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Gary Cooper's first shot as a movie producer was a spoof of the Western genre and his own strong, silent image - Along Came Jones (1945). Cooper, who established himself as a cowboy hero to be reckoned with in his first talkie, The Virginian (1929), plays against type as an inept, gun-shy saddle bum who wanders into town with his sidekick (William Demarest), and is mistaken for bad-guy gunslinger Monte Jarrad (Dan Duryea). Cooper plays along with the ruse for a while because his new identity earns him the respect and fear he's never known in his life. But when the real Jarrad shows up to challenge him, Cooper/Jones is revealed to be useless with a gun and - in an ending that looks ahead to the later Cooper classic High Noon (1952) - has to be saved at the last minute by sharp shooting love interest Loretta Young.
After the film's initial screenings, Cooper was raked over the coals by Cecil B. DeMille, who had directed the actor in three previous pictures, including Cooper's performance as Western legend Wild Bill Hickock in The Plainsman (1937). DeMille thought it was a foolish idea for Cooper to kid his own image; he saw it as a betrayal of the fans' idolization of him as a screen hero. In spite of his own misgivings about the role, Cooper was rewarded with a box office success, thanks in part to the personal appearance tour he made to promote it.
The star's greater misgivings concerned his responsibilities as the producer. It was not a part the easygoing, polite Cooper was best cut out for. He had been talked into it by Nunnally Johnson, a successful screenwriter with four Oscar® nominations to back it up. The two had formed International Pictures and produced an earlier Cooper comedy, Casanova Brown (1944). Johnson decided to focus their next joint venture on his own comic adaptation of a straight Western story by Alan Le May, author of several novels and stories made into movies, including John Ford's The Searchers (1956). But Cooper soon found producing to be a major chore. In one memorable incident, he balked at signing off on designs for Young's simple ranch outfits when he found out they would cost about $175 each. Since these were supposed to be "cheap store dresses" anyway, Cooper wanted to know why they couldn't cut costs by buying ordinary dresses at less than ten percent of the price. It was explained to Cooper that the studio-made costumes would be wrinkle-resistant and hold up better over repeated takes. But what apparently really changed his mind was the realization that as producer he would have to be the one to explain to a glamorous actress like Loretta Young that she was being placed in $7 off-the-rack outfits.
Along Came Jones would prove to be Cooper's first and last venture as producer. (International Pictures later merged with Universal Studios to become the motion picture giant Universal-International.) Associates said his greatest difficulty was standing firm on his decisions. And reportedly the person who took the greatest advantage of this shortcoming was Johnson himself, who took his sweet time delivering a finished script until others advised Cooper to prod the writer more. Conversely, it was Johnson who was forced to point out to the normally very prepared and professional Cooper that the distractions of producing were keeping him from showing up on set as an actor with his lines memorized and ready to shoot.
Johnson's biggest problem, however, was with director Stuart Heisler, and his outspokenness on the matter almost got the writer blackballed from Hollywood. Heisler began his career as an editor (including work on two Cooper pictures from a decade earlier) and had been hired for this film largely on the strength of one of his first features as director, the boy-and-his-dog story The Biscuit Eater (1940). But Johnson felt that Heisler's work on Along Came Jones was a self-conscious attempt to mimic John Ford and not in keeping with the spirit of the comic story. He described Heisler as "one of the two or three directors I ever had any genuine antipathy for" and told a reporter that Heisler's main contribution was overworking the actors and keeping them past their six o'clock quitting time. The statement was misquoted so that it read as if Johnson had said this about all directors, upsetting the Screen Directors Guild to such a degree that Mervyn LeRoy and Edmund Goulding proposed and seconded a resolution that no one ever work with the writer again. As a result, Johnson was forced to apologize and defend himself against a statement he never made. He later became good friends with LeRoy and worked with Goulding on two pictures. As for Heisler, he went on to direct a number of films before moving into TV, where he worked on such Western series as Lawman, Rawhide and The Virginian, loosely based on the old Cooper picture.
Along Came Jones later became the title of a hit 1959 song about a "slow walkin', slow talkin', long, lean, lanky" Western movie hero, recorded by the Coasters, an R&B group known for novelty tunes. In 1991, country-western artist George Jones used it as the title of one of his albums.
Director: Stuart Heisler
Producer: Gary Cooper
Screenplay: Nunnally Johnson, based on a story by Alan Le May
Cinematography: Milton Krasner
Editing: Thomas Neff
Production Design: Wiard Ihnen
Original Music: Arthur Lange, Al Stewart, Hugo Friedhofer (uncredited), Charles Maxwell (uncredited)
Cast: Gary Cooper (Melody Jones), Loretta Young (Cherry de Longpre), William Demarest (George Fury), Dan Duryea (Monte Jarrad).
by Rob Nixon