Jane finally got a gun
It is sometimes said that in Westerns women were only either saintly schoolteacher types who redeemed the good-badman hero or whore-with-a-heart-of-gold saloon gals who provided the racier element. The Western was a male genre which projected its binary fantasies onto its movies. I believe this to be false, or at least is a gross over-simplification. I can think of many Westerns, right from the early days of the form, in which female characters were just that, characters, not just generic ‘women’ of one type or another. And even if they were ‘types’, there were many others, such as sturdy farmers’ wives, strong female ranch owners, feisty miners’ daughters, and even female bandits with guns on their hips.
I would say that much of the early West was indeed a ‘male’ place, or at least certain parts of it were at certain times, such as the California gold camps or Texas/Kansas cattle drives, where women were either specifically excluded or chose not to go. “This is no place for a lady” kind of thing. Even when settlers came in and towns started to grow it has been estimated that men may have outnumbered women in the West by as high a ratio as 7:1.
The Western movie too, for most of its history, was a male-dominated affair, produced and directed exclusively by men, starring men (sometimes a famous woman like Marlene Dietrich or Barbara Stanwyck topped the billing in the cast but she very rarely led the action; that was the male co-star’s job), with men as crew, writers, photographers and so on. If women were present at all on Western movie sets they were in secretarial or other menial capacities, or occasionally responsible for hairstyling and costuming.
I might make an exception for screenplays. There was a limited number of ‘lady’ writers. Gladys Atwater, for example, wrote or co-wrote the scripts of such pictures as In Old California, The Great Sioux Uprising, El Paso, The Siege at Red River, and other oaters. Anita Loos went right back to writing The Half-Breed for Douglas Fairbanks in 1916. Betty Burbridge wrote literally dozens of second-feature Westerns throughout the 1940s. Mary Willingham wrote Audie Murphy Westerns like Arizona Raiders and Bullet for a Badman, and some episodes of Audie’s Whispering Smith on TV. And there were other women writers. And of course Westerns were sometimes made from the novels or short stories of women, such as Dorothy Johnson (The Man who Shot Liberty Valance, A Man Called Horse, The Hanging Tree, etc.) Still, even in this domain, the vast majority of Western screenplays were by men.
So, yes, making Westerns was always a male business. That’s changing now. Women are starting to direct, produce and write Westerns, or movies that are greatly influenced by Westerns. And, as we shall see below (if you’re still reading then) female roles in Westerns are changing too.
And a male genre will naturally project male stereotypes onto its woman characters. A man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do, but not a woman. Budd Boetticher famously said, “What counts is what the heroine provokes, or rather what she represents. She is the one who makes him act the way he does. In herself the woman has not the slightest importance.” Boetticher might be accused of having been what would have been called a generation ago (and may be still) a MCP. Certainly he was well known as a macho type. But while feminists might squirm at what he said, he was only being accurate about the Western movie of his time (pretty well the 1950s).
On the other hand, Anthony Mann said, “A woman is always added to the story because without a woman the Western wouldn’t work.” Despite the basic idea of a tough, lone man doing what he had to do, so very many Westerns were in fact romances, with the hero winning the fair lady at the end, and perhaps marrying her in the last scene. Thus would the Wild West be ‘civilized’, a central theme of the genre, and domestic bliss replace the savage frontier. Certainly the notion of the good-badman being redeemed by the love of a woman was a standard trope of the early Western. William S Hart made it a central theme of his pictures, see as a classic example Hell’s Hinges (1916), but it lasted well into the talkie heyday of the genre.
It was also standard structure of Western dramatis personae for the hero to hover between two women, a semi-saintly respectable one and a ‘faster’ dame, with lipstick. He didn’t always plump for the safe one at the end. Just usually. Take, just as one example chosen at random among the thousands, Allied Artists’ 1958 Western Gunsmoke in Tucson (great title). There’s the obligatory Miss Goody-goody. That’s Katy (Gail Kobe). And there’s an equally compulsory racier redhead saloon gal Lou (Gale Robbins). And you kinda wonder who’s going to get the hero (Mark Stevens in this case). But only kinda.
