The town of Paynesville isn’t a particularly welcoming one to cowpokes Melody Jones (Gary Cooper) and George Fury (William Demarest) as they ride in one day…but there’s an explanation for this. Native Paynesvillian (definitely not a favorite son) Monte Jarrad (Dan Duryea) has a $1,000 price on his head after a stage robbery nets him over forty grand, and since the description of Jarrad fits Melody to a T (“tall and skinny…who travels with a half-wit named Uncle Roscoe”), the townsfolk are suspicious of the stranger—then are all-too-willing to give Jones a wide berth for fear of getting on the gunman’s bad side. The joke’s on them; Melody’s proficiency with firearms is non-existent; as George observes: “You couldn’t hit the hind end of your horse with a handful of buckshot and you know it.”
This makes no difference to the Paynesville populace—two men plan to shoot Melody in the back until he and George are rescued by Cherry De Longpre (Loretta Young), a rancher’s daughter who is secretly hiding Jarrad out at her spread (he’s been injured in the robbery). Cherry beseeches the pair to ride fast, ride far because there’s a posse after them: the plan is that Monte will head north while Melody and George are running south. There’s something about the situation that seems kind of hinky to Mr. Jones, however, and he decides to stay put (he’s also developed a crush on the attractive Cherry)—despite George’s sage advice of “You ain’t got to be no dumber than necessary.” (Melody’s laconic reply: “That would make me somebody, wouldn’t it?”)
In his first and only turn as a motion picture producer, silver screen icon Gary Cooper decided to parody his established film image (that of the strong, silent hero) in Along Came Jones (1945)—directed by Stuart Heisler and scripted by Nunnally Johnson, who adapted Alan Le May’s 1943 novel The Useless Cowboy. A joint effort between Cinema Artists Corporation and International Pictures, Inc. (International would later merge with Universal to become Universal-International), Jones would result in a box office hit for Coop (he promoted the heck out of it with a personal appearance tour) despite complaints from some of the actors’ Hollywood peers. Cecil B. DeMille, who had directed Gary in 1936’s The Plainsman, was quite vocal in his dislike for the movie, believing Cooper had “betrayed” his fans.
Although I wouldn’t consider Along Came Jones a great Western (I think director Heisler took a rather leaden approach to the material) it is a good deal of fun watching Gary Cooper poke fun at his established screen persona. His Melody Jones is no gun-totin‘ hero; he’s an amiable, slow-to-anger “bronc stomper” who initially gets a kick of how his being mistaken for outlaw Jarrad earns him a measure of respect (and fear)…and allows him to walk a little straighter and taller (there’s a running gag in the film where Jones keeps bumping his head in doorways). The movie also refuses to cop out with its final shootout sequence between Jones and Jarrad; Melody does not suddenly acquire expert marksman skills and if not for Cherry (“When I aim at something, I hit it and when I hit something it’s what I aimed at!”) he would be one dead cowpuncher. (A foreshadowing of High Noon, perhaps?)
Gary Cooper has always fascinated me. I remember as a youth listening to an old Edgar Bergen & Charlie McCarthy broadcast (from December 14, 1947) that featured Coop as guest…and when you just hear him on radio his limitations as an actor are all too noticeable. But Gary had a charisma that leapt out at you on a movie screen, and helping with that charm is Loretta Young (their only feature film together)—not normally one of my favorites but she’s positively luminous here (I think the fact that Loretta was great with child at the time of Along Came Jones’ filming explains the glow). Dan Duryea plays it straight and nasty as the villain (if Dan ever gave a terrible performance, I’ve not seen it) and William Demarest offers hilarious support as Coop’s crusty sidekick (“Don’t go far, will ya? I don’t aim to be drinkin‘ here for more than five or six hours.”). Jones also features familiar character faves like Russell Simpson, Willard Robertson, Ray Teal, and Lane Chandler…but what amused me the most was seeing Frank Sully (as Young’s brother) and Walter Sande (as a tough guy who tries to intimidate Coop) in the film even though they don’t share any scenes together. (Sande played the thick-as-a-plank Detective Mathews in several of the Boston Blackie films before being replaced by…Frank Sully.)
The peaceful little hamlet of Paynesville was constructed at the famed Iverson Ranch in Chatsworth, CA and in the time-honored Hollywood tradition of “waste not, want not” the set would be used again and again (and again) in numerous filmed productions throughout the next decade, becoming a B-Western fixture. Along Came Jones has no lofty cinematic ambition other than to be an entertaining little hour-and-a-half that allows one of classic filmdom’s most beloved stars to wink and nod at the conventions that made him beloved…and with the repair work done to Jones (the original elements have been through the wringer but the restoration makes the movie look better than it has in years) by ClassicFlix, it made a nice little debut to Blu-ray in February of 2018 (it had seen DVD action previously). (Warning: I have not been able to get the old Coasters tune out of my head since watching this Friday night.)