Acclaimed sharpshooter Annie Oakley became one of the very first celebrities to be captured on motion picture film in the Edison film company’s Black Maria film studio. What it lacks in plot, it makes up for in historical interest.
Home Media Availability: Stream for free courtesy of the Library of Congress.
This is my contribution to the American Experience in Film Blogathon hosted by Moon in Gemini. Read all about it here.
Print the legend
There are few things in the world more fragile than celebrity; today’s A-lister is tomorrow’s obscure trivia question. However, there are always a few notable exceptions. Annie Oakley was a superstar in Gilded Age America and her name is still recognized today, synonymous with showy sharpshooting.
We’ll be touching a bit on Oakley’s life but, as was the case with many celebrities of the era, her biography is hopelessly tangled with tall tales and publicity copy. There are some things we simply cannot confirm one way or the other. Also, Oakley was born Phoebe Ann Mosey but I will be using her more famous stage name throughout.
Born in Ohio, Oakley’s skill with the rifle was discovered when she was still a teen. The story of when and where it occurred shifts depending on who is doing the telling but everyone generally agrees that young Annie challenged Irish immigrant sharpshooter Frank Butler to a match and defeated him. Butler accepted defeat gracefully and the pair began to court and subsequently married.
Oakley’s legend really took flight when she joined Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. Buffalo Bill Cody’s reenactment of the “real” west was wildly popular with everyday Americans and the crowned heads of Europe alike. Romanticized and fawning toward both the military and the expansionist agenda, it helped mold the view of the American west in Hollywood motion pictures and its influence is still being felt today.
Oakley was the show’s biggest star and her repertoire included classics like shooting moving targets, as well as more showy tricks like shooting the ash off cigars being smoked by volunteers. (Kaiser Wilhelm II was one of her assistants at his request.) She was a complicated figure who advocated training women to shoot and forming all-female sniper companies within the U.S. military but was not so sure that women should get the vote.
Buffalo Bill’s show and Annie Oakley’s celebrity were going concerns when Thomas Edison’s motion picture company set up shop. Edison planned to launch a line of peepshow motion picture machines called Kinetoscopes but the early experiments of filmed sneezes and amateur dances would not be enough to draw repeat paying customers.
The cramped Black Maria studio, named after a slang term for a police wagon, was constructed in 1893 and 75 motion pictures were shot in 1894. Each lasted just a few seconds, enough for curious customers to get their coin’s worth. “Western” material was obviously in demand, Sioux dancers performed the Ghost Dance and the Buffalo Dance in the Black Maria.
Oakley was likely engaged for the pictures through Edison’s friendship with Bill Cody and her quick shooting routine was an ideal showcase for the “motion” portion of motion pictures. Would the smoke from her rifle register on film? It did and Oakley begins her show by shooting stationary targets. A male assistant (possibly husband Frank Butler) hands her a fresh rifle and tosses targets in the air as she shoots. It seems that Oakley does miss but this is likely due to the cramped area of the tiny studio. Rifles are for distance.
These brief Edison actualities faded from public memory as quickly as the celebrity of many of their early participants. (Annabelle’s Serpentine Dance was one of the few to remain in popular memory.) When they are shown these days, it’s generally as clips cut into documentaries. However, these early motion pictures have a forthrightness and honesty that makes them fascinating viewing over 125 years after they were shot.
Even if Oakley’s film debut did not remain in the public consciousness, her popularity continued and less than a decade after her death in 1926, Hollywood had a major biopic in the works. But that is another story…
Where can I see it?
Annie Oakley is available for free online viewing courtesy of the Library of Congress. It is also included in the Edison: The Invention of the Movies box set from Kino.
Silents vs Talkies
Annie Oakley (1894) vs Annie Oakley (1935) vs Annie Get Your Gun (1950)
And now, we are going to examine Annie Oakley’s posthumous cinematic legacy and how it was eventually hijacked by the post-WWII cult of domesticity. A wild ride is ahead of us!
