Before she made her reputation as the queen of Prohibition era nightclubs, Texas Guinan was a western film star billed as “the Female Bill Hart.” This time, she play the Tigress, a tough boomtown saloon owner with a heart of gold.
Home Media Availability: Released on DVD.
Never jilt a lady who can shoot
Texas Guinan is mostly remembered these days as the namesake of Whoopi Goldberg’s Star Trek character but a full life she had! Being a Vaudeville star, a silent film star and a Prohibition night club queen is an awful lot for anyone.
One thing that has always interested me about Guinan is her film moniker, she was advertised as “the Female Bill Hart.” William S. Hart’s grim and gritty fire and brimstone westerns were at the height of their popularity at the time and he was the top cowboy draw. Was this just advertising copy designed to associate the star with an established name?
Well, I found my answer in The Gun Woman.
Guinan plays the Tigress, the tough and somewhat unethical owner of a saloon in a gold rush boomtown. The area is being menaced by a bandit called the Collector, who holds up stagecoaches and robs the passengers.
There are two men in town vying for the love of the Tigress: the Bostonian (Ed Brady) and the Gent (Francis McDonald). The Tigress prefers the cool card sharp charm of the Gent to the city slicker greenhorn and a romance blossoms. Meanwhile, the Bostonian proves his mettle despite his East Coast manners and is named deputy. (By the way, Variety complained about the anachronism of using paper money in a gold rush setting. Amateur fact checkers were always on the job.)
The Gent proposes to the Tigress and tells her that he just wants to buy a little house for two in a quiet corner of the country but, alas, he has no money. The Tigress immediately decides to back his stake but the Gent is not entirely to be trusted. (As proven by the “credulity of love” title card.)
Will the law ever discover the identity of the Collector? Will the Gent betray the Tigress or will he prove true? And if he does betray her, what will the Tigress do? See The Gun Woman to find out!
Okay, so the thing about The Gun Woman is that the last few minutes are what make it the most interesting. I will be discussing the ending in detail, so if you want to be surprised, this is your chance to escape unspoiled.
(Though, I should point out that the suggested advertising slogan for the picture was “never jilt a lady who can shoot.” They were much less paranoid of spoilers back in 1918.)
The Gent betrayed the Tigress. He took the money and used it to set up a saloon at the newest boomtown. And then he has the audacity to return to the Tigress and offer her a job overseeing the dancers at his new place. She refuses and threatens to kill him but he smugly says that she won’t because she loves him. She doesn’t shoot him but gives him a month to pay up. The Bostonian realizes that the ring the Gent used to propose was the one the Collector stole from him. The Gent and the Collector are one and the same. Not a huge plot twist but then…
The month comes and goes and the money has not been repaid. The Tigress rides to the Gent’s saloon and goes full Hell’s Hinges on the place. She shoots down lamps to set it on fire and then fills the Gent with lead, killing him.
I’ve… I’ve never seen that done by a woman in a western of this era. I’ve seen bad girls. Louise Glaum had William S. Hart shot by proxy (Margaret Thompson pulled the trigger in hot-blooded revenge) in Keno Bates, Liar. Lillian Gish shot Montagu Love in self-defense in The Wind and then went mad (or was she already?) and she wasn’t the only silent western protagonist to go that route. And official and unofficially deputized women and girls had their share of gunfights. But an ice-cold Bill Hart-style revenge shoot ‘em up? And only marginally on the side of law and order? I am verklempt. I need time to recover.
Reviews of the film were positive. Photoplay felt that Guinan was a “round-faced” and “cheerful” Tigress but Variety praised her realistic hard stares. The response to the picture seemed to be enthusiastic and it was cited as the Texas Guinan picture in subsequent coverage of her career. Director Frank Borzage was also singled out for praise.
The Variety review also opens up a few questions. The version I saw ends with Guinan refusing the love of the Bostonian and riding away with her loneliness a la Bill Hart. However, Variety’s synopsis states that the Tigress ends up with the Bostonian. I am not sure if there was an alternate cut of the film or if the reviewer missed the title card.
It’s possible that the ending was changed after Variety reviewed the picture. A similar thing happened to Judith of Bethulia. In the original apocrypha, she beheads her Assyrian enemy and then returns to Bethulia to rejoice with song. However, that was later seen as unseemly for a woman and so Judith underwent a nineteenth century ret-con, falling into depression because of her crime. This ending was retained for the 1914 film. (For comparison, King David was permitted to slay as many enemy giants as he pleased and rejoicing with song in cinema.)
Oh, and what about the Female Bill Hart advertising copy? The phrase seems to have first become associated with Guinan in a 1918 Photoplay article describing her as such and bemoaning the fact that the Female Bill Hart thing did not become a genre unto itself. (You and me both, Photoplay.) However, it was used earlier by Triangle to describe another one of their stars, Josie Sedgewick.
Beatriz Michelina received the moniker herself, courtesy of her own production company. Louise Glaum, who had faced down Hart in many a western picture, was also given the nickname in Wid’s Film Daily for her role in Golden-Rule Kate (1917), another Triangle picture. (An abridged print survives.) It sure seems as though gunslinging ladies were the thing at that studio.
However, The Gun Woman really proves that, for Guinan, this wasn’t just talk. (I haven’t seen the other pictures that claim the title yet but I am eager to do so!) She absolutely earns the title and maybe, just maybe, Hart should have started advertising himself as the Male Texas Guinan.
The Gun Woman looks great and it really delivers on its promise of a Female Bill Hart. It’s an excellent introduction to Guinan’s cinematic charms and a perfect example of the kind of action scenes that women got away with during the silent era. Definitely check this one out.
Where can I see it?
Released as part of the Texas Guinan Silent Westerns set by the Guinan Family Archives. If you wish to order it, buy through eBay because all net proceeds will support the nonprofit Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum. That’s a pretty sweet deal because you’re basically doubling your support of silent film preservation.
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