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

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Northwest Trail (Screen Guild Productions, 1945)

Bob Steele gets his man

North-of-the-border tales of how red-coated Mounties got their man are not really Westerns, even if they are filmed in California and star Bob Steele. But we’ll make an exception for this one. Actually, I also made an exception for North West Mounted Police, Saskatchewan, Pony Soldier, Susannah of the Mounties, Fort Vengeance and Dan Candy’s Law, but we won’t talk about that just at the moment.

Unusually for a Poverty Row B-Western of the period, this one is in color, even if today the Cinecolor is a bit degraded and the print not too hot. But otherwise it’s rather a low-budget affair. Still, it’s a lot of fun.
And it’s interesting for another reason: the appearance of Madge Bellamy (left). Now Ms. Bellamy was the big star in Fox’s massive The Iron Horse, directed by John Ford, and as such was pretty famous. She also had the female lead in a silent Western the following year, The Golden Strain and was in Fox’s first talkie in 1928, Mother Knows Best. But she was a notoriously prickly person, always arguing over roles, and when she refused to do a part in a movie expressly bought for her, her contract was terminated and her career crashed. She descended into bit parts in B-movie talkies and by the time of Northwest Trail, her very last picture, she was reduced to playing the slatternly wife of one of the bad guys. How are the mighty fallen! She was rather beautiful in a 1920s way, as you can see from the photograph. But beauty alone is not enough (I know that) and you need brains as well, which in Ms. Bellamy's case were apparently in short supply.
That's Madge Bellamy on the left
It’s a contemporary Western (another reason purists will discard it) in which Mountie Bob, on a fancy Palomino, comes across a tiresome and rude woman (Joan Woodbury, right, who took roles as an ‘exotic’ woman in various Roy Rogers, Hopalong Cassidy and Johnny Mack Brown oaters) in her stranded convertible, which he politely repairs notwithstanding her facetious and irritating remarks. Then he finds that he is ordered to escort the tiresome dame up to a remote camp. The car is soon left behind, though, and it becomes a straight Western from there on in, with horses, guns and a gang of bad guys illegally mining gold.

Most of the story is set up in a remote settlement which has a ratty saloon (in which Raymond Hatton is the barman, so that's good) and there’s a predictable bad guy in a suit (John Hamilton) with henchmen (various). There’s also a local Mountie sergeant (John Litel) who appears to be very laissez-faire about the evident skullduggery going on.

Bob saves the day and unravels the plot, obviously, and is also saddled in the closing scene with the odious woman as they kiss in the convertible, with the Palomino trotting behind.

Traditional fare. I’ve seen worse. But then I’ve seen a lot better too.


Monday, November 28, 2016

Stampede (AA, 1949)


With a title like that there are no prizes for guessing what the climax of this B-Western will be, and the stampede is combined with dynamitin' a dam, mucho shootin’ and a fatal fistfight in a moonlit lake. Good old Lesley Selander directed and while he may not have been an arty director of fine films, he sure knew how to handle Western action scenes. Stampede is in fact an actionful B-Western with quite a lot to recommend it.

It’s a classic cattleman vs. homesteaders plot but just before you switch off, saying Been there, done that, I would just add that there are complex plot twists, some good dialogue and even developments of character, as cattle baron Rod Cameron starts off an out-and-out ruthless rancher of the old school but gradually becomes more sympathetic. He’s Mike McCall (no relation to Jack, I’m sure).

