"Each man has a song and this is my song." (Leonard Cohen)

Thursday, August 13, 2020

The Ballad of Little Jo (Polygram, 1993)


"Little Jo, you are the unfriendliest fella I ever met, and frankly quite peculiar."




 
 
The Ballad of Little Jo showed that as the century that invented the Western movie wound down, after thousands and thousands of formulaic and sterotypical oaters had reached the screen, the genre still had something original and thought-provoking to say. The picture is an interesting commentary on the place of women in the West and the whole concept of gender.

Its central character, Josephine Monaghan (Suzy Amis), is an Eastern woman who in her youth has an illegitimate child and is expelled from her well-to-do bourgeois family as a consequence - “She and her bastard can die in the street,” her father (Vince O'Neil) charmingly announces. She leaves her baby son with her sister and sets out, naively, on foot, carrying a valise and a parasol, for the West, seeking like so many others a new life and new identity. Here we have a standard Victorian melodrama, a ‘fallen’ young woman cast out by a stern patriarch after being seduced by a cad, the local photographer (Sam Robards, Jason’s son and at the time husband of Amis).

Go West, young lady. Josephine, cast out, seeks a new life.

Immediately she is exploited and abused by men she meets. One, a traveling peddler (Rene Auberjonois) seems to be kind but callously sells her as a chattel to two loutish soldiers. She escapes the clutches of these low types by swimming a river and, bedraggled and torn, gets to a general store which stocks no ready-made dresses, so on an impulse and despite the admonition of the storekeeper (Ruth Maleczech) that “it’s against the law to dress improper to your sex”, she buys and dons men’s wear. She also cuts her hair short. Thenceforth she is trapped, or liberated, depending how you look at it, though probably a bit of both, in a new gender, understanding that a woman alone is not going to make it in her new life and she would be better off as a man. She will no longer be a victim. She even slashes her own cheek with a razor, the scar acting as another male touch and as a deterrent.

Josephine becomes Jo

Here we come to a major obstacle the film has to surmount: is Amis convincing as a man? Clearly talented from the acting standpoint, and doing her best to adopt a gruff accent and bluff manner, she nevertheless never leaves the viewer in any doubt that she is a woman, and that makes the universal acceptance of her as Mr. Jo Monaghan by the Montana characters who surround her distinctly implausible. We are obliged to suspend our credibility here. But that’s OK. We are watching a Western after all, so suspending credibility is what we do.

You have to make allowances but that's OK

In fact there was a Joe Monahan (1850 to 1904), known as Little Joe, born Johanna Monahan, who worked in various prospecting and cattle businesses around Silver City, Idaho, under a masculine identity. The revelation of this person’s sex became a sensational national news story after Monahan’s death in 1904. Joseph Israel Lobdell (1829 to 1912) was another born a woman, Lucy Ann Lobdell,  who lived sixty years as a man. Lobdell was an accomplished shot. S/he became engaged to one woman and married another, and has the ‘honor’ of being the first person to be termed a lesbian, by the doctor in a New York insane asylum where s/he was incarcerated in old age, the first use of that word in an American publication.

Monahan and Lobdell

There is of course a slight frisson to be had from gender-bender stories of this kind, as Shakespeare knew well, and a young girl, Mary (Heather Graham), in the mining camp where Jo fetches up, begins, like Olivia in Twelfth Night, to fancy the handsome boy, but there is no reciprocal interest. People in the camp sense that Jo is somehow different, even “peculiar”, especially because he takes no interest in women, but they still never question his masculinity. Fair enough, I suppose. Dressed like that he passes for a slight youth.

This is not the first time that a woman had passed as a man in a Western movie and I wonder if director/writer Maggie Greenwald (her only Western) had ever seen, for example, RKO’s West of the Pecos (1945), or had read the 1937 Zane Grey novel of the same title which was the basis for the Norman Houston-penned film script. The cross-dresser in that was Barbara Hale, in only her second Western, as Rill Lambeth, who has decided that west of the Pecos it’s safer to be male than a winsome maid. This leads to all sorts of ‘hilarious’ (though rather sub-Twelfth Night) situations when s/he meets up with Robert Mitchum as Pecos Smith.

