It’s high time to honor High Noon’s Gary Cooper

Gary Cooper, one of the most popular and successful male stars of Hollywood’s Golden Age, will be celebrated in Los Angeles on April 24, more than 60 years after his death, but with his legacy more visible than ever. Thanks to the longtime efforts of his daughter, Maria Cooper Janis, now 84, his archive will be preserved at the University of Southern California, which will honor him with an exhibit of his most treasured memorabilia. And to pay tribute to the 70th anniversary of high noon, Cooper’s landmark photo will screen Sunday at the Turner Classic Movies Film Festival in Hollywood and the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books at USC. His daughter Maria, the keeper of the Cooper flame, will be present for both events.

In addition, Maria has just published a memoir, Gary Cooper off camera, girl remembers, the proceeds of which will go to a USC scholarship named in Cooper’s honor that supports Indigenous students. While all that Cooper hype came together in a sort of magical confluence, decades of work went into making it happen.

Western film star Gary Cooper in a promotional photo for the film ‘The Westerner’, Hollywood, California, 1940. By Underwood Archives/Getty Images.

First, a little background for the uninitiated. Born in Montana in 1901, Gary Cooper was still a teenager when his family moved to Los Angeles. By the age of 25, he was earning $10 a day as an extra in silent films, mostly westerns, and was usually on top of a horse. Off-camera, he saw studio head Sam Goldwyn’s secretary, Valeria Belletti. And when he visited her one day in the field, she tried to help him by asking screenwriter Frances Marion to size him up. Marion has always had an eye for tall, handsome men with chiseled features. (Namely: two of the most smoldering examples of Cooper’s face appear in the vanity lounge photographs shown here, by Edward Steichen, from 1928, and George Hoyningen-Huene, from 1934.)

After admiring Cooper with appreciation, Marion decided she would write him a role in the Ronald Colman film she was working on at the time. Barbara Worth’s victory. Halfway through production, however, Marion realized she would have to cut Cooper’s role—his commanding presence was stealing Colman’s image, Goldwyn’s biggest star. Yet the head of the studio resisted signing a contract with Cooper. Instead, Goldwyn was willing to start it at $65 a week and go up to $750 a week after six years, but balked at the $1,000 a week Cooper was withholding.

The result was that when Barbara Worth’s Victory premiere, Cooper was on his own, and by 10 a.m. the next morning a rival studio scout, who had been in the audience the previous night, had signed him to Paramount. The actor soon appeared on screen with Clara Bow, who also became his off-screen interest. Goldwyn had lost a star and her secretary had lost a boyfriend, but Cooper didn’t look back.

He made several films a year, appearing regularly in leading roles, until his death from cancer in 1961 at the age of 60. Over the decades he starred alongside nearly every major actor of the day, from Bow to Grace Kelly, co-starring luminaries such as Fay Wray, Colleen Moore, Marlene Dietrich, Sylvia Sidney, Carole Lombard, Tallulah Bankhead, Helen Hayes, Joan Crawford, Miriam Hopkins, Marion Davies, Jean Arthur, Claudette Colbert, Audrey Hepburn and Ingrid Bergman. The wide range of personas he was willing to take on is exemplified in the two films he made with Barbara Stanwyck: Meet John Doein which he depicts a blue-collar “everyone”, and Fireball, in which he plays a comical and endearing teacher. He also portrayed real-life heroes, such as Alvin York (Sergeant York) and Lou Gehrig (Yankees pride), often using her eyes more than dialogue to evoke emotion. In the process, Cooper was nominated for five Oscars, winning Best Actor for Sergeant York (1941) and high noon (1952). He also received a Lifetime Achievement Award in 1961, a month before his death.

Photograph by Edward Steichen.