“A gorgeous portrayal of the lives and loves of big outdoorsmen and big-eyed senoritas in the days when a beaver’s pelt was the people’s currency.” That’s how Paramount promoted Victor Fleming’s Wolf Song in 1929—and for once there was truth in advertising. Fleming based his shoot at the just-opened June Lake Lodge in Mono County, California, where spring-fed lakes and snow-capped mountains provide majestic backdrops. He built lived-in recreations of Taos, New Mexico, and Bent’s Fort, Colorado, circa 1840, at the two-year-old Paramount Ranch in Calabasas. (The Woolsey Fire incinerated the Ranch’s longstanding “Western Town.”)
Fleming created a male persona towering enough to match the Sierra Nevada from a star who hadn’t yet hit his stride: Gary Cooper. He brought out the smolder beneath the sizzle of the exciting young Lupe Velez (barely out of her teens). Surrounding Cooper as mountain man Sam Lash and Velez as Taos belle Lola Salazar with supporting players like that great broken-nosed character actor Louis Wolheim, Fleming fashioned a romance that revived a piece of Southwest history while drilling into a frontiersman’s warring appetites for love and freedom.
Fleming had established himself as Paramount’s most versatile director with credits ranging from two hit Zane Grey oaters, which he made by the seat of his pants—carrying the novels in his pockets—to his smash comic adaptation of Sinclair Lewis’s Mantrap (1926), an artistic breakthrough for Clara Bow. The studio promoted him as a “genius” and handed him a prestige product in Harvey Fergusson’s 1927 novel about a wandering Kentuckian who finds his identity as a fur trapper then loses himself to the romantic jewel of Taos’s Mexican ruling class.
Fergusson, a protégé of H.L. Mencken, was an ambitious son of New Mexico with a modern erotic awareness and a granular instinct for lives that encapsulate American contradictions. His inspiration for Wolf Song was legendary mountain man Lucien B. Maxwell, who continued trapping and scouting years after he married Mexican heiress Luz Beaubein, then settled down to become perhaps the biggest landowner on the continent. That history informs Sam and Lola’s battle of the sexes, waged over a matter of weeks in Taos, Bent’s Fort, and the wilderness. John Farrow’s final screenplay boiled down the story to twelve sequences. In the editing, Fleming wagered that even less plot and more intimate byplay would help him imbue scenes of lovers circling and torturing each other with the tension conventional views of the Old Southwest gave only to brawls and duels.
The movie interlaces vigorous action and memories as if to prove Zora Neale Hurston’s adage, “The present was an egg laid by the past that had the future inside its shell.” Fleming introduces us to Cooper’s “tall silent boy” and sidekicks Rube Thatcher (Constantine Romanoff) and Gullion (Wolheim) as they head for Taos, their mules packed with fur. We learn that Sam is wildcat-nip for the ladies. In one flashback, Sam races out of Kentucky to escape a shotgun wedding. In another, at a St. Louis saloon, Gullion and Thatcher fight over a girl while Sam spirits her into a backroom—which impresses the older guys and seals the three of them as friends.
Taos comes into focus as a feudal society ruled by wealthy Spanish families known to the mountain men as ricos. The elite’s sons gamble on cockfights—feathers fly over huddled bettors’ heads—while elders punish a peasant couple rolling in the hay. Lola privately questions the lusty female and gnaws her knuckles in excitement when she says her bruises come from love bites. Lola may be the daughter of a don, but she aches to be swept off her feet. When the rugged gringos scream out their arrival, townsmen wrest their women out of view, but Lola sets her sights on Sam.
Costume designer Edith Head recalled that Fleming “wanted Lupe to be so sexy that most of the time her bosom would be hanging out. I went to Mr. Fleming and said, ‘Don’t you think that’s a little inconsistent? Women did not uncover their bosoms in those days.’ He told me, ‘Edith, if no woman had ever shown her bosom in those days, you wouldn’t be here.’” Velez had been her director’s lover and she soon became Cooper’s, on and off set. Who could resist? When Sam shaves and bathes in a hot spring to “slick up” for the town ball, Fleming frames him low on his waist, to show that he’s not wearing anything. The sun reflects on the water and glints off his tall, lean, sinewy frame. “Ain’t you the pretty white thing,” says Thatcher. “If one of those Mexican gals gets aholt of you, she’ll never let you go.”
Cooper had ambled into movies as a stunt rider. Playing a cowboy, he stole The Winning of Barbara Worth (1926) from its stars, Vilma Banky and Ronald Colman, then did two quickie westerns before his attention-getting bit in William Wellman’s Wings (1927). As a fatalistic air cadet, he nibbled a chocolate bar, announced, “Luck or no luck, when your time comes you’re going to get it,” then sauntered out of his tent—and crashed. Imposingly lanky, with a long, thin face and features whose impassivity intensified any inkling of thought or emotion, Cooper already had a torrid liaison with the camera. All he needed to hold down a major role was a talented director and a multidimensional script: he got both in Wolf Song.
As Sam he exudes an elemental ardor. At the Taos ball, Sam proclaims, “I WANT A GAL TO DANCE WITH ME” and Lola arrives just in time. Cooper and Velez lock into each other’s eyes as Sam and Lola embrace on the dance floor and he leads her to an empty terrace. He elopes with Lola under fire and marries her at Bent’s Fort, rousing the wrath of her father and the astonishment of his pals. But the film’s ultimate contest is waged inside his heart, between marital bonds and the call of the wild. Sam leaves Lola to hunt and trap again, but he can’t get her out of his system. Memories deny him sleep. Images of her wash through his brain and across the screen in an audacious montage done in lingering dissolves. Fleming delivers the erotic coup de grace when he superimposes Lola’s body crushing against Sam’s and a spectral, elongated hand caressing the side of his face. The guy can’t take it. He heads back to his wife, only to be wounded in an Indian ambush. His painful trek to Taos takes on the feeling of a sexual mortification. Whatever Lola wants, Lola gets, but at significant cost. Here, as in Red Dust and Gone with the Wind, Fleming proves himself a master of romantic ambivalence. Fleming and his cast are adult enough to mix ecstasy with anguish, and romantic victory with personal defeat. Sam is not the same man at the end, and if he’s more open and vulnerable, he’s also scarred and weakened.
Paramount released the movie as a silent and as a part-singing movie (which appears to be lost). The studio didn’t clear the rights to use Fergusson’s words for spoken dialogue but did pay publisher Alfred A. Knopf $750 to interpolate some songs. A male choir harmonized on a “Wolf Song” chorus; Cooper warbled “My Honey, Fare Thee Well”; and Velez trilled, among others, “Yo Te Amo Means I Love You,” the movie’s theme song. Pop baritone Russ Columbo, another of Velez’s lovers, appeared as Lola’s effeminate rico suitor (a character right out of the book) and presumably crooned Latin love ditties. There were three to five original numbers (written by top composers like Richard Whiting and Harry Warren) and eleven musical interludes in all. Contemporary reviewers complained that Velez “repeats a sentimental air whenever a guitar is handy” and “the characters break into song at any old time.”
It might be fun to see Cooper perform as perhaps the first singing cowboy and definitely the first singing mountain man; it might also dilute the tenebrous lyricism at the movie’s core. Wolf Song boosted Cooper’s career and remains hot and haunting today. Fleming soon guided Cooper to perfect his signature, understated style in The Virginian (1929), but this film captures him at an unusual peak of intensity.
As Sam, Cooper upsets the brotherhood of the traveling buckskin pants and embodies the existential schizophrenia of someone torn between untrammeled liberty and marrow-deep marital love.
Presented at SFSFF 2019 with live music by Philip Carli