Amoeblog

Karen Carpenter - Only Yesterday

Posted by Miss Ess, April 15, 2009 05:28pm | Post a Comment

Been thinking about Karen Carpenter today. Isn't this just the best?


Poor Karen, the submissive misfit in a controlling, perfectionistic family. Here's a frail looking Karen playing a huge drum solo on the Carpenters' 1976 TV special:


In the typically dull world of easy listening, Karen Carpenter really stands out as someone with great talent and passion for music, inserting both pathos and intensity into her singing and playing. She also appears to have been someone who never quite fit into that rigid, clean cut and repressed world and who was emotionally damaged in part by that realization. The sadness and the difficulties she faced seem to have been channeled into her creative endeavors, which no doubt added to her capability and appeal, but anorexia withered her away to the bone and she finally passed away due to its complications in 1983.

There's an interesting documentary about the Carpenters that's available on DVD, Close To You: Remembering the Carpenters, which in my memory is notable for Richard Carpenters' closed-offedness, constant creepy smiling and refusal to admit or recognize much of anything that might have been tragic or difficult throughout the career he and his sister had.

In 1987, Todd Haynes directed a short film about Karen Carpenter called Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story, in which her story is portrayed entirely with Barbies and stop-motion. I've still never watched it myself, but copies float through Amoeba occasionally, though it is out of print.

The Carpenters live in the pop vocals section here at Amoeba.

Elli et Jacno... et Lio. Les electro-ye-yes

Posted by Eric Brightwell, April 6, 2009 09:13pm | Post a Comment
Denis Quillard (born in 1957) came from an eccentric but distinguished family in Champagne. A chainsmoking fan of Gauloises, he was known to some as "Jacno," after Marcel Jacno, the illustrator who designed the cigarette manufacturer's logo. Jacno had learned to play flute at a religious school in Margency, Notre-Dame-de-Bury. As a child his musical heroes had been Chopin, Mozart and Satie, but as a young teenager, he gravitated toward The Who and The Rolling Stones. At fourteen, he took a job as a messenger boy, enabling him to buy a guitar. He also grew increasingly rebellious, experimenting with drugs, engaging in petty theft, and being expelled from a succession of schools. In 1973, he formed a short-lived band called Bloodsuckers.

Elli Medeiros was born January 18, 1956 in Montevideo, Uruguay. Her mother, Mirtha Medeiros, was an actress, and as a child, Elli also appeared in Uruguayan film, stage and TV productions. In the early '70s, along with her mother and her stepfather, she moved to Paris. The following year, at a protest, Elli and Jacno crossed paths. Soon, the two began dating and plotted a musical career.

   

In 1976, Elli and Jacno (joined by Bruno Carone, Albin Dériat and Hervé Zénouda) formed Les Stinky Toys in Rennes, Brittany. They played their first gig as Les Stinky Toys on the fourth of July, 1976. Les Stinky Toys quickly garnered a reputation as a willing and fairly able band who played several notable performances, including at London's 100 Club alongside The Buzzcocks, The Clash, The Damned, The Sex Pistols and Siouxsie & the Banshees. That came about after Malcolm McLaren discovered the band at a boutique in Les Halles. The notoriously hype-loving Melody Maker featured them on their cover. Conversely, the notoriously bitchy Trouser Press described them as "uninspired sub-Rolling Stones rock'n'boogie with terrible vocals by Elli Medeiros." In March of 1977, they played with Generation X, The Jam and The Police at Le Palais des Glaces. Soon after, they signed with Polydor and released their debut single, "Boozy Creed," followed by an album, Plastic Faces.

Stinky Toys - "Plastic Faces" 1977
Uploaded by giomog

That same year, Kraftwerk went on a press tour by train to promote Trans-Europa Express and the notorious gatecrasher, Jacno, met them. The meeting seemed to have a profound effect on him, and his musical course began to change not long after. After being dropped by their label, Stinky Toys signed with Vogue. Their second album (sometimes known as La jeune) sold poorly, despite being an improvement. A gig at Le Palais des Arts was crashed by the Hell's Angels, who started a fight, leaving one fan dead. The band parted ways.

