Gary Cooper was one of the most consistently popular stars of classic cinema from the beginning of the talkie era to his death in 1961. However there is a lesser-known early chapter to his career, when he played supporting roles in a series of silent pictures. He never achieved stardom in this period, in part because a lot of his appeal was founded in his warm, steady voice. Still, his charming persona was enough to shine through even in these non-speaking days, as this, his first credited appearance, shows.
The Winning of Barbara Worth was a prestigious picture in its day, directed by the respected and capable Henry King. King was really good at these human dramas played out against a grand backdrop. On the one hand he keeps the vastness and deadly potential of the desert a continual presence, with landscape shots that seem to go on forever. But on the other hand he is not averse to stripping away all other business to just focus us on people and their faces. There are some really neat close-ups here, such as Gary Cooper jealously spying on Vilma Banky with Ronald Colman, or Banky as she walks out on Colman. These shots aren't overused, and they seem to segue naturally into the editing pattern rather than being "look-at-this" attention-grabbers. But what is really impressive is the way King can arrange things to tell the big story and the intimate one simultaneously. Look at the scene in which the water flows into the irrigation system. The crowd cheer and dance ecstatically, but the main characters who have put more into this than any other are stood still, as if overcome with emotion. There are a handful of close-ups of various reactions, and then we see Banky and Colman share their first kiss, and all the liveliness behind them reflects the intensity of the moment. As the kiss breaks off there is a sudden feeling of awkwardness between them, and the slowing of the crowd seems to mimic this too.
And this is very much a *silent* drama of reactions, expressions, motions and body language. Gary Cooper may not have his voice here but he does have that deep, sensitive face and steady, deliberate way of moving. His acting is only passable at this stage, but he has the look of a man one can implicitly trust, and this goes a long way in screen stardom. And yet for this picture Cooper is ostensibly the third wheel, behind dapper, moustachioed lead man Ronald Colman. Colman was a very decent dramatic player, and as with Cooper there was something innately likable about his manner which secured his success into the sound era. Colman is very good here, and it is only his experience as an actor coupled with his own honesty and simplicity that prevent him being outshone by Cooper. The leading lady is Vilma Banky, who shot to fame as the object of ravishment for Rudolph Valentino. In this slightly more grown-up picture she reveals herself to be a very fine actress, and like her two male co-stars she has a capacity for deeply expressive reacting. Sadly her career was to fizzle out in the sound era, probably because English was not her first language.
Story-wise, The Winning of Barbara Worth is a tale of progress and prosperity that is very typical of Roaring Twenties optimism. And perhaps herein lies another reason why Cooper didn't become a cinematic icon until a few years later. The end of the silent era happened to coincide with the beginning of the great depression. Before that, Cooper's down-to-earth nature didn't really fit with the grandiose flights of fancy that made up most of 1920s cinema. However by the 1930s, cinema had suddenly become very different in its scope and focus. Heroes became ordinary men who worked for a living, and the heroin really would marry the boy next door. As it is, this picture sees Cooper as the homely type whom Banky loves as a brother. There's no real problem with this – Cooper isn't miscast, he's simply in the wrong time for lead roles – and he plays his part aptly in what is a very worthy 20s drama.