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Film Friday: «The Winning of Barbara Worth» (1926)

Directed by Henry King, The Winning of Barbara Worth (1926) begins with a woman (Vilma Bánky) burying her husband in the desert. She and her young daughter, Barbara (Carmencita Johnson), then get back in their covered wagon and continue to head West. At the same time, Jefferson Worth (Charles Lane) and his party — which includes Tex (Clyde Cook) and Pat Mooney (Erwin Connelly) — are also travelling West. They all run into a violent sandstorm and try to take cover. Once the storm clears, Mr. Worth and his companions find Barbara clinging to her dead mother in the sand. Mr. Worth decides to adopt the girl and raise her as his own daughter.

Fifteen «sun-parched» years pass and Barbara Worth (Vilma Bánky) is now a grown woman beloved by her childhood friend, Abe Lee (Gary Cooper), a young engineer who surveys the desert with his father, Henry, the Seer (Paul McCallister). Mr. Worth wants to build a dam on the Colorado River to bring irrigation to the vast arid land he owns. To help him do so, he secures a loan from a New York banker, James Greenfield (E. J. Ratcliffe), who soon arrives in town accompanied by his foster son and chief engineer, Willard Holmes (Ronald Colman).
Barbara Worth: Out here, Mr. Holmes, one doesn't learn how to say 'I love you' — one learns how to prove it. Buenos noches, señor.
The unscrupulous and avaricious Greenfield builds a cheap and dangerous intake at the river to swindle the settlers of their money. Worth then moves away to form another city, offering the settlers free land and water, but Greenfield shuts off his credit and breeds discontent among his workers. To bring money, Willard and Abe make a desperate ride across the mountains and succeed, though Abe is wounded. Greenfield's dam overflows and floods his town, but Willard succeeds in building a new dam. In the end, he and Barbara get married.

The son of a wealthy silk merchant, Ronald Colman was educated at a boarding school in Sussex, England, where he discovered a passion for amateur theatre. He intended to study engineering at Cambridge University, but his father's sudden death when he was 15 years old made it financially impossible. Instead, Colman found work as a clerk at the British Steamship Company, before joining the London Scottish Regiment as a Territorial Army soldier. At the outbreak of World War I in 1914, he was sent to France to take part in the fighting on the Western Front. During the Battle of Messines in October of that year, Colman was severely wounded by shrapnel on his ankle, which gave a him limp that he would try to hide for the rest of his life.
Discharged from the Army in 1915, Colman decided to pursue an acting career and appeared in a series of increasingly prominent stage roles, both in London and New York. In late 1922, while performing on Broadway in the drama play La Tendresse, Colman was spotted by director Henry King, who proceeded to cast him as Lilian Gish's leading man in The White Sister (1923). His success in the film led to a long-term contract with independent producer Samuel Goldwyn, who soon offered him the male lead in Tarnish (1924) and A Thief in Paradise (1925).
Vilma Bánky and Ronald Colman in The Winning of Barbara Worth
In early 1925, Goldwyn travelled to Europe in search of the next Greta Garbo. While walking through Budapest with a newspaperman, Goldwyn noticed a picture postcard displayed in a shop window that featured «one particularly beautiful woman» named Vilma Bánky. The producer learned that she was a motion picture actress with experience in Austria and Germany, currently working at a small studio across the Danube. The reporter arranged for Goldwyn to meet her on set the next day, but Bánky missed the appointment. She finally showed up at the train station as Goldwyn was boarding to leave; he was so impressed with her that he missed his train.
Signing Bánky to a contract, Goldwyn launched her arrival in Hollywood with a massive publicity campaign, hailing her as «The Hungarian Rhapsody.» For her first American film, the World War I drama The Dark Angel (1925), Goldwyn decided to pair her with Colman, who was by then his top male star. When the film became a huge financial success, Goldwyn naturally began looking for a new vehicle to reunite his profitable new screen couple.

Vilma Bánky as Barbara Worth
The next Bánky-Colman project would be an adaptation of the 1911 best-selling novel by Harold Bell Wright, The Winning of Barbara Worth, an «epic tale of the reclamation of the Imperial Valley by harnessing the Colorado River» following the flood of 1908.
Wright had originally sold the screen rights to his book to producers Sol Lesser and Mike Rosenberg of Principal Pictures in 1922. King went to Goldwyn and convinced him to purchased the property from them, arguing that the picture deserved a bigger production than what Principal was planning. Goldwyn paid Lesser and Rosenberg a record $125,000, rationalizing that since almost 3 million copies of the novel had been sold, he was «buying an audience of 10 million people.» He explained to the press his interest in the book: «I have always wanted to make a desert story. I've never found a story that was big enough. The appeal of The Winning of Barbara Worth is as vast as the earth — this story is converting a hell of parched lands into a paradise. This mighty struggle of man against nature. It's drama in itself.»