JACNO - "Rectangle" 1980
Uploaded by chris591972

Jacno's next work was a minimalist electropop EP, Rectangle (1979-Celluloïd). Far ahead of its time, it was turned down by many labels. Today it sounds like the missing link between Kraftwerk and Novelty Rock-era Denim. A writer for Cahiers du cinéma, Olivier Assayas (well-known now as the director of Irma Vep), had used Jacno's music in his film, Copyright, and subsequently made a music video called Rectangle: Deux chansons de Jacno (1980). Radio station Europe 1 picked up the song "Rectangle" for its theme music and it reached number one in several countries and was even used in a Nesquick ad.


1980 - Nesquick
Uploaded by fifitou

One song off of Rectangle, "Anne cherchait l'amour," featured Elli singing on the otherwise instrumental record. In 1980, they reteamed with the vision of updating the yé-yés of the '60s for the electropop era. Elli and Jacno's debut, Tout va sauter did well, buoyed by the success of "Main dans la main" and "L'age atomique."


The previous year, a Portuguese-cum-Belgian singer, Wanda Maria Ribeiro Furtado Tavares de Vasconcelos, taking the stage name and persona Lio (from Jean-Claude Forest's comic character from Barbarella) and aspring to combine her love of Blondie, Kraftwerk and Motown, teamed with Telex's Marc Moulin and scored a million-selling hit with "Le banana split," a thinly-veiled ode to fellatio. Having much in common with Ellie et Jacno, she approached them about collaborating and they gave her "Amoureux solitaires" which sold several million copies. Over the next few years, Lio and Elli et Jacno's updated yé-yé produced several musical gems.



Lio - "Amoureux Solitaires" (1981)
Uploaded by juanfrance


Elli et Jacno - "Oh la la" 1982
Uploaded by giomog

Elli et Jacno - "Le telephone" 1982
Uploaded by giomog

Jacno ended up working mostly over the following years as a producer. In 1982, Elli et Jacno had a baby, Calypso, and released Boomerang before ending both their personal partnership. After creating the score for Eric Rohmer's Les nuits de la pleine lune in 1984, the two dissolved their musical partnership as well.
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Jacno has released the solo works T'es loin, T'es près (1989), Faux témoin (1995) and French paradoxe (2002). Lio went on to work with the Sparks and embarked on an acting career, appearing several times in the films of noted cinematic pioneer Chantal Ackerman. Elli Medeiros has released the tropical-flavored Bom bom (1987) and the bilingual EM (2005), in addition to working steadily as an actress since the '90s.

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From the women's picture to the chick flick

Posted by Eric Brightwell, March 31, 2009 05:52pm | Post a Comment

I wrongly assumed that it would be easy to fire off a blog briefly summarizing the history of women’s pictures. When I began, I quickly realized that it is a genre that’s simplistically treated as synonymous with both weepies/tearjerkers and their near opposite, the rom-com; it quickly proved to be more than I bargained for, which is why it’s showing up on this, the last day of Women’s History Month. The history of the genre occupies an interesting position, little discussed and yet obviously affecting and responding to the Hollywood narrative, the larger global film market, and broader history. Anyway, it proved to be a bit too much so, here's the fast & furious driveby account of a genre that deserves more.


First of all, tear-inducing films are by no means all women's pictures, which is why someone coined the annoying term “guy cry” for young male-targeted stories/films about dying dogs (e.g. My Dog Skip, Old Yeller, Where the Red Fern Grows, &c). For adult males, sentimental melodramas (usually tempered by the macho backdrop of war, the wild west or sports (e.g. Bang the Drum Slowly, Brian’s Song, Knute Rockne) allow men the opportunity to cry with less shame. But, whereas men generally try to resist crying, telling themselves in the heat of a battle scene as the hero lies dying in his buddy's arms, "It's only a movie. It's only a movie. You will not cry!"; women, it is assumed, seek out movies with the hope that they will have "good cry." I have no doubt that this is part of why women’s pictures have rarely been afforded serious critical examination and were only lauded, for the most part, near the beginning of film history.


