Whips, Guns, and Horses: The Westerns of Barbara Stanwyck

From Baby Face to The Lady Eve to Double Indemnity, Barbara Stanwyck thrived during the 1930s and 1940s as the hardscrabble, working class dame who was accustomed to staying one step ahead of men. Her throaty voice and no-nonsense delivery suited her tough-talking screen persona. During the 1950s, Stanwyck appeared in a number of westerns that exploited the aggression and independence associated with her star image. The unofficial series included Cattle Queen of Montana, The Violent Men, The Maverick Queen, Trooper Hook, and Forty Guns. Oddly, this period in Stanwyck’s career is either brushed off as a time when the aging star was trying to re-establish her position in Hollywood, or simply presented as a decline in her career. After Forty Guns was released in 1957, she did not make another film until the colorfully flamboyant Walk on the Wild Side, released in 1962. Biographies then note the resurrection of her stardom on the small screen, first as the host of The Barbara Stanwyck Show, which won her an Emmy, and then in The Big Valley. Later, she costarred in the mini-series The Thorn Birds and lent her considerable star presence to Dynasty and its spinoff, The Colbys.

While researching Stanwyck’s latter-day career, I found this spin on her 1950s output to be typical, but I am not wholly in agreement. Biographers and critics are basing their assessment on the aesthetic value of these movies as determined by some mainstream interpretation of “quality” that is as vague as it is elitist. While films such as Trooper Hook, an independent production released through United Artists, and The Maverick Queen, which was directed by Poverty Row favorite Joe Kane and released by Republic Pictures in 1956, are undistinguished westerns that can’t compete with genre classics like Double Indemnity and The Lady Eve, they were respectable productions with great location photography. But, more important than the quality of the films are the characters played by Stanwyck. How fitting that two of the 1950s westerns use “queen” in the title, because the word not only suits Stanwyck’s persona but also indicates the authority her characters wielded in several of these films.

THIS PUBLICITY STILL FOR ‘THE MAVERICK QUEEN’ SHOWS STANWYCK AS ONE OF THE GUN-TOTIN’ OUTLAWS–DEFINITELY NOT THE SCHOOL MARM.

Female characters were conventionally of two types in classic westerns: They were either the school marm/settler’s wife who represents the civilized values of marriage, family, and education in the untamed wilderness; or they were the rough and rowdy saloon girls and “half-breeds” who belonged to the wilderness. Neither archetype conventionally represented power or authority, which is signified in westerns by mastery over weapons and horses. Stanwyck’s series from the 1950s not only stands out in the western genre because her characters could match any man with a gun or on a horse but are also notable because they reject the gender politics of the 1950s. During World War II, women had worked at male-dominated jobs and positions while the men were at war, but in the postwar era, they were pressured to give up those jobs to returning soldiers. Reflecting this change in cultural attitudes, Hollywood genre films of the 1950s, especially melodramas and romantic dramas, worked hard to return women to traditional roles. But, Stanwyck’s westerns seemed to do the opposite—even considering that her characters softened or died at the ends of these movies.

A HARD-RIDING STANWYCK IN THE OPENING OF ‘FORTY GUNS’

Stanwyck was 50 when she starred in Forty Guns, which makes the opening scene of this cult favorite downright awe-inspiring. Dressed in black, she charges across the prairie on a white horse in full gallop, leading a pack of 40 hard-riding men. In the first half of the film, she spits out her dialogue with authority and power, whether barking orders to her men or dressing down her no-good brother. Sometimes the dialogue drips with entendre as when she asks her love interest, Griff, if she can touch his gun. “Uh-uh,” he says, “It might go off in your face.” Of course, she is willing to take that chance. And, did I mention, she carries a whip?

STANWYCK–AGE 50–POSES FOR A PUBLICITY PHOTO FOR ‘FORTY GUNS.’

A political conservative, Stanwyck did not take on these roles to make a point about her gender, and she would likely be uninterested in a feminist interpretation of them. Apparently, the Old West fascinated her, and she once referred to the era’s gunfighters, pioneers, and outlaws as “our royalty, our aristocracy” in an interview. After Stanwyck’s divorce from Robert Taylor was finalized in 1951, she kept their ranch and continued to ride the horses. She was in prime riding shape for the westerns she made during the 1950s, and she was inclined to perform her own stunts. Forty Guns includes a dangerous scene in which her foot is caught in a stirrup, and she is dragged across the prairie, a stunt she did herself when the stuntwoman refused. In The Maverick Queen, her character is chased across the wilderness and forced down a rocky incline, a treacherous maneuver for horses. The stunt required sure hands and a steady seat, but Stanwyck had no trouble pulling it off. I just can’t see this period as one in which an “aging” Stanwyck is floundering for roles; her characters are just too rich for that.

