Who Was Andy Oakley

Despite the failure of The Conquerors in 1932, RKO continued to adapt and produce films set in the national past. But the period melodramas Little Women (1933) and The Age of Innocence (1934) were relatively low-maintenance narratives, requiring no grandiose on-location shots or epic battle scenes or the lengthy preliminary research needed for an original historical screenplay. Although lacking forewords and superimposed dates, the narratives relied on a period setting and the passage of years, in which women either determined the course of the narrative or destabilized its settled traditions. Jo March and Ellen Olenska dominated their nineteenth-century worlds, but unlike Sabra Cravat, they lacked the prepossessing historical structures and support of Cimarron's account of American history from 1889 to 1930. Warner Brothers and Twentieth Century-Fox had taken the lead in writing impressive if dull biographies of men, whereas American women seemed to operate within the confines of popular fiction.3 As George Custen noted in his study of classical Hollywood biographical films, filmed American history seemed the conventional province of "great men."4

Once again, RKO redeemed women in American history with its 1935 production of Annie Oakley. According to the RKO story department, the Oakley biopic was based on a "semi-historical biographical romance" by Joseph A. Fields and Ewart Adamson.5 It is likely that the Fields-Adamson story and much of the narrative detail were culled from the recently published popular biography of Oakley by Courtney Ryley Cooper.6 Hard times had befallen RKO since Cimarron's release. The studio could no longer afford to invest in a prestigious historical tale by Edna Ferber, but it found the virtually copyright-free field of history a cheaper means of appropriating material. But the studio had also cut its most experienced screen historian. Howard Estabrook's once enormous research resources and salary had been pared down to fit hack writers Joel Sayre and John Twist, and the whole production of Annie Oakley cost less than $320,000.7 Despite the script's preoccupation with Annie's shooting rivalry and romance with "Toby Taylor," Annie Oakley retained vestiges of RKO's historical prestige. Although there were no intertitles or date superimpositions, Annie's illustrious career was documented in a series of newspaper headlines and articles. Eventually, as production wrapped, the filmmakers added a suitably impressive text foreword: "No fiction is stranger than the actual life of Annie Oakley who came out of a backwoods village half a century ago to astonish the world."8

Yet, the filmmakers were hesitant to present a screen biography of a woman popularly recognized as the greatest shot in the world. When the hastily arranged shooting match with the renowned Toby Taylor is announced, the spectators assume that the mysterious challenger "A. Oakley" must be Andy Oakley. No one has ever heard of him. When Taylor discovers the identity of his opponent, he refuses to compete with her. Annie asks, "Just because I'm not a man, you won't let me try?" He finally agrees. With the first shot, it is obvious that she is the better marksman. This scene is the first of many scripted questionings of the veracity of the printed word. Here, as in Cimarron and Little Caesar, one has to trust what is seen, not read, just as filmed history, by implication, is more interesting and accurate than traditional texts. Yet RKO's screenwriters were uncomfortable with the historical truth. Although Annie wins her match in the first draft, in subsequent scripts, she thwarts her own skill, first claiming that Taylor let her win, and then deliberately missing her last shot to assuage his ego. The original estimating script planned for Annie to win the match, but not from her own efforts. Instead, Taylor was supposed to do the chivalrous thing and generously allow her to win the last shot. An accompanying newspaper insert would reinforce Taylor's actions by describing his gentlemanly deference to a lady, but a country musician would scoff at the story, saying, "Nobody believes newspaper talk," thus adding to the untrustworthy nature of textual histories within historical film.9 These early scripts confronted not only the construction of history by the press but also the distortions of dime novelists. When Buffalo Bill decides to make Oakley a shooting legend in his Wild West Show, he promises that soon her "life" will be documented in the dime novels. But later the filmmakers dispel any assumption of text "prestige" when a close-up shows Bill chortling over a "Buffalo Bill" novel's inaccuracies and excesses.10 Film's essential capacity to represent the "real" Buffalo Bill scoffing over his "biography" (rather than resorting to the ludicrous textual constructions of the dime novels) acknowledges visual history's superiority over printed accounts.

