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Favorite Women Characters in Westerns---Other than Maureen O'Hara, that is!


pandorainmay

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Since Maureen O'Hara's contributions to our entertainment have been discussed alot recently on the boards, I started wondering what women in Western movies you most enjoyed watching? Here's a few of my faves:

 

It always drove me crazy when women in Westerns stood idly by while the male of the species took an almighty drubbing in numerous movies. As a result, the characters played by Marlene Dietrich in Destry Rides Again and The Spoilers appeal to me enormously, even though Dietrich seems to be the most unlikely of pioneers. I also like the chiquita played by Linda Darnell in My Darling Clementine because she was one of the boys too---after a fashion. My alltime favorite Western gals are probably two found in more recent, realistic films. They are embodiments of self-sufficiency but are quite capable of being loving individuals as well and are played by two actresses who deserve more and better roles than they usually receive:

 

Conchata Farrell in Heartland(1979) plays a woman in Wyoming at the dawn of the 20th century who was a real person, Elinore Pruitt Stewart, whose collected "Letters of a Woman Homesteader" give a poetic yet realistic, down to earth picture of Western life. Farrell brings her considerable strength, humor and tenderness to this role of a lifetime.

 

Suzy Amis in The Ballad of Little Jo(1993) plays a real life woman again as Josephine Monaghan, a young woman of the mid-19th century who, after being thrown out of her Eastern parents' home, struggles to survive in the Wild West disguised as a man, "Jo". It avoids preachiness about the unjust state of life for the average woman in that time and place entirely, instead focusing on the eternally human questions of identity, perseverence, and loneliness.

 

Diane Cilento in Hombre(1967) plays a realistic, earthy sort who is one of the few characters among the many in the Paul Newman vehicle without pretensions or prejudices. You really believe that this woman could survive in almost any circumstance that life could throw at her.

 

One other point----Despite the fact that the character of Annie Oakley has been portrayed on film by everyone from Barbara Stanwyck to Betty Hutton, I think that a powerful movie retelling of Oakley's life has yet to be made. Maybe someday.

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Dietrich is great in "Destry Rides Again." It is a funny movie, then she gets shot at the end, and there is coda in which Stewart is talking to the nice American girl that everyone expects him to marry, when he suddenly hears a girl singing "Little Joe," the song that Dietrich sang, and you can tell from the look on his face that he will never forget "Frenchy," and the movie takes on an entirely new depth.

 

Jean Arthur is great in "Shane," as is Claire Trevor in "Stagecoach." I also love Ruth Roman in "The Far Country," although I guess her role is a copy of Dietrich's in "Destry."

 

I'll have to think some more about this topic.

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Since most women in Westerns are mainly part of the scenery the few times a woman actually contributes are an old B&W, I know its Barbara Stanwyck as a gal who keeps trying to help with whatever problem comes along but the big men keep pushing her back. Maybe it's John Wayne, senior moment, can't remember,

 

In 'The Big Country' both Carroll Baker and Jean Simmons' characters are good ones. Carroll who wants a 'man' who can beat up anybody, ride, and shoot, and drink, which proves he's a man. And Jean's character who realizes what I've said most of my life; "All men are males, but not all males are men".

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I don't know if you just missed The Professionals (1966) with Claudia Cardinale, about whom Burt Lancaster's character says "That's a lot of woman there. Beautiful, classy, and guts. Hard enough to kill ya and soft enough to change ya" but the women who've made the most impact in Westerns I've seen include those who've inspired or more subtly led the male lead to their great feat(s). Cardinale plays another strong role in Once Upon a Time in the West (1968). Other tough gals I can recall include:

 

Marlene Dietrich, of course, as has been mentioned (though I don't think anyone listed Rancho Notorious (1952)), I also liked Jean Arthur's last role in Shane (1953) and agree with Jean Simmons in The Big Country (1958). Katy Jurado had some good roles, and Virginia Mayo held her own pretty well opposite Joel McCrea in Colorado Territory (1949) as did Elizabeth Threatt (opposite Kirk Douglas, no less) as the Blackfoot princess in The Big Sky (1952). Marjorie Main was a terrific pioneer gal in Gentle Annie (1944) and Loretta Young didn't do so bad opposite William Holden & Robert Mitchum in Rachel and the Stranger (1948), which shows just how much a woman had to work & run 'the farm'. Aline MacMahon has some sage words for James Stewart in The Man From Laramie (1955) and both Irene Dunne and Maria Schell played key roles in the two Cimarron movies. Even Irene Papas, an unusual casting choice for a Western, played an important and memorable part in Tribute to a Bad Man (1956) with James Cagney. And none of us should forget Joan Crawford nor Mercedes McCambridge in Johnny Guitar (1954).