Cameron was rather in the second rank of Western leads but he was always solid and reliable. His imposing build and gritty character made him suitable for the genre. And he is well supported in this one, with a rather charming Don Castle as his happy-go-lucky young brother Tim and the dramatically named if diminutive Gale Storm (right) as the tomboy homesteader Connie who starts hostile and gradually comes to love Rod. Storm was a Monogram contract player who had starred in Allied Artists (a sort of grown-up Monogram)’s 1947 hit It Happened on Fifth Avenue. She’d been in a few Roy Rogers oaters. Castle specialized in fresh-faced kid roles and had featured in Hardy boys movies. In 1942 he’d been in Tombstone, The Town Too Tough To Die, but he was only ever in five Westerns and never led in one.
In addition we have Johnny Mack Brown as a likeable sheriff. Of course Johnny had been appearing in movies since the silent days and had then been Billy the Kid in the King Vidor-directed talkie of 1930. But he had descended to studios like Mascot (and worse) and led in dozens and dozens of very B Westerns, occasionally taking smaller roles in bigger ones. He’d already made over a hundred oaters before this one.

And I also thought a couple of the other characters well done, notably John Miljan as the conflicted banker who gradually loses his dignity, Jonathan Hale as the lawyer and John Eldredge as the land agent for the settlers. The writing of these parts is subtle and the acting classy enough to carry it off.
The main villain, though, Stanton, who owns the town and will go to any lengths to beat cattleman Rod, including several murders and provoking the aforementioned stampede/dam-dynamiting, is a bit over-the-top and impossibly evil. He is played by Donald Curtis who’d had small parts in B-Westerns throughout the 1940s and later became a religious self-help writer. I don’t know how he was as a scribbler but his Westerns weren’t too hot.

Anyway, there is some good writing and acting. The screenplay was an early effort of Blake Edwards, later Mr. Julie Andrews and the Breakfast at Tiffany’s and Pink Panther fellow. He had first done another Rod Cameron oater, Panhandle, the year before and would later go on to write and/or direct several Westerns including Wild Rovers and Sunset. His co-writer was John C Champion, who also started on Panhandle.
The black & white photography is by Harry Neumann and occasionally rather good. The stampede of cattle over a cliff is skillfully done in miniature that is almost convincing (thank goodness it wasn’t real). There are a lot of night scenes and these contribute to the noir atmosphere (of course noir Westerns were all the rage in the late 40s). The fistfight which becomes a gunfight and then again a fistfight is especially well done, and full marks to director and cinematographer. Oh, and actors, I guess.

A Rod Cameron B-Western, yes, with all that implies, but actually this is rather a superior one.



Saturday, November 26, 2016

River Lady (Universal, 1948)


Rod Cameron made three Westerns with fellow Canadian Yvonne De Carlo. River Lady was the best of them (Salome Where She Danced and Frontier Gal were frankly dire) but it’s only relative. While Cameron was a good, solid Western lead, and River Lady also benefits from Dan Duryea as the bad guy, De Carlo was unsuited to the genre. That didn’t seem to stop her, though. The same year as River Lady she starred with Duryea (but sans Rod) in another, Black Bart, and the following year she was a ludicrous Calamity Jane, with an equally implausible Howard Duff as outlaw Sam Bass in Calamity Jane and Sam Bass. And so it went on (and on), with TV Westerns replacing features as the 60s wore on. The nearest she came to being any good in an oater was opposite Van Heflin in Tomahawk, also directed by George Sherman.

Despite being a Universal picture, in Technicolor, with an experienced director (Sherman) and writer (DD Beauchamp) it was below par for the studio. There are some nice location shots of logging (it’s a lumberjack tale) but very few - they must have done a couple of days location shooting at most - and the majority of the picture is done in the studio, with very obvious back projection for ‘exterior’ shots. Cinematographer Irving Glassberg, capable of classy Western work (such as Bend of the River), had no opportunity to shine at all on this picture. The whole thing is a very B Western.

