This film proves how much was lost when the transition from silent to sound film occurred at the end of the 1920s. It tells the story of a rivalry between two men for the love of a girl in a Western town. Abe Lee (Gary Cooper) is the simple but brave son of a local seer, who finds himself in direct rivalry with Holmes (Ronald Colman), the foster-son of Greenfield, a big businessman, for the love of Barbara Worth (Vilma Banky), whose adopted father has promised to an irrigation system for the small Western town. Unfortunately, Greenfield has only profits on his mind, and fires Mr. Worth and his entire team before completion of the system, after they point out that without further reinforcement, it could give way and destroy the town. Holmes, working as Greenfield's assistant, is blamed, but is determined to prove that he knows nothing of Greenfield's business dealings and decides to help Mr. Worth to prove himself. Worse still, Mr. Worth is unable to meet payroll to pay his team, and things turn ugly. Mr. Worth and Abe Lee ride off to try to get the money from a visiting businessman, and are surprised to find their rival, Holmes, already there, and having made a successful plea for the money to lend to Mr. Worth. Holmes then accompanies Lee on his journey back to town to deliver the money. The two rivals are brought together by their love for Barbara and their desire to save the town from disaster. The film contains a spectacular flood sequence which is a tribute to the scale these filmmmakers were working on at the time.
Based on a novel by Harold Bell Wright and adapted by Frances Marion, the film is a tightly written drama that still finds plenty of room for the comic relief so favored by filmmakers at the time, especially John Ford. The supporting characters here offer the same kind of broad comic relief one would find in a Ford Western. King proves himself here to be a true visual stylist, something that was lost in his transition to sound filmmaking in the 1930s. Here, every shot is perfectly composed. The print of this film that is available on DVD is, thankfully, one of the best-looking silent film prints I've ever seen, complete with tinting, which really heightens the effects of these carefully-composed frames.
Remarkably, as we see even in a rather straightforward drama such as this, silent film was truly thought of as a visual art form. By the 1930s, when the values shifted toward films made in the grand literary tradition, such visual artistry became much less common. But in this 1926 film, we can see the care with which King has taken to make sure every shot is splendidly photographed. The film was photographed by George Barnes and Gregg Toland, certainly two of the finest artists of their craft.
What, perhaps, is even more remarkable are the performances. Vilma Banky is quite good as Barbara Worth, and it is a pity to remember that her career would end in just a few years with the coming of sound. The two male leads, however, would find that sound helped launch them into long careers as stars. It's rather difficult to imagine Ronald Colman playing a role like this in a sound film, but here, he's fine, and it's easy to see his more understated acting style which was better suited to the sound film. The real revelation, however, is Gary Cooper, in his first substantial role. Watching him here, it's easy to see why he became a screen legend once audiences were able to hear his voice. This is a role he could have played, say, ten years later without virtually any change. He gives a comparatively natural performance, with an incredibly expressive face. There is one scene, in particular, where he watches Barbara dancing with his rival, Holmes, at a town dance toward the beginning of the film. The change of expression in his face, from joy and affection at watching Barbara, to jealousy while watching Holmes, is the most powerful moment of the film, conveying so much through mere changes of expression in his eyes. His expressive face has always made Cooper especially powerful as an actor, and this can be seen perhaps most of all in one of his very best later roles, that of the sheriff in "High Noon".
As I mentioned earlier, the single most apparent aspect in watching this film is the realization that things changed very, very much just three years later when the transition to sound took place. Watching this film, I would guess that Henry King was one of the finest visual artists of the screen, whose name would be mentioned alongside John Ford, say, or even Josef von Sternberg. With the coming of sound, however, he worked primarily as a contract director at Fox, making films that fit within the aesthetic guidelines of the studio. We see the same thing happen with John Ford in that early sound period, working his way through multiple studio assignments that lack the visual power of his best silent work. I've often felt that King was unfairly overlooked as a filmmaker, especially in regard to his silent work, but even in his sound films as well. When given the chance, he was clearly capable of creating films that displayed the artistic possibilities of the medium as well as just about anyone else from that period. All too often, he found himself working on studio assignments, where that kind of thing wasn't encouraged. Indeed, the greatest change of all between the silent and sound era could be seen as the re-positioning of the director from being a primary creative force in the filmmaking process, to the position of studio craftsman, whose primary task was to film the front office-approved script as closely as possible.
Some directors, especially those who worked at Paramount, were able to maintain the virtually-complete control that they had in the 20s (Sternberg, Lubitsch, DeMille). Others (Walsh, Hawks, Ford, Wellman, Vidor) found ways to work within the studio system and use the vast resources to their advantage. Henry King seems to have lost his "artistic identity" somewhat in the 30s, rarely doing any work that blatantly stands out from the routine studio assignment (compare what he did with "Jesse James" in 1939, and the distinct difference that Fritz Lang brought to its sequel the following year). This is not to dismiss King as a filmmaker (he was certainly one of the best studio filmmakers of the 30s and 40s), but merely to point out the change in hierarchy that took place. That may be the single biggest loss that the art of film suffered in the transition to sound, and the subtle beaty of a film like "The Winning of Barbara Worth" is a testament to that.
"The Winning of Barbara Worth" has been released on DVD as part of the Gary Cooper "MGM Movie Legends Collection", which features three other titles from Cooper's sound film work. The print quality is excellent, apparently taken from original 35mm elements, and is one of the sharpest transfers I've seen of any silent title. The organ score is a live recording by Gaylord Carter, and after watching so many recently-scored silent films on TCM by young composers with no sense of how to really accompany a film, rather than to work against it, Carter's subtle but effective accompaniment is a breath of fresh air.