Vilma Bánly and Henry King on the set of The Winning of Barbara Worth

To adapt The Winning of Barbara Worth to the screen, Goldwyn hired Frances Marion, who had also penned The Dark Angel. In his instruction notes to her, Goldwyn wrote, «Many characters have to be eliminated and the love story has to be brought out before big picture can be made of it.» As a result, Marion truncated the early years of exposition into a prologue, making the romantic triangle between Barbara Worth, Willard Holmes and Abe Lee the «heart» of the film. She wrote the roles of Barbara and Willard for Bánky and Colman, with Goldwyn also planning to cast the actress in a brief role as her character's mother, who dies in a sandstorm.
To play Abe, Goldwyn initially cast Harold Goodwin, who would become best remembered for his appearances in two Buster Keaton comedies, College (1927) and The Cameraman (1928), in addition to a role in the Best Picture winner All Quiet on the Western Front (1930). 
Ronald Colman with cinematographer  J. C. Scrugram on the set
Goldwyn wanted to shoot The Winning of Barbara Worth as a big-budget epic — «he was determined to transform the novel into a powerful, gripping drama of the West, complete with a beautiful love story that transcended madness.» Once Goldwyn signed King to direct, he dispatched him to scout locations for the film's many exteriors. Although there was some footage captured in the story's actual setting, California's Imperial Valley, King felt he needed a place where they could build the fictional town named for Barbara Worth.
After travelling «across the sands of California, Arizona and New Mexico,» King finally found the location he wanted in the Black Rock Desert, between the towns of Gerlach and Winnemucca in Nevada. «This was an elevation of 6,000 feet and the most barren desert you have ever seen,» King said. «But it was just right for our picture.» 
Building of the spur railroad track for The Winning of Barbara Worth
Goldwyn spared no expense when it came to building Barbara Worth. Reportedly, almost 2,000 people were employed to create the massive setting of The Winning of Barbara Worth. Three false-front cities were constructed to serve as the fictitious towns of Rubio City, Kingston, San Felipe and other smaller locations created by Wright. A tent city was erected alongside the film set, complete with a mess hall, a recreation center, a bakery and an infirmary for treating any illnesses or injuries. In addition, technicians drilled 185 feet (56 meters) below the desert in order to install a plumbing and sanitation system. Drinking water, however, had to be hauled in from 200 miles (321 kilometers) away. Goldwyn also requested that the Western Pacific Railroad build a spur track connecting the main line to what was becoming Barbara Worth, Nevada.  
Because of the time needed to build the Nevada sets, normal procedure was reversed and the interiors of the film were shot first at the Goldwyn Studios in Culver City. But there was still one problem that needed to be resolved. Goodwin had signed to appear in Ernst Lubitsch's drama The Honeymoon Express (1926), made for Warner Bros., fully expecting production to finish in time to start work on The Winning of Barbara Worth. Lubitsch, however, ran over schedule on his picture and was unable to release Goodwin. King filmed everything he possibly could without Goodwin, who was still tied up in The Honeymoon Express by the time Goldwyn made arrangements to move the company to Nevada to begin location shooting. 
Gary Cooper in The Winning of Barbara Worth
While King was filming interiors, Goldwyn's secretary, Valeria Belleti, «caught sight of a cowboy who took her breath away. He was six feet two inches tall, weighed a lean one hundred eighty pounds, had a rugged face softened by big sensitive blue eyes, a sensual mouth, and an unruly hank of brown hair.» The second son of a Montana State Supreme Court justice, 25-year-old Gary Cooper had so far succeeded only in landing a few jobs as an extra and stunt rider, but he «had his heart and soul set on playing Abe Lee» in The Winning of Barbara Worth. Smitten by the young actor, Belleti used every bit of influence she could to give Cooper a break. When she discovered that Goldwyn was not interested in her opinion, she began raving about Cooper to Marion, before going to Bob McIntyre, the head of casting, and finally to King. 
Cooper, who had been loitering outside McIntyre's office, got to meet King one morning and immediately asked him for the role of Abe. The director explained that the role had already been filled, but did agree to see Cooper's self-made screen test. «He had paid to have it made on Poverty Row,» King later recalled. «All he did was ride up on a horse, make a gallant, look at the camera, and walk into a saloon.» Although King was not particularly impressed by Cooper's audition reel, he admitted to McIntyre, «Well, anyway, he can ride a horse.»
Vilma Bánky and Gary Cooper in The Winning of Barbara Worth

