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COWBOY AND THE LADY, THE(director: H.C. Potter; screenwriters: S.N. Behrman/Sonya Levien; cinematographer: Gregg Toland; editor: Sherman Todd; music: Alfred Newman/Lionel Newman/Arthur Quenzer; cast: Gary Cooper (“Stretch” Willoughby), Merle Oberon (Mary Smith), Patsy Kelly (Katie Callahan), Walter Brennan (Sugar), Fuzzy Knight (Buzz), Mabel Todd (Elly), Henry Kolker (Judge Horace Smith), Harry Davenport (Uncle Hannibal Smith), Emma Dunn (Ma Hawkins), Berton Churchill (Henderson); Runtime: 91; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Samuel Goldwyn; United Artists; 1938)
“Coop underwhelms with too much rube charm and drawling.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

H.C. Potter (“The Farmer’s Daughter”) helms this weakly drawn hick comedy Western. It’s penned in the credits by S.N. Behrman and Sonya Levien; supposedly the studio boss Goldwyn demanded rewrites, even during the filming. Though not listed in the credits, it’s rumored that Leo McCarey cowrote the story in three days but turned down the studio’s offer to direct by saying he “wouldn’t touch that crap.” There were uncredited contributions also from Anita Loos and Dorothy Parker. The only thing about this slight film that stands on its own merits is Gregg Toland’s first-rate photography. Merle Oberon is miscast as Mary Smith, the spoilt little rich girl who falls for rodeo cowboy “Stretch” Willoughby (Gary Cooper). She needed more spice to make her character more spirited. Mary’s the bored daughter of effete Easterner Judge Horace Smith (Henry Kolker), a presidential candidate. Coop underwhelms with too much rube charm and drawling. The insubstantial satire on the war of the classes was able to win an Academy Award for its Sound.

The sheltered Mary leads a drab life. When her good-natured Uncle Hannibal Smith (Harry Davenport) takes her to a gambling club for some laughs, the club is raided by the police–an embarrassment to her presidential hopeful father. The Judge reacts by sending her to his Palm Beach estate in Florida. Mary attends the rodeo and falls for Stretch, and poses as the parlor maid. The real maids, Patsy Kelly (Katie Callahan) and Mabel Todd (Elly), don’t blow her cover. Never letting on who she really is she wins him over with a hard luck story of supporting her family as a maid, and on a lark she gets him to elope aboard a ship to Galveston, Texas. When it’s learned of her father’s impending visit to Palm Beach, Mary is afraid to tell Stretch the truth because he doesn’t cotton to the idle rich. Mary convinces him go on alone to Montana while she makes an excuse to return solo to Palm Beach.

The chickens come home to roost when Stretch makes a surprise visit and crashes the Judge’s snotty Henderson dinner party to gain financial support for his campaign, and in the process discovers Mary’s real identity. The elite guests poke fun at the rube cowboy but he holds his ground by being sincere and gives them a heartfelt speech chiding them for looking down on the common folks, which makes Mary’s heart go out to him. Things naturally turn out okay, as the Judge learns to get over his snob problem with the help of Uncle Hannibal. Stretch arrives back home in Montana and finds Mary’s entire family is staying with his bossy landlady, Ma Hawkins (Emma Dunn), and are trying to get the knack of how to live a simpler life. You just want to say hee-haw after all that melodrama.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”