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The Winning of Barbara Worth

The Winning of Barbara Worth(1926)


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Independent producer Sam Goldwyn made this 1926 Western as a vehicle for two of his biggest silent stars, Vilma Banky and Ronald Colman. Beyond giving them a big hit that helped make them one of the silent screen's most popular screen teams, however, it also launched the career of a young actor who would start his rise to stardom during the silent era. With the coming of sound, Gary Cooper would become one of Hollywood's top stars, eventually eclipsing both of his co-stars in popularity.

Colman had been spotted by director Henry King doing stage work in London while King was casting The White Sister (1923), a Lillian Gish vehicle. At the time the film came out, many in Hollywood believed him to be an Italian actor, so Goldwyn was surprised when Colman was recommended as a possible leading man in his production of Stella Dallas (1925), also directed by King. After a good look, however, Goldwyn signed him to a long-term contract and gave him the male leads in two films made before Stella Dallas, Tarnish (1924), co-starring May McAvoy, and A Thief in Paradise (1925).

Goldwyn discovered Banky in 1925 while scouting European talent in search of the next Greta Garbo. While walking through Budapest with a reporter, he spotted her face on a post card displayed in a shop window and tried repeatedly to schedule a meeting with no success. She finally showed up at the train station as he was boarding to leave, and he was so impressed with her he missed his train. Goldwyn launched Banky with a massive publicity campaign, billing her as "The Hungarian Rhapsody," then teamed her with Colman for The Dark Angel (1925). She was an instant hit, and her stature grew when Rudolph Valentino personally chose her as his leading lady for what would become his last two films, The Eagle (1925) and The Son of the Sheik (1926). Those loan-outs made her Goldwyn's biggest moneymaker, so he naturally started looking for a vehicle with which to re-team her with Colman.

That project would be an adaptation of Harold Bell Wright's 1911 bestseller The Winning of Barbara Worth. Inspired by the Colorado River flood of 1908, Wright created the tale of a romantic triangle involving Barbara Worth, a foundling adopted by an engineer who dreams of damming the river, Willard Holmes, a young engineer who falls in love with Barbara when he comes out to help his foster father and Barbara's father complete the dam, and Abe Lee, a cowboy who loves Barbara. Wright had written the first million-selling novel, the often filmed The Shepherd of the Hills, and had become the first writer to turn himself into a millionaire solely from book sales. With over three million copies sold, The Winning of Barbara Worth was his most popular novel. The rights were initially picked up by producers Sol Lesser and Mike Rosenberg, but at King's urging, Goldwyn bought the property from them for $125,000. He then turned to Frances Marion to write the adaptation, telling her to cut whatever she needed to from the sprawling book as long as she kept the love triangle front and center.

Marion wrote the roles of Barbara and Willard for Banky and Colman, with Goldwyn also planning to cast Banky in a brief role as her character's mother, who dies in the desert after burying her husband. For Abe, the third part of the triangle, Goldwyn cast Harold Goodwin, a young actor who would become best known for his appearances in two Buster Keaton classics, College (1927) and The Cameraman (1928). As things worked out, he would never be known for his performance in The Winning of Barbara Worth.

Goldwyn wanted to film the picture on a grand scale, so after signing King to direct, he sent him out scouting locations for the film's many exteriors. Although there would be some footage shot in the story's actual setting, California's Imperial Valley, King needed a place where they could actually build the fictional town named for the leading lady's character. After traveling throughout the Southwest, he found the perfect spot in the Black Rock Desert, a remote spot in Nevada close to the Oregon state line. Filming here would be a massive undertaking. Goldwyn got the Western Pacific Railroad to lay a special track to the film's location. He constructed a tent city housing 1,200 for the crew and extras, while also building a full town, complete with shops, homes and hotel, to serve as the set. Technicians drilled 185 feet to find water, but it could only be used for washing. Drinking water had to be hauled in from 200 miles away.

With so much construction going on in Nevada, King scheduled interiors first, to be shot at the Goldwyn Studios in Hollywood. There was only one problem. Goodwin had signed to appear in an Ernst Lubitsch film, The Honeymoon Express (1926), fully expecting production to finish in time to start work on The Winning of Barbara Worth. Only it didn't. With the Lubitsch film dragging on, King shot everything he could without Goodwin. Eventually, they were a few days away from moving the company to Nevada, but Goodwin was still tied up on the other picture.

