Today’s movie is a patriotic biography of the most decorated soldier of World War I, Sargent Alvin C. York. Released just before the attack on Pearl Harbor this film found wide appeal in a country about to enter World War II.
Gary Cooper played the title role of Sergeant Alvin C. York.
Gary Cooper was born in Montana in1901. Both his parents were English immigrants. The family was well to do and owned a large ranch where Cooper spent a good portion of his youth. Cooper spent a couple of years going to school in England before returning to Montana.
Cooper was out of school for some time with a hip injury from an auto accident. In 1920, he finally graduated with the help of a teacher that got him interested in drama. Cooper went to college in Iowa but was more successful with painting than drama. He left after about 18 months.
In 1924, he followed his parents to Los Angeles where he eventually got a job as a western stunt rider for a poverty row studio. Cooper didn’t care for the stunt work because it was hard on the body and cruel to the horses. He hired an agent and paid for his own screen test.
He began to get extra work like being a Roman guard in Ben-Hur (1925). These slowly increased until he signed with Samuel Goldwyn in 1926. His first big film was The Winning of Barbara Worth (1926) with Ronald Colman and Vilma Bánky. Cooper signed a five-year deal with Paramount. His relationship with Clara Bow, led to roles in Children of Divorce (1927) and Wings (1927). Wings (12927) was the first picture to win the best picture Oscar. He also started making westerns.
Beginning in 1928, Cooper was paired with a succession of leading ladies trying to find the right chemistry. These actresses included Fay Wray, Evelyn Brent, Florence Vidor, and Esther Ralston. In 1928, he was in Lilac Time (1928) with Colleen Moore which was his first picture with synchronized music and sound effects.
Cooper became a major star with the release of The Virginian (1929). Based on the success of this film, he was cast in a number of westerns and war films. Coope’s next big hit was as a legionnaire in Morocco (1930) with Marlene Dietrich. Cooper allegedly picture the director up by his collar during an argument.
After several more films, Cooper left Hollywood for an extended European vacation and rest. He returned in 1932 ready to act and ready to negotiate better contracts. After finishing Devil and the Deep (1932) with Tallulah Bankhead, Cooper jumped into one of his important films, A Farewell to Arms (1932) with Helen Hayes.
Cooper made a lot of movies during this time and many were very good. Fighting his way along in The Lives of a Bengal Lancer (1935), to every man in Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, for which he was Oscar-nominated, taming the west as Wild Bill Hickok in The Plainsman (1936), and exploring China in The Adventures of Marco Polo.
Following some so-so movies, Cooper went on to star in Director William A. Wellman’s adventure Beau Geste (1939). The next year he returned to westerns with The Westerner (1940) fighting against Judge Roy Bean and his corrupt law west of the Pecos. This was followed by Director Cecil B. DeMille’s North West Mounted Police (1940).
Cooper found the everyman again with Meet John Doe (1941). Cooper made two more films that were released in 1941 and directed by Howard Hawks. The first was Sergeant York (1941), a movie based on the most decorated soldier of World War I and a movie I always enjoy watching. Cooper earned his first Oscar for Sergeant York (1941). The second movie was Ball of Fire (1941), a comedy with Barbara Stanwyck. The next year Cooper scored another hit with The Pride of the Yankees (1942) followed the next year with For Whom the Bell Tolls (1943).
Cooper helped with the war effort and continued to make movies. Some of the best are You’re in the Navy Now (1951) a wartime comedy, Distant Drums (1951) directed by Raoul Walsh, High Noon (1952) for which he won another Oscar, Springfield Rifle (1952), The Court-Martial of Billy Mitchell (1955), about a military commander between World War I and II working for aviation, Friendly Persuasion (1956), where he played a Quaker that was being affected by the war, and They Came to Cordura (1959), with Rita Hayworth, where Cooper played a coward who was forced to face what makes a man a coward or a hero.
Cooper was a founding member of the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals, a conservative organization dedicated, according to its statement of principles, to preserving the “American way of life” and opposing communism and fascism. Other members included Walt Disney, Clark Gable, Ronald Reagan, Barbara Stanwyck, and John Wayne—pressured the United States Congress to investigate communist influence in the motion picture industry. In 1947, Cooper appeared before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) and was asked if he had observed any “communistic influence” in Hollywood. He did not, however, name names.
Cooper died in 1961, at the very early age of 60.
Walter Brennan played the role of Pastor Rosier Pile, spiritual leader for young Alvin. Brennan was covered in Episode 67 – The Buccaneer (1938).
Joan Leslie played the role of Gracie Williams, Alvin York’s girlfriend. Joan Leslie was born Joan Agnes Theresa Sadie Brodel in 1925 in Michigan. Joan’s sisters Betty and Mary Brodel began playing musical instruments very early in life as a result of their mother’s influence. The duo began playing in front of audiences and Joan made it a trio when she was 2 ½.
