History Stretched a Little
As I've said before, one of the prime examples of my film snobbery is that a lot of my favourite members of the "Hollywood elite" are dead, in some cases since before my birth. (Today's star, admittedly, died while I was in junior high, but it was still before I knew who she was.) Admittedly, I shouldn't phrase it that way--it should be "people in the film industry," given that you can't exactly call Akira Kurosawa a member of the Hollywood elite. Still, though, while I take pride in my awareness of film history, which is one of the reasons my psychiatrist always wants to know what I think of movies, I do not take pride in being the only person in my circle of friends to admire these people. This is in no small part because I think it makes these people under-appreciated. I note that one of my friends here--and, really, how many of my "friends" actually read any of my reviews?--is generally among the handful of people who've watched a lot of the more obscure movies, but most of the rest of you have probably never even heard of the stars, much less the movies.
Here, we have the luminous, feisty Barbara Stanwyck, that wonderful woman. She's playing the luminous, feisty Annie Oakley, and the film chronicles a hugely fictionalized version of her life from her days as a poor nobody in Ohio, a woman who supports her family by shooting quail for a hotel in the Big City of Cincinnati, to the days where she's the star attraction of the famous Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show. She gets her start in this by competing against the "World's Champion" rifleman, Toby Walker (Preston Foster), in front of a large crowd who've gathered to see this nobody get her comeuppance. Though at first, they think it's his, and they'll be seeing Andy Oakley. She throws the match, because she's afraid Toby will lose his newly-signed place in the Wild West Show. However, one of the managers was there to sign the contracts, and it's clear to him what she did. He signs her on as well, and her rivalry with Toby of course blossoms into love.
It's kind of disheartening to see how Sitting Bull is shown here. I mean, at least here, he's played by Cheyenne actor Chief Thunderbird (Cheyenne is close enough, I guess), as opposed to the grand old Hollywood tradition of casting people of various other ethnicities. It's notable, for example, that two other members of the Sioux group are played by a Mexican and that old faker, Iron-Eyes Cody, born Espera DiCorti, who did a lot of good for Native American causes but was the son of Italian immigrants. Sitting Bull is shown with a certain amount of dignity, but for all that, he's also kind of comic relief. He talks about wanting his squaws (an Algonquian word in the first place) to cook, not shoot, and he has this insane tendency to go plowing through audiences to get to the person he wants to see. Name a Hollywood cliché about Native Americans, and there it is.
It seems pretty well certain that Stanwyck did not do her own shooting. Annie Oakley, the real-live person, was still setting shooting records in 1924, which I suspect is long after most people think she died. It's long after I'd thought she died. Of course, it's pretty hard to show a person shooting and hitting their target on film unless you set your shots up just for that purpose, and you don't get a good look at both if you do that. That, presumably, makes it easy for the insertion of the trick shooter. You get the closeup of the bottles breaking, the portrait of Cody (Moroni Olsen) appearing in bullet holes--suspiciously small and neat bullet holes, in my admittedly uninformed opinion--and all that, which you wouldn't get if you had a long enough camera angle for both shot and shooter. Besides, those long shots are better used for the lovely backdrop showing Washington rising behind the arena. And, of course, the thundering horsemen that were such a staple of the actual, historical show. Heck, it's where they get Sitting Bull most accurate--they show him just kind of sitting on a horse while the show goes on around him.
Barbara Stanwyck is one of my favourites. She's overshadowed in the modern eye by no few of her contemporaries, and I think it's a shame. She was a genuinely beautiful woman, for one thing, with a grace and charm Bette Davis, much as I love her, couldn't match. She was outstanding in the pre-Code films which let her be strong and independent. Annie Oakley is a fun character, but she spends more time worrying about Toby's career than her own. On the other hand, in the pre-Codes, she was more interested in herself, or at least equally interested in herself. She did more than a dozen movies in those five years, and it's really what made her a star. Annie Oakley was a confident woman, sure of herself and her abilities, but she's nothing compared to Lily Powers from [i]Baby Face[/i]. It's a crying shame that so many of her films couldn't be seen in so long, and maybe that's why hardly anyone today even knows who she was. She never won an Oscar, though she did get an honourary one, and it's just a great relief that TCM is starting to release pre-Codes in box sets--and great thanks to Allen, who gave me one of the sets for my birthday.