Academy Awards 1940 -
Best Supporting Actor: Walter Brennan
In 1940, THE WESTERNER was underrated--regarded simply as an amusing diversion from director William Wyler. Time has passed and it emerges in the 2000s looking like one of the great Westerns. It begins with a hanging in Vinegarroon, where the self-styled "Judge" Roy Bean (Walter Brennan) holds sway. Cole Harden (Gary Cooper) rides into town on, what proves to be, a stolen horse. Entering Bean's saloon, which doubles as a courtroom, Cole is soon on trial--with his horse as a witness. The case is summarily concluded, the jury convenes in the poker room with a bottle of whiskey, and while they drink, Cole has a little time to think of how to save his neck. The judge seems to like him, and maybe likes English actress Lily Langtry even more. Maybe if Cole has seen, or even met, the legendary Lily....
As THE WESTERNER moves from its laconic opening to its climactic opera house showdown, it crosses its buddy-rivalry story, with a homesteaders-versus-cattlemen subplot and the story of Bean's fascination with Lily Langtry. It does all this with economy, wonderful deep-focus photography by Gregg Toland, deft direction by Wyler, and beautiful understated acting by Cooper and Brennan.
A cowboy rides into a small western town and soon finds himself in the middle of a deadly land dispute. Walter Brennan sparkles as Judge Roy Bean.
Theatrical release: September 19, 1940.
It was shot in four weeks in October and November 1939 near Tucson, Arizona. Although it was shot quickly with Arizona locations standing in for Texas, THE WESTERNER still cost more than a million dollars to make. Among its costlier items were the replica of the Fort Davis Grand Opera House--in which the real-life Lily Langtry once appeared--built by art director James Basevi; and a herd of seven thousand cattle--more than had appeared together in any movie up to that time.
The year before Gary Cooper starred in THE WESTERNER, the U.S. Treasury Department reported that he was the country's highest taxpayer--his income in 1939 was $482,819.
Walter Brennan won his third supporting actor Oscar for THE WESTERNER, in spite his playing a starring role.
The basis of THE WESTERNER was a 10-page story by Stuart N. Lake. Director Wyler, Walter Brennan and Gary Cooper all committed to the movie and Jo Swerling began working on the script, but it was still unfinished when Niven Busch was brought in to rework it. Busch strengthened Cooper's part, named his character Cole Harden, and added the love-hate relationship between Harden and Bean. The relationship has more edge than the friendly rivalries that followed in later movies because of Roy Bean's superior power--conferred by his judgeship--and his occasionally ruthless use of it and because the laconic Cooper's quick wit provides his only means of staying ahead of the judge.
The scenes between Cooper and Brennan have an extraordinary naturalness and unexpected quality, perhaps because, in a rare departure from his usual methods, director William Wyler encouraged his actors to improvise and also ordered rewrites of scenes from one day to the next. Wyler thought of the movie as a comedy disguised as a melodrama.
Not only is THE WESTERNER a prototype of such buddy-rival Westerns as VERA CRUZ, BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID, and BAD COMPANY and of such thrillers as 48 HOURS and LETHAL WEAPON, it is also a forerunner of the homesteader-versus-cattlemen plot later explored in SHANE, OKLAHOMA!, and HEAVEN'S GATE, and it finds time to tell the real-life story of Judge Roy Bean's fascination for the English actress Lily Langtry--which is also the basis of THE LIFE AND TIMES OF JUDGE ROY BEAN.
THE WESTERNER was one of several films that brought together the talents of director William Wyler, producer Samuel Goldwyn, the great director of photography Gregg Toland, and editor Daniel Mandell. THE WESTERNER was one of eight films that Wyler made for Goldwyn in what was often a stormy relationship. The others were THESE THREE, DODSWORTH, COME AND GET IT--which Wyler completed after Goldwyn fired Howard Hawks--DEAD END, WUTHERING HEIGHTS, THE LITTLE FOXES, and THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES. Toland was the director of photography on all but one of these movies--the exception was DODSWORTH. Mandell was editor on all but one--for him the exception was COME AND GET IT. In addition, Mandell also edited two earlier non-Goldwyn movies for Wyler--COUNSELLOR-AT-LAW and THE GOOD FAIRY.
Producer Samuel Goldwyn was unhappy with the score that Dmitri Tiomkin wrote for THE WESTERNER so he delayed the release of the movie from February to September and had the score rewritten by an uncredited Alfred Newman.
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