Review: Annie Oakley (1935)

NaBloPoMo, Day 11

Barbara Stanwyck is the perfect choice to star as Annie Oakley, the legendary sharpshooter who found fame on the stage of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. Melvin Douglas stars as Jeff Hogarth, Buffalo Bill’s business partner who witnesses the young quail hunter’s dead eye during a shooting match and quickly signs her up. When Buffalo Bill (Moroni Olsen) introduces little Annie to the rest of the company, the reception is positively underwhelming–“What? A woman in our show?!”–but the Wild West Show is one big happy family and in no time she’s their favorite daughter.

Preston Foster co-stars as Toby Walker, a champion marksman whose star billing in the show is threatened by Annie not once but twice. Their rivalry makes for good box office and when love blooms they agree to keep the romance a secret. Walker’s ego doesn’t sit well with the rest of players though, so when he accidentally shoots Annie during a trick shot, he’s forced to quit the show, ending his career and clearing the path for his romantic rival Hogarth to step in.

Director George Stevens keeps things moving at a brisk pace, including snippets of the Wild West Show’s various acts that include trick-riding Russian cossacks, South American gauchos, cowboys on bucking broncos, the Battle of Little Big Horn, and reenactments of a wagon trains under Indian attack, complete with the U.S. Cavalry riding in to save the day.

Stanwyck, Douglas and Foster are all excellent. Moroni Olsen, a tall man dolled up in curls, whiskers and fringed jackets to portray Buffalo Bill, has an unfortunate stilted delivery that includes a wide-eyed gaze better suited to a 1950s B-grade horror movie. Sitting Bull (Chief Thunderbird), an actual performer in the Wild West shows, appears here as culturally dated comic relief and a persistent soundtrack, another aspect that marries the film to its time period, becomes annoying after a while.

All in all, this highly romanticized “biography” is a thoroughly enjoyable film. In true Buffalo Bill fashion, classic film fans will exclaim “Well, dog my cats!” when they see it, newly released on DVD in a fine print.  [***1/2 out of 5]

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