Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Annie Oakley (1935)


I'm in the midst of a Barbara Stanwyck binge, and you'd be hard pressed to find an actress this good anywhere. Her sheer range has been lauded to death, yet there are indeed few that can match her versatility; among other stars of the classic era, I could only nominate Ida Lupino as a serious contender. In short, lots of Stanwyck movies = happy classic movie fan.

When going on these actor marathons, it's important to make the distinction between a bad Stanwyck movie and a bad movie with Stanwyck. Suffice to say, there are very few (if any) bad Stanwyck movies; she's invariably worth watching even if the crew around her haven't a clue what they're doing. Seeing bad movies with your favorite stars comes with the territory, and things like The Bride Wore Boots might make you wonder whether the writers had a clue what comedy was supposed to do.

I therefore feel the need to give Annie Oakley a hearty shout-out, because it's the genuine article. While not unpopular, it deserves more loving. When it's not pointedly trying to show how progressive it is, it feels surprisingly fresh and sidesteps the obvious cliches. The rivalry between Toby and Annie is largely subdued and it's knowingly depicted as a farce—with a wink for good measure. The rivalry between Jeff and Toby, too, is mostly understated to the point of avoiding the usual conflict altogether. The movie doesn't stack the deck, either; there pretty much isn't a distasteful character to be had. This gives a poignancy and depth to characters that we would normally be forced to hate. A few dubious comical moments aside, this is a very good hour and a half.

The movie's fault, as I've mentioned, is its deliberate attempt to be modern. Ironically, the picture is at its most anachronistic when it's deliberately trying not to be. Unlike Gone with the Wind, its modernity feels forced and not an organic part of the world its creating. It's probably unavoidable, but you can probably feel 1935 peeking through when Toby learns his challenger is a woman. The more obvious look-how-far-we've-come moments thankfully don't overstay their welcome.

Stanwyck plays the role honest, and it's actually one of her less remarkable. But, she makes the performance fit the movie, rather than sticking out; her plainspoken, almost casual demeanor makes her easy to like. It's nice to see Annie Oakley as a person we can relate to, not one for us to idolize, since most biopics (Gandhi) give the latter impression.

Other Stanwyck shout-outs:

Baby Face (1933)

The Furies (1950) - saw it a while ago, but this is the kind of tough role she was born for.

All I Desire (1953) and There's Always Tomorrow (1956) - Douglas Sirk is growing on me, and these are pretty consistent with the only other one I've seen from him—Written on the Wind.

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