The eponymous fluvial dame is not Sequin (De Carlo) but the Mississippi riverboat she owns. As her unsuccessful suitor Beauvais (Duryea) tells Sequin, she herself will never be a lady (which is perhaps why he was unsuccessful as a suitor). Sequin is rich but highly ambitious, and she loves Irish logger Corrigan (Cameron) but wants him to be a big man, not just a Mick timber jack. Even the riverboat is a sham; we only see a couple of shots of it on the Mississip and the rest is done on a soundstage and could be any old saloon, and its owner any saloon gal. She sings a (quite catchy) song but only one, which is a relief.
De Carlo as saloon madam
The excellent John McIntire, looking quite young, is an independent lumber merchant that Duryea and his syndicate is trying to buy out. He has a pretty young daughter, Stephanie (Helena Carter, who had a short contract with Universal and was best known for Invaders from Mars). Stephanie has designs on Rod too, and finally gets him to the altar, though he doesn’t love her. It’s all a bit of a low-on-passion potboiler, to be honest.
Dad John McIntire warns daughter Helena Carter about the ruffian Rod
Jack Lambert is a thuggish logger who hates Rod, so that's good, but there are few familiar-face character actors otherwise. Robert J Wilke appears in the cast list but I didn’t spot him; it must have been a micropart. What a waste.

There’s a climactic fight on the river as Rod tries to free up a logjam with dynamite and Dan tries to stop him. You may guess the outcome.
Cameron: solid
Cameron is reliable and solid, as ever. Duryea is unusually subdued for him and does not ham it up. He has a splendidly caddish mustache though. McIntire has little chance to shine. The female leads are weak. It’s a bit low on action, with too much talking. Though 1948 was a fabulous year for Westerns, they couldn’t all be great.
Duryea: unusually restrained
If you want to know if logger Rod goes off finally with Yvonne or Helena, you’ll have to watch it yourself. But I don’t think you’ll find the tension unbearable.


Thursday, November 24, 2016

The Iron Horse (Fox, 1924)

John Ford's first great Western

When Paramount came out with The Covered Wagon, in 1923, things changed. For years Westerns had been one- or two-reelers, the occasional feature, theater fodder for the masses – popular, yes, but never considered adult or mature entertainment really, and often looked down on by the critics. The rather somber and sober William S Hart Westerns had an adult aspect but they had given way to lighter fare with dashing celluloid cowboys in dudish costumes, as the likes of Tom Mix galloped across the silver screen for the entertainment of, mainly, a juvenile audience. But The Covered Wagon gave us a huge, nation-spanning epic as it told the story of the wagon train pioneers on the Oregon Trail. It wasn’t long before William Fox replied with his own great project, the tale of the building of the transcontinental railroad in the 1860s (the subtext being that the movie would outclass Paramount’s picture just as the railroads rendered obsolete the wagon trains). And Fox had John Ford direct it.

Jack Ford (left) had followed in the footsteps of his brother Francis Ford and had worked for Carl Laemmle’s Universal in the 1910s, making Westerns with Harry Carey, before moving to Fox in December 1920. In the following four years he made half a dozen oaters with actors such as Carey (who moved to Fox too), Hoot Gibson and Buck Jones, and even one, Three Jumps Ahead, with Fox megastar Tom Mix. [Daughter Barbara Ford remembered being invited to the birthday party of Mix’s daughter, and the star rode into his Beverley Hills mansion and shot out all the lights of the chandelier, to the utter rapture of all the children. But that’s another story]. Ford campaigned hard to get to direct Fox’s new railroad epic; he really wanted it. He was only 31 but had had already amassed a vast amount of experience, much of it with Westerns – he had directed more than a dozen two-reelers and over thirty-five features, which is more than most directors will do in a complete working life. He got the job.

In his biography of John Ford, Scott Eyman says that the West was only slightly less hazardous for filmmakers of the 1920s than it had been for the railroad builders of the 1860s. He has a point. The Indians didn’t attack the film crews but the elements did. Cameraman George Schneiderman said of the location work done in Mexico that they shot scenes from dawn to dusk, “sleeping at night under the well-known Mexican skies”. Most was filmed in Nevada where snow and bitter cold were a frequent scourge but the actors had to work in their shirtsleeves pretending it was summer. The film’s logistics were difficult as well as costly. There were three hundred in the company, most living in tents or railroad cars. The only hot water was from the boiler of the locomotive. They constructed complete railroad towns of North Platte and Cheyenne. Tempers flared. Ford went on a two-day alcoholic bender with the crew of Chaplin’s The Gold Rush which was filming in nearby Truckee. The whole thing cost a quarter of a million dollars.

