The Hollywood Backstory on a Western Favorite
BY Trudy Ring
August 08 2012 8:00 AM ET
Pictured: Gary Cooper and Maria Schell
Piazza’s career certainly deserves more notice, and he’s one of several fine performers who surround Cooper in The Hanging Tree. Austrian actress Maria Schell plays independent Swiss immigrant Elizabeth, who comes under Dr. Frail’s care after a near-fatal stagecoach accident. The doctor restores her health but is also driven to control her, even as the two fall tentatively in love. Meanwhile, her presence in his home brings criticism from the judgmental townspeople, a portrait of small-town small-mindedness that will likely resonate with gay audiences. Also in the cast are George C. Scott, in his film debut but already in full throttle as a religious zealot who despises the doctor, and the ever-reliable Karl Malden as Frenchy, a hard-drinking, gold-greedy lecher with designs on Elizabeth.
Cooper “adored Karl Malden — respected him as an actor and liked him as a person,” says Janis. Malden, she says, “wasn’t caught up in his own image.” That didn’t keep Malden from being in awe of Cooper, though; producer Dick Shepherd, she says, told a story of hearing Malden muttering, “I can’t overact around him, I can’t underact around him, I just say my lines and get off the set.”
The Hanging Tree’s director, Delmer Daves, was one of Cooper’s favorite helmers, Janis says. Others include William Wellman, who directed Cooper in the first Best Picture Oscar winner, the silent Wings;William Wyler; Billy Wilder; High Noon’s Fred Zinnemann (her father’s “soul mate,” she says); and Henry Hathaway. Growing up as the only child of Cooper and Veronica “Rocky” Balfe, who acted briefly under the name Sandra Shaw, Maria considered Hathaway and his wife extended family.
Cooper had a production company that was responsible for bringing The Hanging Tree to the screen; he didn’t care to be a hands-on producer but liked finding stories he thought would make good movies, his daughter says. The film is adapted from a novel by Dorothy M. Johnson, whose writings also formed the basis of two other well-regarded Western films, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance and A Man Called Horse. The Hanging Tree attracted Cooper, Janis says, not only because of the nuanced character of Doc Frail, but also because of the stories he’d heard of the gold rush in his home state of Montana (Washington State stands in as the film location, however) and because of its examination of human nature in general. “The greed factor raises its head a lot,” she says.
While Cooper had a long and distinguished career, he had plans for many more films when he died at the relatively young age of 60. “There would have been a lot more to come,” Janis says. One of his dream projects may come as a surprise. “One of the stories he always wanted to act in was Don Quixote,” she says.
Gary Cooper tilting at windmills? An intriguing idea. But while that remains an impossible dream, audiences can view him in a great many films, and The Hanging Tree is a worthwhile addition to the list of choices. It’s available from Warner Home Video; for ordering information, check Warner Home Video.