When the depression hit in full force, the girl’s father lost his job. The young girls began working in vaudeville to support the family under the name of The Three Brodel’s. To bypass child labor laws the girls often had to lie about their ages. As the youngest, Joan stole the show with her cuteness and talent.
In 1936, Joan was offered a short term contract with MGM. Her first role was in Camille (1936) but all her lines were edited out. At the end of her contract, she went to New York where she worked in radio and modeled. Her older sister, Mary, signed with Universal Studio’s and the entire family moved to Hollywood. Joan worked as a studio freelancer and made many pictures for RKO.
Joan was cast in the William A. Wellman directed Men with Wings (1936). When he found out she was only 13, he replaced her with her sister Mary for the remainder of the film. Joan’s first credited role came in Winter Carnival (1939) because she could do a southern accent.
In 1941, Joan was signed to Warner Brothers and got her first big break when she was cast in High Sierra (1941) with Humphrey Bogart and Ida Lupino. It was also at this time that her name was changed to Joan Leslie so she wouldn’t be confused with Joan Blondell. So at the age of 15, she played the role of the crippled Velma.
Later that year, she was cast as Gracie Williams, the girlfriend of Alvin York (Gary Cooper) in Sergeant York (1941). I certainly believed she was from the country. Joan worked with Olivia de Havilland in The Male Animal (1942). She then went on to star in Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942) opposite James Cagney in a role that took full advantage of her vaudevillian talents.
Joan made four movies in. 1943: The Hard Way (1943) with Ida Lupino, The Sky’s the Limit (1943) with Fred Astaire, This is the Army (1943) with Ronald Reagan, and Thank Your Lucky Stars (1943).
Joan also worked at the Hollywood Canteen during World War II entertaining servicemen. She was in a movie title Hollywood Canteen (1944) with a cavalcade of stars. By 1946, Joan was tired of the roles she had been given and sued Warner Brothers for release from her contract. Jack Warner got her blacklisted from most major studios.
She did two pictures for a poverty row studio – Eagle-Lion Films and made Repeat Performance (1947), a film noir, and Northwest Stampede (1948).
In the early 1950s, Joan took time off to raise her family. In 1952, she signed a short-term deal with Republic Pictures Flight Nurse (1953) was released and did well. Joan’s last film was The Revolt of Mamie Stover (1956).
Joan worked in television for a bit until she retired in 1991. Joan Leslie died in 2015 at the age of 90.
York’s army buddy, ‘Pusher’ Ross’ was played by George Tobias. Tobias was in quite a few films including Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942), The Set-Up (1949), and The Seven Little Foys (1955). However, to me and many others, he will always be the hen-pecked husband, Abner Kravitz, on television’s “Bewitched” for 1964-1971.
Margaret Wycherly played Mother York. She was a good and decent woman in this film. I will only mention one other role where she was a mother. That film was White Heat (1949). Top of the world Ma!
Ward Bond played the role of Ike Botkin, young Alvin’s drinking buddy. Bond was first covered in Episode 53 – It’s a Wonderful Life (1946).
The younger siblings of Alvin were June Lockhart who played Rosie, and was covered in Episode 26 – Time Limit (1957) and Dickie Moore who played George, and was covered in Episode 54 – Out of the Past (1947).
It is 1916 at the Three Forks of the Wolf River in Tennessee. It’s so far back in the woods they have to pump in sunshine. Pastor Rosier Pile (Walter Brennan) is delivering an old fashion sermon. The congregation hears a loud disturbance outside. Alvin C. York (Gary Cooper), Ike Botkin (Ward Bond), and Buck Lipscomb (Noah Beery Jr.) are riding their horses, a rootin and a tootin and a shooting. They were drunk as hoots and Alvin shoots his initials into a nearby tree. The pastor turns the meeting out and they all see the A.Y. shot into the tree. Mama York (Margaret Wycherly) says sadly that it’s mighty good shooting for somebody that was drunk.
The next day at Pastor Pile’s general store, the men are gathering. A fancy salesman is trying to sell city clothes to Pastor Pile. When the locals get the news they are only interested in local news although the headline is about the war going on in Europe.
The men are jawing about some of the wild stuff Alvin has done when Mama York walks into the store. The men shut up. She tells the pastor that she is proud of Alvin because he works so hard but thinks he needs some religion. She asks the pastor to talk to Alvin.
Mama York sends her youngest son, George (Dickie Moore), to go to the bars and find Alvin. Alvin and his two buddies are drinking and Alvin is eying one of the bar flies. George comes into the bar and tells Alvin that their mother wants him home. He levels the gun on his brother. The men with the bar fly mock him and a fairly large fight breaks out. Alvin wins the fight and George reminds him that maw wants him.
