When I was about 12 years old, we watched Sergeant York in school. I liked it but I didn’t see another of Gary’s films until the winter of 2005, some 16 years later. My favorite baseball team the Houston Astros had just made their first appearance in the World Series. Unfortunately they lost but I was still excited about baseball and I saw that Turner Classic Movies (TCM) was going to show Pride of the Yankees (1942) so I tuned in. It’s a great movie and Gary did a masterful job, so much so that I don’t see him when I watch that film – I see Lou Gehrig. Fast forward about a year to November 2006 – I was flipping through the channels late one night and came across Ball of Fire (1941). I watched a little bit of it and thought it seemed like a cute movie but I was too sleepy to watch the rest of it so I turned it off. The next month I was watching TCM and I saw their promo ad for what was being featured in December. Gary Cooper was their star of the month and I got excited because I thought maybe they’d show Ball of Fire again and I’d get to see the whole thing. Well, I got busy with Christmas stuff and completely forgot about it for the first two weeks of the month until I saw that same promo again. After that I checked their schedule online and saw they were showing Ball of Fire that Thursday after another film titled Meet John Doe (1941). I read the description for Meet John Doe and it sounded interesting so I left myself a note because I didn’t want to forget again.
December 21, 2006 – The Day My Life Changed
I am not exaggerating when I saw my life changed on that date. The credits rolled for Meet John Doe and I was immediately caught up in the film. It begins with several employees, including Barbara Stanwyck, being fired from their jobs at a newspaper. They aren’t even given a proper send off – a young man points at them and then makes a slashing motion across his throat to indicate they are out on their rears! We realize this is during the depression and it will be a real hardship for all involved. Barbara decides to go out with a bang so she makes up a letter that was supposed to have been sent in by a man, John Doe, fed up with the injustices of the world and to show his disgust he will jump off the roof of the city hall on Christmas Eve. Concerned citizens react to the letter and write in to the newspaper offering him jobs and even marriage proposals. Barbara is summoned back to the paper to tell them who this man is and when she admits to making him up, they realize what a gold mine they are sitting on if they could hire someone to pretend to be John Doe. A group of what appears to be homeless men have turned up at the newspaper office and they come into the editor’s office one by one to be auditioned for the part.
After showing several unsavory characters walking in the office and up to the camera, we see Gary walk in slowly with a bit of a sheepish look on his face. He gets quite close to the camera and then takes off his beaten up hat.
Barbara Stanwyck, Gary Cooper, and James Gleason in Meet John Doe (1941)
Barbara’s eyes grow big as she looks him up and down and I had the same reaction! I don’t know what it was about this scene but my jaw nearly hit the floor and I mumbled to myself, “He’s gorgeous! Why haven’t I noticed that before?” By the time the film was over, I was smitten. Not only was I attracted to his handsome face and tall lanky body, but I realized what an outstanding actor he was. His performance had me in tears more than once and I knew I had to see more.
I have had so much fun over the past decade tracking down copies of his films (bootlegs and legitimate commercial releases), finding pictures as well as radio show broadcasts, and chatting online with other Gary Cooper and classic movie fans. I met my best friend in the early months of 2007 when we started talking on the TCM message boards. We realized that we didn’t live very far apart and we’ve been close like sisters ever since. I even went to New York in 2008 and got to meet and talk with Gary’s daughter Maria Cooper Janis at a lecture she was giving about her father. I had become email pals (the modern day version of pen pals) with a film historian living in New York who has done a lot of work about Gary and he set up the introduction. She was incredibly gracious and was surprised that I had come all the way from Texas just to hear her talk about her dad.
Growing up in the 1980s out in the country in Southeast Texas, we didn’t have cable or satellite (not until much later in the decade) so I mostly watched old TV shows and movies on the UHF stations. I had always liked classic movies but didn’t become as a big of fan until the mid-2000s. I began to lose interest in modern films (there were a lot duds around that time) and I started watching a lot more TCM. After finding Gary and watching all his films I could get, I branched out and tracked down films with many of his costars including Jean Arthur, Barbara Stanwyck, William Powell, and Claudette Colbert. Looking through Gary’s filmography, I saw he had a small part in a silent movie from 1927 titled It. I had long been a fan of silent films, mostly from the horror genre, so I bought a copy and waited anxiously for it to arrive. I had no idea I was about to find my favorite actress.
