Leading Ladies Necessary for Oaters’ Success

Magers, Boyd and Michael G. Fitzgerald, Westerns Women: Interviews with 50 Leading Ladies of Movie and Television Westerns from the 1930s to the 1960s.  Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, Inc., 1999.

Many people fondly recall having seen their favorite Western as a kid, perhaps at a local theater for the matinee. In addition, when asking about one’s favorite Western, the response often includes details of leading actors and the action scene that made the heroic cowboy stand out in those memories. Westerns have been immensely popular in America since the first moving pictures, but the lure of the Old West on the silver screen knows no borders, as Westerns are now well-liked in many cultures across the globe. Because of this love for the Western, an internet search of the genre’s filmography produces lengthy results. Even on Wikipedia, the list is so long that it requires subdivision by decade. Nevertheless, the first film listed on the Wikipedia page is not the first cowboy hero; it is a cowgirl. Annie Oakley shooting glass balls in 1894 is the first film listed.[1] Perhaps this is a lesson to remind us that along with every cowboy hero was a cowgirl who all too often has been overshadowed.

The book, Westerns Women, compiled by Boyd Magers and Michael G. Fitzgerald, provides the women’s voices so often missing in both the Western genre and its creation.  The collection consists of interviews with fifty leading ladies who discuss their experiences on the set and their relationships with leading men, directors and other aspects of the business. The discussions range from difficulties in working with harsh directors, or impossible jerks, to how much these women enjoyed working in nature, learning to ride and work with horses, and managing their own careers.

Magers and Fitzgerald covered a broad area of the genre by including actresses in both A and B movies, as early as the 1930s, and adding television series through the 1960s. The majority, however, focus on women starring in these roles during the heyday of Westerns in the 1950s and 1960s.  Each entry includes narrative of the interview with the starring actress, her filmography in movies including the year and the leading man, and a list of her experience in television Westerns.

The book reads very conversationally, giving the feeling that you are actually interviewing the actresses. Their stories are beneficial in understanding some of the struggles these women had in establishing a career, and in their efforts to gain notice in the masculine-focused setting of the West.  Many describe feelings of accomplishment and courage at learning how to ride, and attempting to use stunt doubles as little as possible.  Others explained how working on Western sets and with animals expanded their knowledge of the art of acting.  Julie Adams described how trainers showed her how to teach the horses to do the scene, stating they had to “rehearse the horse – [to] hit the marks” so the horses wouldn’t completely run away with less experienced riders, or to stay together as a herd running across the prairie. Several interviewees reported pushing their own boundaries of comfort by attempting rather daring stunts, when allowed to do so. Merry Anders, in the 1957 film The Dalton Girls, rode the horses herself in all the action scenes except one. Anders said she “didn’t do the jump off the roof” onto a horse stunt – a girl has to draw the line at a really bad idea.[2]  Studio contracts limited some women obligated to ensure specific qualities.  Julie Adams’ term with Universal Studios bound her to publicity stunts promoting such qualities, “including having her legs, ‘the most perfectly symmetrical in the world,’ insured for $125,000.”[3]

Many of these women describe their roles along the lines of damsels in distress needing rescue from the cowboy hero, or mothers of cowboys battling the bad guys, or as saloon girls. Many women described being sexualized in off-screen publicity exploits. Pinups of cowgirl stars like Vivian Austin included posing in a mini-skirt, bikini or tank top with cowgirl boots, gloves and a gun. Similar to other Hollywood uses of leading actors, women occasionally played characters of other races. Julie Adams played a Mexican in Wings of the Hawk, a 1953 3-D film by Universal-International that, while not employing a Mexican actress, did use authentic props like a “Mexican saddle… [and] riding crop.”[4] Some women were able to break out of the mold in some respects, although even in those films that portrayed them as atypical women, they did not hold the leading roles that were still reserved for men. Julie Adams played a bad girl in the 1952 film Horizons West, but the star was Rock Hudson.

Although she made many types of films, the one woman who stands out and made a niche for herself in the Western genre is Maureen O’Hara. Her Western filmography is surprisingly short in comparison to some of the other actresses showcased in the book. However, the Westerns she starred in were big pictures with leading big-name actors like John Wayne, Jimmy Stewart, and Henry Fonda. This selection of quality films plus her consistently being cast as an “Irresistible Redhead” have contributed to her success. More often than not, she was portrayed as a lady, yet with a fiery temper, such as in McLintock!, a 1963 United Artists picture starting John Wayne. Although strong-willed, her characters were rarely what one would consider a working cowgirl.


Maureen O’Hara and John Wayne  in McLintock!


John Wayne, perhaps the most famous of all the Western stars, stated that “of all the oaters he had done, only two had a good part for the leading lady: Stagecoach (with Claire Trevor, 1939) and Tall in the Saddle (with Ella Raines, 1944).”[5]  That may never change due to audiences continuing to look for tradition and romantic myth in our stories of the Old West.  Nevertheless, the efforts made by Magers and Fitzgerald have at least preserved the important contributions made by these leading ladies…for without a cowgirl, who would a cowboy ride into the sunset with?

Tracey Hanshew

 Oklahoma State University

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Annie_Oakley_%281894_film%29

[2] Anders, Merry, “Opening Up” in Boyd Magers and Michael G. Fitzgerald, Westerns Women: Interviews with 50 Leading Ladies of Movie and Television Westerns from the 1930s to the 1960s. (Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, Inc., 1999), 19.

[3] Adams, Julie, “From B’s to A’s” in Boyd Magers and Michael G. Fitzgerald, Westerns Women: Interviews with 50 Leading Ladies of Movie and Television Westerns from the 1930s to the 1960s. (Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, Inc., 1999), 10.

[4] Ibid, 11.

[5] Magers, Boyd and Michael G. Fitzgerald, Westerns Women: Interviews with 50 Leading Ladies of Movie and Television Westerns from the 1930s to the 1960s. (Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, Inc., 1999), 1.

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