The 1935 film Annie Oakley was sound era Hollywood’s first shot (ha ha) at the Little Sure Shot legend and it had a cast to envy. Barbara Stanwyck took the title role, Preston Foster and Melvyn Douglas were her leading men and Cheyenne actor Chief Thunderbird played Sitting Bull with George Stevens at the helm as director.
The film is everything you could expect from a mid-1930s, post-Code Hollywood production: a slick product that goes down smoothly. Stanwyck is both cute and capable as Annie but I have to say that I would have liked more Melvyn Douglas, who plays Buffalo Bill’s business manager. However, Annie’s heart is immediately captured by the Frank Butler character, renamed Toby Walker (Foster).
In this film, Annie’s abilities are praised by her friends, family and neighbors in her small Ohio town and she supports her family in genteel poverty by shooting game birds to sell. When Toby arrives with his shooting act, Annie is accidentally put forward as his opponent when someone mishears “Annie” as “Andy.”
Annie declared Toby “just too pretty” to defeat and throws the match but Jeff Hogarth (Douglas) knows what she did and signs her up with Buffalo Bill along with Toby, even though the latter is dismissed as a New York showboat. After a few clashes, Toby helps Annie out by showing her how to jazz up her mechanical stage presence. The pair begin courting but agree to keep their romance a secret because their rivalry is selling tickets like mad.
Toby’s eyes are injured in an accident and he accidentally grazes Annie’s hand during a performance. Knowing their animosity, the Buffalo Bill troupe assumes that he shot her on purpose out of jealousy and they run him out of the show. (Spoiler.) After a period of separation, Annie goes looking for him, finds him working at a cheap shooting gallery and the pair embrace.
Annie throws her match with Toby due to a girlish crush but soon has no qualms about besting him and he is the one who must give up his pride and ambition to win her.Toby’s arc from the living embodiment of one of those old Pace Picante commercials to a humble human being is a bit coarse but it is fun to see Foster and Stanwyck fake their animosity for publicity.
There are some flaws to the picture and, unfortunately, most of them are the direct result of lazy writing. It suffers from the historical film curse of “Look, ma! I’m old-timey!” You know, characters constantly dropping the names of period celebrities and marveling over newfangled inventions like the telephone. These gimmicks were old in 1935 and they play even more badly today. Fortunately, they fade a bit as the movie progresses.
Worse, the film is not exactly sensitive in the way it portrays its Sioux characters. At one point in the picture, Sitting Bull mistakes a reenactment of a shootout between Native Americans and settlers for the real thing and attempts to remove hair from one of the “dead” performers. During the climax, he accidentally runs into a man on the street, whose toupee falls off. Sitting Bull tries to help him up with his free hand while holding his tomahawk in the other and onlookers believe they are watching a scalping.
(The film repeats the then-current myths that Sitting Bull attacked the innocent General Custer. I dig into the myths surrounding Custer, Sitting Bull and the Sioux in my review of the 1912 biopic Custer’s Last Fight but suffice to say, Custer was hardly an innocent martyr.)
Of course, this is nothing compared to Annie Get Your Gun, which features a character trying to barter Native American women in the Buffalo Bill troupe in exchange for the use of a lawn to put on the show. In the opening scene, yet. I knew I was in trouble at that point but I slogged on.
In general, Annie Get Your Gun ignored just about everything Annie Oakley ‘35 got right and looked to everything it got wrong and said “Anything you can do, I can do better.” Those Irving Berlin tunes are absolute classics and deserve their status as beloved Broadway staples. (Well, most of them.) The plot of Annie Get Your Gun… not so much.
Before we get more deeply involved, let me just mention that I will be looking at a very narrow aspect of this film. I won’t be going into the backstage drama (of which there was lots) or judging the quality of the musical numbers. I will assume they are fine and dandy by the standards of the time. My main concern is how the picture portrays the relationship of Annie Oakley and Frank Butler and whether or not she is allowed to excel as a sharpshooter.
