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September 01, 2010

The Winning of Barbara Worth

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Henry King - 1926
MGM Region 1 DVD

Nothing in The Winning of Barbara Worth is as visually striking as the first shots. A woman is seen burying someone in the desert. There is a painterly quality to the composition of this shot, this lone woman leaning over the shovel stuck in sand. A full shot reveals her wagon, and the the mound where a body of, presumably her husband, is buried. A blonde little girl walks around with a doll. It isn't until after disaster strikes in the form of a sandstorm that we realize that the little girl is the title character.

As if to remind contemporary audiences that often the people who need most to learn from history ignore past lessons, The Winning of Barbara Worth is about the forces of nature being more powerful than human arrogance and greed. The big set piece is of a boom town flooded by the river that is supposedly under control. The businessman who finances the dam argues that calling for the need to reinforce the dam will only cause fear and panic. Additionally, an Indian prophesy is simply superstition. I'm not sure if anyone watching the film now wouldn't think of Hurricane Katrina and the images of New Orleans when watching this film.

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The Winning of Barbara Worth is also of interest as being the first significant performance by Gary Cooper. Mostly accumulating bit parts over the years, Cooper was originally hired as a bit player by Henry King until another actor dropped out of the production. Much of the Cooper persona is already here. At a town dance, Cooper is shyly gazing at the couples on the floor. A previous scene has established his feelings towards Vilma Banky, the grown up Barbara Worth. City slicker Ronald Colman tries to swoop in on Banky, and has been dancing with here in this scene. Moments later, Cooper is standing in a doorway, too hesitant to make a move. Colman and Banky walk through the doorway towards a patio while Cooper remains almost in the shadows, too shy, or perhaps too much of a gentleman, to make his presence or his feeling known.

For me, the most surprising aspect of this ambitious production was the amount of humor tossed into the midst of disaster. A group of pioneers stuck in a sandstorm find a corset and panties flying into their faces, the belongings of Barbara Worth's mother. During the big flood, there is a running gag involving a man in a wheelchair, unable to move while the rest of the townspeople are running or riding out of town. During this same sequence, a man quickly grabs some clothing, and runs away from the camera, completely naked - one of the rare examples not only of nudity in silent era Hollywood, but male nudity at that. Even film critics of the time found some of the humor of the film questionable, although Henry King would be the first to say that he never made films for New York critics.

More characteristic of King is the scene near the end. The financier, Greenfield, has been nearly washed away by the flood, and has been rescued, covered in mud. He is nonetheless welcomed into Barbara Worth's home, now teeming with small, ragged tots who have escaped from their destroyed homes. The Winning of Barbara Worth is ultimately less satisfying than some other films in Henry King made in his career. There are enough moments that serve as reminders that Henry King's best strengths as a filmmaker are more intimate than epic.

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Posted by Peter Nellhaus at September 1, 2010 03:45 AM