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Considered an unsuitable mate by the father of the woman he loves, Chicago hotel clerk Frank Harris (Jack Lemmon) decides to go West in pursuit of his dream to be a cowboy. He also hopes success in a real man's world will change his potential father-in-law's mind and help him rekindle the romance. Harris joins the cattle-driving outfit of Tom Reece (Glenn Ford) ready for adventure but soon realizes he's in for a lot tougher time than he bargained for. Eventually, the tenderfoot comes to appreciate an entirely different way of life with its own codes and values.
By this point in his career, after only four years and ten roles on the big screen, Jack Lemmon was already well on his way to establishing his image as the high-strung urban male. That made him the perfect choice to play Frank Harris in Cowboy (1958) and bring a lot of manic humor to the part of a city slicker struggling to make good in the tough world of the Old West. But it's Glenn Ford who provides the rock-solid center of the picture as trail boss Tom Reece, a decent, no-nonsense guy nearly driven to distraction by the inept rookie cowboy.
Ford was always rather likable on screen and could be counted on to bring a relaxed, genial sincerity to any role. He made his early mark in the 1940s in mostly slick contemporary roles, notably Bette Davis' husband in A Stolen Life (1946) and as the uncharacteristically (for him) nasty and cynical hero who toyed mercilessly with Rita Hayworth (and vice versa) in Gilda (1946). In the '50s, he logged much screen time in urban crime dramas like The Big Heat (1953) and Human Desire (1954), both for Fritz Lang. But he also found a comfortable niche in Westerns. Among the most successful of that genre were the three he made for director Delmer Daves. Jubal (1956) revealed a hardness under Ford's amiable exterior, and 3:10 to Yuma (1957) went even further in that direction, casting him as the villain in a twisted game of psychological cat and mouse with good guy Van Heflin. If Ford wasn't entirely comfortable in that role, Cowboy would make full use of both his hardened toughness and essentially decent nature.
While never considered one of the great artists among Hollywood filmmakers, Daves had a long and varied career as director, producer, and screenwriter and could be counted on for straightforward, unpretentious storytelling. At only 11 years old he made his film debut as an actor in a silent version of Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol (1915). He got a degree in law from Stanford University, but the movies soon called him back. By the 1920s he was acting again, but gave that up after 1932. Daves then penned some of the most popular films of the decade, including Dames (1934), The Petrified Forest (1936), and Love Affair (1939). He made his directorial debut with a war movie, Destination Tokyo (1943), and went on to distinguish himself in thrillers, costume dramas, and romances. But Westerns always remained closest to his heart - in his young days he spent time living on Hopi and Navajo reservations.
By the way, Cowboy was based on a true story, Frank Harris's own account of his attempts to be a cowpoke. Harris's book, My Reminiscences as a Cowboy, was adapted to the screen by Edmund H. North and Dalton Trumbo, who received no screen credit at the time because he had been blacklisted as one of the Hollywood Ten. And check the cast for appearances by Anna Kashfi (then married to Marlon Brando), Dick York (the first Darren on TV's Bewitched), and character actor Strother Martin (Paul Newman's road gang boss/nemesis in Cool Hand Luke, 1967).
Producer: Julian Blaustein
Director: Delmer Daves
Screenplay: Edmund H. North, Dalton Trumbo (uncredited), based on the book by Frank Harris
Cinematography: Charles Lawton, Jr.
Editing: Al Clark, William A. Lyon
Art Direction: Cary Odell
Original Music: George Duning
Principal Cast: Glenn Ford (Tom Reece), Jack Lemmon (Frank Harris), Anna Kashfi (Maria Vidal), Brian Donlevy (Doc Bender), Dick York (Charlie), Richard Jaekel (Paul Curtis), Strother Martin (Trailhand), King Donovan (Joe Capper), Victor Manuel Mendoza (Paco Mendoza), Vaughn Taylor (Mr. Fowler).
by Rob Nixon