Alice Guy-Blaché with a tale of two little girls tracking down the man who attacked their father, the local postmaster, and framed their friend for the crime. This film rewrites our perception of who could be a western hero during the silent era.
Home Media Availability: Stream for free courtesy of EYE.
They ain’t no Shirley Temple…
If you have watched any Golden Age talkies, particularly Shirley Temple vehicles, you know the drill: there’s a conflict that threatens to erupt into violence with neither side willing to budge an inch. And then, into the conflict wanders a sweet little girl with just enough spunk to confront the grownups and scold them for their stubbornness. Both sides are taken back by her innocent courage and she saves the day without firing a shot.
And if you’re expecting that outcome in this 1912 western, think again. Two Little Rangers has a lot more in common with True Grit than Wee Willie Winkie.
Vinnie Burns and Gladys Egan play May and Gladys, spirited residents of a small western town. They live with their doting father, the local postmaster, and are good friends of a friendly cowpoke named Jim. Meanwhile, a local renegade named Wild Bill Gray seems entirely too interested in the gold shipment that will be carried by the postmaster. Bill is a louse on many levels and treats his wife terribly. Jim overhears a beating and saves her, taking her to live with the postmaster’s family. In the struggle, he drops his knife and Bill retrieves it.
Later on, when the postmaster is attacked with Jim’s knife and the gold is stolen, it looks like an open and shut case, especially since Wild Bill swears that Jim is the culprit. This doesn’t sit right with May and Gladys and they decide that since justice is failing Jim, they will take the law into their own hands…
The finale of the film is a prolonged chase between the girls and Bill. They lead a posse after him but May and Gladys soon outpace their helpers and corner Bill in his hideout by themselves. Unable to shoot him out, they turn to flaming arrows and burn the cabin around him.
The official synopsis ends there, claiming that Bill is trapped in the burning cabin and dies there. The surviving footage, however, shows that Bill escapes the cabin, only to be confronted by little Gladys, who forces him over a cliff. Bill’s dying confession clears Jim and the day is saved.
Alice Guy-Blaché was one of the first film directors, period, and her most famous production is probably Falling Leaves, a lovely and lyrical O. Henry-infused tale of a child innocently trying to save her sister’s life by holding back the autumn. Two Little Rangers demonstrates that Guy was nothing if not versatile. The director of Falling Leaves making a western with child leads whose attitude is basically, “Yeah, I’ll touch your heart… with bullets from my revolver!” is both unexpected and delightful.
Two Little Rangers was relatively obscure with most coverage focusing on either the film’s technical merit (it is comparatively stiff) or the offkey French perspective of an American genre. (Which isn’t entirely accurate as Jean Durand was making dark, bloody, nasty westerns in the Camargue region of France. They have aged remarkably well and are as good as any American western from the period. It’s never a good idea to doubt a French western.) Recently, however, Two Little Rangers has been enjoying a small revival, thanks to coverage of its feminist perspective and the unusual handling of its young leads.
Marketing for the film emphasized the courage of the young protagonists and the villain’s loathsome status as a wife-beater was included in the first sentence of the official synopsis. The trade magazine ad copy crows that the heroines succeed in their quest by “setting fire to the desperado’s shack and burning him alive. Sensational and thrilling.”
Gunwomen were by no means a rarity in the silent western. In my coverage of the Texas Guinan vehicle The Gun Woman, I discuss the sincere 1910s Hollywood quest for the “Female Bill Hart.” However, the youth of May and Glady (fourteen and ten, respectively, as far as we can believe movie star dates of birth) makes them stand out amongst the other pistol-wielding women of their time.
While there were more action roles for women in the silent era than in the classic talkie era (and, arguably, more than there are even today), the default position for young girls tended to be either adorable innocent or bratty scamp. From the surviving westerns I have viewed from the era, Two Little Rangers is very much the exception and a welcome one. Maybe there’s something to be said for the French perspective on western filmmaking after all.
The way the action scenes are handled is of particular interest. May single-handedly pulls her father up from a sheer cliff using a rope and barely breaks a sweat. May and Gladys ride together at the head of the posse and when Bill takes a more difficult route, the men of the posse go around but the girls continue their pursuit. No fainting, no turning back, no giving out. During the final showdown, May faces Bill with her pistol. He got too close and disarmed her earlier in the film but she has learned her lesson and he knows she’s serious.
Nothing about these scenes would be particularly remarkable if May and Gladys had been Mark and George but portraying girls as bold, brave and untiring in the face of a life or death situation is something that is reasonably rare even today. The girls are also portrayed as always having been tough, there isn’t a dramatic moment where they cut off their pigtails and strap on their six-shooters; they were wearing them from the very first scenes.
Obviously, several moments of action do stretch credulity (the petite May hauling her father up that cliff) but I doubt these moments would have seemed as unbelievable had the leads been young boys. In any case, this was designed as a fairly lightweight picture and a bit of exaggerated action is perfectly acceptable here. As for the lack of technical fireworks, well, I have long felt that coverage of pre-feature cinema often gets bogged down in the mechanics and ignores the heart. I like where Alice Guy’s heart was when she made this picture.
Two Little Rangers is a remarkable film in many ways and adds a new layer to the story of women in action films. I am delighted that it has started to gain more traction as it is truly a revelation and deserves all the attention it is receiving.
Where can I see it?
Stream it for free courtesy of EYE. The intertitles are in Dutch but there are not many and the story is easy to follow.
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