During the silent film era, most truly snobby critics still viewed film as an inferior art form unworthy of serious discussion, except to point out its deficiencies. Those few positive critics were usually decidely populist and they, of course, loved the maudlin stories, over-the-top action and improbable coincidence of silent melodramas. Most of still-critically-worshipped director D.W. Griffith’s supposed film innovations were borrowed directly from tawdry works of decidedly low, melodramatic fiction and much of his work can be considered in the women's pictures genre. True Heart Sudies is about a suffering country girl who continually sacrifices her own happiness to help advance the position of a man who barely knows she exists. In Way Down East, a young innocent is seduced and impregnated by a smooth womanizer who then tosses her aside.


Silent stars like Lillian Gish and Mary Pickford often played spurned or otherwise wronged innocents who suffered mightily at the hands of dastardly men. Both of the actresses played out in ways fitting the conventions of women’s pictures, albeit ones that demonstrate some of the under-acknowledged variety of the genre. Lillian Gish never married nor had any verified relationships (unless you count her close friendship with Helen Hayes or her sister, Dorothy). Instead, she devoted herself entirely to her career for 75 years before dying alone at 99 years old. Pickford’s husband, Owen Moore, was an alcoholic who -- unhappy about being overshadowed by his wife’s fame -- resorted to beating her, driving her into the arms of dashing womanizer Douglas Fairbanks.


The idea of campaigning for female audiences began when women still didn’t have the right to vote at the ballot box, but did at the ticket booth. With silent film’s reliance on visuals and, usually, highly stylized, dramatic acting, the medium practically seemed ideally suited for melodrama. In the 1920s, Doris Schroeder became in demand for her women’s picture screenplays. Her first screenplay was the provocatively-titled Heart of a Jewess. Her specialty was creating different characters that look like a who’s who of women’s picture stock characters: tomboys, fallen women, vengeful femme fatales and hedonistic gold-diggers. Of course, part of the fun of the pre-Hayes Code era was the ability to show all sorts of tawdry, sordid, gleeful immorality as long as the bad girls end up drug-addicted, rejected or dead. Madame X (1920) was one of the first of such films. In it, a woman (played by Pauline Frederick) is separated from her child and then defended by her unknowing, grown-up son when she's wrongly accused of murder. 


In 1927, the first Academy Award for Best Actress went to Janet Gaynor, the star of 7th Heaven, a woman’s picture wherein a poor, cheated, abused and persecuted woman finds a loving husband, only to have him snatched away to fight in World War I. He makes the unlikely promise to communicate telepathically with his wife every night. Eventually, the heroine thinks he’s died. Against all odds, he returns to her alive… but blind.

It was only when film began to be taken seriously that more serious critics began to dominate film theory. For the most part, they shunned the melodramatic hallmarks of the women’s picture as uncinematic, usually expressing the view that a more intellectual filmmaker’s concerns with film visuals should focus on composition, editing, &c and not emotionally appealing fancy costumes and sets. Somewhat oddly, whereas emotion seems perfectly acceptable in music, from the super sentimentality of Franz Schubert to the comically lachrymose Radiohead, emotion, we are told, has no place in serious film. Of course, all popular film remains, despite critical suggestion, primarily concerned with emotions, whether the genre is action, drama, horror, porn or thrillers. Most audiences go to the cinema in search of an emotional fix. It could be argued that the escapism offered by plutographic spectacle films is almost intrinsic to the genre and extremely cinematic.


The disparity between film critics and audiences is even more glaringly obvious when it comes to foreign films. In most countries, the melodrama (often also a women's picture) is usually favored by the populace, who've frequently never heard of most of the critically-championed films that end up released in America. Look, for example, at Iran, whose New Wave of directors are barely known at home where, conversely, the popular films are generally unheard of abroad.

Women’s pictures' roots in literature were also ultimately frowned upon as extrinsic contaminants stunting film's growth. The seemingly convoluted twists and border-line magical coincidences were looked down upon and yet books like Anna Karenina, Camille, Jane Eyre, Madame Bovary, Wuthering Heights and pretty much everything by Jane Austen have nonetheless proven lastingly popular with filmmakers and audiences, who often enjoy repeated movie adaptations every few years.


