Friday, March 23, 2018

Tropes vs Tropes: The Wild West Movie Musical! (Starring Howard Keel)

It's my belief that everyone has at least one movie genre that functions as their "good taste" blind spot. My mother, for example, will watch literally ANYTHING if it is upbeat and about Christmas.

November and December are Hallmark movie season in our household, no questions asked. What's interesting about this predilection, however, is that she's never stopped being aware of how daft, contrived and forced most of these movies are. As a result, her favorites are all genuinely good Christmas Movies - Christmas Carol, White Christmas, and It's a Wonderful Life - but she loves the festive season so much, she'll enjoy a bad movie too, if it means she can get her fix.

My theory has borne out for several people. I grew up with a best friend who loved epic fantasy movies, even when the overall quality was low, because they featured rad costumes and sweeping instrumental scores. I really can't argue with her logic, because my own good taste blind spot is the movie musical. I am a sucker for characters singing and dancing away their problems.

The great day of the movie musical was a couple generations ago, which means that when I go to get my fix of soaring ballads and tap routines, I usually need to look to the past. It doesn't take long to realize that there's an incredible amount of cultural baggage attached to the catchiest songs of all time. For today, I want to focus on a particular sub-genre that was popular in the early 1950s - the Western/Musical mash-up.

If you want to make a classic western musical, you need two very important elements.
  1. A plucky heroine, struggling (unsuccessfully) against the patriarchy.
  2. The patriarchy, as played by Howard Keel.
I can't even begin to tell you how essential it is that Howard Keel be in your movie. Someone needs to say all those lines about how useless and emotional women are, and it is of paramount importance that Howard Keel say them. His voice is so frickin' magical, he can make the most cringe-inducing dialogue sound attractive. He'll sing all about your beautiful hide until you thrill at your own objectification. YEE-HA!!!

In all seriousness though, I start by positioning myself as a musical theater lover because not everything I'm going to say about these films will be kind. Part of what fascinates me about these movies is that they are ALL problematic, regarding women's issues, racism and romantic portrayals of the colonization of the west. Most of the critiques I lay at their feet are no different than those that apply to most Westerns of the 1950s. These films were a product of their times, and the messages they pushed were designed for a very specific audience - white, suburban Americans, who in the heat of the Communist scare and post-World War II restructuring, were hungry for a "simpler" time. A lot of those anxieties were projected onto the Wild West. The proverbial "frontier" was now in American's backyards. The wildness of the West was tempered by a reassurance that white America WOULD conquer that land, as history had borne out.

At the same time, I also hope this goofy essay isn't seen as an attempt to discredit those who don't enjoy these films, because of their problematic elements.  If "movie where charming Howard Keel kidnaps women" is a non-starter for you, this is okay. You might be saner than I am. For me, this particular Tropes vs Tropes is motivated by a need to explore the phenomenon of liking something when you're keenly aware of it's flaws. It's also meant as a reflection on past trends and values and how troubling messages can lurk in the past, even in seemingly innocuous G rated movies.

So, with that preamble finally finished, here it is!!! My name is Emily, I love Howard Keel, and it's time to determine what is the best 1950s Wild West musical!

Entry #1: Annie Get Your Gun (1950):

Is it love or animosity? Who cares?! It's Howard Keel!

Some of you might be wondering how so many western musicals starring the same actor got made in such a short span of time. The simple answer is that Annie Get Your Gun made a crap ton of money for MGM. This being before the days of the million sequel Marvel movie franchise, studios were more likely to produce "spiritual successors" that featured similar stars and plots. So what about Annie Get Your Gun was so successful that studios scrambled to make more?

The Good:

In my opinion, it really comes down to the music. Of the three movies we're covering, it's worth noting that Annie Get Your Gun was the only one that started off as a stage play.  This is part of why the movie has more songs than the other two and probably why they're better. This was a project that had already been a huge hit on Broadway, tried and tested, before it made it's way to Hollywood. The songs are classics, so much so that people who have never seen the movie or a stage production of the show are still likely to know a couple of the standouts.

Among the best songs are the nostalgic anthem, "There's No Business Like Show Business," which is pretty much required study for any show choir kid in high school. Other good ones include Annie's comedic songs, "You Can't Get a Man With a Gun" and "Doin' What Comes Nat'urly."

But the best of the bunch is without question "Anything You Can Do, I Can Do Better," the rivalry song to end all rivalry songs. Keel and Hutton are perfect in their parts and the lyrics are as sharp as Annie's shot.

Additionally, the film is well acted, funny and Howard Keel is charming. The Technocolor renders his teeth a transcendent white and what more can you really ask for?

The Bad:

The plot leaves a little to be wanted. In the first half, it's hard to guess what exactly the story is building towards, and when it does come, the resolution is a little insulting. Remember that song mentioned above, "You Can't Get a Man With a Gun?" Funny as the number is, the sentiment is played depressingly straight.  For all her brilliance and accomplishments as a female sharpshooter, the story ends up being about how Annie Oakley comes to understand that if she wants a man in her life, she's got to be second best, not first. If she wants Frank, she has to lose to him and defer to his pride.

I can imagine that in some renditions, Frank could be played in a way where he realizes what's going on at the end, and makes more of a show of insisting Annie doesn't need to suppress who she is to please him. You can do a lot just by reinterpreting lines and changing inflections, but none of that happens in the movie. Besides, there's no escaping how thin-skinned and fragile the ego of Frank Butler is during earlier scenes.