 

I too agree that the remarkable true story of Annie Oakley deserves and updated (and historically accurate) treatment, though I can't imagine anyone who could play the role today.

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>

In 'The Big Country' both Carroll Baker and

> Jean Simmons' characters are good ones. Carroll who

> wants a 'man' who can beat up anybody, ride,

> and shoot, and drink, which proves he's a man. And

> Jean's character who realizes what I've said most of

> my life; "All men are males, but not all males are

> men".

 

I can't believe that when I posted that this afternoon, I forgot one of my all-time favorite westerns. 'Westward the Women' was, to me, a terrific movie, It starred Robert Taylor, Denise Darcel, and lots of other women in a wagon train to, I think California. They were to be brides to a ranchers ranch hands. I saw a short on it once and apparenty the director had all these women camp out in the desert and actually learn how to handle a mule team, rope, ride, and shoot so they would look authentic. The women went through rain storms, indian attacks, and a baby being born on the trail. It's in B&W whch I never understood, but I would recommend it to anyone who likes westerns. I have two tapes of this movie, in case one gets messed up, that's how much I like it.

 

Anne

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It has been ages since I watched it, but does anyone have a more recent memory of "The Guns of Ft. Petticoat" an Audie Murphy western. The premise is that the Civil War has started, so the men have left the army posts and gone east to fight. Murphy (and maybe a few other men) have to bring the wives along by a slow wagon train. The Indians attack, and so Murphy arms the women, hence "Ft. Petticoat." The last scene, in which Murphy's group is "rescued" and he shows that the women defended themselves (or died defending themselves) was pretty serious and grim, as I remember, but it has been decades.

 

As for other women in Westerns, I'd like to put in a word for Janet Leigh in "Naked Spur" and the actress who played the younger woman in "Far Country." I liked her because while she was "better" than Ruth Roman's character, she was not above stealing some golddust from the miners, so it wasn't a good girl/bad girl dichotomy.

 

Also, someone should speak up for Olivia deHavilland, who was superb in "Dodge City" and as Libby Custer in "They Died With Their Boots on."

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Mike:

 

If you have Encore Westerns "The Guns of Ft. Petticoat" has been running pretty regularly. It has a wide variety of women, some strong, some weak. Unusual for its day was one of the women became pregmant by someone not her husband. In the early part of the film it was fairly important. I think she died later (Not sure though.)

 

Joanne Dru played a good part in "Red River" and "Wagonmaster" and "She Wore A Yellow Ribbon."

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Ella Raines in "Tall in the Saddle." A favorite movie of mine. Terrific scenes and chemistry between John Wayne and Ella. Delicious. A very strong woman character. It's practically a "B" movie, but very entertaining. I wish she made another movie with Wayne, and more movies in general.

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Thinking of Linda Darnell and Rory Calhoun in Black Spurs (1965)? "A dissatisfied ranch hand becomes a bounty hunter. He conspires with a crooked town boss to dirty up a neighboring village where a valuable railroad franchise is headed, in order to divert it to the town the boss owns. Then, he finds that his former fianc?e is married to the sheriff of the town he seeks to destroy."

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Just thought of Kim Darby's character in True Grit(1969) as an example of a spunky Western heroine who was also amusingly formal. Despite her moral rectitude and starchy demeanour she would not, in her own determined words, "rest until Tom Chaney's barking in hell." I enjoyed the give and take of her relationship with that "fat old man".

 

I also like Lauren Bacall's warm-hearted, fearful boarding house landlady in The Shootist(1976). Her presence helped to give that movie much of its depth of feeling, along with John Wayne's elegaic acting.

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moirafinne6:

While I find Kim Darby's character at times incredibly annoying I do admire her determination. They do have a good chemistry. Too bad Glen Campbell shows and gets in the way.

 

I agree about Bacall. They worked well together. Somewhere under all that tension is some respect and some affection. Speaking of "The Shootist" did you ever notice his tombstone only reads like he is in his late 50s or so. Far too young to be believable. It's one of my favorite John Wayne performances. The way he and Bacall say goodbye on that final morning is quite touching.

 

Chris

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Oh Chris,

You are so right about Glen Campbell's jarring presence in True Grit. John Wayne seemed to have it stuck in his head from the time he acted opposite Ricky Nelson (who wasn't too bad in Rio Bravo), that the inclusion of a current pop idol would put the youngters in the movie seats for many of his later movies. Campbell's probably the worst one of the lot, don't you think?