Occasionally, in the hands of the right director, what would otherwise be viewed as silly clichés are considered (usually in hindsight) ironic social critiques disguised in camp clothing. Many emotionally manipulative directors, despite their frequent forays into women’s pictures, are viewed as serious directors only because they've (despite frequently working within the genre) skillfully managed to avoid being seen for what they are, e.g. Erich Von Stroheim, Josef Von Sternberg, Lars von Trier, Michael Powell, Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Todd Haynes. Others, like Douglas Sirk, Edmund Goulding and George Cukor, have been redeemed through re-assessment of their work. Because of their ongoing popularity, women’s pictures (though still viewed as low art) remain viable, now re-branded as "chick flicks." Given a hip, insouciant (and annoying) nickname, directors of chick flicks like Nora Ephron and P.J. Hogan are at least considered respectable, even as most of their works are scarcely different from the disparaged works of their predecessors. When you look at the top ten highest grossing American films, many are arguably women’s pictures and all contain most of the ingredients of the genre, despite their target audience.
  1. Gone with the Wind (1939)
  2. Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope (1977)
  3. The Sound of Music (1965)
  4. E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982)
  5. The Ten Commandments (1956)
  6. Titanic (1997)
  7. Jaws (1975)
  8. Doctor Zhivago (1965)
  9. The Exorcist (1973)
  10. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937)

The 1930s were noteworthy in the history of women’s pictures for several reasons. It was the dawn of the talkie and women’s pictures became known for featuring a lot of dialogue, another characteristic viewed as inherently anti-cinematic and more appropriate to books. In the first half of the decade, before the application of the Hayes code, studios could get away with more than they even do today. Bette Davis in particular enjoyed a string of successes as women of questionable character in films like Dance Fools Dance, Ladies of Leisure, Night Nurse, Illicit, Forbidden, Shopworn and Ladies They Talk About. Barbara Stanwyck, Greta Garbo, Jean Harlow, Joan Crawford and Marlene Dietrich often appeared as either gleefully-immoral or in traditionally male positions to great success.


The musical was also made possible with the adoption of sound. Although almost never described as a subgenre of women’s pictures, there’s little doubt about who is the target audience, Musicals often send up and feminize traditionally male-oriented genres. In the face of the Great Depression, a lighter variation on the wicked woman archetype was the comedic, sympathetic goldigger, as featured in a series of backstage musicals and non-musicals like Red Headed Woman.

          

In Italy, a series of films were made that, in imitation of Hollywood, portrayed wealthy, conservative families living glamorous, happy lives in their posh homes. The neo-realist crowd called them “Telefoni Bianchi” (White Telephones), after that technological symbol of upper-class frivolity.


The 1940s saw several developments in the women’s picture, many seemingly fueled by the realities of World War II, which resulted in many women entering the workplace for the first time, filling jobs traditionally performed by men. At the same time, many men were shipped off to the battlefront, often never to return. Women’s pictures such as Random Harvest and Waterloo Bridge milked war for all its considerable, tragic emotional worth. In England, however, where the battle came to them, the tendency toward escapism was stronger and what came to be known as Gainsborough Melodramas were hastily cranked out, beginning with The Man in Grey and continuing with Madonna of the Seven Moons, Fanny by Gaslight, The Wicked Lady and Caravan. They were mostly based on adaptations from recent books and all were set in the distant past and provided momentary distraction with fancy costumes and considerable scandal. The years following the war saw an absolute proliferation of women’s pictures. The then newly-common supersaturated Technicolor process was perfect for the heightened emotional state aimed for by genre auteurs like Douglas Sirk.


Production of women’s pictures seems to have reached a low in the 1960s and ‘70s, viewed at the time as conservative, inartistic and passe. Films like Sweet November, Love Story and Looking For Mr. Goodbar all attempted to make some acknowledgment of women’s liberation. Looking for Mr. Goodbar, especially, seems like a cautionary tale to women everywhere who are too liberated for their own good.