Playing Annie was neither Ethel Merman, who created the role on the stage, nor Judy Garland, who was the cinematic first choice who was replaced after filming a few scenes. Betty Hutton won the role and the one fact everyone agrees on is that Hutton is very much a love-her-or-hate-her performer. I am afraid that I find her truly annoying in the best circumstances and her performance in Annie Get Your Gun was not helped by her ridiculous mugging that 1910s Mack Sennett would have considered overblown and corny. However, given her small but vocal fanbase, I suppose I will say that if you like this kind of thing, she’s the kind of thing you like.
In this story, Annie is still portrayed as a skilled hunter who plugs birds to earn cash but the genteel poverty of the 1935 film has been replaced by a slapstick Ma and Pa Kettle-type situation. (In real life, Oakley’s childhood was harsh and she was “bound out” for a period of servitude where she endured abuse.) She quickly clashes with Frank Butler (Howard Keel, looking strained) but the clash is more on his side because she is smitten. That doesn’t stop her from defeating him in a shooting match. Frank starts to warm to Annie and is about to pop the question when her spectacular new act causes him to quit the show in a jealous, insecure rage.
The performers spend the rest of the film in a will-they-won’t-they scenario that is finally resolved when (spoiler) Annie intentionally loses a shooting match against Frank at the urging of her friend, Sitting Bull (Irish American actor J. Carrol Naish). She assures Frank that he is the best shooter in the whole wide world and he accepts her love and, to quote author Dorothy Parker in a different context, I fwowed up.
Well, that was horrendously unpleasant and quite a letdown after the general enjoyability of Annie Oakley ’35. Obviously, not relishing the performance of the star is going to be a dealbreaker in most cases but this film touched many a nerve for me and none of them had anything to do with Betty Hutton.
There are many times when Irving Berlin’s lyrics and the screenplay reflect a condescending, classist attitude toward rural Americans that, if used in a work of fiction to portray the works of snobby New York writers, would be accused of being too on-the-nose and exaggerated. The unacceptable racism inherent to any Buffalo Bill picture of this period is likewise cranked to eleven and culminates in the infamous I’m an Indian Too number.
(Wikipedia currently states that Native American protestors picketed Annie Get Your Gun but, alas, this seems to be an accidental mixing of another civil rights protest unrelated to the film with a promo for the picture later in the same broadcast. If you have any primary sources covering a protest against Annie Get Your Gun specifically, I would love to see them.)
For context, remember that Hollywood released multiple mainstream films during the silent era condemning racism against Native Americans. The badly-titled 1929 Paramount film Redskin portrays the struggles of a young Navajo attending college after experiencing abuse at one of the infamous Indian boarding schools. A sorority girl decides to flirt with him by performing a “war dance” while whooping. Her behavior is framed as being profoundly racist, ignorant, and insulting. Braveheart (1925) was released by Cecil B. DeMille’s production company and tells the story of a Yakama athlete who is forced off the school football team for not being white. The title cards are explicit in portraying the racism of the villains.
That is not to say silent era Hollywood was some kind of bastion of equality or that it never indulged in racist cliches. The leads in both films mentioned above were played by white actors. Rather than suggesting a golden age of tolerance, the existence of some films condemning racism shows that Hollywood knew better and could have been better but chose not to be. It certainly chose not to be with Annie Get Your Gun.
What about that famous shooting match between Frank Butler and Annie Oakley? Annie Get Your Gun exactly reverses the character arc of Annie Oakley (1935). In the ’35 picture, Annie lets her crush on Toby overpower her and she throws the match but later finds her confidence and he accepts her as a collaborator and equal. In Annie Get Your Gun, Annie keeps her head initially and defeats Frank but since he is a fragile baby who cannot stand a woman outdoing him, she decides to humor him in the end. But the implication is that she will have to spend the rest of her life holding back some of her talent so as not to upset the petulant child she has married. Can you imagine how stressful that would be? Real happy ending there, guys.
