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Joan Crawford, Barbara Stanwyck, and the Stealth Feminism of the Screen Western

Anthology’s “Women of the West” series organizes frontier-set tales featuring heroines who defy and outsmart the men in their midst

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When I started taking film classes in college, I was skeptical of westerns: the gunshots, the whiskey, the grudges held by machismo-oriented cowboys falsely worshipped for their towering egos. The genre didn’t seem worth sentimentalizing so much as critiquing for its apparent racism, sexism, and xenophobia. The first picture to upend my outlook was Johnny Guitar (1954). A vibrantly campy Technicolor with subtle indictments against mob psychology, McCarthyism, and sexual repression, the Nicholas Ray–directed movie stars Joan Crawford as a barkeeper forced to defend her recently opened business against a herd of angry townspeople eager to accuse her of criminal association. The truth is, they just don’t like her. She’s a newcomer, an outsider, and, worst of all, a woman with ambitions, content to live on her own. “She thinks she’s a man,” one employee grumbles, and something similar could be said for many of the women featured in the Anthology Film Archives series “Women of the West” (August 31–September 16), a slate of western films, old and recent alike, starring female protagonists. Curated by Hannah Greenberg, the program succeeds on multiple fronts, challenging traditional conceptions of the genre while also giving viewers a chance to expand their very definition of what constitutes feminism, as this roster of gunslingers, tramps, and so-called “Indian lovers” proves just how versatile and deceptively progressive the western genre could be.

It’s unfortunate that Crawford only starred in one western — not only because she looks amazing in denim, but also because she has exactly the type of soaring persona required for playing a classic frontier hero, walking into rooms with steely confidence. Thankfully we have Barbara Stanwyck to fill her boots, a queen of the range if there ever was one. She’s the star of Anthony Mann’s The Furies (1950), the program’s opening-night film and one of the most richly scripted and Shakespearean of screen westerns. Stanwyck stars as Vance Jeffords, a daddy’s girl whose blind trust in her wealthy father, T.C. (Walter Huston), slowly fizzles as he tries to dictate her personal life and financial standing.

Most summaries of The Furies claim that Vance’s clash with her father stems from the arrival of a persnickety stepmother (Judith Anderson). But the issue is more complicated than that, having less to do with paternal possessiveness than with Vance’s desire for greater self-determination. She wants partial control of the family estate as well as the right to choose her own husband; T.C., who craves control, responds by bringing home a new wife, cutting his daughter’s ties with the family business, and violently removing the Spanish-speaking natives who had been living peacefully on his land. Vance had always treated the natives as friends, while T.C. and his investors considered them squatters, thieves, illegal aliens. Their differences in opinion are at the core of The Furies, and one of the reasons its politics remain resonant today. Vance’s loyalty to her values and the actions she takes to exact revenge against her father and his monopolizing ways make her one of the most stirring of western heroines.

Stanwyck’s biting convictions also energize Allan Dwan’s The Cattle Queen of Montana (1954), a more straightforward western about a woman on a quest to reclaim the ranch that’s been stolen from her father. The perpetrator of the theft is a wealthy white landowner involved in shady deal-making with a group of native men whom he’s managed to manipulate by turning them into whiskey-starved alcoholics. A pointed statement about the machinations of power, Cattle Queen also sees Stanwyck trading barbs with a young Ronald Reagan and befriending some beneficent natives who are themselves seeking to restore their reputation in the eyes of narrow-minded whites.

Here and in other selections from the series, women are depicted as in alliance with “the other.” Their internal sense of justice is utilitarian, asking what is the most good for the most amount of people. So in addition to shooting guns, wearing jeans, and boasting nicknames, these heroines serve as voices of reason in an otherwise lawless land, subverting common Hollywood stereotypes of women as compromising femme-fatale figures, the cause of man’s fall from grace. But not all the “Women of the West” are rollicking female iterations of the John Wayne mold. For a more restrained audacity, one need only turn to Michelle Williams and director Kelly Reichardt’s collaboration in Meek’s Cutoff (2011). Though the film remains underappreciated, it’s a commendably brave western, straying from virtually every trademark of the genre and rejecting all traces of power from the standard masculine cowboy archetype. Earlier in his life, Stephen Meek (Bruce Greenwood) would have been considered a hero, glorified for his arrogance and graphic tales of native-directed barbarism. Now he’s a liar and a cheat, the jabbering idiot who led a caravan of covered wagons into the most dried-up, deserted corners of the Oregon Trail.

The pacing of Reichardt’s film is almost punishingly slow, but each shot is so deeply considered that it’s hard not to feel riveted by the currents of quiet intensity lurking in the fathomless horizon between land and sky. Will these people find water? Will they kill Meek? Will they go crazy and die? The tedium of the travel is relived with occasional breaks to fix a broken wheel, wash a bowl, or abandon a too-heavy heirloom. It’s during one of those pauses that Meek attempts to explain to the God-fearing, bonnet-wearing ladies in his crew why women represent chaos and men destruction. Emily (Williams) isn’t convinced. “You don’t need to patronize me, Mr. Meek,” she tells him matter-of-factly, and in her calmly stated impatience, one can sense her turning into a new sort of western hero: one who privileges hard-nosed common sense over unchecked ego.

It’s somewhat fitting that Anthology’s “Women of the West” would debut only six weeks after the close of the Quad Cinema’s series “The New York Woman.” If place determines plot and character — a symbiosis implied by the concepts of these programs — then it’s interesting to reflect on how the manmade metropolis of the city poses uniquely different problems for heroines than the valleys and vistas of the American frontier. While the women of the westerns are primarily moral agents grappling with issues of land, cattle, and pride, women of the modern city are prototypically identity-seekers, driven by their desires for self-growth in a bustling society. Whether it’s Crawford defending her right to run a business, Stanwyck claiming her right to own land, or Williams sewing the moccasin of a native man nobody else is willing to understand, the protagonists of“Women of the West” broaden the scope of screen feminism, questing as they do for peace, prosperity, and equality amid the mountain-dotted landscapes that have formed the backbone of some of the movies’ — and America’s — founding mythologies.

‘Women of the West’
Anthology Film Archives
August 31–September 16

 

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