Alvin is ashamed when he gets home. His mother throws a bucket of water on him and his sister Rosie (June Lockhart) gives him a towel. Then maw feeds him breakfast before sending him out to plow the field. While Alvin is out plowing a rocky field Pastor Pile says that Alvin has been plowing around a rock for years and he needs to straighten his rows and his life. Alvin says he needs to have religion come to him. The pastor says sometimes it comes slow and sometime it comes fast.
Not long after that Alvin, George and three hounds are out fox hunting. They go by a marker showing where Daniel Boone killed a bear in 1760. The dogs run by a house where a pretty young girl, Gracie Williams (Joan Leslie), is sitting on the porch. When Alvin see her he is twitter patted. She knows him but he does recognize her right off because she has grown up.
That night Alvin starts asking his mother about settin up – getting married. Maw York ask who the girl is and he tells her Gracie. Maw York knows Alvin is not ready for marriage.
Zeb Andrews (Robert Porterfield) is at Gracie’s house courting when Alvin shows-up. Zeb and Alvin start trading verbal barbs. Alvin asks Gracie for a drink and as soon as she leaves Alvin grabs him and runs him off. Gracie rages on Alvin and he announces he is going to marry her. She tells him she wouldn’t have him on a Christmas tree. Alvin jumps to the conclusion it’s because he doesn’t own a good piece of bottom land.
Alvin talks to his mother about getting some bottom land and she tells him that his father tried and failed. Alvin is determined that nothing will stop him.
Alvin goes to Thompkins who is selling some bottom land. Alvin sells his mule, hems, pelts, and some other stuff for $50 credit towards the $120 cost of the land. Thompkins is very clear that Alvin only has 60 days to earn the other $70.
Alvin sets out to earn the money and he is determined to make his goal. He moved rocks, pulled stumps, and split rails for pay. He kept his farm going, and hunted for pelts to make more money. One evening while he is out plowing Gracie comes by and kisses him. Darn near an engagement.
York keeps his totals on a calendar and as the deadline nears he has $44.35 of the $60 he needs. One night as he passes out mamma York covers him with a blanket and prays over him.
Alvin goes to see Mr. Thompkins and ask for four extra days to get the money. Alvin explains that there is a shooting contest and if he wins it all he will have the money. Thompkins agrees but says there is another man trying to buy the land.
On the day of the turkey shoot, the men are shooting at a real turkey which I assume is tied behind a log. The turkey is a wise create and won’t stick his head up so they can shoot him. All the men are missing their shot. When it’s Alvin’s turn he wets his front site and gobbles like a turkey. When the bird looks up, he shoots it through the eye.
After the turkey shoot, they have a target shoot with five places or parts of a cow or a beef critter as it called in the film. Alvin trades in the bird for a shot and buys four money. He is hoping to win the whole cow and then sell it back to get the money he needs.
When the others find out what he is up to they start teasing him and comparing him to Daniel Boone. Alvin wins all five prizes and sells the others another chance to shoot for the cow. They make sure he is not shooting against them on the second try.
About the time Alvin gets the money he needs Mr. Tompkins and Zeb comes walking up. Alvin tries to pay Mr. Thompkins but he says their deal wasn’t in writing and he has already sold the land to Zeb. Alvin flies into a rage and the pair runs away as Alvin’s friends and the past hold him back.
Gracie tells Alvin that it don’t make no difference but he says it does to him. He heads off towards the whiskey in Kentucky and his two friends follow. As they drink a storm rages outside. Alvin gets increasingly sullen as he drinks. He heads out in the storm to kill Mr. Thompkins. Lightning flashes by him and when he wakes up the mule is on the ground and his rifle barrel is split. The lighting has knocked the shoes off the mule but it alive. As he walks on in the rain he comes to the church and walks in the door. The Pastor has the congregation sing “Old Time Religion” as Alvin joins in with the group.
Not long after his religious conversion he goes to Mr. Thompkins. Thompkins grabs a wrench and tries to keep Alvin at bay. Alvin apologizes and buys his old mule back for $20. Tompkins give him his clock back saying it doesn’t work anyway.
Next Alvin goes to see Zeb, but Zeb hides from him. When he realizes Alvin is not going to hurt him he comes out. Alvin asks if he can work on Zeb’s land. Zeb says he will let Alvin share crop the land.
Finally, he goes to see Gracie. He says he is sorry for coming between her and Zeb. She gets mad and says she could have Zeb if she wanted and that she doesn’t kiss men she ain’t gonna marry. Then Gracie runs off crying.
Alvin begins teaching Sunday school and is a real fundamentalist Bible believer. About that time news comes in that the US has entered World War I and the draft is beginning again. Pastor Pile’s store is the local place for men to sign up for the draft. Some are enlisting before they are drafted and when they ask Alvin he says he will wait to be called. Pastor Pile calls Alvin aside and says he has not registered. The Pastor agrees to write a letter for Alvin saying he is against killing. The local board rejects Alvin’s appeal letter.