There is a kind of gender-role reversal going on here. Traditionally, throughout human culture, women have been associated with nature and freedom, while men have been, stereotypically, the conventional, law-and-order types. So we might expect that men in Westerns would be more urban creatures, setting up businesses and building churches, while women would relate to the wide open spaces of the frontier. But in fact the reverse is true. In the Western myth women, or anyway white women, are the civilizers. The men in Westerns roam free, explore, mine, punch cattle, drink in saloons, get into gunfights. The women run the home, teach school, organize temperance leagues and go to church.
Consider Amy (Grace Kelly) in High Noon or Clementine (Cathy Downs) in My Darling Clementine. They fall in love with tough Westerners, men of violence even, Will Kane (Gary Cooper) and Wyatt Earp (Henry Fonda). The women are Easterners and represent ‘civilized values’, while the men are roving frontiersman who have never yet settled. The most classic example is schoolteacher Molly in The Virginian, out in wild Wyoming from Vermont and taming and domesticating the wild Westerner. She wasn’t the only schoolteacher, of course. In The Gunfighter Jimmy Ringo (Gregory Peck) is an aging gunman who would very much like to hang up his irons and re-integrate into society but he knows that sooner or later some punk kid is going to get him. He wants to see his estranged wife and son one last time. What is his wife doing? Why, she’s the schoolteacher, of course. Schoolteaching was a sign of respectability, civilization – womanhood in fact. Think also of Deborah Wright (Carroll Baker) in Cheyenne Autumn.
Westerns are dependent on guns. A Western without guns is almost unimaginable. And women in Westerns were often against guns. Amy in High Noon is a Quaker and does not believe that using guns, even to defend oneself or one’s loved ones, is right – though she finally feels obliged to use one. Similarly, when a rancher/homesteader range war looks to be brewing in Shane, Marian Starrett says to Shane, who is teaching her son to shoot, “Guns aren’t going to be my boy’s life.” And when Shane answers that “a gun is a tool, no better or worse than any other tool, an axe, a shovel, or anything. A gun is as good or as bad as the man using it,” Marian replies, “We’d all be better off if there wasn’t a single gun in this valley, including yours.” Women stand for peace and non-violence, in contrast to the Westerner with the gun on his hip.
Nevertheless, there was a sub-genre of woman-with-a-gun Westerns. They featured bandit queens such as Belle Starr, ‘Queen of the Oklahoma Outlaws’, or Rose Dunn, ‘Cimarron Rose’, who was romantically involved with Bittercreek Newcomb of the Dalton-Doolin gang. (One movie, Belle Starr’s Daughter, even combined them and had Belle as Rose’s mother). There were ‘masculine’ women such as Calamity Jane, as handy with a shootin’ iron as any man. Dietrich was the mob boss who manipulated men in Fritz Lang’s Rancho Notorious in 1952.
But often these were women playing men, if you see what I mean. In the case of Johnny Guitar it was a deliberate reversal of roles for effect. Feminist, possibly? The film is admired by feminists anyway. But to this man Johnny Guitar appears as nothing so much as a Western in drag, a camp classic. But I’m probably swimming in dangerous waters here.
There was always something almost ironic about these pictures. They were made with a sort of wry amusement. A woman in pants, ha ha. And often, even in these, where you might think that a woman was finally playing a central role, a man ‘tamed’ her in the last reel. She took off her gunbelt and became a housewife. Love redressed the balance and put the woman back in her proper place – in the house. It was just a tomboy phase, you see, and now she is a woman she can assume her more ladylike functions.
The thing is, and I’m sure it was the same with other genres, movies reflect the social mores of the time they were made, not the time in which their stories were set. So often you can see 1950s social attitudes in Westerns of that time (the high watermark of the form) – just as you notice the outward aspects of the period such as 1950s pants and hair styles. It was obvious. And while many modern viewers of these old Westerns – male and female – might be amused or even upset by the portrayal of women (or African-Americans or Native Americans, or whatever) many of the audiences of the time, men and women, would have been perfectly happy with it. It would have seemed normal.
