Nightclub queen Texas Guinan made a series of westerns in the 1910s and 1920s. We’re going to be looking at her adventures in ranching as she tries to save her kid sister, Waco, from bandits. (Waco?) Much action and shooty-bang stuff.
Who are you calling a girl? I’m thirty-six!
Westerns are often viewed as the manliest of films but the silent era had its share of women taking on heroic roles in the genre.
Texas Guinan is famous as the queen of New York nightclubs, her spicy wit and mob connections assured her longstanding fame years after her 1933 death. However, before charming the guys and dolls of New York, she had a successful career in horse operas.
(One does get a bit sick of the “Oh, like Guinan in Star Trek?” gags. Whoopi Goldberg’s character was named after Texas Guinan so the question is really, “Oh, Guinan as in Texas Guinan?”)
Relatively few of Guinan’s films survive and many of those that do are only available in cut-down re-release versions. The Girl of the Rancho is interesting because two versions are available: a censored two-reel cut and a comparatively uncensored one-reel cut. I will be discussing the differences between these two versions in a bit.
The big question is whether these films stand up to their hype and whether Guinan, billed as a female William S. Hart, works as a gunslinger, cattle-roper and general buckaroo. Let’s dive in!
(Quick note: Some sources list this film with a 1920 release date while others list 1919.)
Texas Carroll (Texas Guinan) has taken charge of her late parents’ ranch, is courting one of her cowhands (Pat Harrigan) and takes excellent care of her kid sister, Waco. Guinan hailed from Waco, so the name is likely a nod to her origins. (Good thing she wasn’t born in Ding Dong, Texas.)
The first major difference between the one- and two-reel versions is the romance between Texas and Harrigan. While the two-reel cut shows them billing and cooing and he even pops the question via notebook, the one-reel version skips all that.
Life seems swell for Texas but that is about to change. A villainous villain of a bandit named Galvez is determined to kidnap little Waco. His motives are obscure in the two-reel version but the one-reel cut reveals that he is in love with Texas. Her answer?
Oh dear. Maybe we were better off with obscure.
So Galvez waits until almost everyone is away and then gathers his men and attacks the ranch in an attempt to kidnap Waco. Texas tries to hold them off but is overpowered. In the one-reel version, Galvez burns her in the face with a cigarette in an attempt to make her tell where Waco is hidden. The two-reel version eliminates that scene and just shows Waco being carried off. (Both cuts include shots of the housekeeper being tortured by Galvez but that’s apparently okay as the victim is Latina.)
This sits as well as you can expect from a female William S. Hart and Texas rides after Galvez and co. to recover Waco. Her cattle punchers notice the action and join in the fray. It’s not giving too much away to state that all ends well. The two-reel version fades out on the rescue while the one-reel version allows Texas and her fella to commence to billing and cooing once again.
So, does Guinan live up to the hype? Marketing of the day declared that she was as tough as the boys but had all the charm of a lady. Well, that’s mostly true. While she was hardly a delicate flower (and would we really want that?) Texas does indeed scrap with the boys and rather successfully. And in stark contrast to those allegedly empowered heroines of the 1990s, she doesn’t forget her skills and turn into a screaming damsel once the villain grabs her ever-so-lightly by the elbow. (That used to drive me nuts! “Here’s your girl power heroine but the hero still needs someone to save and she is just a girl, so…”)
While the plot is lighter than most Hart fare, the story does contain dark elements that were surely in the spirit of his films. There aren’t many heroines, silent or sound, who get burned by cigarettes and then set out on their own path of revenge. I should note that Guinan’s being endangered does not make her a damsel. After all, James Bond is constantly captured by the villains. Are Guinan and Bond Damsels? No. The difference is that their capture is all about them and their cunning attempts at escape, they are not used as a plot device to prove another character’s heroism. Agency—whose actions are moving the plot—makes all the difference.
So, all in all, I am giving Guinan an emphatic thumbs up for her take-no-prisoners attitude and the fact that she maintains her character’s agency right to the very end of the picture.
(No, I haven’t seen the biopic of Guinan starring Betty Hutton. Considering the number Hutton did on Pearl White and my general dislike for her as a performer, I think that’s for the best.)
While the short starts out a little on the slow side (at least the two-reel version), we soon get a taste of action and Guinan spends the film riding, running, shooting and jumping with the boys. At no point is she treated like a damsel and if she gets herself into any scrapes, she also gets herself right back out of them.
That’s not to say this film is perfect. It has the all-too-common issue of making all the Latino characters either servants or bandits. (The first person to squeal about “conteeeeeeext” gets candy corn thrown at their head.) In another misstep, the actress playing little Waco is so painfully bad that it’s difficult to sympathize with her plight. I mean, she looks like a kid whose daddy won’t buy her a slurpee at the mall.
Finally, while Guinan is very good at gunslinging and cowboy action, she seems awkward and uncomfortable in the love scenes. However, the same could be said of many male western actors of all eras so I can’t say that I hold it against her.
The Girl of the Rancho is not a silent western masterpiece but it is entertaining and Guinan is a strong heroine. While there are some unfortunate attitudes expressed in the film, both overt and subterranean, it is still a good introduction to Guinan’s talents as a female action star.
Movies Silently’s Score: ★★
Where can I see it?
Both the one-reel and two-reel versions of The Girl of the Rancho have been released on DVD by Guinan’s family. It is available as part of a set with other surviving films from her career. I recommend watching the one-reel version first as it is the more comprehensible.