Women in Westerns

Nicholas Chennault ~ November 18, 2013

Women in Westerns

WomenSacajaweaWyethReedSacajawea1955

Sacajawea points the way west (N.C. Wyeth)–one of the early significant female characters in the west.  There is no known photograph of her, despite some of the things you will see on the internet.  She died before the age of photography.  However, in 1955 in The Far Horizons, Donna Reed played her in very dark make-up, which didn’t run even when she was required to cry.  She led Fred MacMurray and Charlton Heston to the Pacific Coast, while falling in love with Heston (as William Clark).

Compson-The_Terror_of_The_RangeCompsonasStarr incourt-martial28

As long as there have been western movies, some of them have emphasized women.  The poster above is for The Terror of the Range (1919) and features Betty Compson.  According to the poster, it also features “Incomparable riders, a beautiful heroine, a hero who is ultra daring and the bold, free adventurous life of the last frontier.”  At the time this movie was made, that frontier era was only about 30 years in the past.  The still shows Compson nine years later as a glamorous Belle Starr with Jack Holt in 1928’s Court-Martial, now thought to be lost.

Historically, the American west was a land dominated by men, with only a small population of women as the frontier developed.  That means it’s possible to tell a good western story without women, just as men often seemed peripheral to the female melodramas of the 1930s and 40s.  However, since romance has always been a strong element of the movies, there have always been roles for women in western stories, too.  Sometimes, depending on writing, direction and performance, they can make a dominant contribution to the story.  There was the cattle queen era of 1950s westerns (think Joan Crawford in Johnny Guitar, Marlene Dietrich in Rancho Notorious, and Barbara Stanwyck in Forty Guns or The Furies, along with a number of others).  Since 1970 or so, there have been a number of attempts to tell western stories with a stronger female point of view, or with more assertive female characters (and there were always some assertive female characters in the west).

The lists below constitute an attempt to collect some of the stronger female performances in westerns, as well as some that were obviously less successful.  As with all such lists, they tend to be matters of opinion and they are not complete.  If you care to take issue with any appearance on one of these lists or think somebody’s been omitted, please leave a comment.  The lists will be revised periodically as other movies and performances come to my attention.  See also Great Performances in Westerns, Women’s Division.  For the fashion, especially notable in the late 1960s, of casting European actresses in westerns, see the post on European Women in Westerns.

WomenOutlaw

The Outlaw:  This was supposedly Howard Hughes’ 1943 retelling of the story of Billy the Kid.  But the dominant image associated with the film was never a male one.  The actor who played Billy is not much remembered (it was Jack Beutel), but few forget Jane Russell, even if it was a terrible movie.

Excellent Women in Westerns:

Claire Trevor in Stagecoach

Marlene Dietrich in Destry Rides Again

Jean Arthur in The PlainsmanArizona and Shane

Marlene Dietrich in The Spoilers (1942)

Veronica Lake in Ramrod

Gail Russell in Angel and the Badman

Anne Baxter in Yellow Sky

Judith Anderson in Pursued and The Furies

Loretta Young in Rachel and the Stranger

Barbara Stanwyck in Union Pacific and The Furies

Linda Darnell in My Darling Clementine and Two Flags West

Virginia Mayo in Colorado Territory

Paula Raymond in Devil’s Doorway

Denise Darcel, Hope Emerson and the cast of Westward the Women

Shelly Winters in Winchester ’73 and The Scalphunters

Elizabeth Threatt in The Big Sky

Joan Crawford in Johnny Guitar

Dorothy Malone in Quantez and The Last Sunset

Angie Dickinson in Rio Bravo

Sophia Loren in Heller in Pink Tights

Lee Remick in The Hallelujah Trail

Rosalind Chao in A Thousand Pieces of Gold

Annette Bening in Open Range

Anjelica Huston and Diane Lane in Lonesome Dove

Grace Kelly and Katy Jurado in High Noon

Geraldine Page in Hondo

Susan Hayward in Garden of Evil and Rawhide

Greer Garson in Strange Lady in Town

Katy Jurado in High Noon and Man from Del Rio

Carolyn Jones in Last Train from Gun Hill

Capucine in North to Alaska

Jane Fonda in Cat Ballou

Joanne Woodward in Big Hand for the Little Lady

Madeline Stowe in Last of the Mohicans

Mariette Hartley in Ride the High Country

Pamela Reed in The Long Riders

Diane Cilento in Hombre

Joan Hackett in Will Penny and Support Your Local Sheriff

Cate Blanchett in The Missing

Hailee Steinfeld in True Grit

Hilary Swank in The Homesman

Natalie Portman in Jane Got a Gun

Haley Bennett in The Magnificent Seven (2016)

These three seemed to be good in most westerns in which they appeared.  Indeed, they tended to be typecast and known principally for their roles in westerns:

Joanne Dru (She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, Red River, Southwest Passage, DrangoReturn of the Texan, Wagon Master)

Virginia Mayo (Colorado Territory, Along the Great Divide, Devil’s Canyon, The Big Land, The Iron Mistress, The Proud Ones, The Tall Stranger, Fort Dobbs, Westbound)

Katy Jurado (High Noon, San Antone, Arrowhead, Broken Lance, The Badlanders, Man from Del Rio)

Women9Baxter Anne Baxter in Yellow Sky.

