BY GENE TRIPLETT
Maria Cooper Janis didn’t get to visit her father at work very often.
One of the most memorable exceptions came during the filming of the 1952 Western “High Noon.” That’s her on the cover of her book, “Gary Cooper Off Camera: A Daughter
Remembers.” She’s the pretty 14-year-old in the plaid dress, being spoon-fed from a cup of ice cream by the man in the string tie and black hat as they stand on the sweltering, dusty street of a frontier town, which was actually a movie set in Jamestown, Calif.
“Yes, you know, I remember it very clearly,” she said in a recent phone interview from her Manhattan home. “It was very, very etched in my brain … He felt it was boring for visitors and he was right. After the first 10 minutes it’s sit around and wait. There’s not a lot of fun stuff to see.
“And I think he just didn’t really like the feeling of the family hanging around the set. I don’t know if it actually inhibited him. I don’t think so. But he just felt more comfortable if we weren’t there. He didn’t forbid us to come, but it wasn’t a family tradition to go on the set of every picture.”
One of the many Cooper movies she didn’t get a behind-the-scenes look at was the seldom-seen 1959 Western, “The Hanging Tree,” and yet it’s one of her favorites of all her father’s films.
It’s now available for home viewing for the first time in nearly 20 years, remastered for DVD and manufactured on demand from the Warner Archive Collection.
“I’m so excited,” Janis said. “I’ve been waiting for this to happen for years, and so many people have written me and e-mailed me and said, ‘Why don’t we have “The Hanging Tree?” Where is “The Hanging Tree?”’ And I think Warner has such a wonderful standard of quality in the work that they do. I gathered in conversations over the years that they just didn’t want to do a less than really terrific job.
“And the trouble we first ran into was they thought they had a regular negative that they could work from and it was very deteriorated, and so that would have been a huge problem to be restored, and they found an inter-negative somewhere and they were able to work with that. So I am just so, so thrilled that this out and I saw an advance copy a couple of weeks ago and it’s beautiful. I mean you really think it was made yesterday.”
“The Hanging Tree” was actually filmed in the fall of 1958, most of it on location in the Oak Creek Wildlife Area northwest of Yakima, Wash., under the direction of Delmer Daves, with whom Cooper had worked on the 1949 war film “Task Force.”
“He (Cooper) was up in Yakima a lot and I was in school,” Janis recalls. “It wasn’t really possible (to visit) and I suspect he felt the accommodations at the mining camp weren’t the most luxurious. But we were very close friends of Delmer Daves and his family and my father liked working with Del a lot.”
In the screenplay by Wendell Mayes and Halsted Welles, based on a novel by Dorothy M. Johnson, Cooper stars as Joseph “Doc” Frail, a doctor, gambler and gunslinger with a tragic and controversial past who sets up practice in a Montana mining camp in the 1870s. Austrian/Swiss actress Maria Schell plays a woman who is seriously injured in a stagecoach robbery and comes under Frail’s care.
Karl Malden stars as an unscrupulous and opportunistic miner, Ben Piazza is a young sluice robber who becomes Frail’s indentured servant after the doctor saves him from a lynch mob, and George C. Scott makes his screen debut as a fire-and-brimstone faith healer who feels threatened by Frail’s presence.
“He liked working with (Scott),” Janis said. “He felt he was certainly a pro. I think that was one of the things that impressed my father, that he looked for in a colleague, was
someone who was a professional, who knew what was expected of him and knew his lines and did the work and didn’t throw fits and tantrums and that kind of stuff.”
Cooper and Malden would become great friends during and after the filming of “The Hanging Tree,” but Janis recalls that things were uneasy at first.
“Dick Shepherd, who was the producer, told me … it was one of the first days of shooting when Dick was standing there and the scenes were over and Malden went stalking back to his trailer muttering and mumbling and looking kind of upset, and Dick said, ‘I better go see what’s happening,’ and said to Karl, ‘What’s the matter? Can I do anything?’
“And Karl said, ‘No, go away, go away.’ And Dick said, ‘No, tell me what.’ Karl said, ‘I don’t know, working with that Cooper, I can’t overact him, I can’t under-act him. I just gotta say my lines and get off the set.’”Janis laughed and added, “It was kind of funny because I think Malden had come out of more of an Actor’s Studio tradition and I think Cooper’s understatement — or what seemed like understatement — was disconcerting at first. But they became great buddies and he developed a great friendship with Karl and tremendous respect for him.”
What she liked best about the film was the fact that her father — a 1966 inductee in the Hall of Great Western Performers at the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum — took on a role that was not the usual Cooper kind of character — a man with a very dark side.
“He swings from being a man with a pretty nasty temper, not very charming, to very tender and compassionate,” she said. “… My father had very beautiful hands. They were big hands, strong hands, but he uses them very gracefully and there is some interesting camerawork where he is dressing Maria Schell’s wounds and taking off the bandages and being very tender with her, and it struck me again how interesting his hands were.
“(But) you don’t usually expect a Cooper character to pump several bullets in a body and kick it over a cliff!”