The 1980s saw the dawn of the term “chick flick.” I can only assume that it has something to do with the then-popular Andrew “Dice” Clay. Throughout the decade and into the 1990s, Hollywood grew increasingly conservative and there weren’t really any significant developments in the women’s picture in the 1990s, just new faces like Julia Roberts and Meg Ryan. If anything, the women's picture was stripped of any sense of irony or satire and reduced to a nostalgic echo of a supposedly simpler time.

With the complete proliferation of cell phones in the 2000s, film conversations are now liberated from the confines of LAN lines and people can talk and talk in any situation. Elizabethtown was the first film to feature every line of dialogue spoken over phones. Still relying heavily on books as their sources, the decade saw so-called chick lit, which had enjoyed incredible popularity in the ‘90s, influencing the women’s picture. It’s surely why the proliferation of films about busy, professional women exploded.

As I noted earlier, there’s a lot more variation to the women’s picture than is usually recognized. And yet, part of the fun is recognizing how often time-worn conventions appear with little change. Most women’s pictures incorporate several conventions in varying combinations, albeit usually with similar aims, including realization of fantasies about the characters who are experiencing significant life changes that revolve, almost invariably, around the central importance of men, which is part of the reason they’re often viewed as socially conservative. But, as earlier noted, there’s often an satirical note and more than a bit of exploitation in the bulk hiding behind the tidy moralizations at the end. I would argue that adherence to formula frees up the viewer to focus their attention on the performer and is the primary way that action, martial arts, porn, westerns and women’s pictures are viewed. Audiences nearly always attribute their failure to enjoy a film to either predictability or bad acting and tend to enjoy films actually offering genuine surprises. Instead, with genre pictures, the enjoyment is derived primarily from the minor tweaks in formula or, more often, the joy derived from witnessing a particular performer travelling down a familiar path, knowing fully what's coming next. For all of film’s history, women’s pictures have favored not only revisiting similar themes, but frequently relying on the same actors like the vulnerable-but-tough Barbara Stanwyck, Bette Davis, Glenn Close, Greta Garbo, Joan Crawford, Julia Roberts, Lillian Gish, Marlene Dietrich, Mary Pickford, Meryl Streep, Kate Winslet, Kiera Knightly, Jane Fonda and Sandra Bullock. The men are similarly tough-but-vulnerable, often English and pretty but not girly, sexually unthreatening fellows. Consider Colin Firth, Hugh Grant, Kevin Costner, Tom Hanks, Rock Hudson, John Corbett, Harry Connick Jr, Matthew McConaughey and Richard Gere.

Variations on a theme with examples:


The Cinderella Story – The fantasy of an apparent everywoman being recognized and transported to a comfy life by Prince Charming is as old as time. The male equivalent is the dork being recognized for his skills (Dark City, The Matrix). Examples include: Woman’s Face, The Bride Wore Red, Low Birth and The Gorgeous Hussy


I'm Rich, Bitch! – A perhaps more realistic, grown-up variation on The Cinderella Story, these characters are born rich and usually stay rich. Having given up on Prince Charming, the viewer resigns themself to merely peeking voyeuristically at the fabulous outfits of their betters. Often based on real characters, the antebellum south was often formerly the romanticized locale. Now, in more PC times, the more distant past is favored. Of course, the sting of other people's wealth is lessened if their lives are still miserable. Consider: The Other Boylen Girl, Duchess, Jezebel,  Gone With the Wind and The Shining Hour


The Lovable Obsesssive – Another decidedly child-like cinematic fairy tale, the male characters in real life would terrify the objects of their affection. In these films, death, space-time, the fact that their lust is based entirely on stalking or physical appearance is supposed to be romantic -- e.g. Bed of Roses, Forever Young, Ghost, Somewhere in Time and While You Were Sleeping.


Dying Young – Whether it’s the protagonist or their love interest, perfect love is ended when fate cruelly intervenes in a story at least as old as Romeo & Juliet. Sometimes, the victim isn't even lucky enough to be in a relationship -- e.g. Beaches, City of Angels, Dark Victory, Dying Young, In My Life, Love Story, Steel Magnolias, Stepmom, Terms of Endearment and Titanic.


