Thursday, Oct 2020
Director: Howard Estabrook
Screenwriters: Victor Fleming based on a 1902 novel by Owen Wister
Length: 91 minutes
Released: 1929

An early movie based on the 1902 novel by Owen Wister. The popular book had been produced as a play on several stages, and a couple silent film versions were released. This is the first sound film of the story. It was an important breakthrough role for Gary Cooper and established him as a rugged leading man.

The young Cooper makes a good, lanky cowboy. He does well speaking the necessary southern drawl of the title character. Cooper, the Virginian, wears a white hat. Walter Huston wears a black hat along with a devious mustache as the evil Trampas. Both are good in their roles and it is especially exciting to see the young Cooper break through with his laconic, downturned-smiling, good natured self. The movie deviates from the novel at the outset by having the Virginian rescue Molly not from a sinking stage, but from a harmless cow loose on Main Street in Medicine Bow. Other liberties are taken with the novel, and though none of them are necessarily bad, it is surprising since Wister lived until 1938.

Despite this being an early sound film, the sound is prominent. The photography is rather flat with an abundance of gray, but the overall production values are respectable considering the date of release. The ranch at Bear Creek is filmed in admirable bustling style, with cowboys, ranch-hands and cattle coming and going. After the opening scene, the film moves indoors for a good spell, and we do get the playful baby-switching scene from the novel.

The film --- as do all the movie versions --- features, of course, the famous line of warning from the Virginian to Trampas: "When you call me that, smile..." The central story element of the book is the love story between Virginian and Molly, and this is not developed well here, despite the considerable charms of the young Cooper. Mary Brian is perhaps too shrill as an enticing love interest. To me, the best aspect of the film is another scene which is not depicted in the novel. When Molly finds out Steve has been hanged, she protests the ruthless violence of the West. Mrs. Taylor gives it to the new schoolteacher good, defending cowboys such as the Virginian for taking outlaw matters into their own hands. AND, Molly defends herself admirably too, mentioning that her ancestors settled Vermont and had to fight just as many Indians to do so as the folks in Wyoming.

This is a good movie which detours from the novel, but does not embellish it. The showdown between the Virginian and Trampas is excellent, and Trampas' warning that 'this country ain't big enough for the two of us,' stands as a stock Western confrontation. For its story and its characters and especially for the early appearance of Gary Cooper as Owen Wister's prototype cowboy hero, we rate this film from the 20s as a Must See.

Other versions of The Virginian (1946, 2001).

--Jed

Full Movie:

Cast:

  • Gary Cooper....The Virginian
  • Walter Huston....Trampas
  • Richard Arlen....'Steve'
  • Mary Brian....Miss Molly Stark Wood
  • Helen Ware.... 'Ma' Taylor
  • Chester Conklin....'Pa' Hughey
  • Eugene Pallette....'Honey' Wiggin
  • Victor Potel.... Nebrasky
  • E.H. Calvert.... Judge Henry
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