Wednesday, 27 January 2010

Along Came Jones (1945)

Some actors just seem to grow and grow on me -- in a good way. I'm pretty sure that when I first started watching movies seriously Gary Cooper was well down the pecking order of favourites. Yet after years of watching his unassuming performances from the silent days through some of the most classic films of the 1930s and 1940s -- "Mr. Deeds Goes to Town", "Beau Geste", "Meet John Doe", "Pride of the Yankees", "Ball of Fire" -- and his heroic turns in the Oscar-winning "Sergeant York" and up to "High Noon", I've come to realise that he was a natural screen actor and always much more than watchable. It's hard to believe that he has been gone since 1961, but his films continue to enchant me, even in oddities like "Peter Ibbetson" (in which he came closest to being miscast).

The above movie may be one of the more minor ones in his filmography, but it is a thoroughly enjoyable romp in which Cooper satirises the strong, silent hero with which he is associated. People say that it is the only film which he produced as well as starred in, but he was also the producer (albeit uncredited) of the previous year's "Casanova Brown". Working to a very sharp script from versatile screenwriter and his production partner Nunnally Johnson, all of the expected Western cliches are in place and accounted for. He plays a wanderer called Melody Jones who sings verse after verse of 'Old Joe Clark', accompanied by his droll sidekick, the ever-amusing William Demarest. When they arrive in a town where the initials on his saddle are taken for outlaw Monte Jarrad's ( Dan Duryea, always a multifaceted villain), the complications ensue, especially when he falls for Duryea's gal, an excellent turn from Loretta Young. It seems that various groups are out to retrieve the hidden stash from a stagecoach hold-up and the feckless and not overly gun-proficient Jones finds himself in the middle of the action.

Produced on a strict wartime budget and using cheap technques like back projection for the outdoor scenes, one can't help rooting for Cooper's inept hero as he faces up to Duryea and lands sharpshooter Young. The film succeeds winningly in giving audiences of the day what they probably craved, a good laugh at the expense of Western heroics. Coop could afford to mock the genre, as he was a good Montana ranching lad; but the fact that he spent seven years of his childhood education in England may have contributed to his willingness to poke fun at the conventions. However, his cinematic legacy remains the all-American 'gee-shucks' hero that I have come to love as one of Hollywood's treasures.
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