"It is we witches who count. We have more need of you. Women have such vivid imaginations and lead such dull lives."
– Lolly Willowes, Sylvia Townsend Warner
Starting August 31, Anthology Film Archives will be taking on an uniquely specific slant on the recent push by many of New York’s repertory theaters to showcase more films by and about women. Their “Women of the West” series focuses on women’s roles in Westerns, both in front of and behind the camera, and how they’ve been able to subvert the typically hyper-masculine genre throughout the course of cinema history, providing a new and necessary perspective to interpretations of America and the frontier.
I was able to sit down with the programmer of the series, Hannah Greenberg, for a discussion about the films she chose and the historical politics of the genre.
Gina Telaroli (Rail): I'm going to read you a quote from Holly Fisher about her film Bullets for Breakfast, which is playing in the series. She said,
I don't think it's any more real as a Western than any other. It's a Western filtered through a post-feminist movement sensibility. It shows what I think is happening in my film, which is that history is relative to who is writing it and when. I'm curious what you think about the historical context of the films you programmed and how this may be relevant to today?
Greenberg: Well, even in the language, like writing the descriptions for these films, I was mindful of changing the language to refer to Native Americans instead of Indians and thinking through how some of these films can and will be received now. I think it's certainly interesting to see these postmodern Westerns and how they address really crucial issues that weren't necessarily as problematic in the Golden Age of Hollywood Westerns. The series spans most of film history and I think it’s really interesting to look at them as films of their time, because in the 30s, 40s, and 50s, these were really progressive feminist stories with all these other things wrapped up into that. It's fascinating looking back at these films and seeing how they had strong female characters and what the inclusion of, and particularly the foregrounding of, these female characters could say about their moment. I think it's also important to look at them from our perspective and how they reflect a particular time and the history of the Western.
Rail: I agree. I think Joan Crawford’s Vienna in Johnny Guitar is the character that really exemplifies this. Westerns for me are always, even today, about the inherent selfishness of our country and our culture; people who are looking out for themselves first and foremost and trying to get ahead, trying to get money. And it’s really interesting to see women in that role and in this genre. And you have, like I said, Vienna in Johnny Guitar, and she’s in her property and she's like, “This is my place. The railroad is coming through, I'm just going to sit back, I’m going to get the money.” And she's really planned it out and you can see how all the men are really uncomfortable with her in that role.
Greenberg: Yeah, because it's so ruthless. She's out for herself first and foremost and that's something that's only acceptable if a man is doing it; then it's kind of okay, but a woman can't think like that. [Laughs]
Rail: I think we see that in a few of the films, maybe in all of the Barbara Stanwyck films.
Rail: One really exciting thing about the series is that there is basically a mini Barbara Stanwyck sidebar with The Furies, Forty Guns, and Cattle Queen of Montana. Can you talk a little about those three films and the decision to put three Barbara Stanwyck films in?
Greenberg: I actually had only seen The Furies and Forty Guns, I didn't even know about Cattle Queen of Montana, so that was a really wonderful addition. I think there are other Stanwyck Westerns that weren't included that could have made a full-fledged mini-retrospective, but I think it's great that we can included so many of her films because she has such an important legacy in Hollywood in general. She made so many Westerns and was a very particular character throughout her career—this very tough, saucy, ruthless woman. And then she made these amazing Westerns and didn't give any of that up; she wasn't just going to play someone's wife.
Rail: She really has this interesting arc to her career, or maybe it's kind of like an anti-arc. In the early 30s and in all of those pre-Code movies—especially the ones she made with William Wellman, notably The Purchase Price and So Big!—she goes from being this sexy woman in the city to living a very Western-Americana existence, trying to raise her kids on a farm in the middle of nowhere. There was a kind of a freedom in those pre-Code movies that she then lost during the middle section of her career. And then in the 50s, this really interesting thing happened where a lot of people began making genre movies and casting older actors who were big names but were past their prime, so you'd have chintzy movies with these aging movie stars. Maybe the best example is Cattle Queen of Montana, which was directed by Allan Dwan and produced by Benedict Bogeaus. She's in another great film by Dwan, Escape to Burma. And there’s a freedom in that performance similar to the freedom she had in her pre-Code days. She’s able to take risks and be a different kind of a woman.
And speaking of Wellman, you programmed Westward the Women, which is a personal favorite of mine. I’ve always found it so fascinating how on the one hand it’s so progressive, literally showing you how capable women are when given a chance, but on the other hand, that progress is embedded in this plot structure where all of the women eventually have to get married. It creates this really interesting tension that I feel is so relevant today because I don't think society has changed that much. Women can work and choose what to do with their lives in a certain way but society is still built around the structure of the marriage partnership, especially where money is concerned.
Greenberg: Right. There is literally a prop that's a board of women's pictures. It's so fascinating because there is that bleak undertone that you forget when they're out doing everything for themselves, making this incredible journey, just to settle down and take care of a house and kids. And I think it's a really interesting film for that reason, but I think it also doesn't seem that far removed from the arcs of female characters in so many films today.
Rail: I agree. And there are a good amount of films that I haven't seen and which I'm really excited to see. Can you talk about them a little more? I'm really curious about The Ballad of Little Joe.