Still, male-dominant or not, the Western does leave us with the memory of some striking women. Barbara Stanwyck’s Jessica Drummond in Forty Guns, her Vance Jeffords in The Furies, Doris Day’s chirpy Calamity Jane, Jane Russell’s sex-bomb one in The Paleface, Joan Crawford’s brooding Vienna in Johnny Guitar and Mercedes McCambridge’s poison-spitting Emma there too, Judith Anderson’s assaulted stepmother back in The Furies or her tormented Ma Callum in Pursued: I’m sure you could easily add to this list. These Western women are unforgettable (however good or bad the movie).
Interesting portrayals of women in a group come in the absolutely superb Western directed by William a Wellman, Westward the Women (1951) and the less-great Audie Murphy oater The Guns of Fort Petticoat (1957). The first is quite a feminist movie for the early 50s in the sense that most of the protagonists are women, strong women, and they do everything the men can do and sometimes better. True, the instigator and leader of the wagon train (they are mail-order brides going West) are dominant men but these men come gradually to appreciate and admire the women’s grit. The film is a sort of hymn to the virtues of frontier women, their heroism and endurance, their courage and their desire for freedom. In my opinion it’s one of the best Westerns there is.
Fort Petticoat is an altogether lighter-weight affair. It’s a siege Western with brave whites fighting off generic and nameless Indians, as in countless old-style Westerns of yore. The twist is that the defenders are women. Lt Audie Murphy takes it upon himself to train them up, making the best of a bad job as it were (there are no men around). The hostility of these women turns to grudging respect, then outright loyalty and admiration, as they and the lieutenant face danger together. That’s the plot. There’s 1950s humor as Lt Audie rallies his lady troops, shouting, “Come on, men!” and the women hitch up their skirts and fight. Actually, Hope Emerson, the most entertaining member of the cast (6′ 2″ and 230 pounds) was superb in both Petticoat and Westward.
There were other times in Westerns when women took roles that men were expected to, such as the “lady lawyers” Wanda Hendrix in Sierra and Paula Raymond in Devil’s Doorway, or Gene Tierney’s journalist in The Return of Frank James. These professional women excite scorn or laughter in the (male) characters about her but it’s great when they achieve their goals, overcoming prejudice. In RKO’s Texas Lady, Claudette Colbert takes charge of the only asset her late pa left her, a small-town newspaper, The Fort Ralston Clarion, running it herself. Good gracious!
Where they weren’t symbols of decency and civilization or men-women, female characters were often ‘dancers’, ‘saloon girls’, or, as the modern Western dawned, more daringly, ‘upstairs girls’. These were euphemisms, of course. The blunt word for what they really were could not be used. The puritanism of the 1930s, 40s and 50s, the Hays Office censors and Hollywood self-censorship too wouldn’t allow the use of such a term.
Foreign women are especially likely to play these roles. Marlene in Destry was ‘Frenchy’ (naturally, for a German). In High Noon, Mexican Helen Ramirez’s past is alluded to. Mrs. Miller (Julie Christie) in McCabe & Mrs Miller was English. Perhaps film makers didn’t want to offend American apple-pie motherhood, and dubious foreigners were a safer bet. Or maybe the (male) movie makers just thought they were more exotic.
If American, such women were sometimes named after places, presumably the places where they had plied their trade, like Dallas in Stagecoach, Colorado in Colorado Territory, Denver in Wagonmaster, Waco in The Silver Whip, Chihuahua in My Darling Clementine, Dakota Lil, and so on. It was a sign of doubtful respectability.
