Directed by Stuart Heisler
Written by Nunnally Johnson
Where Tall in the Saddle, the previous installment in this marathon, felt very much like a vehicle specifically for John Wayne’s star, Along Came Jones, while lead by legendary western actor Gary Cooper, feels much more polished and well rounded. Featuring such great co-stars as Loretta Young and Dan Duryea, Along Came Jones is able to marry Cooper’s affable nature with the serious threat of an outlaw on the loose, which results in a film that very much has its laughs, but also has time to take itself serious as well. The result is a western which helps highlight the danger of frontier life, the lack of structure in its justice system, and just how easy it might be to be somebody you’re not, or be exactly who you want to be, for better or for worse.
While on a leisurely journey into town, Melody Jones (Gary Cooper) and his friend George Fury (William Demarest) make a wrong turn, which puts them smack dab into uncharted territory. After a stagecoach robbery, everyone in the territory is on the lookout for outlaw Monte Jarrad, so when Jones strolls into town with the same initials branded into his saddle, he finds his swagger gets him more than he bargained for. But with the help of the beautiful Cherry de Longpre (Loretta Young), who is secretly hiding the real MJ, Jones tries to avoid the wrath of vigilante justice while also falling for Cherry, a dangerous thing to do with the woman of an outlaw.
As with most Gary Cooper westerns, it’s Cooper’s personality which makes Along Came Jones as fun a time as it is. When I was first introduced to Cooper and his acting style, which is very much informed by the silent era, I did not take an immediate liking to it. But within the landscape of some of the other more outlandish and mannered performances in early westerns, Cooper’s stoicism is very welcome. His stoicism also helps boost his sense of humor, which is bar none better than any other early western star. The comedy is westerns in general often gets underplayed, but anytime Gary Cooper pops up, you can expect a few well earned laughs along the way.
Speaking of the comedy, the plot here is obviously intentionally humorous, a case of mistaken identity. But the stakes are not as light as all that. When Dan Duryea, who has been great in everything I’ve seen him in, pops up as Monte Jarrad, the threat to the likable Jones becomes very real. Good win out over evil is perhaps the single most central theme in the western genre, but when pitting two great actors against each other, as in this situation, the tension is real, not just manufactured. I never thought Jones may not win, but the filmmakers do well to envision a scenario which heightens both the tension and doubt by making Jarrad a formidable and intimidating opponent.
The most compelling story element, however, just might be the internal struggle of Cherry, who is forced to play both sides, both good and evil, and chose between Gary Cooper and Dan Duryea (not an easy choice, I’m sure). Stuck in the middle, her dilemma is the main point of the film, the struggle to chose between good and evil, to do the right thing or the wrong thing. Morality plays a big part in westerns and Along Came Jones features one of the better moral dilemmas in recent memory within the marathon. Loretta Young is spectacular as the more than capable Cherry and by crafting a strong female lead, the filmmakers manage to make one of the better female-centric westerns thus far on the trail. Only The Wind might be its rival.