They rigged up a projection room in a railroad car but it was so cold no one could stand it. Ford never saw a foot of the film in rushes. But it was all in his head. There were very few scripts in circulation. That was the way Ford liked it: the cast were forced to rely on him for guidance.
Everyone doubled up. Assistant editor Harold Schuster played eight or nine parts. Every Western actor there ever was seems subsequently to have claimed to have been a railroad worker on The Iron Horse.

It’s a very long picture, 150 minutes (133’ in the TCM cut). And it moves at a leisurely pace – sometimes you get the feeling that the railroad would have been built faster. But there is no denying it is a fine film, and way superior to James Cruze’s rather plodding work on The Covered Wagon the year before.

The film starts with one of those mendacious prologues:

Accurate and faithful in every particular of fact and atmosphere is this pictorial history of the building of the first transcontinental railroad.

This statement is what is commonly known as a lie but no one seemed to mind. Westerns often made the claim to be historically accurate. Why? Perhaps it made them seem more weighty and valuable and added a documentary feel. But if viewers seriously believe that it is accurate “in every particular of fact” then they must be very gullible indeed. I don’t mind if Westerns play fast and loose with history. But I do object when they claim to be true and patently aren’t. Ford did this a lot: he even claimed that he had spoken to an elderly Wyatt Earp who had told him all about the OK Corral and so they shot it in My Darling Clementine "exactly the way it happened". As in Ford’s version Doc Holliday is killed, either Earp’s memory was failing or Ford was talking B.S. But then Ford was an inveterate liar.


The opening scene is a pastoral one of sheep being herded. This was serendipitous: a Basque sheepherder drove his flock across the line of sight while they were setting up. Ford said, “We’ve got to get this in the picture”. The shot is actually rather well framed and beautiful.

Ford could have chosen any number of scenes to illustrate the story of the construction of the railroad. He decided to start in Illinois with an austere and saintly young Abe (Charles Edward Bull) presiding over the community and a visionary surveyor, and his son Davy, gently mocked by a skeptical engineer, and his daughter Miriam. The children (left) are sweet on each other. Abe sides with the surveyor and shares his dream of a transcontinental railroad. The New York Times said of the film that at the première "his make-up as the martyred President is so good that the mere sight of him brought volleys of applause from the spectators."

Now we see the surveyor and his boy out West “in the Cheyenne hills” seeking out a route for the Union Pacific. They find a steep pass which will save miles (filmed at Beale’s Cut, Newhall, where Ford had shot some of Straight Shooting in 1917). The boy in hiding sees his father murdered and scalped by a sinister half-breed with only two fingers. The scene was pretty brutal for the time and must have had a big impact. Some mountain men find the boy and adopt him.

The boy is played by Winston Miller, then 14, who would go on to become a great figure in the Western, not as an actor but as a writer. He worked for David O Selznick on the script of Gone With the Wind. Still, we can't all be perfect. He wrote My Darling Clementine for Ford and later good Westerns like Station West and Fury at Furnace Creek. Later still he became a producer, doing The Virginian TV shows among others.
Winston Miller slightly later than The Iron Horse

Other memorable scenes include horses pulling a locomotive up a slope (the poor beasts look to be suffering). In fact one day it was so cold that the engine froze and the train would not budge. Ford invented a solution by moving the camera past the stationary train to give the impression of movement.

There is a frankly absurd episode when the railroad workers sing, drop their tools and pick up rifles, fight off Indians for thirty seconds, then immediately resume work. It is (unintentionally) funny. In fact the song they sing wasn’t written till the 1880s, so that must have slipped by Ford’s “accurate and faithful in every particular”.

