An A-Picture: “Annie Oakley”
December 9, 2009
Here we have a rare discussion of an A Western at “Charles Starrett – One Fan’s Journey.” The reason? Mainly, I was interested to see what a bigger budget Western from 1935 looked like.
It looked good.
The differences between this film and “Gallant Defender”, Charles’ first Western made that same year on a considerably smaller budget, are many. RKO’s “Annie Oakley” has an accomplished director, George Stevens, and star, Barbara Stanwyk. It has scenes featuring lots of people — crowd scenes and wild west shows. It is painted on a bigger historical canvas, involving real people and real events.
Also, the love story is central to the story, rather than, in “Gallant Defender” and most other films from Charles Starrett’s western period, treated as an afterthought or, more often, an unwanted intruder on the plot.
“Gallant Defender” follows Johnny Flagg (Starrett), a wandering cowboy, as he throws in with a group of Homesteaders in their struggle with the evil Cattleranchers. “Annie Oakley” tells the (mostly) true story of the sharpshooter and her life in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. Toby Walker (Preston Foster) is the crack shot she bests and later replaces and loves all the while.
These films also have a lot in common. Mainly (besides Ms. Stanwyck), it’s wooden acting. Preston Foster lurches through the film. I know him primarily from his role in the previous year’s “Last Days of Pompeii” (which I’m sure our loyal reader from New Zealand will point out is a Gladiator flick. ) In 1939, he would appear in “Geronimo” playing Capt. Bill Starrett. Perhaps the brother of Joe Starrett from “Shane”?
The writing often sucks as well. Check out this scene set at Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. Sitting Bull is a guest at the performance. After Annie Oakley does some impressive shooting, an audience member nudges the great Indian Chief and says, “Bet you don’t have any squaws that can shoot like Annie Oakley.” To which Sitting Bull responds, “Don’t want squaws who shoot, only cook!”
I’d also say that neither film was making any great leaps in cinematic history.
An unexpected discovery from viewing “Annie Oakley” was how many bit players from this film were featured in Charles Starrett vehicles.
(WARNING: The following paragraphs are for HARDCORE Starrett completists only.)
Richard Alexander appeared in four of Charles’ films between 1937-1951. He has the fun, if tiny, role of Prince Wilhelm during Annie’s European tour. Annie shoots a cigarette out of his mouth while her handler warns that one slip and she could “change history.”
The Judge in the shooting match between Annie and Toby Walker is played by Stanley Blystone, an actor who appeared as Charles’ Uncle Marvin in Starrett’s debut as a cowboy star “Gallant Defender” AND as a detective in the pre-cowboy Starrett starrer “Silver Streak.”(“Annie Oakley” cinematographer J. Roy Hunt shot that film.)
The actor playing Sheriff Bixby, Robert McKenzie, also straddles the line, as a policeman in the 1935 mystery “Shot in the Dark” and a telegraph operator in the next year’s Western “Mysterious Avenger.”
Speaking of obscure Starrett vehicles, Harry Bowen was in two of them — 1934’s “Murder on Campus” and 1935’s “Make a Million.” Donald Kerr was also in the latter, there as a radio announcer, here as a shooting gallery barker. And Charlie Hall was billed above Starrett in “Call It Luck”. Anyone remember “Return Of Casey Jones”? Theodore Lorch played Dr. Wallace in that one.
The winner of the Most Films With Charley goes to Ernie Adams who appeared with Starrett in fifteen films between 1936 and 1952, including Charles’ swan song, “The Kid From Broken Gun”. Here he plays a wrangler in Bill Cody’s show.
Perhaps most memorable is Si Jenks in a small role here, who played comic relief to Starrett in a number of early Westerns, including the crusty coot Buckshot in “Cowboy Star.” The little brat Sammy in that film? Why, it’s Sammy McKim who plays a kid begging turns at the shooting gallery where Toby Walker retires in shame.
The list goes on and on. Frank Austin in 1937’s “Outlaws of the Prairie”; Dick Elliot in two films, “Start Cheering” (1938) and “Across The Badlands” (1950); Jim Mason playing “Henchman” in two films; and Bud Geary also playing Henchmen and assorted other bad guys in four Starrett westerns. Lew Meehan was in nine.
Perhaps this is the connective tissue between the A and the B Westerns. The supporting cast.