Directed by George Stevens
Written by Joel Sayre and John Twist
While compiling the list of films for this marathon, there were more than a few indicators which put Annie Oakley on my list of highly anticipated titles, especially among the earlier films on my list. First and foremost, the star of Barbara Stanwyck shines so brightly that any film featuring her screen command and spunk is immediately must see. In fact, Stanwyck will appear again in this marathon on more than a few occasions. I very much look forward to seeing her again in the West. But what really sold me on the film was the fact it’s about Annie Oakley. Oakley’s story is interesting in that she is from Ohio (my home state) and only came to fame from her sharpshooting in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, making this a Western for it’s portrayal of the West while managing to not actually take place there. Like the show itself, it is merely a representation of the West which makes it qualify. Stanwyck, though, makes it an anticipated title in the marathon.
Buffalo Bill Cody (Moroni Olsen) came to prominence after his time spent in the armed forces. His Wild West Show brought the rough elements of life on the Western frontier to audiences on the east coast and beyond. When noted sharpshooter Toby Walker (Preston Foster), the latest addition to Cody’s show, comes to town in Cincinnati, Ohio, local hotel proprietor sets up a shooting match between Walker and his huntress, Annie Oakley (Barbara Stanwyck), knowing that her shooting is among the best in the world. Not wishing to show Walker up, Annie loses to preserve his reputation, but earns the respect of her peers as a stellar shooter. Soon enough, Walker and Oakley are teamed up in Bill Cody’s show, competing as the best shots in the world, while also falling in love.
What I know about Annie Oakley is limited. I do know she was a hell of a shot. In the linked Edison film of the actual Oakley, the only thing I have to go on, you can see what a showman she was, making Stanwyck the perfect choice to portray her on screen. Her romantic relationship with Toby Walker is not false either, though Walker’s name is. Oakley married fellow sharpshooter and partner Frank Butler. I am not sure why they changed his name, though perhaps they didn’t have the rights, or they changed their story enough to merit a fictionalization of everyone other than Cody and Oakley. That being said, the romance left something to be desired from me for a couple of reasons. I felt the rival, almost star-crossed lover elements actually did work quite well. The main problem I had was with how they portrayed Stanwyck’s fawning of Walker.
As a result, the film felt more like Walker’s story than it did Oakley’s, which is a shame for such a large, important female figure of the time. As the film progressed it was more about what things meant for Walker, rather than Oakley. What happened to Toby Walker? Is Toby okay? All these things that slant the story to the masculine element instead of focusing on the accomplishments of Annie. Walker is even seen encouraging and teaching Annie new tricks for her part of the show. Was Annie incapable of being a star on her own? I don’t know the real life answer to that question, perhaps her showmanship was lacking and needed coaching, but this film was difficult to swallow when watching. Seeing such a strong and notable woman requiring the help and love of a male, as the focus of the film, didn’t work for my tastes, and perhaps that is the fault of my own expectations.
Stanwyck was great in the central role, managing to be tough and independent and also soft and loving when needed, which the film called for. But overall it left a lot to be desired. Much focus is on Oakley and Walker, as well it should, but there is some attention paid to the other acts of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, though I felt that could have been explored a little more. To bring the show itself to the big screen would have been a fun added element to Annie’s story and the experience of the film. I am happy I included the film in my marathon, as any glimpse of Stanwyck is worthy of my time, but at this point, I would say that it is one of the weaker sound pictures in the early Western landscape. I am sure there are far better films to come.