Recently, in honor of Barbara Stanwyck’s birthday, TCM aired a collection of her ’30s films, including her first (and probably most well-known) Western: Annie Oakley. Having only seen this film once before, I decided to tune in and give it a review, both for the BSFP and for my “Second Looks” series.
Male gunslingers are a dime a dozen in the Western genre. Stanwyck delivers something a little more rare: a sharp-shooting woman whose reputation for accurate aim rivals the best of ’em. The character is based on a real exhibition shooter who rose to fame as “Little Miss Sure Shot,” aka Annie Oakley, born Phoebe Ann Mosey. Raised in the country, Annie began hunting and sport-shooting at a young age.
1935’s Annie Oakley tells the story of Annie at the time of her rise to fame in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, as she makes her name in the shooting world and strikes up a romance with fellow performer Toby Walker (based on real-world Annie’s husband, Frank Butler; portrayed by Preston Foster).
Since Stanwyck is my favorite actress, this film is fun for me to watch simply for the fact that it was her first Western. As fellow Stanwyck fans (or anyone who has been following the BSFP) will know, Barbara would go on to make several films in this genre, including Forty Guns, The Violent Men, and The Maverick Queen.
Even within single genres, Stanwyck’s characters were varied, but some foundations of her later Western characters can be seen here. The mood is lighter than in most of her later Westerns, so there’s a blend of the sweeter rom-com Stanwyck with the confident, sharp-shooting lady. Her performance is captivating, as usual. Leather-clad and with gun in hand, her first foray into the genre is a successful one, despite the fact that her Brooklyn accent doesn’t match the character’s backstory.
Though a somewhat fictionalized account of Annie’s life, Annie Oakley contains a few nice historical touches and works quite well as a period film, adding to the film’s appeal beyond Stanwyck’s performance. From what I understand, the Wild West Show is re-created quite faithfully.
The costumes and props are wonderful — wagons, old telephones, big-skirted dresses. In one scene a large group of people poses for a photo; the photographer relaxes, keeping an eye on his pocket watch and enjoying a beverage, while the sitters struggle to hold their poses long enough for the photo to turn out well. I’d forgotten about this scene in the time since my first viewing of the film, and as a photography enthusiast, I got a good chuckle out of it.
Annie Oakley marked a great role for Stanwyck — one of her most lovable performances of the ’30s, and a nice transitional introduction to the Western genre. If you’re a Stanwyck fan and have never seen this film, add it to your watch list immediately!