Despite living in a post-feminist age, today’s actresses struggle through careers that are erratic and short-lived. They lack an understanding of how a star image works and what it can represent to audiences, especially female viewers. They are subject to the whims of studio execs more interested in the teenage male demographic than in women viewers, who make up 51% of the audience. By comparison, Stanwyck experienced a career that lasted from the early talkie era to the 1980s. Like Hepburn, Rogers, Bergman, Garbo, Dietrich, Blondell, Davis, Crawford, and others, Stanwyck dazzled on the big screen because she was more photogenic than beautiful, more charismatic than trained.  Though at the mercy of a studio system that constructed their star images and bound them to long-term contracts, female stars of the Golden Age nonetheless learned their strengths and played to them. They knew who they were and what they represented. These women exuded presence, commanded respect, and radiated power despite the demands of the era’s narrative conventions and the restrictions of the Production Code. Their wattage has not dimmed over time.

35 Responses Whips, Guns, and Horses: The Westerns of Barbara Stanwyck
Posted By Charles : October 16, 2012 2:14 pm

In 1953, Stanwyck also made a western for Warner Brothers THE MOONLIGHTER, co-starring Fred MacMurray, made for 3-D, shown 2-d and the film is 4-f.

Posted By Charles : October 16, 2012 2:14 pm

In 1953, Stanwyck also made a western for Warner Brothers THE MOONLIGHTER, co-starring Fred MacMurray, made for 3-D, shown 2-d and the film is 4-f.

Posted By Medusa : October 16, 2012 3:21 pm

Lively post about such a dynamic actress! I’ve always liked “Trooper Hook” because of its intriguing storyline and nobody could wear lady-chaps like Stanwyck! It’s wonderful that she was able to parlay this Western competence into her long-running role as the female lead and head-of-household of TV’s “The Big Valley”.

I always love the intersection of females and Westerns, including all the amazing guests stars who were used to doll-up TV westerns and try to attract the ladies to the TV set. Stanwyck appealed to *everybody*, though!

Wonderful post!

Posted By Medusa : October 16, 2012 3:21 pm

Lively post about such a dynamic actress! I’ve always liked “Trooper Hook” because of its intriguing storyline and nobody could wear lady-chaps like Stanwyck! It’s wonderful that she was able to parlay this Western competence into her long-running role as the female lead and head-of-household of TV’s “The Big Valley”.

I always love the intersection of females and Westerns, including all the amazing guests stars who were used to doll-up TV westerns and try to attract the ladies to the TV set. Stanwyck appealed to *everybody*, though!

Wonderful post!

Posted By Kingrat : October 16, 2012 4:42 pm

Now I’d love to hear your take on THE FURIES, one of my favorite Anthony Mann films and favorite Barbara Stanwyck films, even though the character she plays must be 25 or less. There are no weak women in this film, not with Stanwyck, Judith Anderson, and the ever-terrifying Blanche Yurka.

Posted By Kingrat : October 16, 2012 4:42 pm

Now I’d love to hear your take on THE FURIES, one of my favorite Anthony Mann films and favorite Barbara Stanwyck films, even though the character she plays must be 25 or less. There are no weak women in this film, not with Stanwyck, Judith Anderson, and the ever-terrifying Blanche Yurka.

Posted By Susan Doll : October 16, 2012 5:27 pm

Kingrat: I have not seen THE FURIES so I thought it best not to mention it, but I look forward to caching it some time.

Posted By Susan Doll : October 16, 2012 5:27 pm

Kingrat: I have not seen THE FURIES so I thought it best not to mention it, but I look forward to caching it some time.

Posted By Maryann : October 16, 2012 8:12 pm

Another real interesting post about a somewhat ignored period of Stanwyck’s career. I look forward to taking another look at these lost gems.

Posted By Maryann : October 16, 2012 8:12 pm

Another real interesting post about a somewhat ignored period of Stanwyck’s career. I look forward to taking another look at these lost gems.

Posted By M.T. Fisher : October 16, 2012 10:21 pm

Excellent post! J.M. Harrison covers several of Stanwyck’s westerns–which don’t get near enough ink–in his work ‘Head `Em Off At the Pass! 94 Westerns You Should Watch.’ In it, he discusses how she fit the genre, and how actresses such as Davis would never have been able to do so.

Posted By M.T. Fisher : October 16, 2012 10:21 pm

Excellent post! J.M. Harrison covers several of Stanwyck’s westerns–which don’t get near enough ink–in his work ‘Head `Em Off At the Pass! 94 Westerns You Should Watch.’ In it, he discusses how she fit the genre, and how actresses such as Davis would never have been able to do so.