 

I hadn't noticed that about Wayne's tombstone in The Shootist before. Of course, even John Wayne probably wasn't immune to an actor's vanity about his age--though it's possible that the shaving of age wasn't his idea. I do think that it's kind of nice that Wayne, unlike many other big time actors, was able to top off his career gracefully with a really good film, rather like Randolph Scott did with Ride the High Country(1962). "Always leave 'em wanting more" is a cliche because it's true, I guess.

 

Btw, I enjoy reading your observations on the boards and hope that you'll continue posting.

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moirafinne6:

 

Thanks for your kind words. I plan on being here awhile unless I'm just taking up space and then I hope someone will let me know.

 

I do think Campbell is the worst of the lot. I think the football players Wayne used in "The Undefeated" were better than Campbell. Glen just doesn't seem the Texas Ranger type, hardly tough enough. He reminded of a boy arguing with a playmate. If they would have known about Kris Kristofferson then he might have worked.

 

I mentioned in another thread about Bobby Vinton being in "Big Jake." The good news is he wasn't around long enough to get in the way. He got shot and spent the rest of the movie recovering.

 

P.S. I like you use of the word "elegiac." It has a lovely sound to it.

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Joan Hackett's character in Will Penny has stayed with me through the years.

 

I liked Mildred Natwick in "Yellow Ribbon" and Anna Lee in "Fort Apache".

 

Dorothy Jordan in "The Searchers". Without her, there would have been no reason for Ethan to visit his brother and family.

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Lzcutter, your mention of Mildred Natwick reminded me of her contribution to 3 Godfathers(1948) in which she played--or rather, effectively underplayed--the dying mother who entrusted her newborn to the bunch of bandits led by John Wayne. And of course, her Ol' Iron Pants in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon(1949) was also memorable. For an actress who wasn't conventionally pretty, she managed to be beguiling, flirtatious, flinty and warm-hearted simultaneously in many of Ford's best works.

 

Some Different Western Women:

Not really a Western in the shoot 'em up tradition, but Myrna Loy's presence in The Red Pony(1949) added to that film's quiet charm.

 

Gena Rowlands' lonely wife added a great deal of wry wistfulness to another non-traditional Western in the splendid Lonely Are the Brave(1962).

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I thought Kim Darby was great in True Grit also, and I share the views of others on Glen Campbell's casting.

 

On The Shootist, when was that set? I was thinking it was set in the early 1900's, and if that's the case, then a guy who was a gunfighter in the 1870's, when I guess he'd be in his 20's, would be in his 50's. So isn't that realistic? It's true he looked about 70 in the movie, but that wouldn't match up with the period of the picture unless they set it in the 1920's.

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You are right, Ken. Even though hers was a small part, Coleen Gray was so good in that movie. In fact, she made a number of Westerns and she always played her roles so well. And many times she was the best thing about a movie. Also, let's not forget Claire Trevor, another actress who was always great, even in not-so-great movies.

 

Terrence.

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  • 4 weeks later...

HI Moira,

One of my favorites is Gail Russell, who co-starred with John Wayne in ANGEL AND THE BADMAN and Randolph Scott in SEVEN MEN FROM NOW. Especially with Wayne, she brought out the protectiveness of her male costars and was always appealing.

 

One of Olivia's best western types was with Alan Ladd in THE PROUD REBEL. She is very de-glamorized, but a strong, feminine lead.

 

Love Marlene in "Destry" and "Rancho Notorious"---a sort of wild, exotic orchid blooming in the harsh desert sun.

 

Corinne Calvet in THE FAR COUNTRY

 

Loretta Young in RACHEL AND THE STRANGER

 

Geraldine Page in HONDO

 

Claire Trevor in STAGE COACH and THE MAN FROM COLORADO

 

Capucine (!) in NORTH TO ALASKA

 

Shelly Winters in WINCHESTER '73

 

Katy Jurado in HIGH NOON

 

Jane Russell in THE PALE FACE

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  • 3 weeks later...

Elizabeth Allen who delightfully played Miss Plantagenet, a " Dance Hall Girl " in John Ford's last Western, " Cheyenne Autumn ", has died I found out today in the Chicago Sun - Times. She died Sept 19, 2006 of kidney failure at age 77. She was also excellent in Ford's " Donovan's Reef ", played Jack Warden,'s daughter. Joseph McBride, author of " Searching for John Ford ",and the commentator for the DVD release of "Autumn" praises her ( rightfully so ) for her excellent role playing.

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