The Cowboy and the Lady (1938)

Directed by H.C. Potter
Written by S.N. Behrman & Sonya Levien

When I wrote of Ruggles of Red Gap, I determined that the film was not really a Western, and as such, should not have ultimately been included in my list. However, I enjoyed the film immensely and found Charles Laughton to be a great joy to watch on screen. The same can pretty much be said then of The Cowboy and the Lady. Despite its title, which certainly suggests Western, this film does not truly belong in the conversation of the genre. In actuality, the film is much more of a standard comedy/romance from the time, pitting great stars such as Gary Cooper and Merle Oberon as the star crossed match. There are no ranches, no gunfighting, lawlessness or pioneering in the true sense of the genre, meaning that instead, The Cowboy and the Lady is just an enjoyable film to spend time with.

I will of course continue my review, but it should be known by the following plot description that I don’t consider this to be a true Western. You see, the main character of the film, the Lady, Mary Smith (Merle Oberon), is the socialite daughter of a hopeful Presidential candidate. Seeking some fun, her uncle takes her to a gambling house. But after a raid her name appears on a list of attendees, causing her father to hurry her away to Florida as an alibi. Mary soon seeks thrills and a social life once again when she goes with her maids to a rodeo, where she is paired up on a blind date with Stretch (Gary Cooper). The two begin to fall for each other, but Mary’s reality remains a secret to Stretch and all his cattle rustling ignorance.

Admittedly, I was unable (or perhaps unwilling) to delve deep enough into my formulated list before I started this marathon to weed out all of the marginal entries, such as this, but in a way I am glad I didn’t because otherwise I am unsure when, if ever, I would have taken the time to watch this delightful little Gary Cooper/Merle Oberon film. In fact, I didn’t know who Merle Oberon was before this film, and I am now very curious to see more of here in the future. The two play very different characters, but each searching for the same thing. At first, Stretch is very reluctant to join his fellow cowboys to entertain the ladies, but soon he finds Mary to be the perfect gal for him. Mary, too is reluctant, though rebellious too. Oberon manages to play here with the perfect balance of both to match Cooper’s “aw schucks” Stretch.

Overall the film is fairly standard. The setup, the romance, the relationship between Mary and her father, between Mary and Stretch even. The fast falling lovers from two different worlds is not an original story, but the film manages the story well enough, allowing director H.C. Potter to then also infuse it with two pretty memorable sequences. The first takes place on a ferry, when the couple in question is travelling from Florida to Texas. The entire sequence is like a dream, as the couple have conversation in fog, longing for each other and their future life together. It is easily the best part of the film. The other is a very cute little scene that takes place in Montana as Stretch is visiting the site of his new house. Still only a skeleton, Stretch very lovingly plays a little game of house in the space, imagining what it will be like to live there with Mary.

From start to finish, The Cowboy and the Lady may not be very remarkable, although enjoyable is definitely an adjective I would use to describe it, but it is very much one of those films defined by a couple memorable scenes that will likely stick with me. I could take or leave the whole, but those two scenes will last forever, and sometimes those types of cinematic experiences are perfectly acceptable to. Not everything has to be a masterpiece (this isn’t), just like not every film has to fit into the box of expectation you have going into it (this doesn’t). It was a pleasant surprise that this wasn’t really a Western, even though I watched as part of a Westerns marathon, but it was also a pleasant surprise to discover Merle Oberon, and spend more time with Gary Cooper as a cowboy. Sometimes movies fill the smallest spaces in our lives, but at least they still fill that space.

*** – Good

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