Posted By idlemendacity : October 16, 2012 10:25 pm

I’d like to second Medusa on Stanwyck’s appeal. She was a universally appealing actress to both male and female audiences. Under Barbara’s entry in my copy of Katz’s The Film Encyclopedia they state “she was neither a great actress nor did she ever give a bad performance”. At first I thought that was an insult (and it kinda is) but it’s a rather bad one if so. How many actresses with the decades long, dozens of BAD films long career like Stanwyck could you say “never gave a bad performance”?. Even Davis and Hepburn had personal stinkers.

Another point is that Stanwyck (a kid from Brooklyn) generally LIKED making westerns – and it showed. There are not many A-list stars then (and probably none now give the state of the Western) who you say that about. She knew the genre and appreciated it for what it was. It reminds of Dorothy Malone who before she became a big soapy melodrama star in the late 1950s was stuck in B-western after B-western and reportedly looks back at it with fondness rather than bitterness.

Posted By idlemendacity : October 16, 2012 10:25 pm

I’d like to second Medusa on Stanwyck’s appeal. She was a universally appealing actress to both male and female audiences. Under Barbara’s entry in my copy of Katz’s The Film Encyclopedia they state “she was neither a great actress nor did she ever give a bad performance”. At first I thought that was an insult (and it kinda is) but it’s a rather bad one if so. How many actresses with the decades long, dozens of BAD films long career like Stanwyck could you say “never gave a bad performance”?. Even Davis and Hepburn had personal stinkers.

Another point is that Stanwyck (a kid from Brooklyn) generally LIKED making westerns – and it showed. There are not many A-list stars then (and probably none now give the state of the Western) who you say that about. She knew the genre and appreciated it for what it was. It reminds of Dorothy Malone who before she became a big soapy melodrama star in the late 1950s was stuck in B-western after B-western and reportedly looks back at it with fondness rather than bitterness.

Posted By swac44 : October 18, 2012 12:13 pm

I knew Stanwyck first from The Big Valley, which I watched in reruns largely because it also starred one my favourites at the time (this was the mid-’70s), The Six Million Dollar Man‘s Lee Majors, but I liked her on the show, and eventually caught one of her features, which happened to be The Maverick Queen, on a local TV movie matinee program. I wasn’t even that big a fan of westerns at the time, but something about her performance captivated me, and I got a better idea of her range a few years later when we were shown Stella Dallas in a film class, and I sought out Double Indemnity on VHS when I started to investigate the great film noir titles.

Even then, I don’t think I truly appreciated her until I got a ragged looking VHS copy of her pre-code Capra film Ladies of Leisure in a tape trade, and was quite taken by her full-blooded performance, and I’ve been eagerly seeking her earlier films ever since.

Posted By swac44 : October 18, 2012 12:13 pm

I knew Stanwyck first from The Big Valley, which I watched in reruns largely because it also starred one my favourites at the time (this was the mid-’70s), The Six Million Dollar Man‘s Lee Majors, but I liked her on the show, and eventually caught one of her features, which happened to be The Maverick Queen, on a local TV movie matinee program. I wasn’t even that big a fan of westerns at the time, but something about her performance captivated me, and I got a better idea of her range a few years later when we were shown Stella Dallas in a film class, and I sought out Double Indemnity on VHS when I started to investigate the great film noir titles.

Even then, I don’t think I truly appreciated her until I got a ragged looking VHS copy of her pre-code Capra film Ladies of Leisure in a tape trade, and was quite taken by her full-blooded performance, and I’ve been eagerly seeking her earlier films ever since.

Posted By Susan Doll : October 18, 2012 12:21 pm

Swac44: I am glad someone else has an appreciation for MAVERICK QUEEN. Though I prefer Stanwyck in the romantic comedies, with BALL OF FIRE being my favorite, I also enjoy her in these westerns.

Posted By Susan Doll : October 18, 2012 12:21 pm

Swac44: I am glad someone else has an appreciation for MAVERICK QUEEN. Though I prefer Stanwyck in the romantic comedies, with BALL OF FIRE being my favorite, I also enjoy her in these westerns.

Posted By M.T. Fisher : October 18, 2012 3:49 pm

BALL OF FIRE and THE LADY EVE are masterpieces. Stanwyck makes sexiness hilarious without having it dirty. She was outstanding at doing that. I personally think she was the best all-around actress, as she appeared in every genre save sci-fi, and mastered them all.

Posted By M.T. Fisher : October 18, 2012 3:49 pm

BALL OF FIRE and THE LADY EVE are masterpieces. Stanwyck makes sexiness hilarious without having it dirty. She was outstanding at doing that. I personally think she was the best all-around actress, as she appeared in every genre save sci-fi, and mastered them all.

