Tonight: Gary Cooper, Ray Milland, Susan Hayward, Brian Donlevy, J. Carrol Naish, Albert Decker, Broderick Crawford and Donald O’Connor in the five-star adventure classic Beau Geste.
The French Foreign Legion was founded in 1831 to quell colonial uprisings, primarily in French North Africa. The Legion welcomed the enlistment of men of every nationality—with no questions asked—so it soon gained a reputation as a legion of lost souls.
English novelist Percival Christopher Wren served in the British cavalry before joining the Legion. He rose to the rank of major and was wounded while serving with the Indian Army during World War I. While he was convalescing, he began writing Beau Geste.
Beau Geste is the name of the hero of this saga. It also means “beautiful gesture.”
And therein lies the tale—a tale of mystery, intrigue and high adventure.
The book, published in 1924, became a huge international best seller. Paramount purchased the screen rights and turned it into a smash hit in 1926—one of the greatest commercial successes of the silent era.
Ronald Colman starred in the original silent version. William Powell and Victor McLaglen were featured as well. And Noah Berry Sr. portrayed the snarling, tyrannical sergeant.
When Paramount began making plans for a sound version in the mid-1930s, it intended the film to be the studio’s first full 3-strip Technicolor production.
When they hired William “Wild Bill” Wellman to direct, those plans changed. Wellman wanted to do a virtual remake of the original silent classic—and he wanted to do it in glorious black and white, like the original.
As for the lead, he wanted Gary Cooper.
Wellman’s first important film had been Wings (1927). It was a small part in that Oscar-winning film that made Cooper a star.
And Wellman remembered Cooper’s performance in Morocco, another classic about the Foreign Legion, with Marlene Dietrich in 1930.
Beau Geste went into production on January 16, 1939, in Buttercup Valley, out in the desert near Yuma, Arizona.
Paramount sent a cast and crew of nearly a thousand to the very same location where they had shot the silent version a dozen years before.
Wellman wanted to use the same fort, which was still standing—just barely. But a new fort was erected nearby.
The company lived in spartan conditions in 136 tents. After four weeks of shooting, 23 men had been hospitalized from heat exhaustion.
Tempers flared under these grueling circumstances.
Donlevy played the miserable bully of a sergeant named Markoff and he apparently lived the role off-camera as well. “Everybody hated Donlevy,” Wellman once recalled. “Everybody moved out of his tent. They despised him. But he was good in the picture, so I kept him in.”
Donlevy was so good in the role, he got an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor.
To ease the stress, “I ran a bus to the local house of ill-repute in Yuma,” Wellman said. “The first couple of weeks, it was packed. But after that, there was only one guy who would go there—an old stunt man. He was the only one, and he ended up burning it down. . . . That was a rugged picture. You had to be tough.”
Wellman had just finished directing the original A Star is Born and Nothing Sacred with Carol Lombard, so this picture was a real change of pace for “Wild Bill.”
A young Donald O’Connor plays Beau as a boy.
And the film features the screen debut of 20-year-old Susan Hayward.
“I know I have big boobs,” she said, “and I’m glad!”
Robert Preston was not impressed. After co-starring with her in a film titled Tulsa (1949), he remarked, “Anything I have to say about Susan Hayward, you couldn’t print!”
Those who survived Yuma returned to Hollywood to shoot the interiors.
Scenes of the Geste boyhood home were filmed at Busch Gardens in Pasadena.
Principal photography was completed in mid-April, with some retakes in June.
Paramount was so confident of the commercial success of the film that they screened the first reel of the silent version for critics for comparison. That proved to be a mistake, because critics commented on the fact that this was a virtual remake of the silent film.
Nevertheless, Beau Geste proved to be a classic.
Though it won no Oscars. For this was 1939, a year with so many outstanding films that Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes, Howard Hawk’s Only Angels Have Wings, Young Mr. Lincoln, The Women, Intermezzo, Four Feathers and Gunga Din also failed to get a Best Picture nomination.
This was Cooper’s last film under his Paramount contract. He would follow this film with The Westerner for Sam Goldwyn in 1940 and Capra’s Meet John Doe and Sergeant York in 1941, which won him an Oscar.
So now—from 1939—Gary Cooper in Beau Geste!