Frank James Cooper, a\k\a Gary Cooper, was a child of the last century, being born into it on May 7, 1901, the son of Charles and Alice Cooper. Unlike Alvin C. York, Cooper was born into a prosperous family, his father being a farmer turned attorney who would eventually serve on the Montana Supreme Court. His parents were English immigrants from Bedfordshire, and from 1910-1913, Gary and his brother were educated in England.
After high school, Cooper went on to study at Grinnell College for a few years, although he did not receive a degree. After an unsuccessful attempt to earn a living as an editorial cartoonist in Helena, he followed his parents out to Los Angeles where they had retired. Cooper later said that if he was going to starve, he might as well do it where it was warm rather than where it was freezing.
Out in the land of fruits and nuts, Cooper tried his hand at many things in order to earn a living: promoter for a photographer, a seller of electrical signs and even applied for work as an ink-stained wretch at a newspaper. Out of desperation for employment rather than any burning desire to be an actor, Cooper began to work as an extra in movies. A friend, Nan Collins, advised him to change his name to Gary after her hometown of Gary, Indiana, and Cooper took her advice. After several years as an extra, Cooper achieved early stardom in the western, The Virginian. Although he would appear in every type of film imaginable in his career, Cooper always appeared most comfortable in Westerns, a genre which fit his understated, laid back acting style, and his laconic speech. Cooper specialized in playing ordinary decent men, trying to do their best in extraordinary situations. He also had a flair for comedy where his dead pan delivery, combined with a dry wit, ensured laughter whatever “funny” lines he was attempting to deliver.
The archetypal film during this period of his career for Cooper was The Westerner where he played a cowboy who tangled with “Judge” Roy Bean, “Law West of the Pecos”, magnificently portrayed by Walter Brennan who appeared with Cooper in several films, including Sergeant York as York’s pastor. The film is a skillful mixture of comedy and drama, with Cooper giving a bravura performance.
Alvin C. York had been approached by Hollywood producer Jesse Lasky several times, beginning in 1919, to make a movie of his life. Each time he refused, summing up his position simply with the phrase, “This uniform ain’t for sale.”
It was only with the advent of World War II that York’s mind began to change. Lasky was Jewish and he alerted York to the persecution that his co-religionists were undergoing at the hands of the Third Reich. York, who was something of an isolationist in the early to mid-Thirties, became convinced that the US would soon be embroiled in a life and death struggle with Nazi Germany, (he joined the Fight for Freedom Committee, becoming one of its most vocal members, that countered the activities of the isolationist America First Committee), and that a film about his experiences in World War I might encourage other Americans to fight in a just cause. Reluctantly, York agreed to the movie. He had three conditions: (1) That the film contain no phony heroics, (2) that Mrs.York, his wife, not be played by a Hollywood “glamour girl” and (3) That Gary Cooper portray York on screen.
His choice of Gary Cooper to portray him was, I think, inevitable. Cooper’s emotionally restrained performances, his earnest desire in his films to do the right thing, and his portrayals in which he was usually a common man (One of Cooper’s better roles was in the movie Meet John Doe) who rose to overcome the challenges confronting him, all shouted Alvin C. York. Cooper was initially reluctant, and he spoke about it in later years:
“I remember my first big struggle with my responsibility to the movie-going public. Hal Wallis showed me a script called Sergeant York, based on the real-life story of the great hero of World War I. In screen biographies dealing with remote historic characters, some romantic leeway is permissible. But York happened to be very much alive, his exploits were real, and I felt that I couldn’t do justice to him. York himself came to tell me I was his own choice for the role, but I still felt I couldn’t handle it. Here was a pious, sincere man, a conscientious objector to war, who, when called, became a heroic fighter for his country. He was too big for me. He covered too much territory.”
“To prepare myself for the role, I visited Sergeant Alvin C. York in his own Tennessee hills and absorbed from his faith and philosophy. He didn’t smoke or drink or swear, and he believed that every man had a right to live in peace. But the more he prayed for guidance, the clearer it became that peace could not be preserved by meek surrender to an aggressor. Once convinced that it was up to the strong to resist attacks on the weak, he prayed for strength and became the fightingest soldier in the AEF.”
From the combination of two initially reluctant men, a screen masterpiece was made. Viewers who came to see the movie in 1941 must have been initially puzzled. With a title like Sergeant York, movie goers could have been forgiven for thinking that York’s experiences in World War I would be the focus, but such was not the case. Most of the film is focused on York’s life in Tennessee from 1916-1917 before American entry into the war. Like most masterpieces, the film has a strong religious theme as we witness York’s conversion to Christ. The film is full of big questions: How are we to live? Why are we here? What role should religion play in our lives? How does someone gain faith? What should we do if we perceive our duty to God and to Country to be in conflict? It poses possible answers to these questions with a skillful mixture of humor and drama. The entertainment value of Sergeant York conceals the fact that it is a very deep film intellectually as it addresses issues as old as Man.
The film was clearly a message film and made no bones about it. The paper of the film industry Variety noted at the time: “In Sergeant York the screen has spoken for national defense. Not in propaganda, but in theater.”
The film was a huge success upon release in 1941, the top grossing film of the year. Gary Cooper justly earned the Oscar for his stellar performance. It was Cooper’s favorite of his pictures. “Sergeant York and I had quite a few things in common, even before I played him in screen. We both were raised in the mountains – Tennessee for him, Montana for me – and learned to ride and shoot as a natural part of growing up. Sergeant York won me an Academy Award, but that’s not why it’s my favorite film. I liked the role because of the background of the picture, and because I was portraying a good, sound American character.”
Part III next week.