03/08/2012

Annie Oakley (1935)


Hilariously, this RKO biopic of lady shotgun ace Annie Oakley starring Barbara Stanwyck was retitled for Italian audiences as La Dominatrice. Annie's certainly one tough broad and more than holds her own among the male touring company of Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show but there's little historical evidence to suggest that she had a predilection for leather bondage restraints, tasselled whips and gimp masks. I can't speak for Calamity Jane though.

Actually a thoroughly charming little Western romance shot by George Stevens, the future director of Shane (1953) and Giant (1956), Annie Oakley follows its eponymous heroine as she rises from humble backwoods origins shooting quail in Cincinnati to become the headline attraction in Buffalo Bill's famous rodeo. Along the way she meets cocky New Yorker and fellow dead-eye Toby Walker (Preston Foster), whom she falls in love with before an accident causes him to injure her with a stray shell and be cast out of the company. Annie pines for her fallen co-star despite receiving overtures from the show's suave business manager Jeff Hogarth (Melvyn Douglas). They are eventually reunited, of course, following a tour of Europe in which Annie gets the chance to blast a cigarette out of the clamped teeth of the young Kaiser Wilhelm II. How the course of history might have been different if Annie Oakley hadn't been such a fine shot.


Annie is inevitably repositioned as something of a proto-feminist icon here, but the film's real point of interest is arguably the colourful recreation of Colonel William F. Cody's celebrated circus. My grandfather apparently saw the show as a youth on the UK leg of one of Buffalo Bill's later tours just prior to the First World War and I'm deeply envious. Apart from the horse stunts and lasso tricks on display, Chief Thunderbird as Sitting Bull is unquestionably the highlight of Stevens' re-enactment, never better than when he's using his old pathfinder instincts to play Cupid, pursuing Walker through the streets of the Big Apple in order to bring him back to Annie. Bill himself is memorably played as a chivalrous cavalier by Moroni Olsen while Foster, Douglas and Dick Elliott as Cody's cynical publicist all provide solid support and Stanwyck is as relaxed and reliable as ever. The same subject would become even better known in 1950 when MGM's musical Annie Get Your Gun with Betty Hutton and Howard Keel proved a box office smash. 

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