The Cowboy and the Lady (H.C. Potter, 1938)
In 1938, producer Samuel Goldwyn was anxious to get the bad taste of The Adventures of Marco Polo behind him. A big-budget epic about the famed traveler inexplicably starring Gary Cooper as Marco Polo, it was a critical and box-office disaster, and Goldwyn needed a hit badly. He wanted Cooper back in his familiar cowboy digs and Merle Oberon to star alongside him and turned to director Leo McCarey, who had recently directed the masterpieces The Awful Truth and Make Way for Tomorrow, to come up with a story.
As A. Scott Berg relates in his masterful Goldwyn biography, the producer gathers all his story editors and assistants to listen to McCarey’s idea for the picture. What they didn’t know was that McCarey didn’t have an idea and just delivered a pitch for the better part of the hour completely off the cuff. It was called The Cowboy and the Lady and was a formula picture about a “red-blooded cowboy and a blue-blooded daughter of a presidential candidate.” As Berg tells it:
The next morning, Goldwyn asked each of the men who had been present to tell the plot of The Cowboy and the Lady. After the ninth version, he had enough sense of what the story might be that he bought it for $50,000. That night, (Garson) Kanin ran into McCarey and congratulated him. “Yeah,” McCarey said, “but now the trouble is, I’ve got to write it down…and I can’t remember what the hell I said.” A dozen writers developed his twenty-five-page outline, including such literary talents as Anita Loos, Dorothy Parker, Robert Riskin, .and S.N. Berhman, who got screen credit.
The description of the story pretty much sums it up. Merle Oberon plays Mary Smith, a bored debutante who must live a very staid and respectful life because her father Horace is running for President. Bored to tears, she grabs two maids (including Patsy Kelly, who by the way could be Maggie Gyllenhaal’s twin sister) and runs off to the rodeo where she immediately falls for the soft-spoken cowboy named Stretch, played with genial Gary Cooperness by Gary Cooper. Half his dialogue in the film seems to be the word “Yup,” fulfilling the caricature of Cooper’s performance style. She poses as her own maid to make Cooper think she’s not so stuck up, and the two immediately fall in love and get married before he even knows the truth about her. What happens when he does find out seems to come almost from a Capra film, and I would bet you a million billion dollars it was Riskin, the Capra veteran, who wrote the monologue Cooper delivers at the dining room table full of snobs raising money for the candidate.
FilmStruck recently posted the film as part of a retrospective of the works of H.C. Potter, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s the first time his works have been curated in this fashion by anybody ever. While producer Goldwyn has been the subject of Berg’s biography and countless other writings of film history, Potter isn’t exactly a household name. He only became director after Goldwyn fired William Wyler after three days for using too much film and allowed Merle Oberon to choose his replacement. Potter, while he directed some fun pictures like Mr. Blandings Builds his Dream House (1948), seems to be just another anonymous director from the studio era. His IMDB page doesn’t even have a photograph!
The film itself, which was another money-loser for Goldwyn, is completely harmless, stupid fun that also features the great Walter Brennan in a small role. Everything you would expect to happen, happens. There’s nothing at all remarkable about it, which makes it remarkable in a way, because it reflects 1938 and the power of the star system. I watched it on a Sunday night when I didn’t want to think too hard, and it fit the bill perfectly. While it’s a film I would never purchase on DVD for my collection, it’s great to see this offered on a service like FilmStruck where it won’t go unseen like so many other 80-year-old movies.
Now let’s see if I have the stomach for The Adventures of Marco Polo. Maybe not.