Clara Bow was like a ball of energy and she just exuded charisma and star power. Much like Gary, when she is on the screen, that’s where your eyes focus as they are the most interesting thing in any scene. On top of working to track down everything I could about Gary, I also added Clara to the mix and when I found out they made a film together titled Children of Divorce, I knew I had to see it. You can imagine my disappoint when I realized there weren’t even any bootlegs available. For nearly a decade, Children of Divorce was the film I most wanted to see and never thought I would. I knew there was a copy of it stored safely away in the Library of Congress but Paramount studios owned the film and they had shown little to no interest in releasing their silent movies on home video – not even when outside distribution companies offered to pay them for the privilege.
Then about two or three years ago they began to loosen up and we got a few of their silent films including a beautiful Blu-ray edition of Wings (1927) starring Clara Bow and featuring Gary in a short, but very memorable scene. One day this past May, I was reading a thread about a restoration of Get Your Man (1927) starring Clara and Buddy Rogers at the Nitrateville site (http://nitrateville.com) when one of the men working on the restoration team just casually announced that Children of Divorce was going to be released later in the year. My breath was literally taken away and my heart sped up as if I’d been out for a run – ha! After the shock wore off, I began calling and emailing my classic movie friends to tell them the great news and finally, yesterday evening I saw a movie I’d been waiting nearly 10 years to see. It’s just a silent film released 89 years ago and only running about 71 minutes, but to me it was like finding the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.
Children of Divorce stars Clara Bow and Esther Ralston in the prime of their careers and features Gary as a supporting actor near the beginning of his.
Gary Cooper, Clara Bow, and Esther Ralston in Children of Divorce (1927)
After a few days of filming, Gary was fired only to be rehired later at Clara’s insistence. He had mostly done small roles or had leading parts in Westerns and he felt out of his depth in a society drama. He and Clara were lovers at the time (after having met while filming Wings) and she saw the star potential in him (and later others like Jean Harlow) and she was more than happy to help him with some acting tips as they made the film. The plot revolves around a love quadrangle between Clara, Esther, Gary, and Einar Hanson. Gary, Clara, and Esther met as children in Paris where their parents had dumped them while getting divorces. Gary and Esther made a deal to get married when they grew up and all three meet up again years later back home in America. Gary and Esther are indeed in love but Clara is jealous, not because she loves Gary, but because she is very afraid of being left out and left alone after a loveless childhood. She is in love with Einar, playing a European prince, and he is also in love with her but their families are pushing them to marry into money as neither one has much of it. Clara gets Gary drunk one night and tricks him into marrying her – a move they later deeply regret and that has dire consequences.
This movie has drawn a lot of criticism as the characters are deadest against divorce even though they are miserable unhappy and I think that’s unfair. Their actions are not out of place for their characters and the history they have of all being unhappy children of divorce. Once a child comes into the mix (Gary and Clara have a daughter), divorce becomes an unthinkable option. The sets and clothes in this film are fantastic. I want to go back in time and loot Clara and Esther’s dressing rooms – ha! Frank Lloyd is the credited director but many of the scenes were later reshot by Josef von Sternberg (who later directed Gary in Morocco (1930)) and he was a very capable and skilled director. Also I think all the actors (especially the kids playing younger version of Gary, Clara, and Esther) did a wonderful job. Each one is very expressive in their own way and the emotions that run through this film from sadness, to a blooming romance, to heartbreak, hatred, and sorrow shine through the silver nitrate film as fresh as they did nearly a century ago.
I’m excited to see what next year will bring as there are still plenty of Gary’s and Clara’s films yet to be released. It’s a fun time to be a classic movie fan and I want to say thank you to all the site visitors who share my passion not just for Gary Cooper but also classic films and the art of movie making. It’s such a fun hobby and I’m glad to share it with you.
Here are some articles about the film and the actors and there are some spoilers.