Originally entitled "Shooting Star," late in production the filmmak ers decided to lend Annie Oakley's screen life some additional historical clout by identifying it specifically as a biography. They added a text foreword, and the publicity department focused on the film's historical aspects. Publicists even claimed that Annie Oakley was "a gold mine to the great showmen who sponsored her miraculous career a half century ago and she will prove another box office bonanza to the showmen of 1935 as she lives again in the picture that bears her name."11 Oakley's life certainly had advantages as a film biopic, in that she was first constructed as a show business star; this paralleled the rise of actress Barbara Stanwyck, who played Annie, from Brooklyn foster child to Broadway showgirl to Hollywood star. To a certain extent, Annie Oakley functioned as a double biography of Oakley and Stanwyck, with one life reinforcing the other for 1930s audiences.12 Annie Oakley was both a show-woman and part of the showmanship of public history (Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show). Although the history of her life was fascinating, even more magical was her life in Buffalo Bill's public forum of revived western history. "His wild west shows, still alive in the recollections of many, established a towering monument to a brilliant period in American showmanship and did more to immortalize a fierce period of history than did the harrowing events themselves," claimed RKO's publicity department.13 It was a subtle way of insinuating the superiority of performed histories over the actual or written event. But of course, film "historiography" trumps all its predecessors. Even Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show, a famous early visual history later credited with codifying many myths of the West,14 is demystified by a film biography that shows Oakley's life before and behind the tents.

Many films in the early sound era would explicitly link a powerful and disruptive woman with the development of the West. She was often a glamorous show-woman, her songs and performances destabilizing the predetermined and comparatively dull historical record. Belle of the Nineties (1934), Klondike Annie (1936), Naughty Marietta (1935), San Francisco (1936), and Girl of the Golden West (1938) are undoubtedly the most prominent of these films, and although Mae West's hip swinging and Jeanette MacDonald's singing often upstaged the scripted period frontier locale, the character often engaged in a dynamic relationship with the Wild West. West and MacDonald were two of Paramount's and MGM's biggest stars, and their greatest successes were in period films. Mae West's first starring vehicle at Paramount was in an adaptation of her own Gay Nineties play She Done Him Wrong (1933). Later, West's disruptive presence revitalized the myth of western history and the frontier experience in Klondike Annie.15 Although she continued to appear in period stories un-

Mae West in She Done Him Wrong (1933): resisting ties to history.

til 1940, West refused to play an identifiable historical character. She told historian and sometime-screenwriter Stuart Lake, who offered to write her a role as Lillian Russell or Lillie Langtry, that real historical roles were not right for her screen persona.16 West preferred to avoid the demands and expectations of historical cinema.

Jeanette MacDonald's career followed a similar route. In the early 1930s she changed studios, leaving Paramount's contemporary love stories for MGM's period glamour. Although she never played a recognizable historical figure, MacDonald's characters always fled to the American frontier and changed it. In Naughty Marietta, she and Nelson Eddy shun France, colonial New Orleans, and the rule of law and disappear into the wilderness. In Anita Loos's San Francisco, country girl Mary Blake arrives in the music halls of the Barbary Coast and eventually becomes "Queen of the Coast." She sings the city's anthem at the annual Chickens' Ball, and the 1906 earthquake brings down the house, purging San Francisco of its unruly past. Yet in spite of the sense of historical period structured throughout the text,17 major Hollywood studios such as Paramount and MGM continued to sublimate history to the wills of their most prominent stars. And although RKO's Annie Oakley challenged traditional film biographies of great men, the other major studios had yet to present a fully developed historical western along the lines of Cimarron, one that engaged the complex problems of national origins, the displacement of Native Americans, and the articulation of a series of events.

But in 1936, several studios, perhaps gathering momentum from the growth in adaptations of literary classics and historical films, tackled the problems of national history, the frontier, and racial identity. Studio executives developed two methods of producing historical westerns. Some returned to classic historical novels that had achieved prior success in silent pictures, and others turned to popular histories, a new approach that was still in keeping with Hollywood's new self-imposed role as creator of serious historical cinema. The relative success of, and the historical research and attitudes articulated by, The Last of the Mohicans (1936), Ramona (1936), and Wells Fargo (1937) not only offer surprising insights into Cimarron's legacy but also reveal the conflicting paths that western film historiography would take after 1937.

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