While filming interiors, King had met with a young extra and stunt rider at the urging of Goldwyn's secretary, Valeria Belletti. She had spotted the young Gary Cooper around town, been struck by his good looks and thought he was a natural for film roles. Cooper immediately asked King for the role of Abe, but was told it was taken at the time. When he saw the actor's self-made screen test, King hired him as a stunt rider. With Goodwin still tied up, however, King used Cooper, or rather his back, to shoot some over-the-shoulder shots of Banky. His instructions to Cooper were simple: "All you have to do is keep your eyes on Vilma Banky." (Henry King, quoted in Kevin Brownlow, The Parade's Gone By...) Cooper did just that, even between shots, which impressed King tremendously.

With Goodwin still tied up, King finally decided to test Cooper for the role. The interior he needed him for was the character's most difficult scene in the picture. He had to enter a room exhausted, fall flat on his face and deliver some crucial information. Before King could film the scene, Goldwyn pulled him aside, appalled that he was wasting film shooting an inexperienced actor. He barked, "This is a big dramatic scene, and no damn cowboy can play it!" (Goldwyn, quoted in A. Scott Berg, Goldwyn: A Biography) King insisted on giving Cooper a shot. When the actor pulled the scene off perfectly, Goldwyn reappeared, having secretly spied on the shooting. This time, he was thrilled with the scene, and accused King of lying about Cooper's inexperience. They hired him for the role on the spot. They would eventually cut the scene that had served as Cooper's screen test, so he would not overshadow the film's stars.

What Cooper brought to the role, with coaching from King and Colman, was an intense naturalness. He had no trouble knowing how a cowboy would act; he had been raised on a ranch in Montana. But he also had none of the artifice of some of the stage-trained actors working in silent films. He didn't make big gestures and phony expressions to telegraph what his character was doing. He just did it. For his death scene, Colman advised him not to do anything, telling him "...all you have to do is take a nap, and every woman who sees it is going to cry her eyes out." That's exactly what Cooper did, and it was one of the most powerful scenes in the film.

That's saying a lot for a film that features a dramatic sandstorm at its beginning and a climactic flood. King actually had to destroy the town the production team had built as part of the flood, then do pick-up shots using miniatures. All of this was shot under grueling conditions. Temperatures rose to 130 degrees during the day and plummeted to below freezing at night. They had to suspend shooting each day from noon until 2 p.m. because of regular sandstorms. One blew over the exterior of the hotel. Ultimately, the weather caused about $10,000 in damages, only a fraction of the film's estimated $1 million cost.

Fortunately, The Winning of Barbara Worth proved a huge hit. It made the Banky-Colman partnership so popular, Goldwyn would team them in three other films, The Night of Love, The Magic Flame (both 1927) and Two Lovers (1928). Stardom would not last long for Banky, however. Her thick Hungarian accent coupled with her desire to focus on domestic life with new husband Rod La Rocque would end her career by the time she was 32, with only four talking films to her credit. With his stage-trained voice, Colman would continue as a star well into the talking pictures era, though his British accent and light baritone voice would rule out future wild West roles. He would continue with Goldwyn until 1933.

By contrast, Cooper was the one who got away. At the completion of The Winning of Barbara Worth, Goldwyn offered him a five-year contract starting at $75 a week. But he didn't seal the deal himself, assuming that King or the casting director would finalize negotiations. Instead, Cooper's agent got him a contract at Paramount. Within a few years, he was making $6,000 a week. When Goldwyn next tried to cast him, in King Vidor's The Wedding Night (1935), he ended up paying the star $75,000 for four weeks' work. They would continue working together over the years, with Cooper scoring particular successes for Goldwyn in The Westerner (1940), Ball of Fire (1941) and The Pride of the Yankees (1942).

A. Scott Berg, Goldwyn: A Biography
Kevin Brownlow, The Parade's Gone By...
Jeffrey Meyers, Gary Cooper: American Hero

Producer: Samuel Goldwyn
Director: Henry King
Screenplay: Frances Marion, Rupert Hughes
Based on the book by Harold Bell Wright
Cinematography: George Barnes, Gregg Toland
Score: Ted Henkel
Cast: Ronald Colman (Willard Holmes), Vilma Banky (Barbara Worth), Gary Cooper (Abe Lee), Charles Lane (Jefferson Worth), Paul McAllister (The Seer), E.J. Ratcliffe (James Greenfield), Erwin Connelly (Pat)

By Frank Miller

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