Being Ford, there is of course comic relief involving drunken Irishmen. Because it was mid-Prohibition the drinking had to be implied rather than shown but the ‘amusing’ trio of Sergeant Slattery, Corporal Casey and Private Schultz (Francis Powers, J Farrell MacDonald and Jim Welch, right) are given several scenes, such as the comic extraction of a bad tooth by a frontier dentist. The trio are, though, closer to the Three Stooges than they are to Kipling's Soldiers Three.

Semi-comic are the scenes showing Hell on Wheels, Judge Haller (James A Marcus)’s mobile courtroom/saloon, very much a take on Judge Roy Bean. The judge marries a couple and divorces them ten hours later. Saloon gal Ruby (Gladys Hulette) is insulted by a card player so she shoots him with a derringer (studio publicity said it was Wild Bill Hickok's derringer). She is promptly acquitted by the judge. In a classic scene barmen take down the mirror before a fight.

Ford is true to his principle of showing ordinary folk as the real doers and makers in American society. The Irish workers, Davy and Miriam, these are everyday people. Even Lincoln in the White House, of couse, whom Ford revered hugely, is from the famous log cabin and 'one of us'.

Various famous characters appear. Buffalo Bill (George Waggner, as George Wagner) provides meat for the crews, and Wild Bill Hickok (Jack Padjan), with a lawman’s badge, drives a herd of cattle up from Texas to Cheyenne to feed the workers. General Dodge (Walter Rodgers) is engineer in chief, anxious to find the shortcut. And Frank North (Charles O’Malley) and his Pawnee scouts ride to the rescue when Cheyennes attack the railroad workers.

The murderous half-breed who had killed that surveyor now re-appears, as landowner Deroux (Fred Kohler, left), the principal villain of the piece. He will do anything to get the railroad routed through his land, including getting surveyor Jesson (Cyril Chadwick) to lie about the existence of a pass. Now the children we saw in the first reel are grown. Miriam (Madge Bellamy) and Davy (George O’Brien) meet up again as adults. Miriam has a fiancé, none other than the wretched surveyor Jesson. Davy has become a Pony Express rider, allowing for an exciting scene as he athletically leaps from his horse to the moving train to escape Indians. But Davy remembers his daddy’s dream, and that pass in the Cheyenne hills, and is determined to find it again. He survives attempted murder by Jesson (as he slithers down the Newhall cut) and comes back to Cheyenne to fight it out with the rogue.

George O’Brien (right), 25, was the son of San Francisco’s chief of police and had been light-heavyweight champion in the Navy. Later he had a job minding police horses and was taken up by Tom Mix, and worked lugging cameras and stunting for Fox. He even (unsuccessfully) auditioned for Ben Hur. Ford is said to have tested over fifty actors for the part of Davy before settling on O’Brien. But he had to fight William Fox for the actor. Fox wanted an established star for such a big picture. But Ford was adamant, and won the day. He and O’Brien would prove a good match. O’Brien was a good-natured, straightforward, hearty fellow, actually very similar to the character he played. Ford and O'Brien's common heritage, religion and love of the sea helped the relationship greatly. He is very winning in The Iron Horse, much more so than the ‘safer’ Bellamy as his amour.

Ford had a rough way with actors, who must do his bidding. He had a colorful type known as Pardner Jones who would shoot. Once he had Pardner shoot the clay pipe out of the mouth of a man named McCluskey without McCluskey being aware. It scared McCluskey terribly and he had a sore jaw for two weeks. To Ford, it was all grist to the mill.

Ford’s laborers are Irish, with one shirking Italian (Colin Chase). Later, Davy joins the rival Central Pacific and we see more Chinese workers but Ford was less interested in these (the actors playing the earlier attacking Indians doubled as Chinese).

