The Cowboy and the Lady (1938)

H.C. POTTER

Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBB.5

USA, 1938.   Original story by , , Screenplay by , Cinematography by .   Produced by .   Music by . Production Design by .   Costume Design by Film Editing by . Academy Awards 1938.

Rich society heiress Merle Oberon goes out with her rebellious uncle to a risque nightclub to beat the boredom of the strict life her aspiring politician father has kept her in.  When the club is raided and the event makes the morning papers, her father begs her to avoid scandal and take a trip to their Palm Springs home, but arriving there during the off season means there’s even less to do than there was at home, only with a prettier backdrop.  She convinces her maids to let her hang with them (one of them played by the legendary ), accompanying them to a rodeo where she pretends to be a lady’s maid in order to join a dinner date with three rough and tumble cowboys.  The one who catches Oberon’s eye, and who can blame her, is the lanky and sweet Gary Cooper (“America’s most beloved illiterate”), with whom she enjoys a starlit night of romance.  When they realize they love each other, she follows him to another rodeo in another town and marries him before realizing what she’s gotten the both of them into: he has married her without knowing she’s one of the top shelf ladies he looks down on, and she has further risked her father’s aspirations to become president with this uneven union.  Thirties movies are usually concerned with taking snooty rich people down a peg but H.C. Potter’s warm romantic comedy doesn’t treat Oberon with any disdain, watching her try her hand at housekeeping is sweetly pathetic and the mud she gets on her does not come with any smug sense of comeuppance.  It’s the political system’s lack of connection with the common people that is a much bigger target here than the high society people whose opinions it favours, though Cooper’s scenes letting the big guys know that they need to care about what’s happening in little peoples’ lives doesn’t work, it’s too awkward to rate with Frank Capra’s wide-eyed idealism.  A number of elements are sewn together haphazardly, social consciousness thrown in with ridiculous comic fantasy, but the chemistry the two stars enjoy is dynamite, and seeing them to the end of this charmer is well worth your time.

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