"Some days I was a cowboy before lunch and
an Injun in the afternoon..."

 


In his film debut -
The Winning of Barbara Worth
(1926)

And good money it was, for 1925 - $10 a day plus a box lunch; Frank did not hesitate to join his friends on their next rounds to the casting directors.

During 1925 and 1926, Frank never lacked for work - and the more spectacular the falls he pulled off, the more he was paid.

He had a series of photos taken of himself in the styles of Valentino, Ramon Navarro, Tom Mix (all big stars of the day), and also made the acquaintance of Nan Collins, a casting director and actor's agent.

Ms. Collins saw potential in the lanky young man and agreed to work on his behalf. Strange as it may seem, there were already two other 'Frank Cooper's in films, so Nan Collins suggested her new client change his first name. "Nan came from Gary, Indiana and suggested I adopt that name," Cooper said later. "Good thing she didn't come from Poughkeepsie." There is something a little catchy about "Poughkeepsie Cooper", but understandably Frank became Gary that day, and Gary Cooper it would remain.

In the Fall of 1926, when Nan Collins heard that director Henry King was looking for riders in his film The Winning of Barbara Worth, she sent him a screen test of her newly named client. King hired Gary at fifty dollars a week for a small part in the silent film, which starred Ronald Colman and Vilma Banky. But then came the kind of happenstance that is sometimes thought only Hollywood myth:  the actor who was to play the pivotal role of Banky's doomed suitor could not get out of a former commitment, and director King gave the role to Cooper.

Cooper's good looks and naturalness on camera were immediately noticed by audiences and critics alike. Variety Weekly even went so far as to say that Cooper "came near taking the stuff away from Colman," and predicted "Cooper is a youth who will be heard of on the screen."

Paramount Pictures agreed - Cooper was offered a contract at $150.00 a week and he accepted.

Coop was also being noticed off-screen, most notably by Clara Bow. Ms. Bow was something of a legend in her own time - the epitome of the uninhibited free-spirited flapper both in her films and in her (not so) private life. She and Cooper entered into a torrid affair, and Ms. Bow insisted on his being cast in her latest movie, "It."  Even though his role was only a two-scene bit, publicity about their affair took hold, with the press proclaiming that the "It" Girl had found her "It" Boy.

Cooper's reaction to this label can only be imagined, but the publicity certainly did him no harm, especially after he was fired from his next venture, Children of Divorce, because his rushes were so terrible. (He was later re-hired and scenes were re-shot by non other than Josef von Sternberg.)

Cooper's first starring role was next - 1927's Arizona Bound, which was shot in only two weeks. He played a cowboy who saves a gold shipment from bandits, and wins the girl (Betty Jewell) besides.

Paramount next put Cooper into one of their biggest productions, Wings, a WWI story directed by William Wellman.

Coop had one scene in the film, but such was his impact on audiences that after the film's release the studio was flooded with letters asking the name of the pilot who ate a chocolate bar and then jauntily went off to his death in battle. (Wings also has the distinction of being the very first film to win the Academy Award as Best Picture.)

In less than two years, Cooper had gone from cowboy extra to co-star of such luminaries of the day as Fay Wray, Evelyn Brent and Colleen Moore.

In 1928 sound in films was encroaching, rather hesitantly in some cases (Lilac Time ads boasted "Photophone Sound Effects").

With his seventh film released that year, The Shopworn Angel, audiences heard Cooper's voice for the first time in the closing scenes with co-star Nancy Carroll.

Wolf Song (1929) was also a "part-talkie" in that it had two songs preceded by dialogue. Cooper's co-star was "Mexican Spitfire" Lupe Velez, with whom he was living at the time - an arrangement that caused a major sensation in the days when the unwed just didn't do that. Ms. Velez apparently lived up to her nickname, reportedly taking a shot at Cooper when he decided to extricate himself from the affair. (Luckily, she missed.)


with Colleen Moore in Lilac Time (1928)



with Lupe Velez on the set of Wolf Song (1929)

Cooper's mother did try to discourage her son's relationship with the fiery Velez; Mrs. Cooper would have preferred another woman to whom Gary was close - actress Evelyn Brent. The two talked of marriage, but eventually drifted apart.

The studio chose Cooper's next film with care - it would be his first all-talking picture. They settled on Owen Wister's The Viginian, which had been filmed twice before. This version, directed by Victor Fleming, was filmed in the High Sierras. Cooper's co-stars were Mary Brian, Richard Arlen, and Walter Huston as the villain, Trampas.

The film was a popular and critical success, and Cooper's future in the new medium of sound movies was assured.

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