Operation: change-a-bro -- Whether taming the bad boy (usually a rich, cocky womanizer) or saving the suffering widower, these films offer the hope of molding a misshapen lump of man into something the woman likes as in An Affair to Remember, Autumn Leaves, Maid in Manhattan, An Officer and a Gentleman, Sabrina or Sleepless in Seattle.

Weddings – Many women's pictures' raison d'etre is focused on holy matrimony, as in 27 Dresses, Runaway Bride, My Best Friend’s Wedding, Bride Wars, The Wedding Planner, Rachel Getting Married, The Wedding Date, Made of Honor and My Big Fat Greek Wedding.


The Suffering Mother –  These films focus on mothers being terrorized by traumatic events involving their children and play up the old paranoia or maternal sacrifice, sometimes to cover for awful, unappreciative brats. See Cry in the Dark, Madame X, Mildred Pierce, Not Without My Daughter, The Sin of Madelon Claudet, Sophie’s Choice, Stella Dallas and To Each His Own.


Bird in a Gilded Cage – In these films, kept women are content to serve their useless husbands, sometimes reluctantly but selflessly taking part in the scumbag's schemes and even taking the rap for their illegal activities. Or maybe he’s an alcoholic and she’s the talent. See Hold Your Man, Lost Weekend, Riff Raff or Mannequin.


Mr. Wrong – Everything seems so perfect in these fairytale romances… until the husbands/boyfriends quickly reveal their true colors. Or, they’re already creepy, but the women find themselves trapped. Gaslight, The Net, Sleeping with the Enemy, Sudden Fear and Waitress.


The Romance of Adultery – Sometimes these women are trapped in loveless marriages with galoots, often with mistresses or alchoholic and impotent, but other times, a fling with a handsome stranger reignites the flames in the woman’s heart that her well-meaning husband can’t. Examples include Bridges of Madison County, Brief Encounter, Now Voyager, The Piano, Ruby Gentry and Waitress.


Not Enough Time --  Whether single mom’s slaving away at a greasy spoon or as a journalist/author/professional assistant, romance just doesn’t fit into these women’s goals… and yet it nonetheless inevitably finds a way. Check out Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, Confessions of a Shopaholic, Devil Wears Prada, How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days, My Brilliant Career, The Turning Point, Sex & the City or You’ve Got Mail.


Princess Charming
-- In the reverse of the Cinderella, the princess, usually urban and sophisticated, somehow falls for a lowly manual laborer, often whilst spending an extnded amount of time in the county. Examples: BUtterfield 8, Kitty Foyle, New In Town and Sweet Home Alabama.

Bouncing Back -– Fresh out of a disintegrated relationship, these films revolve around romantically-wronged women picking themselves up, dusting themselves off, and finding some hot, young manflesh to make everything right, as in Hope Floats, How Stella Got Her Groove Back or An Unmarried Woman.

Cutting Loose -– Not yet ready to date again, these women burn their bodices and find (temporary) solace letting their hair down in the company of women, e.g. The Banger Sisters, Thelma & Louise or Fried Green Tomatoes.


This Woman’s Work -- These films show strong women (often queens) who often treat men as indifferently as the worst men do women, thereby showing that two wrongs do make right. These characters usually have more to do with the ice queen archetype than femme fatales. See Elizabeth, Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle and Queen Christina.

Manhunt -– These frantic, frazzled, female protagonists won’t be whole until they capture a man. The race is on! See Bridget Jones’s Diary or He’s Just Not that Into You.


The Tramp's Progress –- Who doesn’t love seeing women sloot around and act like vain, catty, conniving bitches? Especially if they are felled by their sins. Check Beyond the Forest, Cabin in the Cotton, The Letter, Marked Woman, Mr. Skeffington, Of Human Bondage or Old Acquaintance.