The final scene, a re-enactment of the meeting of the two railroads at Promontory Point, is done as a tableau, a representation of the famous photograph (left). Fox claimed that the locomotives filmed, the Jupiter and the #115, were the actual ones used on the day. Naturally, the marriage of the two lines, birthing the nation, is symbolized by the union of Davy and Miriam, in connubial bliss.

The look of the picture is very attractive. The print quality is still good today and the film is more than watchable. The title cards are very charmingly illustrated. There are some typical elegant Fordian shots, for example of riders passing, their images reflected in the water. When horses storm into town, their breath and the condensation from their sweating bodies nearly obliterate the figures of the townspeople. It’s an enjoyable watch.

Of course the whole show is firmly in the Manifest Destiny camp. The continent is 'wilderness' and empty - except for the Indians and they had no business being there. Lincoln's scheme binds East and West, just as he struggled to keep North and South together. The American nation will reach from coast to coast thanks to the courageous and patriotic efforts of the railroad builders. The notion of corporate profit is not addressed at all and the railroad companies are, for once in a Western, noble Americans doing a fine job.

The Iron Horse premiered (six months before The Gold Rush) in New York on August 28, 1924. Fox had taken every available billboard. There were skywriters spelling out the name of the movie over Manhattan. There were Indians on stage and two locomotives with a re-enactment of the driving of the golden spike. The reviews were nearly as enthusiastic as the publicity. “I stood up – I admit it – and cheered,” said The New York Journal. Even The New York Times was almost complimentary. Harrison’s Reports, a trade paper known for its sour reviews, enthused, “Today ‘The Covered Wagon’ stands out as the best western that has ever been turned out. ‘The Iron Horse’ is as good. In some respects it is even better.

Scott Eyman wrote, perhaps (forgivably) a little bit hyperbolically, “With The Iron Horse, Ford created his first masterpiece, and staked out his territory as America’s tribal poet.”

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Women in Westerns

Howdy, Ma'am

The West of the Western movie has always been an essentially masculine place. Looking at it impartially, that is a bit odd because traditionally women have been associated with nature and freedom, while men have been, stereotypically, the conventional, law and order types. So we might imagine that men would be more urban creatures, setting up businesses and building churches, while women would relate to the wide open spaces of the frontier. But 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.
It is true that the early West was a very male place. Mining camps, especially, were full of men who had left their families back home to make money on their own. “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 much as 7:1.

In the Hollywood West women are usually genteel, prim and against violence. A classic example is Amy (Grace Kelly, right) in High Noon. She does everything to try to persuade her new husband the marshal to abandon the town and go away with her rather than face the gunmen. But of course in Westerns “a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do” (and eventually Amy stands by her man, even abandoning her Quaker principles by shooting in the back the man who is about to kill her husband).

Or think of Clementine Carter (Cathy Downs) in
My Darling Clementine. She is all grace and Eastern civilization (actually she’s too prim by half) juxtaposed with the tough Western gunmanship of Wyatt Earp (Henry Fonda). Gene Tierney does the same to Fonda in The Return of Frank James. She’s not so prim but she’s just as urban and urbane.
In Four Faces West, a charming 1948 B-Western with Joel McCrea, Frances Dee (Mrs. McCrea) is a nurse, though she could just have well have been a schoolteacher, also from the East, shocked by the violence and brutality of the West, who brings McCrea’s character to civilization.

In The Gunfighter Jimmy Ringo (Gregory Peck) is an aging gunman wanting to hang up his irons 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. Carroll Baker in Cheyenne Autumn or Molly Stark Wood in The Virginian are the same.

These women suggest that a man don’t necessarily gotta do what a man’s gotta do, if you’ll forgive the grammar. The West would be a more civilized place if he didn’t. Or didn’t gotta (my syntax has gone all to hell now).

If they aren’t urban schoolteachers, women are sturdy ranchers' or farmers' wives. Here again they are often against violence. In
Shane, Marian Starrett says, “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.” She’s right, of course.

