This post is part of the Build-Your-Own-Blogathon hosted by the Classic Film and TV Cafe. It follows Jennifer Garlen‘s post about BEND OF THE RIVER (1952), which is another Western that takes place in the American Northwest. For The Great Katharine Hepburn Blogathon earlier this year, Jennifer wrote a great post about ROOSTER COGBURN (1975) as well – be sure to check it out!
“Une Bible et Un Fusil” (a bible and a gun) was the title given to the French translation of Hall Wallis’s ROOSTER COGBURN (1975), and it couldn’t be a more accurate moniker for this Western starring the most unlikely pairing of Hollywood stars: Katharine Hepburn and John Wayne. By the time of the making of ROOSTER COGBURN, John Wayne had become the symbol of the politically conservative American frontiersman. Hepburn, on the other hand, was well-established as America’s high-brow flaming liberal.
Hepburn had refused to work with Wayne earlier in her career, during the McCarthy years when she chose to tread the fine line of Hollywood politics. She had found it increasingly difficult to work with some politically conservative actors, like Adolphe Menjou – by their third film together, Menjou and Hepburn were not even on speaking terms.
“Politically [John Wayne] is a reactionary. He suffers from a point of view based entirely on his own experience. Self-made. Hard-working. Independent. [People like this] seem to have no patience and no understanding of the more timid and dependent type of person. Pull your own freight. That is their slogan. Sometimes I don’t think that they realize that their own load was attached to a very powerful engine.” (Me, 257-8)
However, Hepburn and Wayne seemed to not only respect each other during the filming of ROOSTER COGBURN, but they may even have enjoyed each other’s company. Part of the reason the film was not lauded by critics was that the two characters Wayne and Hepburn portrayed were really nothing more than a mash-up of characters each actors had previously played in other films. Wayne was literally reprising a role he had previously played as the title character Rooster Cogburn from TRUE GRIT (1969). Hepburn’s Eula Goodnight is just an Americanized version of Rosie Sayer from THE AFRICAN QUEEN (1951). As with Hepburn’s films with Spencer Tracy, the two personalities create an intriguing chemical tension because of their differences, rather than in spite of them.
There are a number of qualities that Katharine Hepburn and John Wayne share. They both represent something distinctly American – she reflects the Puritanical, intellectual North East/Mid-Atlantic, while he embodies the rough and tumble pioneer spirit of the old West. They had also both been in the movie industry for a few decades by this point, so they new how to be professional on the set. They each arrived on time for shooting each day, knew their lines, and they knew how to support each other for the camera.
“As an actor, he has an extraordinary gift. A unique naturalness. An unselfconsciousness. An ability to think and feel. Seeming to woo the camera. A very subtle capacity to think and express and caress the camera – the audience. With no apparent effort.” (Me, 258)
From the first time Hepburn and Wayne met, just before filming ROOSTER COGBURN, they got along great. Producers were worried that the two super-stars would spark and collide, but this turned out not to be the case. Hal Wallis remembers introducing the pair while they were both filming other movies in London (Sarasota Journal, December 16, 1975):
“Very observing. Very aware. Listens. Concentrates. Witty slant. Ready to laugh. To be laughed at. To stick his neck out. To answer. Funny. Outrageous. Spoiled. Self-indulgent. Tough. Full of charm. Knows it. Uses it. Disregards it. With an alarming accuracy. Not much gets past him.” (Me, 257)
“When I leaned against him (which I did as often as possible, I must confess – I am reduced to such innocent pleasures), thrilling. It was like leaning against a great tree.” (Me, 257)
“I have never in my life worked with a woman who had the smell of drama that this woman has. She is so feminine—she’s a man’s woman.” (People, November 18, 1974)
“Imagine how she must have been at age 25 or 30…how lucky a man would have been to have found her.” (People, November 18, 1974)
ROOSTER COGBURN was shot entirely on location in Oregon, along the Rogue River. Hepburn has recently had a hip operation, but that didn’t slow her down one bit. She insisted on doing all her own riding. One day, she bought a kayak simply because she wanted to try it out. They had a man follow behind just in case, but she never needed him. And at age 64, she was still an avid swimmer and would take dips in the river between scenes. ROOSTER COGBURN’S cinematography is nothing short of breathtaking. The vast sweeping blue skies, tall evergreen pine forests, and white waters of the river dominate the landscape, backset by majestic mountains.
Not only is ROOSTER COGBURN a great classic Western amplified by two very strong personalities – the script is chock full of wit and wisdom. Hepburn has some great one-liners which are balanced out by Wayne’s clumsily raw quips. Their sincerity in praising and insulting each other is so genuine it’s touching in its honesty.
Eula: Just to whom do you think you are talking, Mr. Marshall?
Rooster: You is to whom I think I am talking, Ma’am.
Eula: It’s true that you are larger than me… but only physically.
Rooster: In this case, my dear lady, that is enough.
Eula: Do you mean to tell me that you are prepared to use brute force?
Rooster: That is exactly what I mean.
Eula: [hesitation] Oh.
Rooster: How old are you?
Eula: Shall we say it has already struck midnight?
Rooster: Well, out in the territory, we prize a dead shot more’n we do a lady’s charms.
Eula: Then I’ve come to the right place, haven’t I? You mean the men in the West do not mind if their women outshoot and outsmart them?
Rooster: If they’re quiet about it. No, here we value a spirited woman almost as much as we do a spirited horse.
Rooster: You know more of the Lord and His Good Book than you do about men.
Eula: My good fortune. I know enough about men to steer clear of them. I had no hankering to have one of my own and no desire to produce more.
Eula: [referring to her bible quotation] I will confess, Reuben, it is of my own invention. I just made it up!
Rooster: Hallelujah and jubilee, that is one quotation I will remember!
Eula: And will you remember [me], too, Reuben?
Rooster: Longer than I’ll remember that quotation, Miss Eula.
Rooster: I don’t know much about thoroughbreads, horses or women. Them that I did know, I never liked. They’re too nervous and spooky. They scare me. But you’re one high-brow filly that don’t. I don’t know what you’re talkin’ about half the time, but that don’t matter. Bein’ around you pleases me.
Eula: Those are the nicest words ever said to me. Thank you, Reuben.
Last lines of the film:
Eula: Reuben, I have to say it. Livin’ with you has been an adventure any woman would relish for the rest o’ time. I look at cha, with your burned out face and your big belly and your bear-like paws and your shining eye, and I have to say you’re a credit to the whole male sex, and I’m proud to have ya for my friend.
Rooster: I’ll be damned if she didn’t get the last word in again. Well…