review for The Virginian on AllMovie

The Virginian (1929)
by Bruce Eder review

For many years, especially in the 1960s and 1970s, Victor Fleming's 1929 adpatation of Owen Wister's novel The Virginian was a very problematic film, at least as a viewing experience -- it was highly significant in Gary Cooper's career, and his presence in the title role made the movie intrinsically important. But until the 1990s when a serious restoration effort took place, the only prints available were of such poor quality (especially the sound), that it was impossible to appreciate The Virginian except as a historical curio; it was far easier to see the 1946 remake directed by Stewart Gilmore, shot in Technicolor and starring Joel McCrea, Brian Donlevy, and Sonny Tufts -- but the latter was also such a poor movie, that modern audiences might reasonably have wondered precisely what the appeal of the original Owen Wister story was in the first place. And audiences would suffer through the television showings of Fleming's version and wonder how it could be regarded as a classic. Fortunately, thanks to the restoration, it is no longer such a chore to watch, and one can easily appreciate its many virtues. Gary Cooper has an amazingly youthful presence here, which is accentuated by the more lighthearted aspects of his character. And Richard Arlen is convincing as his hapless friend Steve, while Walter Huston casts a suitably (and memorably) sinister image as the larcenous, murderous Trampas, while Mary Brian is convincing as the Eastern-raised schoolteacher Molly Wood. The action is still a little slow by modern standards, but the presence of a proper soundtrack makes it all roll a lot more smoothly than it used to seem. Helming his first sound film, Fleming successfully sets varying moods and tones throughout the episodic tale (which has its lighter moments), and uses sound very effectively -- it's never a gimmick, always well integrated into whatever is important on the screen, and audiences in 1929 rightfully suspended disbelief, and felt like they were watching the real thing. And that illusion is effectively preserved for modern viewers, as the movie is constituted in the twenty-first century. Additionally, the presence of such figures as Jack Pennick, an expert horse-wrangler who would become a key member of the John Ford stock company in the decades to follow, only adds (on several levels) to the verisimilitude of the movie. In all, The Virginian is a period piece several times over, but still a most worthwhile viewing experience, with Gary Cooper's charisma still in full evidence 80-plus years later.