When choosing films to cover for movie blogathons, now and then I like to jump on lesser-known films—sometimes, even to me. I love Westerns, and am always open to viewing one I haven’t seen before, so for this Barbara Stanwyck tribute, I chose the 1935 film Annie Oakley, based on the life of the famous sharpshooter.
However, unlike the Western I chose to cover for the Miriam Hopkins blogathon last year (Virginia City), I didn’t exactly fall in love.
That’s not to say the movie is bad. It has a certain charm. But it did disappoint me in certain respects.
Possibly, I just know too much about the real-life Annie Oakley, and although we expect Hollywood to tinker (sometimes a lot) with the facts in a biopic, her actual story is so utterly fascinating that the changes are a bit disconcerting.
Directed by George Stevens, this was both Stanwyck’s and Stevens’ first Western, which shows a bit. For one thing, Barbara did almost nothing to mask her Brooklyn accent, which is alternately amusing and jarring. Other than that, she’s fine casting as Annie Oakley, of course—it’s no surprise that she went on to make more Westerns throughout her career.
The film skips over Oakley’s harrowing childhood completely and invents a mother named “Mrs. Oakley” when Oakley was a stage name. The most glaring change is how they removed Oakley’s husband Frank Butler. Her love interest in this version is named Toby Walker (Preston Foster). Like Butler, he is also a sharpshooter who competes with her in a shooting contest. However, unlike the real event, where Annie won, in the movie she throws the contest for his benefit. In real life, Butler courted and married Annie before they both joined the Buffalo Bill (played here by Moroni Olsen) show. The movie is mostly concerned with the secret romance between Annie and Walker, who are shooting rivals in the show.
On the one hand, the change makes sense dramatically, since happily married couples are a bore on screen. (The musical Annie Get Your Gun similarly changes the story of their relationship, though the character is named Frank Butler.) Still, it’s a mystery why they changed his name. (Butler and Annie had no children together, but perhaps descendants he had via his first wife objected?)
There’s also the addition of a love triangle, as Buffalo Bill’s partner Jeff Hogarth (Melvyn Douglas) falls for Annie, too.
As in real life, Annie meets and gains the respect of Chief Sitting Bull (Chief Thunderbird) who names her “Little Sure Shot.” In the movie, Sitting Bull even acts as a matchmaker for Toby and Annie.
One day, Sitting Bull is attacked by some men who carry a grudge about the battle of Little Big Horn. Toby defends Sitting Bull. During the fight, a gun fires close to his eyes and damages his eyesight. Goaded to shoot a coin out of Annie’s hand during a show, he misses and slightly injures her. Devastated, he leaves her.
On the show’s famous tour of Europe, Hogarth tries to win Annie’s affections. Realizing he has no chance with her, he tells her the truth about Toby’s injury and why he left her.
Back in New York, Sitting Bull spies Toby in the audience and follows him when he leaves. He takes Annie to him, and the lovers are reunited.
It’s a bit silly, but the performances and the scenes of the Buffalo Bill Show are terrific. I especially enjoyed Moroni Olsen’s interpretation of Buffalo Bill.
But it makes me a little sad, because the film is a missed opportunity. With an actress like Stanwyck in the role and a director like Stevens at the helm, I can’t help imagining how amazing it would have been if it had followed more closely to the truth of Oakley’s life.