Winning of Barbara Worth, The (DVD Review)8 Sep, 2014 By: Mike Clark
Available via Warner Archive
Stars Ronald Colman, Vilma Banky, Gary Cooper.
Despite a lifelong zeal for Gary Cooper that extends back to my two childhood theatrical viewings of Vera Cruz in the mid-1950s, I never got the memo that the actor’s first credited non-bit screen role was fairly substantial, though I knew it was in something called The Winning of Barbara Worth long before I got out of elementary school. It must have been laziness on my part — perpetuated by the knowledge that Cooper’s still memorable role in the following year’s Oscar-winning Wings only consisted of one scene. This sounded like a career that moved in small increments throughout the late silent era before it exploded with sound in Victor Fleming’s The Virginian and Josef von Sternberg’s Morocco.
But no. There are two outdoor types here who want to “win” Barbara, and Cooper is the one who’s not Ronald Colman. In fact, when this movie first came out on DVD in a now fairly rare issuing under the MGM-Fox banner, Cooper was prominent as part of three-person cover art along with Colman and Vilma Banky, who plays Babs. This romantic triangle alone made the movie something of a treat for me, along with the fact that Colman had real presence even in silent pictures, despite not having use of a speaking voice that had few equals. But there’s lots more going on as well, especially for anyone who likes stories where Mother Nature is in a really bad mood.
The source here was a popular novel by Harold Bell Wright, who also wrote the Ozarks-set The Shepherd of the Hills — which in 1941 became John Wayne’s first color film and one nationally re-released in the mid-1950s with The Trail of the Lonesome Pine for a really rustic afternoon at the movies). Barbara switches locales and weather maps for some sweatbox burg in the American Southwest — beginning with a sandstorm that makes the geography look about as appealing as anything we see in the climax of Erich von Stroheim’s Greed. It is here that a doomed mother tries to protect her very young daughter, who is then adopted by a rancher.
Despite a lot of bread on the table, daily living isn’t that many notches above the sand blizzard when it comes to quality-of-life due to lack of irrigation — a problem solved when a wealthy land developer decides to harness the Colorado River quicker than you can say Chinatown. By this time, though, Barbara has grown up in a way that recalls that old Merle Haggard classic: The Girl Got Ripe and the Pickers Came Today. Ranch foreman Cooper has always been interested, but now there’s a rival in Colman, who’s cast as an engineer (city ways and all that) whose job it is to dam the water and make it productive.
Without getting into spoiler territory, let’s just say that there’s eventually going to be Big Trouble with the Big Drink, which leads to a climax that eclipses the opening sandstorm in terms of screen showmanship and excitement. The print here is lovely, with some exceptional tints, and the organ score works as well, though you might get mildly stopped in your tracks when lightly audible laughter reacts to moments of humor (the music was apparently recorded in front of an audience during a theatrical presentation).
George Barnes, with a Gregg Toland assist, handled the camerawork — Barnes being the guy who shot a couple of the biggest twilight Cecil B. DeMille epics, also Hitchcock’s Rebecca (an Oscar there) and Frenchman’s Creek, which is one of most gorgeous Technicolor movies ever, even though VHS is as far as it ever went in the home market (shame, shame). The director is Henry King, of whom I have mixed emotions, with Margie, Captain From Castile, Twelve O’Clock High and The Gunfighter on the extreme plus side, but also a lot of DOA should-been-goods, especially near the end of his career. There’s nothing wrong here, though, in what will probably become one of my pet silents, one of the bigger movie surprises I’ve enjoyed this year.