William Wyler’s “The Westerner,” made by the Samuel Goldwyn Company in 1940, stars Walter Brennan as hanging Judge Roy Bean, who was based on a real person that idolized British actress Lily Langtry. Brennan’s Bean hangs horse thieves in a desolate town and sympathizes with cattlemen over homesteaders. When a drifter named Cole Harden, accused of stealing a horse, tells a tall tale about knowing Lily Langtry, Bean befriends him and hopes to use Harden to meet the great lady.
The Westerner ranks as one the great Westerns of all time, with great acting and chemistry between Brennan and Cooper. Director Wyler plays all the subtle strengths of these two great actors. Bean goes from menacing to trusting to a pathetic as his desire to meet Lily Langtry comes closer to reality. Brennan won the best supporting actor Oscar for his role, and he particularly shines in his scenes with Cooper.
Cooper started off the 1940s strong. He made The Westerner in 1940, and followed that with “Meet John Doe,” “Sergeant York,” and “Ball of Fire” in 1941 — and in 1942, he made “The Pride of the Yankees.” At that time, there must have been many roles everybody wanted Gary Cooper for. I suppose some of them went to Joel McCrea or John Wayne, but Cooper looked the most natural on a horse.