Woman as Outlaw Dupes

Laura Elliott/Kasey Rogers in Denver & Rio Grande

Julia Adams in Bend of the River

Janet Leigh in The Naked Spur

Dorothy Malone in Quantez

Julie London in Drango

Angie Dickinson in Gun the Man Down

Mariette Hartley in Ride the High Country

Vera Miles in Molly and Lawless John

Candice Bergen in Bite the Bullet

Women6MartinelliBelle Starr

The female gunfighter has always been an interesting fantasy.  This is Elsa Martinelli as Belle Starr in The Belle Starr Story, aka Il mio corpo per un poker (1968), a spaghetti western directed by Lina Wertmuller.  Not much like the real Belle Starr (Myra Belle Shirley), right, who was killed at the age of 40 in 1889 in Indian Territory (now Oklahoma) by unknown persons.  She was also played by such beauties as Gene Tierney and Jane Russell, among many others.

Vengeful Women with Guns

Loretta Young in Along Came Jones (1945; Dir:  Stuart Heisler)

Ann Savage in Renegade Girl (1946; Dir:  William Berke)

Joan Crawford and Mercedes McCambridge in Johnny Guitar (1954; Dir:  Ray)

Raquel Welch in Bandolero! (1968; Dir:  McLaglen)

Michele Carey in Five Savage Men (1971; Dir:  Ron Joy)

Raquel Welch in Hannie Caulder (1973; Dir:  Burt Kennedy)

Madeline Stowe, Mary Stuart Masterson, Andie MacDowell and Drew Barrymore in Bad Girls (1994)

Sharon Stone in The Quick and the Dead (1995; Dir:  Raimi)

Sage Mears in 6 Guns (DVD, 2010)

Sara Canning in Hannah’s Law (MfTV, 2012)

Helena Bonham Carter in The Lone Ranger (2013)

Jacqueline Cerceres in Revenge (2013)

Eva Green in The Salvation (2014)

Natalie Portman in Jane Got a Gun (2016)

Haley Bennett in The Magnificent Seven (2016)

Taissa Farmiga in In a Valley of Violence (2016)

Outlaw Women 1952 Outlaw Women, 1952

Women in Gunfights (not quite the same thing, but there are some duplications)

Binnie Barnes in Frontier Marshal (1939)

Loretta Young in Along Came Jones (1945)

Jennifer Jones in Duel in the Sun (1946)

Joanne Dru in Red River (1948)

Virginia Mayo in Colorado Territory (1949)

Alexis Smith in Montana (1950)

Anne Baxter in A Ticket to Tomahawk (1950)

Susan Hayward in Rawhide (1951)

Grace Kelly in High Noon (1952)    

 Maureen O’Hara in The Redhead from Wyoming (1953) 

 Barbara Stanwyck in The Moonlighter (1953)

 Joan Crawford and Mercedes McCambridge in Johnny Guitar (1954)

 Beverly Garland in Gunslinger (1956)

Valerie French in Decision at Sundown (1957)

 Inger Stevens in Firecreek (1968)

Raquel Welch in Bandolero! (1968), 100 Rifles (1969) and Hannie Caulder (1971).

Candice Bergen in Bite the Bullet (1975)

 Madeleine Stowe, Drew Barrymore et al. in Bad Girls (1994)

 Sharon Stone in The Quick and the Dead (1995)

 Megan Fox in Jonah Hex (2010)

 Sage Mears in 6 Guns (2010)

 Sara Canning in Hannah’s Law (MfTV, 2012)

Eva Green in The Salvation (2014)

Natalie Portman in Jane Got a Gun (2016)

Haley Bennett in The Magnificent Seven (2016)

Women8Dickinson

Angie Dickinson brought obvious talents, as well as some that were not so obvious, to a terrific performance as Feathers in Rio Bravo (1959).