Posted By martininch : October 18, 2012 5:56 pm

Reblogged this on Moondog Madness.

Posted By martininch : October 18, 2012 5:56 pm

Reblogged this on Moondog Madness.

Posted By The View Beyond Parallax… more reads for week of October 19 | Parallax View : October 19, 2012 1:18 pm

[...] Susan Doll argues the unconventional, nonstereotyped figure that Barbara Stanwyck cut in her westerns makes up for whatever filmmaking deficiencies mar the lesser films (and only helps the oddness of masterpieces like Forty Guns). [...]

Posted By The View Beyond Parallax… more reads for week of October 19 | Parallax View : October 19, 2012 1:18 pm

[...] Susan Doll argues the unconventional, nonstereotyped figure that Barbara Stanwyck cut in her westerns makes up for whatever filmmaking deficiencies mar the lesser films (and only helps the oddness of masterpieces like Forty Guns). [...]

Posted By Vienna : October 22, 2012 9:21 am

Love Barbara in FORTY GUNS. Great scene at the end with Barry Sullivan and John Ericson.

Posted By Vienna : October 22, 2012 9:21 am

Love Barbara in FORTY GUNS. Great scene at the end with Barry Sullivan and John Ericson.

Posted By M.T. Fisher : October 22, 2012 12:01 pm

The film was evidently an inspiration for Leone, who borrowed the shots of close-ups of the eyes.

Posted By M.T. Fisher : October 22, 2012 12:01 pm

The film was evidently an inspiration for Leone, who borrowed the shots of close-ups of the eyes.

Posted By Juana Maria : October 26, 2012 7:49 pm

Susan Doll:It hard to believe you haven’t seen “The Furies” yet! I have seen it a long time ago…back when the Hallmatk Channel(not the Hallmark Movie Channel,becasue I don’t have that station)would play Westerns every Saturday,to my great delight! It used to have the Big Month of Westerns in July,which I looked forward to eagerly. I used to be so happy with the months of July and August,a whole month of Westerns on Hallmark and then “Summer Under the Stars” on TCM. Well,atleast I still have the “Summer Under the Stars” to look forward to. I would definitely recommend you see “The Furies” if you are a Stanwyck fan,which I must be,since I have seen most of her films.

Posted By Juana Maria : October 26, 2012 7:49 pm

Susan Doll:It hard to believe you haven’t seen “The Furies” yet! I have seen it a long time ago…back when the Hallmatk Channel(not the Hallmark Movie Channel,becasue I don’t have that station)would play Westerns every Saturday,to my great delight! It used to have the Big Month of Westerns in July,which I looked forward to eagerly. I used to be so happy with the months of July and August,a whole month of Westerns on Hallmark and then “Summer Under the Stars” on TCM. Well,atleast I still have the “Summer Under the Stars” to look forward to. I would definitely recommend you see “The Furies” if you are a Stanwyck fan,which I must be,since I have seen most of her films.

Posted By Jumar : December 9, 2012 7:01 am

I’d be afraid to watch the English dub veorisn, seeing that Lancaster is the only American in the cast. I have the 3-disc DVD veorisn from Criterion and the third disc has the 160 minute English dub veorisn, but I don’t think that I’ll ever watch it.Alain Delon in another Visconti film is all anyone needs to know. :O)This is a magnificent film, directed by a true master filmmaker, and I hear that the Blu-ray veorisn if phenomenal.

Posted By Jumar : December 9, 2012 7:01 am

I’d be afraid to watch the English dub veorisn, seeing that Lancaster is the only American in the cast. I have the 3-disc DVD veorisn from Criterion and the third disc has the 160 minute English dub veorisn, but I don’t think that I’ll ever watch it.Alain Delon in another Visconti film is all anyone needs to know. :O)This is a magnificent film, directed by a true master filmmaker, and I hear that the Blu-ray veorisn if phenomenal.

Posted By george : January 13, 2014 10:58 pm

Has anyone here read the new 1,500-page biography of Stanwyck (“Steel-True”), which is intended as the first of two volumes? Is it worth $40? I suspect it is, but thought I’d ask the real movie experts here.

http://www.villagevoice.com/2014-01-01/film/barbara-stanwyck-biography/

Posted By Susan Doll : January 14, 2014 12:48 am

George: I have a friend who works at a library and teaches film history on the side. She has see the book and is going to get it on her Kindle. I suspect it will become a paperback before too long. I am waiting for that.

Posted By george : January 14, 2014 1:25 am

I hope it’s better than Axel Madsen’s 1994 bio, which devoted little space to Stanwyck’s films but a lot of space to speculating on whether Stanwyck and Robert Taylor were gay or bisexual.

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