Greenberg: Truthfully, I don’t think this film has aged super well. I read this glowing New York Times review of the film right after it came out, after I had seen it. I see all the points the reviewer made, but it doesn't live up to what it was in the ’90s, because things have changed so much. This, plus its having been written and directed by a woman, are why I think it's really important to have it in there. But certainly the queer elements of the film are problematic today. There's a really prominent Asian character who is—also looking from today's point of view—deeply problematic and probably would have been in the ’90s also. It’s a great premise swallowed up by everything around it.
Rail: I'm looking forward to seeing Ballad of Little Joe in conjunction with Hellfire, which has Marie Windsor pretending to be a man for a good half of the movie. I love how you can look at a movie, like Hellfire, from 1949 and realize how much it has in common with a movie from 1993.
Greenberg: Absolutely. I think what is also so interesting is how important dress is for these characters—how loaded outfits can be. It's such a subtle thing. In particular, in Hellfire, she has her male attire through most of the film and then when she needs to she will put on a dress—and look incredible—or put on an apron and pretends to be very domestic. Those things are immediately telling.
Rail: I think it goes back to what we were saying in the beginning with this survivalist attitude of, “How do you get ahead? How do you get what you need?”
Rail: I think a movie a lot of people will be excited to see—because I know Wanda is going to be released soon at Metrograph—is called The Frontier Experience, directed by Barbara Loden. This was what she made immediately following Wanda, I believe, and it was made for an educational film distributor but it sounds really fascinating.
Greenberg: Yeah, I actually was able to see that at BAM. They paired it with Hester Street in their series a few months ago and it's one of those films where two really smart and driven women were like, “No one else is going to fund us. How do we get this film made?” And so they end up shopping it to television, from what I understand. It's a beautiful film and it's certainly a period piece. You see that they're wearing period costumes and it's a very sparse set and setting, but there is something about it that is so directly linked to the moment in which it was made. It feels like it could have been a story about the prairie life in that time also. It's really challenging and really lovely.
Rail: The older films obviously, for the most part, were all directed by men—you've got Anthony Mann, Nicholas Ray, Sam Fuller, William Wellman, and Frank Borzage. And then a lot of the later films, after the mid-’60s, were directed by women—you've got Maggie Greenwald, Lina Wertmüller, Holly Fisher, and Kelly Reichart. It's interesting that women would want to explore this genre.
Greenberg: Right. My friend, Kate Saccone, did an interview with Shelley Stamp about her series “Pioneers: First Women Filmmakers at BAM,” and she had such a good point, I think she vocalized what I had been thinking. I think people don't really realize that there are so many Westerns being made yearly, but Westerns keep coming out. In particular, Godless, the Netflix show, or even the short that I included, The Good Time Girls. There are new Westerns being made about women, and by women. Stamp's point with her series was that women feel like they need to reinvent the wheel when they're making films, or producing films, or writing films, or whatever it is. But there are so many films that have been made by women already tackling every genre imaginable and doing every job imaginable on the set. So I think it’s important to look back at these films and what women have achieved, and continue that legacy and reinvent what they're working on. In the Western in particular, it is so amazing to me that so many women have been making them, and continue to want to make them—there are a couple of things you need to do to make it a Western, and then other than that it's fair game for anything. You can put all of your ideas onto it and filter your ideas through it.
Rail: Yeah, there's a freedom to the genre. You have the formula and once the formula is in tact everything else can be interesting—it can be decided, it can be you on the screen.
Rail: Is there anything else you want to bring up about the series?
Greenberg: Actually, I want to talk about the Texas Guinan shorts. Maybe this is part of the launching point also. I am so obsessed with this woman. I've only seen one of her films.
Rail: Can you explain who she is a little bit?
Greenberg: Maybe she's most well known in New York City because she was this legendary nightclub owner and hostess in Greenwich Village during prohibition. I think one of the most telling things about her was that she and Mae West were best friends. That's who this woman was. She was a totally wild, Jazz Age lady. But there were several other sides to her. She was a very shrewd businesswoman and never drank. She owned several nightclubs and would show up whenever she felt like it—maybe sing something, maybe talk for five minutes in front of the crowd, maybe not do anything and just take off—but people would come just to see her. She came up in vaudeville and eventually went out to Hollywood and made Westerns—she was known as the female William S. Hart. She was one of the few women who owned their own production company, though sadly I don’t think any of those films are extant. She also was very prolific in writing about her life in magazines, and none of it is true. I was reading this biography of her and it's point by point going through them like, “This is what she said and these are all the reasons why this couldn't have been true.” But she cultivated this persona through these articles and people loved her and were so fascinated by her wild upbringing. I can't get enough of her; she's so fascinating to me.
Rail: And you have two shorts, a Frank Borzage and a Francis Ford . . .
Greenberg: Yeah, and I haven't seen either of them. I don't know very much about them but they sound wonderful. I’ve only seen one of her films (The Girl of the Rancho) and she’s really amazing in it. I worry there’s an anticipation that silent Westerns are going to be cheesy, thriller Western comedies, over-the-top and over-acted, but it's so raw the way she plays it and so exciting. There's this moment in The Girl of the Rancho where one of the bad guys puts out a cigarette on her face and I think everyone in the theater gasped. I think these are probably going to be more of the same, where she's just totally captivating.
GINA TELAROLI, raised in Cleveland and currently based in NYC, is a filmmaker, writer, and the video archivist at Sikelia Productions. She is co-editor of the Film Section for the Brooklyn Rail.