Barbara Hale went before

Greenwald goes for quite a lot of period ‘color’ rather than narrative action, depicting Montana life after the Civil War in some authentic detail. We see the grimy and often sordid reality of existence, complete with women used as sex-objects and casual but vicious prejudice against any minority, anyone 'different'. Jo starts out an Eastern greenhorn, at first digging and panning fruitlessly for gold, but quite swiftly becomes adept in frontier ways, learning to handle firearms (we see the classic shooting lesson, though without a tutor; Jo learns independently and needs no man to teach the skills), managing sheep and protecting them against wolves, and acting as a guide to a Russian family of immigrants, a family she ‘adopts’ almost as a substitute for her own, missing one.

Russian immigrants establish a remote homestead

One of the apparently friendly but in fact odious men that Jo falls in with is Percy Corcoran (pre-Gandalf Ian McKellen, in his only Western), who works in the assay office and whose idea of entertainment is to get drunk and beat up prostitutes. He opens and reads a letter that Jo receives from her sister in Boston and so discovers the truth about her gender, immediately tries to rape her and when that fails (Jo’s new gun skills come in handy) extorts money from her to keep silent about it. We see the dangers of the truth being revealed.

Maybe the use of a gay actor deliberately adds to the ambiguities

Years pass, Corcoran has left, and Jo has built a cabin and amassed 800 acres of land. We see her intervene when one of the local bigwigs, Frank Badger (second-billed Bo Hopkins, Crazy Lee in The Wild Bunch) is amusing his fellow townsmen by hanging a Chinaman. She is semi-obliged to hire the abused man, as cook and dogsbody, and at first treats him harshly. There is now a more self-aware role-reversal, or gender ambiguity, as the Chinese man cooks and does the housework, including the mending, while Jo herds the sheep, carries the gun, does the carpentry, hunts.
 
Actually quite a complex character

The Chinese man, Tien Ma, known to all as Tinman, is played, very well too, by David Chung. It takes the intelligent and sensitive fellow a very short time to suss that Jo is not a man. Jo gradually softens, discovering that Tien Ma is a person, and persecuted for his race as she had been for her gender.

Not a 'Chinaman' but a person
 
The relationship slowly blossoms until they are lovers. In the scene of Jo in bed with Tien Ma, when the severely cropped-haired Jo tenderly brushes the long glossy locks of Tinman, we see more of the gender ambiguity. It’s well done.

We are well-used in Westerns to bath scenes, the genre being unusual in that it specialized in men bathing, as I said in another little excursion, Baths, (click again if interested). Such scenes are rather asexual, with the man concerned guarding his masculinity by leaving his Stetson on in the tub or keeping a manly cigar clenched between his teeth. So it comes as no surprise to see Tien Ma in this picture washing himself in the river. What is different, though, is that it is Jo - as a woman now - who is the voyeur and the man who seems to be the sex-object. It’s amusing, ironic maybe, even a little disconcerting, at least for male viewers.

The bathing scene

Badger lives up to his name, too frequently visiting, using a “Yeehar!” as a doorbell and splashing across the defensive moat-like river in front of Jo’s home (Greenwald seems to have a Delmer Daves-like interest in rivers as symbols). In the presence of Badger the ‘couple’ are obliged to dissimulate – heaven only knows what would happen if a ‘man’ were discovered in bed with another man, and a Chinaman at that. We have already seen an oblique example of hatred of homosexuals when Jo first arrived in the camp and had been taken for a ‘dude’ by the rowdy denizens of the bar, including Badger, dude being apparently a euphemism. Jo passed the test – it seems that the plain socks beneath Jo’s boots were acceptable – but they tell of the fate of another man previously who had not and what happened to him.

Enter now the classic plot idea of evil large corporate cattle company ruthlessly mistreating decent sturdy homesteaders. The top-hatted Mr. Henry – not Zane - Grey (Anthony Heald), accompanied by his snooty Eastern wife (Melissa Leo), is buying up, often by main force, all the land around, to run cattle, and as Jo says and all Western-lovers know, “Cattle and sheep don’t mix.” The immigrant family, which had established a rude homestead, is brutally murdered, including the women and children, by Grey’s hooded thugs. It almost breaks Jo, and she agrees to sell out, and go back East, but another letter from home, in which the sister announces that she has thought it better to tell Jo’s child that his mother is dead, and the fact that Jo has become a true Westerner by now and understands that a person’s gotta do what a person’s gotta do, causes a change of mind. Jo will resist oppression, if necessary with gunplay, in true frontier spirit.

