The production of The Winning of Barbara Worth (1926) offers a great deal of history, not the least of which is the moment when the world met Gary Cooper, an instant star if ever there was one.
The Cooper story is reminiscent of Rashomon, with numerous versions of how the actor came to work on the picture, yet all accounts agree that he got the second lead (behind Ronald Colman) apparently by accident.
More important, he steals the film away from Colman by doing next to nothing. You can measure the meaning of star power by seeing how the camera chases him like a hungry puppy; there’s no one else on screen when Cooper is in the shot.
He spends most of his time in the film in his cowboy togs, but he also appears in a suit, looking incredibly elegant, and it must have been immediately clear to anyone with an eye for talent that this guy would never again be a second banana.
A few years later, Cooper hurdled the jump to sound, and when he landed on the other side, he was the quintessential leading man. He played everything: cowboy, sophisticate, hobo, baseball player, legionnaire, every kind of populist hero. Clark Gable and Cooper had a long standing friendly rivalry, but while Gable won audiences by sheer force of personality, Cooper ruled without exertion. He was grace personified. It was virtually impossible for him to look bad.
The silent film (Barbara Worth) is being released for the first time as part of this box set that also contains three other fine movies, Vera Cruz, The Cowboy and the Lady and The Real Glory. But there’s no fanfare in this collection—no extras, no commentary, zero marketing, zipsville. The set doesn’t even credit the people who restored this stunning tinted print or the organist who supplied the music.
It is still a genuine pleasure to watch the silent film and read literature about it on the Internet—apparently it was an adventure shooting the story in the Nevada desert, as it doubled for California. What’s more, the plot, which deals with diverting water, serves as a flashback for the movie Chinatown and the politics, and greed, that came with the taming of a wilderness.