These women epitomize sexual morality too. The love of Shane for Marian Starrett or Ethan in
The Searchers for his sister-in-law is threatening to the standards of civilization and has to be suppressed or sublimated. Shane’s chaste courtship of Marian is the courtly love of a knight for an unattainable lady.

The redemptive woman became a standard trope of the early Western, especially those of William S Hart, Hell’s Hinges (1916) for example. The good woman who makes a Western badman see the error of his ways and reform is a classic plot device and had been since The Virginian in 1902 or before. It was to last.

But these women are symbols of civilization in an essentially male drama of a lawless West. If a woman did top the billing of a Western – Marlene Dietrich in Destry Rides Again, for example – it was for commercial/box-office reasons, not because she was going to play the dominant role in the story.

Just occasionally a woman was the heroine of a Western. Lillian Gish excelled as a girl driven mad by the frontier life in the silent movie The Wind in 1928. But this was incredibly rare in the early days.

But in Westerns there was another kind of woman. From the 1930s on, ‘colorful’ women of the West like Annie Oakley or Calamity Jane were featured in movies, though screen Annies and Janes were notoriously false and often the pictures were actually just tales of how these women found true love with the male lead.

There was another trend of strong, dominant women, sometimes shown as bandit chiefs. Belle Starr, 'Queen of the Oklahoma Bandits', was a favorite of B-Westerns and appeared in several, as did 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. Dietrich was the mob boss who manipulated men in Fritz Lang’s Rancho Notorious in 1952. Barbara Stanwyck commanded her Forty Guns in 1957 and, in a lighter vein, Jane Russell did the same in Son of Paleface.  Then there was Joan Crawford in Johnny Guitar. These women wore pants and low-slung holsters. Stanwyck made rather a specialty of grande dame Western women. In The Violent Men or Cattle Queen of Montana she was a cattle baroness and not a very scrupulous one either. Later she ruled over The Big Valley on TV.

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.

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 60s and 70s frankness. The frankest - and bleakest - depiction of the exploitation and abuse of women by men comes in Deadwood.

In the standard Western plot, the male hero, Randolph Scott, for example, dallies with two belles, a prim-and-proper one and a racier saloon gal, finally, of course, opting for the ‘decent’ lady with whom he departs in connubial bliss in the last reel (for naturally no hanky-panky was permitted until the nuptials). There were a zillion examples of this but take, as just one, Powder River (1953). Just occasionally our expectations are confounded when the hero chooses the faster woman. But it was rare.

Macho director Budd Boetticher famously defined a woman’s role in a Western as making the hero react. “In herself she has no significance whatsoever.” This unpalatable opinion was reflected in Western after Western, where Hollywood starlets (as they were termed) may have been given high billing in the cast list, for publicity/sales reasons, but had only a peripheral role to play in the plot.

But 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 was 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. And in this century Selma Hayek and Penelope Cruz were Bandidas in Mexico (reprising Bardot and Cardinale in Les Pétroleuses in 1971).

In reality, though, the woman of the West did not 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. 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.

Actually, this notion had been prefigured in the splendid Westward the Women, directed by William A Wellman back in 1951, in which misogynistic Robert Taylor gradually learns respect for feminine true grit as the tough women fight off Indians in the scorching desert. Four years later Taylor again surrendered to the dominant woman – Eleanor Parker’s amorous pioneer – in Many Rivers to Cross (though that was a very weak picture compared with Westward the Women).

Where ‘less respectable’ women do appear in modern Westerns, the appalling exploitation of such women by men is the main focus. Watch 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
My Darling Clementine. But Westerns have always reflected the mores and culture of the era in which they were made. In fact Westerns of the 1940s and 50s were probably more reflective of the standards of those decades than they were of those of the frontier 1870s and 80s. 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.

Are we closer now to the real woman of the West? I think so. But then I’m a man.