By the late 60s and early 70s the professions of ‘saloon gals’ were being more blatantly described. Think of Julie Christie’s Mrs Miller, Faye Dunaway’s Mrs Pendrake in Little Big Man, Jeanne Moreau’s Martine in Monte Walsh or Stella Stevens’s Hildy in The Ballad of Cable Hogue. In the 1980s we had Lorena in Lonesome Dove and in the 90s the abused women who band together to revenge one of their own in Unforgiven. The mealy-mouthed oblique references of the past had been banished in a blaze of modern frankness. The frankest – and bleakest – depiction of the exploitation and abuse of women by men comes in Deadwood.
On the slightly more dubious side, we occasionally get cross-dressing and its consequent humorous misunderstandings: Barbara Hale dresses as a young man and accompanies Robert Mitchum West of the Pecos. Doris Day wears buckskin pants while Howard Keel’s Wild Bill Hickok dresses as an Indian squaw in Calamity Jane. Marlon Brando wears that bizarre drag in The Missouri Breaks, as does Iggy Pop in Dead Man, and so on. I wonder what they were getting at. It’s not quite Twelfth Night in quality, I fear, but hey.
Spanking is another popular art-form in the Western, most amusing then, such as Tim Holt whopping Jeff Holt (she specialized in male-dressing tomboy parts, even using a man’s name) in Stagecoach Kid. Errol Flynn offers to spank Olivia De Havilland in Dodge City when she has the temerity to want to work on the town newspaper and contribute to Dodge’s political life. John Wayne famously puts Maureen O’Hara across his knee in McLintock! Rod Cameron smacks the bottom of Yvonne De Carlo in Frontier Gal. And so on, ad pretty well infinitum. More male fantasies, I suppose.
Sometimes a hero is seeking revenge on the man responsible for the death of his wife. In these revenge-Westerns, a very common sub-genre, if we see the wife at all it’s just in the first reel for her to be brutally slain. Or she’s not even shown at all: we begin with the hero on his quest and only learn later what he wants vengeance for. Occasionally, and more often recently, this story is turned on its head and it’s the woman seeking vengeance. Hannie Caulder, for example. She learns gun skills (from a man) and sets off to avenge her rape and her husband’s murder.
When it came to Indian women, it was a different story. I was talking the other day about Jim Bridger and a very early Western Jim Bridger’s Indian Bride (1910). It was acceptable sometimes for white men to take Indian wives but Westerns were haunted by the fear of the dreaded ‘miscegenation’, defined by Webster’s as marriage, cohabitation, or sexual intercourse between a white person and a member of another race. The Indian woman was often actually quite positively portrayed as a wife to a white man, noble, brave and self-sacrificing. It’s the John Smith/Pocohontas syndrome. She usually had to be self-sacrificing, or sacrificed anyway, because, well, think of the children, my dear! So Sonseeahray (Debra Paget), for example, in Broken Arrow, is a beautiful bride but must perish, I’m afraid, and Tom Jeffords (James Stewart) must leave without her, maybe to get another (white) wife and that will be OK. Debra rather cornered the market in Indian maidens and because five years on from Broken Arrow she was Appearing Day in White Feather. And she didn’t have to die! It is noticeable, though, that she has much less make-up than she did in Arrow: she’s whiter. So that’s OK. The year after that she was ‘Indian Girl’ in The Last Hunt, someone for Robert Taylor and Stewart Granger to fight over. Rivalry over an Indian girl was not new, of course. Teal Eye (Elizabeth Threatt) in The Big Sky is admired by both Jim Deakins and Boone Caydill. This will dispel any unwanted hint of homosexual shenanigans between Kirk Douglas and Dewey Martin, and it’s alright for either or both to fall in love with her. Anyway, these Indian girls are ‘princesses’, daughters of a chief, so they are just about worthy of a white man.