Women with a Past

Estelle Taylor in Cimarron (1931)

Claire Trevor in Stagecoach and The Stranger Wore a Gun

Marlene Dietrich in Destry Rides Again and The Spoilers

Gypsy Rose Lee in Belle of the Yukon

Joanne Dru in Red River and Wagon Master

Linda Darnell in My Darling Clementine

Virginia Mayo in Colorado Territory

Katy Jurado in High Noon and The Badlanders

Julia Adams in The Lawless Breed

Shelley Winters in Winchester ’73, Saskatchewan, Frenchie                                                            and The Scalphunters

Marlene Dietrich in Rancho Notorious

Valerie French in Decision at Sundown

Virginia Mayo in The Tall Stranger

Angie Dickinson in Gun the Man Down

Julie London in Saddle the Wind and Man of the West

Irene Pappas in Tribute to a Bad Man

Dorothy Malone in Quantez

Angie Dickinson in Rio Bravo

Carolyn Jones in Last Train from Gun Hill

Donna Reed in Backlash

Anne Baxter in The Spoilers (1955), Three Violent People (1956) and Cimarron (1960)

Sophia Loren in Heller in Pink Tights

Maureen O’Hara in The Deadly Companions

Annelle Hayes in Two Rode Together

Capucine in North to Alaska

Barbara Luna and Marie Windsor in Mail Order Bride

Janet Margolin and Suzanne Pleshette in Nevada Smith

Claudia Cardinale in The Professionals

The female cast of Savage Pampas

Raquel Welch in Bandolero!

Diane Cilento in Hombre

Angie Dickinson in The Last Challenge

Angie Dickinson in Young Billy Young

Claudia Cardinale in Once Upon a Time in the West

Shirley Jones et al. in The Cheyenne Social Club

Inger Stevens in Five Card Stud

Shirley MacLaine in Two Mules for Sister Sara

Jeanne Moreau in Monte Walsh

Julie Christie in McCabe and Mrs. Miller

Stella Stevens in The Ballad of Cable Hogue

Candice Bergen in Bite the Bullet

Pamela Reed in The Long Riders

Diane Lane in Lonesome Dove

Laura San Giacomo in Quigley Down Under

Madeline Stowe, Mary Stuart Masterson, Andie MacDowell and Drew Barrymore in Bad Girls (1994)

Crystal Bernard in Siringo (MfTV, 1994)

Greta Schacchi in Broken Trail

January Jones in Sweetwater

Helena Bonham Carter in The Lone Ranger

Natalie Portman in Jane Got a Gun

ColdMountainZellwegerGunQuickDeadStone

Renee Zellweger in Cold Mountain, and Sharon Stone in The Quick and the Dead.

Sagas with Female Leads

Jubilee Trail

Duel in the Sun

The Sea of Grass

The Furies

The Big Country

Forty Guns

Cimarron

How the West Was Won

Cold Mountain

Women7BarkinCalamityJane

The story of Wild Bill Hickok always presents an opportunity for a Calamity Jane, just as Wyatt Earp always has a juicy role for Doc Holliday.  This not-so-plain Jane is Ellen Barkin, in Wild Bill (1995).  With the real Martha Jane Cannary on the right.  Note the differences in body language, among other things.

Less Successful Attempts at Female Leads in Westerns:

Barbara Stanwyck in Annie Oakley (1935; Dir:  Stevens)

Gene Tierney in Belle Starr (1941, with Randolph Scott)

Ann Dvorak in Flame of the Barbary Coast (1945, with John Wayne; Dir:  Kane)

Marie Windsor in Dakota Lil (1948)

Yvonne DeCarlo in The Gal Who Took the West (1949; Dir:  DeCordova)

Marlene Dietrich in Rancho Notorious (1952; Dir:  Lang)

Jane Russell in Montana Belle (1952; Dir:  Dwan)

Maureen O’Hara in The Redhead from Wyoming (1952)

Doris Day in Calamity Jane (1953; Dir:  Butler)

Barbara Stanwyck in Cattle Queen of Montana (1954)

Barbara Stanwyck in The Violent Men (1955)

Barbara Stanwyck in The Maverick Queen (1956)

Mercedes McCambridge in Johnny Guitar (1954; Dir:  Ray)

Claudette Colbert in Texas Lady (1955; Dir:  Whelan)

The King and Four Queens (1956)

 Doris Day in The Ballad of Josie (1968)

 Shirley MacLaine in Two Mules for Sister Sara (1970; Dir:  Don Siegel)

 Michele Carey in Five Savage Men (1971; Dir:  Ron Joy)

 Raquel Welch in Hannie Caulder (1973; Dir:  Burt Kennedy)

Sharon Stone in The Quick and the Dead (1995; Dir:  Raimi)

Salma Hayek and Penelope Cruz in Bandidas (2006; Dir:  Sandberg, Roenning)

The Far Side of Jericho—Andrews, Burnett, Negrin (2006; Dir:  Hunter)

Sarah Canning in Hannah’s Law (MfTV, 2012)

LongRidersReed

Pamela Reed as Belle Starr is not to be trifled with in Walter Hill’s The Long Riders.

Female Directors of Westerns

Lina Wertmuller, The Belle Starr Story, also known as Il mio corpo per un poker (1968)

Nancy Kelly, A Thousand Pieces of Gold (1991)

Antonia Bird, Ravenous  (1999)

Randa Haines, The Outsider (MfTV, 2002)

Kelly Reichardt, Meek’s Cutoff (2010)

Suza Lambert Bowser, A River of Skulls (2010)

Rachel Talalay, Hannah’s Law (MfTV, 2012)

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