Thursday, February 26, 2015

Barbara Shoots (at a Target)

Annie Oakley (1935) stars Barbara Stanwyck as the legendary sharpshooter Annie Oakley.  The story is loosely based on Annie's early years in the entertainment industry, when she broke into the business by competing against a male rifleman, here named Toby Walker (Preston Foster).  And while the film does get a lot of the information right, it takes many liberties with Ms. Oakley's life, not the least of which is that it changes the name of her partner and husband from Frank Butler.  Nevertheless, it's an entertaining film, as long as you realize it is "FILM history".

Young Annie Oakley is the main support of her family - her mother and younger siblings.  Annie is a crack shot; she hunts quail for an upscale Cincinnati hotel; as she able to hit the bird directly in the head, so no buckshot ruins the meat.  When Toby Walker, the new attraction for the Buffalo Bill Wild West Show stays at the hotel, the hotel manager, Mr. MacIvor (Andy Clyde), suggests a shooting match between Walker and the person who is supplying him with his game.  MacIvor, however believes his supplier is a man.  Annie is able to match Toby shot for shot, but when her mother overhears a discussion that Annie's win might cost Toby his position with Bill Cody, she encourages Annie to lose the match.  Annie, who finds Toby quite attractive, purposely misses her next shot. Regardless, her talent with a rifle is noted by Jeff Hogarth (Melvyn Douglas), who hires her for the Buffalo Bill Wild West Show.  Soon, Annie is the star of the show, with Ned Buntline (Dick Elliott) hinting at a bitter rivalry between Annie and Toby (for publicity), while Toby secretly teaches Annie showmanship, and while Toby and Annie fall in love.

Barbara Stanwyck as Annie Oakley

The real Annie Oakley

Let's start with a look at the real Annie Oakley.   She was born Phoebe Ann Moses in 1860, and following her father's death in 1866, she lived a life of privation.  After being sent to a foster home (she would only identify the people as "the wolves"), she eventually returned to her mother; she began hunting and was able through her work to pay off the mortgage on her family's home.  That same year (1875), she competed against Frank Butler in a Cincinnati challenge match, and won.  Butler was instantly fascinated by her, and the following year, they wed.  By 1882, she joined Frank's act - she was so popular that Frank became her manager and publicist, leaving the shooting to Annie.  After a long career, both with the Wild West Show and on stage, Annie retired.  The Butlers lived in retirement until her death in 1926.  Frank died 18 days later.   For an in-depth biography of the real Annie Oakley, as well as an analysis of Annie Oakley on Stage and Screen, visit: Annie Oakley (The American Experience).

What is really successful in this film is their ability to catch the romance between Annie and Toby.  The audience and Annie never question that the couple are deeply in love.   Surely, it plays fast and loose with the facts, but neither are demeaned.  Annie is clearly Toby's equal, and even after he is told (by her) that she let him win, he is not intimidated by her, but respects her abilities.  Stanwyck is especially vibrant in the role of Annie.  She is sweet when she needs to be, but proud of her abilities and not one to hide her light.  One scene especially shows Stanwyck at her best.  Alone in her room, Annie longs for Toby, whom her colleagues believe has purposefully injured her hand.  She knows the injury was accidental, but Toby has been fired by Bill Cody (Moroni Olsen), and Annie is unable to prevent it or even go to Toby.  Her pain radiates from her; the scene is done in silence.

This was Stanwyck's first film at RKO. She had been appearing in films at Warner Brothers and was dissatisfied with the parts she was receiving their.  She'd already ventured over to First National for The Woman in Red and to Edward Smalls (Reliance) for Red Comrade.  Her next film, A Message to Garcia, would be at 20th Century Fox.  In A Life of Barbara Stanwyck: Steel-True 1907-1940, Victoria Wilson stated that Stanwyck was "outside the protection of a single studio" (full quote at Rogerebert.com).  Perhaps this is why she never won an Oscar.  Regardless, it gave her the ability to control her own career to a degree that other actresses probably envied.  For more detail on Stanwyck's move to RKO, see this TCM article.

We focused a bit of our discussion on the male leads.  Melvyn Douglas appears in a secondary role with Preston Foster in the lead.  We wondered what the film would have been like had the roles been switched.

We've only seen a few films with Preston Foster, and in most of them he had a supporting role (for example, The Harvey Girls (1946) in which he plays the evil Sam Purvis to John Hodiak's heroic Ned Trent); he was briefly discussed when he appeared opposite Carole Lombard in Love Before Breakfast.  Foster had a long career, appearing in film and television til 1967. He had started on the Broadway stage, appearing in five plays between 1929 and 1932.  After that, he was Hollywood bound.  He also had a career as a vocalist and songwriter, appearing in trio consisting of himself, his wife Sheila Darcy (to whom he was married from 1946 until his death in 1970) and guitarist Gene Leis.  When Foster retired from acting, he took on the role of executive director of the El Camino Playhouse, where he wrote, directed and acted in plays (the Playhouse closed in 1966).  Preston Foster died in 1970, at the age of 69.

Also in the small role of Vera Delmar is Pert Kelton, whose distinct speaking voice is instantly recognizable. We've mentioned her before in our discussions of Cain and Mabel and Bed of Roses (wherein she plays the hooker, Minnie) - in this film, she plays a character much closer to that of Minnie.  Vera is a bit of a tramp; she's interested in Toby, and doesn't really care what she has to do to get him.  Kelton makes the most of her short screen time to create a memorable characterization.

Pert Kelton had a very varied career.  Her film career, in which she was generally the wisecracking buddy or a floozy, only lasted from 1929 to 1939.  After that, she seems to have moved back to the East Coast, where she appeared in radio.  In the 1950s, she appeared in short sketches the Cavalcade of Stars as Alice Norton - sketches that would give birth to the television show The Honeymooners.  Kelton, however would not continue on to the series - her husband Ralph Bell had become embroiled in the McCarthy Era blacklist, which led to her being dropped from the show. She did continue in small roles on Cavalcade, and it has been suggested that Gleason attempted to keep her working for as long as he could.  He, in fact, invited her to appear in The Color Honeymooners as Alice's mother (since, by that time Audrey Meadows had assumed the role of Alice). Ms. Kelton died in 1968 at the age of 61.  Though many of the episodes from Cavalcade are lost, here is a short bit with her that survives:

We leave you this time with a short clip from Annie Oakley - the shooting contest between Annie and Toby.  We'll be back soon with a discussion of a more recent film, as well as our evaluation of a Kay Francis film.  

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