In this western short, a woman discovers after she is married that her braggard husband is actually a coward and she is forced to pick up the slack with her own formidable gunfighting skills when he talks himself into the job of sheriff. A serious take on what would become a comedy trope.
Home Media Availability: Stream for free courtesy of EYE.
The shakiest gun in the west
Mid-century comedies loved their twists on traditional gender roles and westerns were no exception. The results were sometimes charmingly anarchic—Glenn Ford spent much of Go West, Young Lady dodging the frying pans and bullets of Penny Singleton, who could both bake a mean angel food cake and shoot anything she aimed at—but often would fall into the formula we see in both The Paleface (1948) and The Shakiest Gun in the West (1968).
The formula: A comedically incompetent hero goes west and immediately gains the accidental reputation of a gunfighter. In fact, the real gunfighter is the film’s leading lady, a hot young thing with sharpshooting skills for days. Propped up by her talents, the hero finally comes through when it really matters.
I realize these are comedies but the message that a woman should bury her talents so as not to make the boys feel bad is a common theme in many films of the era. And, so, this brings up a few questions: What if he doesn’t rise to the occasion? What if he never rises to the occasion and remains satisfied with letting her handle everything? What if the woman is stuck with supporting the reputation of an incompetent coward forever?
Well, as it turns out, someone else thought of this as a story for a film and The Craven (1912, Vitagraph) is the result. (The surviving copy has Dutch titles and some of the character names are different. I am using the names from the AFI Catalog.)
Anne (Anne Schaefer) lives with her uncle (Charles Bennett) and is being courted by Tom Beckett (Fred Burns). Then the slick, smooth-talking Harvey Fiske (Robert Thornby) comes along and sweeps Anne off her feet with his tales of bravery. It is only once they are married that Anne realizes her husband was all talk. Her uncle had been incredulous and had warned her that she would have to be responsible for her husband but now it’s too late.
Despite all of this, Harvey talks his way into the job of sheriff. He soon receives the assignment to hunt down the killer Black Pete but is too afraid to ride out. Anne has had enough. She takes his gunbelt, the rifle and her horse and rides out after Black Pete herself.
Will Anne get her man? Will Harvey find his nerve? See The Craven to find out!
(Spoilers) The ending of the film is ambiguous. Anne shoots Black Pete down after a suspenseful gun battle. Harvey returns with the body of the fugitive and receives the approval of Anne’s uncle, as well as Tom. Harvey is not his usual loquacious self and seems a bit embarrassed by the attention. From her window, Anne looks on miserably and then the film ends. There might be a bit of missing footage at the end, there is no closing title, but this is pretty much how the finale is described when the film was first released.
We don’t see a resolution of the marital woes of the Fiskes and it is left up to the audience to interpret whether or not this incident was enough for Harvey to change his ways. Personally, I do not believe so. I think Anne’s haunted expression shows that she has seen the future and it’s not pleasant. It’s a lifetime of propping up a coward.
In short, this film is framed as the story of Anne. The later comedies featuring women gunslingers were very much centered around the man’s journey from cowardice to some degree of heroism (these were Bob Hope and Don Knotts, after all) with the heroine generally more amused than angry.
Anne, on the other hand, is furious. Her love for Harvey is based on his tales of derring-do and his deception hurts. Her horror when he receives the office of sheriff is nicely conveyed by Schaefer. In general, her performance as a woman who has had it up to here is quite excellent. Allowing her character to express frustration at doing all the work so a mediocre man can claim the credit results in a powerful picture that has aged remarkably well.
By the way, one interesting thing about this picture besides the ending is the fact that we have some idea of what it sounded like. During the 1910s, the trade magazine Moving Picture World would publish suggested musical accompaniment for new pictures and The Craven was one of the films included in this feature.
(A bespoke, standard score for a film was known but not expected and most theaters were on their own at this point, so I imagine this magazine feature was quite helpful. The same article wrote that the Kalem film company had taken to selling custom scores with its films and praised the music, stating that many accompanists reused it again and again due to its high quality.)
The accompaniment ideas came from a Mr. King, director of the Orpheum Theater’s orchestra and here they are in full:
1. and 2. Light intermezzos of the popular “Western” character (like “Sunbird,” “Starlight,” etc.). Fill in with these till: “Give Me Fifty Dollars or I’ll Kill You.”
3. Short agitato mezzo-forte till change of scene.
4. Same music as 1 and 2 till letter is shown on screen.
5. Semi-mysterious (agitated nature) till “Black Pete.”
6. Agitato for rifle duel (“shot” sound effects); play till she starts to enter the rushes.
7. Second movement in Suppe’s “Morning, Noon and Night” overture (the andantino) till end.
There are a few interesting things. First, the call for sound effects during the rifle duel. Next, the accompanist was expected to just kind of make something up in the style noted for many of the scenes. Finally, these selections try to weave a love theme of sorts for the Fiskes, only for the whole affair to end in sorrow.
The Craven is absolutely fascinating because it deals with a trope that would later be used for male-centered comedy and centers it on drama with a woman lead. The gunfight in the reeds is genuinely exciting and suspenseful, props to director Rollin S. Sturgeon, and the bold ending lands powerfully over a century after it was made. This has been one of my favorite recent discoveries and I heartily recommend it.
Where can I see it?
Stream for free courtesy of EYE. The titles are in Dutch but you can turn on English subs with the CC button.
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