Days before the company moved to Nevada, King had to film a scene between Barbara and Abe that required at least the body of the actor. Since Goodwin was still engaged in The Honeymoon Express, King decided to put Cooper in Abe's costume and shoot the sequence with him instead. «All you have to do,» he told Cooper, «is to keep your eyes on Vilma Bánky.» King was utterly surprised when Cooper stood in the same spot from eight in the morning until twelve: «No matter where Vilma Bánky went, his eyes followed her — whether we were shooting or not.» Cooper played a few more scenes with his back to the camera, until King thought to himself, «if he can do the scene at the hotel — where he rides across the desert for twenty-four hours to bring the news to Mr. Worth — then I'm not going to wait for the man from Warner Brothers.»

King met Cooper on the set the next morning and rehearsed him for his first big scene, explaining every detail and nuance. The sequence, which also involved Colman, Charles Lane and Paul McAllister, required Cooper to enter a room exhausted, attempt to deliver some crucial information to Mr. Worth and then fall flat on his face. Just as King was about to shoot the scene, however, Goldwyn pulled him aside, appalled that he was wasting money by putting «that damn cowboy in one of the biggest parts in the picture. [...] That is a big dramatic scene and no damn cowboy can play it.» King said that he had no choice; they had finished every scene up to their leaving for Nevada and waiting for Goodwin would be more expensive than trying the sequence with Cooper. 
Vilma Bánky, Ronald Colman and Gary Cooper

