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DVD Review: Gary Cooper – The Signature Collection A Classic Box Set

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Do you have any classic film fans in your family? Just in time for the Christmas season, Warner Brothers has released a five-film box set featuring one of the biggest stars of the silver screen, Gary Cooper. Cooper appeared in 107 films, starring in eighty-two over a career that spanned more than thirty years, and became one of the most popular actors of his generation. Tall and slender with piercing blue eyes, he made a name for himself as the strong, silent hero and helped define the western genre.

This collection spans the latter half of Cooper's career, starting with 1941's Sergeant York and ending with 1959's The Wreck of the Mary Deare. Not all the films in this collection would be considered “classics,” but they are all entertaining and a nice sampling of Cooper's varied career.

Sergeant York (1941), the centerpiece of the collection, tells the story of Alvin York. Based on true events, York was a farmer from Tennessee who won the medal of honor in WWI for leading an attack that overran a hill controlled by the Germans, killing 32 and capturing 132 others. Cooper's depiction of the reluctant hero won him his first Academy Award. He does a magnificent job making the transition from goofy hell-raiser to a reformed religious man, and shows the struggle between being true to both his God and his country. The true beauty of his performance and the film is that it manages not to be too heavy-handed. Laced with fabulous performances by Walter Brennan, Margaret Wycherly, and Joan Leslie under the legendary director Howard Hawks, this is truly a classic film.

The two-disc DVD includes a commentary track by film historian Jeannine Basinger, the classic Warner Brothers cartoon Porky's Preview, short film Lions for Sale, several Gary Cooper film trailers, a documentary on the making of Sergeant York, and a documentary on the life Gary Cooper.

Based on the best-selling novel by Ayn Rand and adapted for the screen by Rand herself, The Fountainhead (1949) follows the ascent of architect and stubborn individualist Howard Roark, played by Cooper. The film, like the book, follows Roark's struggle against those who would keep him from building his creations as he designs them. Along the way he encounters a select few who share his vision and admire his courage to stand up to the status quo no matter what the cost.

King Vidor directs this well-loved film. Patricia Neal co-stars as Dominique Francon, the woman who loves him. Raymond Massey plays the newspaper magnate and admirer of Roark, Gail Wynand, and Robert Douglas flawlessly plays Ellsworth Toohey, the man hell-bent on destroying Roark.

Often verging on the melodramatic, the film tends to come off as the Cliffs Notes version of the novel with each key point of the story being made by a quick scene of a couple lines cross-faded into the next. This seems to be because Vidor needed to save time for Roark's courtroom speech that concludes the film, which was the longest speech on film at the time. Vidor tried to cut down the speech, but Rand would not allow it.

Included on the DVD is a making-of featurette.

Not to be confused with the '80s TV show, Dallas (1950) puts Cooper back in the saddle for a fun western. Cooper plays Blayde Hollister, a former confederate officer wanted by the law masquerading as a Texas marshal. He heads to Dallas looking for the man who murdered his family, and manages to find a place to start a new life along the way.

This is an entertaining film, mixing action with nice moments of comedy. Cooper is in his element here. His opening scenes with Wild Bill Hickok are very well done and set up the character of Hollister as an honorable man wanted by the law for a crime he did not commit. Leif Erickson plays the Marshal Martin Weatherby, a man who bit off more than he bargained for to win the hand of a local rancher's daughter.

Springfield Rifle (1952) is a bit misleading in its title. The film is about Major Lex Kearney (Cooper), a disgraced Union soldier trying to clear his name. A band of horse thieves have been ambushing Union soldiers and stealing their stock. While leading a transport, Kearney retreats in the face of a greater force, but is court-martialed for cowardice. Without military support he infiltrates the enemy operation to try and stop the thieves.

While the Springfield rifle does eventually play a role, the film is more about the adoption of espionage into the arsenal of military strategy, and the sacrifices made to prove its worth. This is a great war/western film. Cooper plays the part of the disgraced officer well, keeping the humiliation bubbling beneath the surface as it drives him through the film. Lon Chaney Jr. puts up a fine performance as the not-so-sharp second in command of the band of raiders and foil to Cooper.

The Wreck of the Mary Deare (1959) is a good sea-faring mystery. John Sands (played by Charlton Heston) and his salvage crew find a freighter, the Mary Deare, adrift on the English Channel. The crew is missing, the hold is smoldering, and it is heading for a watery grave. Before he can attempt to salvage her, however, Heston finds the ship is not completely deserted. The ship's second in command and acting captain Gideon Patch (Gary Cooper) is the only member of the crew left, but he only sparks more questions instead of answering them. Rough seas force Sands to stay aboard the Mary Deare while his ship heads to safer waters, and Sands tries to find out what really happened on the freighter.

This is Cooper's next to last film before his untimely death due to cancer. Despite his failing health, he put on another great performance as the maligned officer trying to clear his name. Charlton Heston, already a star in his own right, does a nice job stepping back and letting Cooper take center stage. Heston's own huge hit Ben Hur was released two weeks after Deare. Also notable in the film is screen legend Richard Harris in one of his first film roles. Harris is known best by younger audiences as the original Dumbledore in the first two Harry Potter films.

From some of Cooper's best to some of the more obscure films, this is an excellent box set perfect for anyone interested in the films of one of the cinema's greatest actors of all time.

Some notes on the box set: Five films on six discs, with three featurettes, one classic film feature, and a classic Warner Brothers cartoon. The Wreck of the Mary Deare is widescreen, the other films are full screen.

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