Hooker with a Heart of Gold -- Basically the Tramp's Progress crossed with Cinderalla plus Not Enough Time. Or the characters resort to the oldest profession out of necessity, destitute and having given up on love, as seen in Anna Christie, Pretty Woman, Rain, Red Dust, Street Angel or Waterloo Bridge.


Combo Pack -- Ensemble casts allow for the examination of various aspects of love through the lense of the woman's picture, as witnessed in King’s Row; Love, Actually; Peyton Place; Three on a Match or Waiting to Exhale.

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Women of the Western

Posted by Eric Brightwell, March 16, 2009 06:48pm | Post a Comment
 

Ever since the dawn of film theory, film critics have loved the Western; probably because its engagement with formula and its psychological subtext are so obvious, so close to the surface, that theorizing about westerns is a bit like kicking gravel and striking oil. The genre bears a similarity to tales of knights errant, who similarly were bound by codes of honor and used strength and wit to defeat malevolence, &c &c &c... Part of what makes the Western attractive for film theorists is the way it shifts and evolves too -- spiraling off subgenres like Curry Westerns, Northerns, Oesterns, Red Westerns ands Spaghetti Westerns -- and engages other genres like samurai films and noir. But whereas a little bit of research turns up several scholarly works addressing women's place in the Western, I haven't been able to find any that focus on female-centric Westerns, nor been able to uncover a clever or cutesy name for the subgenre. When I started this blog, I thought I'd come up with a tiny handful, but was quickly surprised at how many Westerns feature females in roles of central importance.

   
Real women of the west. washing clothes (left), famous madame Chicago Joe (center), bandit Belle Starr (right)

The Wild West was, to be sure, a male-dominated place. Of course, there were women too who, just like their male counterparts, were probably more likely to run a ranch or work in town than to find work as gunslingers, bandits and bounty hunters... although there were those too. The National Cowgirl Museum Hall of Fame has, since its founding, sought to better document the contributions of women in the west. Although women in Westerns generally seem to symbolize civilization/the east, making cowboys uneasy with their use of risque talk and their attempts to transport urban conventions to an untamed land, in real life, that role would've been impractical and probably abandoned pretty quickly. When there's work to be done, propriety and traditional societal constructions would just get in the way. In fact, in Wyoming, for example, women gained the right to vote in 1869, over 40 years before the ratification of the nineteenth amendment. The photographs of Evelyn Cameron depict no-nonsense women who have little in common with the dippy, ditzy cowgirls of Gil Elvgren's art or Hollywood cowgirls. Of course, I'm not suggesting that Hollywood is in the business of portraying reality, but it's interesting to look at the decisions they make when constructing mythology.

Cowgirl pin-up art

For one, as I mentioned earlier, though set in the west, many of these films aren't primarily thought of as Westerns, but rather Western-spoofs or just musicals set in the west. But taken as part of the Western tradition and accepting that hybridization is par for the course, someone could probably make some interesting points. As with more commonly accepted Westerns, these women occupy many of the same roles: homesteaders, romantic prizes, saloon girls and prostitutes. But, as with their male counterparts, highly fictionalized accounts of lead slingers are popular (e.g. Buckeye Annie Oakley and Missourians Belle Starr and Calamity Jane). And, although prostitutes appear in many of these films, usually they're sanitized to great degree and I couldn't find any films that focus, even in fictionalized accounts, on real life famous madams and prostitutes of the west such as Squirrel Toothed Alice, Dora Dufran, Eleanora "Madam Mustache" Dumont or "Chicago Joe" Hensley... unless you count Calamity Jane and Belle Starr's daughter, who did engage in prostitution, although I don't think that's ever acknowledged in any films about them.

The 1930s

 

I couldn't find any silent Westerns centered on women, unless you count The Perils of Pauline, which famously served primarily to place the heroine in harm's way with Natives, Pirates and other dastards, to invariably be saved in the nick of time by a gentleman. Annie Oakley (1935), as far as I know, has never received any recognition for being the first Western to star a woman. In fact, it doesn't seem to be a widely discussed or seen film, although Barbara Stanwyck makes anything worth a go.