Grey and his hoods


Badger’s wife (Carrie Snodgress, Sarah Wheeler in Pale Rider) uses authentic-looking prairie medicine techniques to treat Tien Ma when he gets sick, including making him swallow kerosene, making him a poultice of axle-grease, drinking pine-branch tea and strapping raw onion to the soles of his feet, and this works – or he would have recovered anyway, we don’t know. Out West much medical treatment was such a combination of folk remedies administered by local women. Actually, I remember Joel McCrea treating children with diphtheria by making them swallow lamp oil in Four Faces West in 1948. I have no idea how wise (or dangerous) this treatment might be but it seems to have been widespread.

Jo got a gun

The ending skips forward to an elderly Jo, walking with difficulty (we see only the grave of Tien Ma) and the shock caused in the community when finally the undertaker (Dennis McNiven) discovers that the farmer was a woman. It reminds me a bit of the story of Charley Parkhurst, which I mentioned in my little essay on stagecoaches (click the link for that). One of the most skilled and remarkable of the old Western stage drivers, Parkhurst moved out West from Rhode Island at the time of the gold rush, and became one of the most noted stage drivers in California. It was a dangerous occupation but Charley was one of the toughest drivers there was. As the railroads drove the stage lines out of business and age began to take its toll, Charley retired, and eventually died, aged about 65, in 1879, when it was discovered finally that Charley was in fact a woman, Charlotte Darkey Parkhurst. No one knew until then. Charley had always signed letters and documents simply CD Parkhurst. Maybe Maggie Greenwald knew this story too.

Greenwald references the photo of the real Joe Monahan with a macabre but likely scene in which a 'lady' photographer takes a picture of the dead Jo on a horse

I’m not quite sure in what sense this picture is a ballad, but I suppose that didn’t stop The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, Cable Hogue or Lefty Brown.

Jen Johans in a review on the filmintution.com website suggests that “in gender bender films directed by women, women go in drag to better their situation in ways that would be denied to them as women, whereas in male directed films featuring men in drag, the primary goal is usually cheap laughs about feminine issues of beauty.” I guess that’s a point. In our day, with LGBT issues to the fore more than they were, many of us (at least the more open-minded ones) are not fazed by cross dressing or blurred gender Identity, but we have to think what it was like 150 years ago, when the merest hint that a person was not 100% of one or the other sex was deeply shocking.


Visually, the picture is restrained and sparsely shot, partly perhaps because of its limited ($4m) budget but mostly because that suits the tone. There are some fine Montana locations but they are sparingly used and the film is not a lyrical hymn to Western beauty, far from it. If anything the landscape appears hostile and arid. The DP was Declan Quinn (Leaving Las Vegas, Hamilton, but no other Westerns). Director Greenwald used to be a sound and picture editor, and maybe that shows in the economical cutting.

The writer on Westerns Jim Kitses called The Ballad of Little Jo “an exemplary post-modern Western”, and maybe it is, though I myself have never been 100% confident of what post-modernism is. Mr. Kitses comes up with ideas such as “the film elegantly exemplifies Charles Jenks’ argument for double-coding as the semiotic structural base for post-modern art and culture”, which I would be tempted to disagree with if I knew what it meant. Kitses’s essay is included in a 1998 collection The Western Reader, of which he was one of the editors, and many of the contributions contain such language, but many also contain interesting and useful insights in plain speech, Kitses’s among them.

Director/writer Greenwald

Ms. Greenwald apparently had always wanted to make a Western, and in many ways the one she made is rather un-post-modern, by which I mean it is a straight classic telling of the tale, with a green Easterner learning the ways of the West, becoming a self-reliant, lone, feet-on-the-ground frontier type and finally a plucky homesteader with a gun standing up against over-mighty bullies. We’ve seen that one before. Yet in other ways it is an ironic, subtly subversive debunking of the macho myth. Kitses says, “At once both traditional and revisionist, The Ballad of Little Jo recycles the classic Western but also goes beyond it.”
 
Anyway, I think it's rather good.

 

 

3 comments:

  1. Jim Kitses seems to have mastered the art of turning entertainment into a hopeless and obscure bore. Congrats, Jim boy.

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    1. He comes from school of writers that tends IMHO to over-intellectualize what are after all cowboy flicks. But his essays and those by his like-minded colleagues do contain the occasional flash of insight expressed in plain English, so I trawl through them!
      Jeff

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