This hits a very particular, very personal nerve for me. Even today, women are frequently advised to hide their competence so as not to intimidate a potential partner but the idea of being trapped forever in a charade of mediocrity is, frankly, horrifying. (Check out this article from 2004 advising women to make men feel secure in their manliness by affecting being unable to open pickle jars. Most women my age have received the real-life version of this advice as well.)
However, the context of Annie Get Your Gun adds another dismaying layer to the ending. During the Second World War, women entered the traditionally male workforce in droves. (“Women’s work” jobs in the service industry and other low-paying occupations outside the home had always existed, as well has in-home work like babysitting and taking in laundry.) The majority of these new working women expressed a desire to stay employed after the war but the need to find jobs for returning soldiers and the desire to enforce gender roles meant the women had to be shooed back home through both direct and indirect pressure.
Movies of the time reflected that message. Annie Get Your Gun at least allows its heroine to keep her job, even if she is in a decidedly subordinate position. At least she didn’t have to sell Tupperware in her parlor.
Now, I am by no means suggesting that playwrights Dorothy and Herbert Fields or screenwriter Sidney Sheldon were part of some kind of conspiracy. More that the storyline of Annie Get Your Gun reflects the general sentiment that was in the air at the time and was exacerbated by the boys returning home from the Second World War.
At this point, it’s important that I make it clear that mid-century “Back to the kitchen!” nonsense was not the standard message during the silent era. Annie Get Your Gun and the 1948 Bob Hope-Jane Russell vehicle The Paleface both featured a skilled woman hiding her talents and propping up a man who would not have a chance against her in a fair shooting match. Interestingly enough, this trope was directly addressed in a 1912 Vitagraph film entitled The Craven.
While the disparity in skills between lovers is played for laughs in Annie Get Your Gun and The Paleface, The Craven is deadly serious. A capable woman marries a braggart, who is engaged as sheriff on the strength of his boasts. However, when a bandit needs capturing, he cowers and his wife is forced to ride out, shoot the baddies, return home and tell her husband to take the credit. The film ends with the husband being praised and the wife staring out the window with a look of despair, likely realizing she will have to prop him up for the rest of his life.
That’s some heavy stuff that deconstructs a film trope that was not yet a trope. At no point is this act portrayed as a romantic gesture. Rather, a woman is forced to protect her family’s honor when her husband proves to be incapable and she understands that either dishonor or constant vigilance will be her lot.
To bring this back to Annie Oakley ’35 vs. Annie Get Your Gun, it’s obvious which relationship is the more relatable, Having the female lead offer support to a depressed lover as was the case in the 1935 film is considerably healthier than having her hide her light away forever because a fragile man can’t handle the competition. It doesn’t even make any sense because if Frank Butler was then hailed as the greatest shooter in the world, why isn’t the musical called Frank Get Your Gun and why is Oakley the one who is still synonymous with sharpshooting. I realize it’s asking a lot to demand accuracy in a goofy musical-comedy but when your very concept is undermined by the film’s title…
Annie Oakley was seen on the silver screen and on television after Annie Get Your Gun. She was portrayed by Geraldine Chaplin in Robert Altman’s meandering Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bull’s History Lesson (1976), a revisionist deconstruction of wild west shows and the American myth. I quite enjoyed it. Oakley also received her own weekly series in the 1950s and was portrayed by country music star Reba McEntire in the 1996 miniseries Buffalo Girls based on the Larry McMurtry novel. However, it is the musical that remains the definitive story of Oakley’s life in American pop culture. Print the legend? Heck, sing it.
The Winner is…
In the end, the ghostly image of Annie Oakley shooting away in the Black Maria is by far the most honest of the three cinematic Annie’s examined here. The 1935 Annie Oakley has some problems but is generally a solid studio era biopic with likable stars and I both enjoyed it and recommend it with caveats. Annie Get Your Gun made me long for Ethel Merman, second-wave feminism and some way to reach across the astral plain to smack Sidney Sheldon and Irving Berlin upside the head.
So, take a minute of your time and see some of the reasons why we are still talking about Annie Oakley 127 years after she set foot in that New Jersey film studio.
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