The 1940s


    

In the 1940s, Lady Westerns became a lot more common, with most of their stock roles represented, including hard-working pioneers, [Arizona (1940)], gunslingers [Belle Starr (1941)], Pistol Packin' Mama (1943), Belle Starr's Daughter (1947), Montana Belle (1948), Calamity Jane and Sam Bass (1949)), saloon girls [Belle of the Yukon (1944)] and mail order brides, [The Harvey Girls (1946)].

The 1950s
 
 


    




As the so-called Golen Age of the Western came to a close, several of the most enjoyable female-centered Westerns appeared. Musicals, at the same time, were in the middle of their so-called Golden Age (often having been said to have begun on stage with the Western-Musical hybrid, Oklahoma!), so perhaps the amount of crossover shouldn't be surprising, including Annie Get Your Gun (1950), Calamity Jane (1953), Seven Brides For Seven Brothers (1954), Red Garters (1954) and Oklahoma! (1955). But several of the most bizarre/enjoyable Westerns were also made in this period, including the underappreciated Rancho Notorious (1952) of Fritz Lang, Nicholas Ray's classic Johnny Guitar (1954), Roger Corman's Gunslinger (1956) and Samuel Fuller's Forty Guns (1957). There was also Reginald Le Borg's fair to middling film, The Dalton Girls (1957), which is almost only interesting because it concerns a gang of cowgirls.

The 1960s

        
       
Westerns, on the whole, declined in popularity in the 1960s. Those that were made, by and large, often used the form to challenge conventions and reflected a more complicated morality, with the evil, bestial Natives' role reconsidered and the efficacy and appropriateness of violence called into question. However, the Lady Western seems to have carried on pretty much the same, with silly and sexy women dominating Heller in Pink Tights (1960), McClintock! (1963), Cat Ballou (1965) and 100 Rifles (1969) -- although the latter looks a little more serious in tone. But the drop-off in numbers matches the wider decline of the genre.
  
The 1970s

     
      

In the 1970s, the cynical, pessimistic, revisionist Western really came into being. The light and fluffy-looking Cheyenne Social Club (1970) and The Duchess and the Dirtwater Fox (1976) look distinctly antiquated next to McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971) and The Awakening Land (1978) -- the latter an epic tale of frontier life that's technically a Midwestern.

The 1980s

    
The movie poster (left) and the real life Kansan bandits (right)

Cattle Annie & Little Britches (1981) seems to be the only example of the genre made in the '80s. It was a fallow period for Westerns on the whole and Cattle Annie & Little Britches has hardly been seen by anyone. Pulled from theaters after a week and never released on DVD or VHS, it nonetheless has a fervant cult following.

The 1990s





The '90s saw a real resurgence of the genre and when people think of Westerns starring women, other than Johnny Guitar, the Young Guns-esque Bad Girls (1994) and Sam Raimi's cult film The Quick and the Dead (1995) are probably the first ones that come to mind. The Ballad of Little Jo (1993) is a sadly underviewed, well-told, sedate and realistic Western. Frankly, despite possible intentions, Buffalo Girls (1995), the Kelly LeBrock vehicle Hard Bounty (1995) and The Wicked Wicked West (1998) look pretty suspect. On the other hand, The Rowdy Girls (1999), with a cast of playboy bunnies, and Petticoat Planet (1996), directed by the homoerotic eye-candy auteur David DeCoteau, probably harbor no pretensions.

The 2000s

      

Gang of Roses (2003), I assume, is a sci-fi western. How else to explain the silicon cyborg Lil Kim's appearance? The cast look more like Coyote Ugly waitresses than believable cowgirls, with hideously misguided wardrobes. An online description of Bandidas (2006) described it as one of but a handful of female-centered Westerns, and noteworthy for injecting humor into the genre. When one considers the three dozen examples in this blog, with more than half making attempts at humor, the description of Bandidas doesn't seem so much a function of dishonesty or braggadocio; rather, it just reflects the understandably widespread ignorance of the subgenre.

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Women's history documentaries

Posted by Eric Brightwell, March 14, 2009 10:19am | Post a Comment









              






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