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Outlaw Women
Renegade Girl
Passion
Johnny Yuma
Proud Flesh
The Battle at Elderbush Gulch
Satan's Cradle
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There’s something sweet, even welcoming about a genre dedicated to softening the jagged landscape of new America into stories about honor and loyalty. But sometimes it looks like the movies have blinders on: half the west (the lady half) has broadly been reduced to tragic framing stories or boiled down to background players in brothels or bakeries. Yet even when the camera pans enough to see a lady with a name and identity, she’s got parameters: she’s secondary by design. Isn’t it ironic that in a genre about the toil of homesteading, men are the only ones allowed to get emotional? It’s the touchy-feely men's genre (way more than action, romance or drama) so it’s unfair to malign westerns for being explicitly tailored to an audience. Yet this genre also likes its bait-and-switch games—certain kinds of niche westerns, like the lady-centric ones I’m into, lure a broader crowd with one hand and smite the wish-fulfillment seekers with the other.

By Sara Maria Vizcarrondo

Outlaw Women

(1952) directed by Sam Newfield, 75 minutes

In the semi-mythic town of Las Mujeres (Spanish for “the women”) “Iron May” runs the high-end saloon and her high-waisted band of security women keep the place civilized. Two old suitors come to town, bent on stealing her fortune: One wants her to go halvsies on a heist, the other aims to “update” her business for the “new laws.” While it takes place in an Amazon almostopia, Sam Newfield’s film is like any western: a tale of a town’s growing pains and legal demands. Yet Las Mujeres is already the most civilized place in the west, which makes the “civilizing” forces look more like “domesticators.” It’s no irony our route into town is a traveling doctor and his lure into town is May’s docile sister. Dear Reader: Do the cartoonish sound effects offend?

Renegade Girl

(1946) directed by William Berke, 67 minutes

There’s a chance men don’t know why they like manipulative women. Maybe that can account for the barely substantiated adoration “Renegade Girl” receives from every man she passes. They all compete to win her though she never puts on charms and they never seem swoony. But, as you likely guessed, their adoration comes at a price (to her). Ann Savage plays the only woman in a band of outlaws who never suffers gang rape, yet somehow ends up billed second to her romantic lead in this 1946 film by William Berke. Even when Jean (Savage) holds all the chips to her future, she negotiates her own marginalization. If we’re to learn anything here it’s that low self-esteem is a killer on par with high cholesterol.

Passion

(1954) directed by Allan Dwan, 81 minutes

Juan (matinee idol Cornel Wilde) comes home to meet his infant son and quickly loses his family in a land grab. Yvonne De Carlo plays a split role as ideal wife Rosa and her go-getting sister Tonya. Rosa romantically awaits her man indoors, while Tonya works with the cowhands. Less a black swan/white swan duality, De Carlo represents different practical roles, female ideals for different genres of men in Allan Dwan’s 1954 western. When brother-in-law Juan forcibly sends Tonya to school to protect her from a fight, he forces her hand. If she obeys him she’s a deserter. If she disobeys, she’s protecting her last family member and reversing her marital eligibility at the same time.

Johnny Yuma

(1966) directed by Romolo Guerrieri, 95 minutes

For as precious as Johnny is about protecting Mexicans from the racists in town in Romolo Guerrieri's 1966 western, he doesn’t seem too concerned with the ladies he blows through like tissue. Unlike Johnny, his uncle opted for a trophy wife who’s been spending the last few years plotting his death. Her machinations should be more convincing, she’s had half the estate in her pocketbook, but the lover who kills her husband wins her, and part of her disgust with her widower was her obvious status as his property. Johnny’s gnarly triumph comes when he finds his uncle’s will and sees she’s willed to him; it’s an inheritance he doesn’t want to cash in.

Proud Flesh

(2008) directed by Chiara Giovando, 35 minutes

An old, female gunslinger ambles wounded until a medicine man ties her down and mends her in a 2008 experimental western by Chiara Giovando and Jenny Gräf Sheppard shot in the Badlands and in Baltimore. His medicine is unclear but she’s in no place to fight; at least there’s proof bodies help each other in all this desolation. Released, she heads through the desert. Her walk is abstract and stumbles over the physical details of her world in ways that get you caught on textures: the color of the clay in the ground, the arc of a hill, the mud of puddles. This is an obstinate world, and the corporeal figures in it seem to coexist in part because of their obstinacy. Nothing lives here easily; everything perseveres by force.

The Battle at Elderbush Gulch

(1913) directed by D.W. Griffith, 29 minutes

What I’ve long appreciated about D.W. Griffith is how dedicated he is to depicting a good-hearted world. And yet if you’re an orphan in this world you’re totally out of luck. Sally (Mae Marsh) is the older of two wards taken in a settlement and the boss has demanded they put their tiny dogs outside, inadvertently setting off angry Indian backlash. Sally is hapless but nurturing, and so is Melissa (Lillian Gish), whose role in this 1913 short perhaps influenced Hitchcock’s "Carlotta" as she loses her baby and goes stupid with grief in Vertigo. It’s nearly impossible to feel sympathy. She freaks out for a moment and while penned up in a house is more trouble than the crying children or howling tiny dogs.

Satan's Cradle

(1948) directed by Ford Beebe, 60 minutes

Pancho and the Cisco Kid ride 200 miles to meet a widow (Ann Savage) so beautiful she’s got a reputation…and a recently inherited saloon. She’s a natural conquest, but when they reach Silver City Limits, they find a beaten pastor who swears she’s out to destroy the town. Despite the widow’s (we learn captive) relationship with a cluster of priest-kicking henchmen, Cisco romances her and learns her big goal is to marry the henchmen’s boss—so her only crime is loving the wrong man. By melodramatic magic she’s absolved of morally bankrupting Silver City (only Ann Savage) but can we just call that a “victimless crime?” This 1948 movie by Ford Beebe looks like it wants that, until Cisco’s triumph: leaving her at the altar. He can’t be a successful bandito without stealing hearts and, after all, he is the main character.