However, woe betide an Indian man who covets a white girl. Shocking! The captivity narrative was much older than the Western movie but an essential part of the film’s development. The myth of the rapacious Indian preying on and breeding with a white damsel caused shudders in readers and film-goers, and always brought about disastrous consequences. The Searchers, Unconquered, Two Rode Together, Major Dundee, Soldier Blue and countless others depended on this plot, and audiences’ reaction to it. When in Stagecoach the Apaches are attacking, the Southern gentleman Hatfield (John Carradine) moves his revolver towards the head of Mrs. Mallory (Louise Platt) for he must all costs save her from a fate worse than death (by death). The same year Joel McCrea prepared to do the same to Barbara Stanwyck in Union Pacific. It went right back to 1912, when Francis Ford used the idea in The Invaders. Even when whites and Indians manage to live in peace there must still be no question of intermarriage. Tecumseh (Jay Silverheels) longs for Laura (Christine Larsen) in Brave Warrior, but in your dreams, Jay. It’s out of the question. She must marry (white) Steve Ruddell (Jon Hall).
As for African-Americans, when they appeared in Westerns at all, the women tended to be to our modern eyes unfortunate caricatures, often fat ‘Negro’ maids who mangled the English language. These gradually became less acceptable. Take The Spoilers, for example. In the 1942 version, Marlene Dietrich has one of those cheerful, plump black-momma servants, Idabelle (Marietta Canty), and this gives rise to ‘amusing’ banter when she sees Glenister (John Wayne) blacked up and thinks he’s “colored folk”. However, by the time we get to Universal’s color remake in 1955 the “lawdy lawdy” maid was replaced with an elderly white lady called Duchess (Ruth Donnelly).
Because of course the times, they were a-changin’.
In 1969 Kim Darby’s spirited Mattie even bossed cranky old John Wayne about in True Grit. She is an equal partner in the chase, despite her youth. Women weren’t just adjuncts any more.
In the 1990s there was a revival of the woman-with-a-gun character of the 40s and 50s. In Bad Girls (1994) four tough and feisty ‘working’ women go on the run pursued by Pinkertons. In The Quick and the Dead (1995) Sharon Stone did a Clint impression as a female gunslinger out for revenge (carrying on from Hannie Caulder). And in this century Selma Hayek and Penelope Cruz were Bandidas in Mexico (reprising Bardot and Cardinale in Les Pétroleuses in 1971). Women were taking center stage again and they weren’t taking shit from anyone. As it were.
In reality, though, the woman of the West did not commonly go about with a Colt on her hip and have quick-draw showdowns against male gunslingers at high noon. She was, instead, the foundation rock of Western expansion, settlement and society.
One of the great things about modern Westerns is their portrayal of women. Gone are the prim teacher/saloon gal stereotypes. We begin to see the Western woman as she must have been and women are shown as real people with their own characters and agendas. Take a modern film like The Missing. Cate Blanchett is a single woman living the ferociously hard life of the frontier. She runs the place and doctors the local folk and she sets out to find her abducted daughter with courage, skill and force. This would have been essentially a male role in earlier Westerns – it’s the captivity narrative reversed. Or watch the recent The Homesman where Hilary Swank’s Mary Bee Cuddy is incredibly strong and resourceful. Here we see the real steel of the frontier woman.
Where ‘less respectable’ women do appear in modern Westerns, the appalling exploitation of such women by men is the main focus. Watch the very fine Broken Trail for its sympathetic (but not patronizing) portrayal of Chinese women and girls sold into slavery for sexual purposes. There is certainly a feminist tinge to Unforgiven. The women who pool their money to hire gunmen to punish the cowboys who cut up one of the ‘sisters’ are empowered, dominant. They live in a violent, hard world and can be just as violent and hard as the men if needs be.
We’ve come a long way from Calamity Jane. But as I said, Westerns have always reflected the culture of the era in which they were made. Westerns of the 1940s and 50s were more reflective of the standards of those decades than they were of those of the frontier 1870s and 80s. And much modern scholarship has concentrated on the role of women in the West, feeding into the screen depictions. So it is not surprising that, even in what is still a very male world – the production of Western movies – women in 21st century pictures are more independent, stronger and have more character. And a good thing too.
Are we closer now to the real woman of the West? I think so. But then I’m a man.