Alvin and Gracie make big plans for their marriage and the house they are going to build. The Pastor calls Alvin in and he has been rejected by the district and national boards. At first, Alvin says he won’t go because it’s against the book. But he realizes he is wrong. The Pastor tells him to trust in the lord.
The York family is very sad to see Alvin go. He gives his rifle to his brother George. Gracie comes by and kisses Alvin before she runs off crying. Alvin says “I’ll be a comin’ back!”
Alvin is sent from Nashville to Camp Gordon, Georgia. The officers and the sergeant are notified that Alvin has applied for exemption as a conscientious objector. One of Alvin’s friends is a New York subway worker named Pusher Ross (George Tobias).
When Alvin gets his rifle the sergeant starts hounding him. Soon after they head to the rifle range. His first shot is low and too the right. He figures the sites are off and he gets five bullseyes next. When an officer ask him where he learned to shoot and he says he always knew. Back at the barracks, he teaches the men about hunting.
Alvin is called to report to Major Burton. Burton and Captain Danforth tell him that the sergeant has recommended him for Corporal to teach shooting. Alvin explains his objection to killing and he and Captain Danforth have a religious debate. Burton pulls out a copy of The History of the United States. Alvin sees a picture of Daniel Boone and is very interested. The Major talks about defending freedom. Burton gives Alvin a 10-day leave and says that when he comes back, he will let him out of the Army if he still wants to get back. Alvin takes the history book with him.
Back at home York and one of his hound dogs go to a high record where Alvin can think in private. The Bible blows open and Alvin reads in the Bible “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s,” he decides he has a duty to the country as well as God.
Alvin returns to camp and before long he sails for France as a part of the All-American Division under the overall command of General John “Black Jack” Pershing. Back home Pastor Pile reads Alvin’s letter to Gracie and the family saying that they will be moving up to the front soon.
Alvin and his men are in the trenches with a couple of British soldiers that are telling them how to determine if shells are going to hit or pass over. One of the men they went through training with, Bert, is killed by shrapnel.
The division takes part in the Meuse-Argonne Offensive, which is sometimes called the Battle of the Argonne Forest. Note, by this time the Russians were out of the war and the British, French, Italians, and Germans were just about spent. The huge influx of fresh Americans helped force the war to an end.
Alvin’s unit is ordered to attack on October 8, 1918, at 6:10 AM following an artillery barrage. The barrage never comes but they go over the top anyway. The Germans open up with machine guns and mortars. As the Americans get bogged down in no man’s land Alvin and some of the others are sent around on a flanking attack. They get in the German trench and fight hand to hand.
When the Americans come over the hill behind the Germans, most of the Germans surrender. A German machine gun turns on the Americans and kills most of them as the German prisoner’s duck. Alvin is not the senior man on the attack. Alvin crawls across the open and knocks out the German machine guns with rifle fire. In the movie, Alvin uses his back woods hunting skills to clean out a trench.
They gather up the Germans and one throws a grenade killing Pusher. When the killer runs they shoot him down. York and the seven men start moving the prisoners back towards where the American lines are located. They have between 50 – 75 prisoners. They use the German-speaking officer to make more Germans surrender.
They have 132 German prisoners and when they get close to the American line the men there think it’s a trick. No one will take the prisoners off his hands. As the group moves along the line the rumors run will about what Alvin and company have done.
Later at the attack site, Alvin explains to the general what happened. They ask how many men he killed and Danforth said he say 20 bodies. York explained that he is still against killing and did what he did to save American lives.
Sergeant Alvin York was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, Medal of Honor, the French Croix de Guerre, the French Legion of Honor, the Italian Croce di Guerra al Merito, and the Montenegro French War Medal.
The Congressman from Tennessee, Cordell Hull, met the returning Alvin on the dock. He met the mayor of New York and was given a ticker-tape parade and a key to the city. He asks only for a ride on the Bronx Express Subway to honor his friend Pusher.
They put him in a fancy hotel and show him all the endorsement offers he has received. Alvin calls home and talks to his mother and Gracie. Alvin lets them know he is not proud of what he did in France and will not make money off of it. He simply wants to go home.
When Alvin gets home the Pastor tells him he is the biggest hero from this parts since Andrew Jackson and Daniel Boone. When he gets back to Gracie they go to see the bottom land. Alvin doesn’t think he has any way to marry Gracie. There is a bridge over the stream and nice house for the couple. This has been donated to them by the state of Tennessee. The governor will marry the couple on their 200 acres of bottomland.
Alvin and Gracie walk away hand in hand.
World-Famous Short Summary – Country couple has a hard time getting married
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Beware the moors