The Virginian is a 1929 Western film directed by Victor Fleming and starring Gary Cooper, Walter Huston, and Richard Arlen. The film was based on the 1902 novel The Virginian by Owen Wister and adapted from the popular 1904 theatrical play Wister had collaborated on with playwright Kirke La Shelle. The Virginian is about a good-natured cowboy who romances the new schoolmarm and has a crisis of conscience when he learns his best friend is involved in cattle rustling. The film is well known for Cooper's line, "If you wanna call me that—smile," in response to a cuss by the antagonist.
A man known only as the Virginian (Gary Cooper) is ranch foreman at Box H Ranch near Medicine Bow, Wyoming. At a saloon in Medicine Bow, he and the cattle rustler Trampas (Walter Huston) vie for the attentions of a barmaid; when Trampas insults him, the Virginian pulls a gun and tells him to smile. Soon afterwards, Molly Wood (Mary Brian), a new schoolteacher from Vermont, arrives in town. The Virginian and a drifter named Steve (Richard Arlen) vie for her attentions, but she ultimately chooses the latter. However, as Steve was his childhood friend, the Virginian gives him a job at the ranch.
Unhappy with the Virginian's violent nature, Molly tries to change him but is unsuccessful. Meanwhile, Steve and the Virginian enjoy playing pranks together, switching babies during a baptism; they also make quail calls for secret communications. However, Steve falls in with Trampas' gang. Although warned by the Virginian that no good will come of it, Steve continues with the gang. When they (minus Trampas) steal cattle from Box H Ranch, the Virginian is forced to hang all involved, including Steve. The Virginian vows revenge on Trampas for forcing him to do so.
Disgusted by The Virginian's callousness, Molly leaves him. However, after he is shot in the back by Trampas, she decides to treat him, and they fall deeper in love; they eventually decide to marry. On their wedding day, Trampas comes back to town for revenge and challenges the Virginian to a shoot-out. The Virginian quickly draws his six-shooter and kills the bandit in the streets. He then marries Molly, and the two prepare to open their own ranch.
The Virginian was based on the novel of the same name written by Owen Wister and published in 1902, as well as its 1904 stage play adaptation. This was the first talkie adaptation of the novel, with two silent film adaptations released in 1914 and 1923. The film was not entirely faithful to the book.
The film was directed by Victor Fleming; it was his first sound film. Gary Cooper, who had previously appeared in several silent films, was cast as the Virginian; it was his first leading role in a western, and his first talkie. He was coached in the Virginian's accent by Randolph Scott.
Production began in late May 1929, with shooting done in Sonora and Lone Pine, California. The train station scenes were filmed in Jamestown, California. There was little studio shooting. To shoot outdoor scenes, the filmmakers used blimped cameras (cameras with internal soundproofing), which were a recent innovation.
Rather than synchronize every sound on screen with a shown action, The Virginian treated sound as at times being independent of the action; this allowed for greater symbolism. The film also heavily used natural sounds, such as cattle. This was facilitated by the outdoor shooting locations.
The Virginian was released on 9 November 1929, with a theatrical rerelease in 1935. Bruce Eder, writing for Allmovie (a site run by the Rovi Corporation), notes that the film was a significant milestone in Cooper's career. According to the American Film Institute,The Virginian is "one of the first of the studio produced, large-scale, all-dialogue Westerns." However, as the main character has little dialogue, Cooper was typecast as a man of few words, described by film historian Lee Clark Mitchell as a "yup and nope" actor. Cooper later called it his favorite film.
The Virginian has been well received, with a 100% "fresh" rating on Rotten Tomatoes as of March 2012, based on five reviews. The review for Variety noted that the film mixed various aspects of previous Westerns. The review described the scene where The Virginian must send his comrades to certain death "one of the most harrowing and vivid sequences ever before the lenses". Eder praised the characterizations and use of sound, summarizing that the film was "a most worthwhile viewing experience". Film historian Colin Shindler notes that The Virginian, along with Cimarron, was one of the first Westerns to handle sound well. Film critic Emanuel Levy gives the film a B+, noting that Cooper showed moral conflict similar to his role in the later film High Noon (1952), which won an Academy Award.
Due to poor maintenance, by the 1960s the only surviving copies of The Virginian were of poor audio and visual quality; Eder describes them as being "a chore to watch". The alternative for most audiences was to watch the 1946 adaptation. In the 1990s, the film was restored and became more widely available. Another adaptation of the novel, a film series, ran 9 seasons beginning in 1962. The film also shaped the view of cowboys as chivalrous, slow-talking yet tough characters.