more visual flair, and the ability to upgrade the performances, bringing the characters to a more vibrant life. The Virginian feels like a shaky first effort in sound, not because the mix is bad, but because the actors feel every bit of pressure about having to deliver their lines. What a shame.