King returned to the set, «got the people back into the mood» and filmed the scene with Cooper, who pulled it off perfectly. Having secretly spied on the shooting, an impressed Goldwyn apparently then said to King, «Henry, he's the greatest actor I have ever seen in my life. [...] Let's sign him up.» As King later recalled, «I ran back onto the set and I made the close-up of Gary. Then I said, 'Gary, you have the part.' He was just as bewildered by that as he was when he stood in the door.»
Marion, too, was captivated by Cooper's dramatic portrayal of an exhausted man collapsing. «This guy is going to steal the picture,» she announced to King. «If you leave in the scene where he rides twenty fours hours across the desert, you better give the part to Colman, because this guy will be hero of the picture.» King and Goldwyn both agreed with Marion, and she was subsequently instructed to rewrite the scene so that Cooper was injured early in their ride and Colman alone arrives with the money to save the town of Barbara Worth from disaster.  
Filming The Winning of Barbara Worth on location in Nevada
The cast and crew of The Winning of Barbara Worth finally moved to Nevada in June 1926. The film production process was extremely well organized. King declared alcohol off-limits at the shooting locations and even hired two agents from the Nevada Prohibition Administrator to ensure that the camp stayed «dry.» In addition, cast and crew were required to take all meals at the mess tent, while men and women were not allowed in each other's quarters. King also imposed a curfew and carefully rationed water, since it cost $150 per tanker load to be hauled out to the site.
Filming on location in Nevada proved a rather difficult challenge. As soon as they arrived, a sandstorm and a cloudburst blew down several buildings and tents, setting production back three days. Temperatures varied from over 37º C (100º F) in the daytime to below freezing at night, forcing King to change the shooting schedule to begin at five o'clock in the morning and move the curfew from ten o'clock to nine. Another mishap occurred when cook Walter Ordson accidentally set the commissary tent on fire, which also burned down a sleeping tent and two storage shelters. During the almost three months of location shooting, King said, «the company underwent greater hardship than the people who had settled the Imperial Valley.» 
Ronald Colman and Vilma Bánky in The Winning of Barbara Worth
Despite all the accidents, filming of The Winning of Barbara Worth seemed to be a pleasant experience for everyone involved. On breaks, Bánky and Colman would drink a glass of iced tea, a favorite beverage of hers, and listen to music (she had a phonograph in her bungalow).
The young cowboy from Montana was welcomed into the cast and enjoyed coaching from both King and Colman. For his death scene, Colman gave Cooper some good advice about the kind of natural, minimal acting that would become his trademark: «Easy does it, old boy. Good scenes make good actors. Actors don't make a scene. My own feeling is that all you have to do is take a nap, and every woman who sees the picture is going to cry her eyes out.» Indeed, Cooper «found that dying on the screen was a lot easier than falling off a horse and a lot more comfortable. I just lay in Colman's arms and pretended I was taking a nap.» 
Gary Cooper and Ronald Colman in The Winning of Barbara Worth
The Winning of Barbara Worth was an immediate commercial success upon its premiere at the Forum Theatre in Los Angeles, on October 14, 1926. The little town of Winnemucca, Nevada had its own special premiere on December 7, with seats filled by the same townspeople who had served as extras earlier that summer. Critical reviews were highly favorable as well. Variety described the film as «incomparable in telling a new angle of the development of the West.» For his part, Edwin Schallet of The Los Angeles Times, who had spent some time with the crew on location in Nevada, considered that the picture «affords a vision of new meaning with which the pictures of western locales must be endowed in the future.» 
The success of The Winning of Barbara Worth made the Bánky-Colman partnership so popular that Goldwyn soon paired them in three more films, The Night of Love (1927), The Magic Flame (1927) and Two Lovers (1928). However, stardom would not last long for Bánky; her thick Hungarian accent, along with her desire to focus on domestic life with new husband and fellow actor Rod La Rocque, would end her career by the time she was 32, with only four «talkies» to her credit. With his stage-trained voice, Colman would continue as a star well into the sound era, although his cultured British accent and light baritone timbre would rule out future Western roles. He remained under contract to Goldwyn until 1933. 
Gary Cooper as Abe Lee in The Winning of Barbara Worth
After Cooper was hailed as a «dynamic new personality» for his performance in The Winning of Barbara Worth, Goldwyn rushed to offer the young actor a long-term contract starting at $75 a week. However, Cooper's agent, Nan Collins, persuaded him to sign instead with producer Jesse L. Lasky at Paramount Pictures. Lasky recalled that when he asked Cooper, «How'd you like to become a regular actor?' [...] he fiddled with his hat and was silent. 'Well, I don't know if I could.' He hemmed and hawed and seemed anxious to escape. We almost had to bulldog him to get his name on a five-year contract.»
Cooper began working at Paramount at $175 a week, and the studio soon turned him into a superstar by putting in such acclaimed films as Wings (1927) — the first film to win an Academy Award for Best Picture — Morocco (1930) and A Farewell to Arms (1932). When Goldwyn next hired him, for King Vidor's The Wedding Night (1935), he had to pay the Cooper $75,000 for four weeks' work. They would continue working together over the years, with Cooper scoring particular successes for Goldwyn in The Westerner (1940), Ball of Fire (1941) and The Pride of the Yankees (1942), for which he received the third of five Oscar nominations.

Gary Cooper: American Hero by Jeffrey Meyers (Cooper Square Press, 2001)
Goldwyn: A Biography by A. Scott Berg (Simon & Schuster, 2013)
It Happened in Nevada: Remarkable Events That Changed History by Elizabeth Gibson (Morris Book Publishing, 2010)
More Than a Dream: Rediscovering the Life and Films of Vilma Bánky by Rachel A. Schildgen (1921 PVG Publishing, 2010)
The Parade's Gone By... by Kevin Brownlow (University of California Press, 1996)
Without Lying Down: Frances Marion and the Powerful Women of Old Hollywood by Cari Beauchamp (University of California Press, 1998)
TCM's article on The Winning of Barbara Worth


  1. I'm so excited that you have started watching silent films! Like you, when I first started my old movies journey the idea of watching a black and white films was terrifying enough- let alone a silent film!!! It probably took me upwards of two years to fully embrace them and I'm so glad I have. I haven't seen "The Winning of Barbara Worth" but it's on my list of must-sees! I can't wait to see what silents you watch next :)

    1. Hi Laura! I started watching silent films early this year and I've only watched three so far - "The Winning of Barbara Worth," "A Woman of Affairs" and "Our Modern Maidens" - but I'm truly beginning to fall in love with this whole new world of film. Never in a million years I thought I'd say this, but it's absolutely true. There's something really special about silent films that I only wish I had seen earlier. I already have a fairly extensive list of silents that I want to watch, so I'll definitely be writing about some of those in the future. By the way, since you surely have watched more silent films than I have, do you have suggestions/recommendations?


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