Riding into Payneville, easy-going cowboy Melody Jones (Gary Cooper) is mighty perplexed as to why everyone in town seems scared of him. When beautiful Cherry de Longpre (Loretta Young) saves Melody and his crusty old sidekick George (William Demarest) she explains he has been mistaken for a violent outlaw named Monte Jarrad. The real Jarrad (Dan Duryea) is recuperating from a gunshot wound at Cherry's ranch after robbing a stagecoach. Cherry tries to sneak Melody out of town, partly to save his life but also draw the posse off her boyfriend Monte's trail. Melody however is too taken with Cherry to ride away. Seizing his chance to be a hero he tangles with both the law and Monte's gang, leading to an inevitable showdown.
The only film produced by star Gary Cooper, Along Came Jones is a quirky serio-comic western that presents the iconic leading man in a different light. Though still very much the hero, Melody is a far cry from the stoic, taciturn figures Cooper portrayed in most of his westerns. He is essentially a lovable doofus. Comically inept with a gun, albeit quick-witted, Melody bumbles into then bluffs his way out of one sticky situation after another, relying largely on sheer bravado, dumb luck or else the timely intervention of Loretta Young's delightfully feisty heroine. Prolific screenwriter and occasional director Nunnally Johnson, who retains a possessory credit in the opening titles even though the film is based on a novel by Alan Le May, spins a charming yarn in which the hero more or less tries to act like Gary Cooper. Drunk on love along with his first real flush of danger, Melody tries to live up to a heroic ideal allowing Cooper to spoof his own image. A priceless scene early on has him lecture George about the proper way to swagger in and make an immediate impression on the townsfolk.
With its wordplay laden dialogue, folksy mid-western humour, eccentric characters and occasional jarring detours into straight violence, Along Came Jones plays somewhat like a precursor to a Coen Brothers film. It tells a far simpler story but one well handled throughout. Right from the first few scenes Stuart Heisler establishes a deft mix of comedy and suspense then sustains the delicate balance throughout, allowing both elements to feed each other. Fluid camera-work and evocative lighting make the most of a sparse production but the key elements remain Johnson's wittily sweet-natured script and the performances. Cooper is at his most amiable, striking romantic sparks with Young in a surprisingly affecting love story. An especially charming touch has Melody, who is not quite as dumb as he seems, see through each of Cherry's contrived sob stories only to play along anyway out of love. Delivering a nuanced turn as the heroine with a pleasingly broad character arc, Young emphasizes Cherry's brains, bravery and resolve without neglecting her vulnerability as she grows to realize Monte Jarrad is no longer the man she loved.
Deceptively straightforward, Along Came Jones is full of subtly oddball or disorientating moments. Such as the stubbornly reoccurring calamities that keep stranding Melody and Cherry in the same bullet-ridden shack. Or a tense confrontation that plays out while hero and villain disrobe in front of each other. It ends with a surprisingly brutal showdown that has Melody momentarily uncertain as to whose side Cherry is really on. Although the film remains upbeat throughout the hero pays a price for chasing his ambitions towards machismo and the message seems to be happy domesticity is a much saner alternative. Even in the wild untamed west. Along the way Gary Cooper performs the song "I'm a Lonesome Cowboy" that later became the signature tune of French comic book hero Lucky Luke.