Ladies, if you can't get a man with a gun, might I suggest pursuing a different man?

The Ugly:

The entirety of the "I'm an Indian Too" number. It's so bad. It's so so so bad. It's the kind of bad I can't even laugh at. Maybe it crosses into cringe comedy for some modern audiences. For me, it's just cringe.

Cultural Appropriation: The Musical!

By all accounts, the real life Annie Oakley and Chief Sitting Bull had a strong, mutually affectionate relationship. And yes, he did symbolically adopt her, which is what the scene is trying to portray. Unfortunately, MGM took what had been a positive, respectful relationship and turned it into a farcical joke. The rest of the movie features several other scenes depicting their relationship, which are less horrible, but they're still hampered by stereotyping and the fact that Chief Sitting Bull is played by an Irish American.

This particular instance is one of a couple areas where you see how bad the 1950s were at accurately representing the past. In addition to butchering the one relationship involving a Native American character, the movie also misrepresents Frank Butler. The real Frank WAS the kind of man you could get with a gun. He adored Annie and her talent. Most biographies of the pair portray him as more than okay with being less of a star than her, and loving and supporting her as she toured the world, donated money to women's advocacy groups and trained girls to shoot.

In many ways, the real Annie Oakley was too feminist for Post-WWII America. Her life is retold in a way that makes her central concern getting married, coupled with the "lesson" that women must be less impressive than their husbands. There was real anxiety in the 1950s about the role women had taken in the workplace during the previous wars. Hollywood made a concentrated effort to provide narratives where female characters woke up to the realization that they needed to go back home and conform to female stereotypes in order to be happy.

And on that note...

Entry #2: Calamity Jane (1953):

Is it love or animosity? Wait... I'm sensing a pattern here...
With the success of Annie Get Your Gun, Warner Brothers decided they wanted a hit like that of their own. They copied the formula as tightly as they could. Sanitized version of a historical cowgirl + Howard Keel = big hit, right? RIGHT???

Of course right. It's Howard Keel. LOOK AT HIM!!!

The Good:

Of all the movies here today, Calamity Jane has the most focused and clear plot. There's no lag moving from the second to third act like in Annie Get Your Gun. No one suddenly gets kidnapped (we'll get to that one next). The plot progression is pretty logical and it's fun to watch. Also, while this movie's "message" has a lot of flaws, there are certain things to like about it. Calamity gradually learns over the course of the movie that she needs and values female friendship. When we start, she only sees herself as having anything in common with the men in Deadwood city. Her best friend is Bill Hickock (today's edition of Howard Keel), but it's the kind of friendship that's based on humiliating and one-upping each other. She doesn't relate to other women and instead views them as rivals, until she meets Katie, the girl all the boys love and all the girls want to be.

Despite their differences, she and Katie hit it off. Calamity defends her and supports Katie's dreams of being an actress. Katie gives Calamity a sense of warmth and acceptance no one else has before. My internet research informs me that a lot of people like to read this movie as having romantic subtext between the two. It's not something I picked up on watching it, but if that's your cup of tea, why not? Classic movies are incredibly sparse on deep relationships of any kind between women, and so however you want to read the pair, I think they're fun and refreshing. It's a classic set up of tomboy and girly-girl, but there's some nuance to that. Yes, Katie gives Calamity a "make-over" but it feels motivated by an actual relationship of care rather than Katie trying to "fix" Calamity. She wants Calamity to be happy and only offers "help" when asked.

Speaking of that make-over, I also was waiting with baited breath for some awful moment where Bill realizes she was BEAUTIFUL ALL ALOOOOOOONG. It kind of happens, but it also kind of doesn't. After a lot of talk about how Calamity needs to be more "feminine," she and Bill actually kiss when she's in her man's duds. Later, when a friend of his wonders aloud about what he's getting himself into with her, he just laughs and says, "don't I know it." Of all the romances on display, I think Calamity and Bill's is the most balanced. They both can really rile the other up, but there's a give and take to it, that leaves you going "sure she shot a drink out of his hand in anger that one time, and yes, he once roped her and hung her from the balcony of a theater, but they're going to be okay."

Additionally, Doris Day hams up the title role with aplomb, the supporting cast is memorable and Howard Keel spends several minutes serenading a painting.

The Bad:

While the songs are good, they're not quite as memorable as the other shows. The most well known is "Secret Love," which is a decent ballad and won an Oscar. My favorite numbers tended to be the ones Calamity sings with the prospectors of Deadwood, like "The Deadwood Stage" and "Just Blew in from the Windy City." Doris Day throws herself into every song with fervor, but it can be a bit jarring that her singing voice sounds completely different from her exaggerated accent in the spoken lines.

It's also now time to talk about that make-over. One of the "messages" of the movie is that men only value women who are pretty and conform to female stereotypes. A lot of time is spent talking about who is pretty, who isn't and whether or not Calamity deserves any kind of respect if she isn't. By the end, the conclusion seems to be... maybe? She definitely is treated better in a dress, but being pretty still isn't enough to get her what she wants, and as it turns out, maybe Bill does kind of value her when she's being a tomboy, in his own weird way. You can argue it either way, but the fact that you can argue the point probably says something about how this movie endorses superficiality.

You're happy now because you're drinking tea!

Another mixed message is how Katie helps Calamity become a better person. Outwardly, it seems to be because she teaches her to play house. But I think you can also argue that what she really teaches Calamity is the value of compassion, both within herself and from her friends. Again, take your pick.

The Ugly:

I can handle make overs. I can handle men fawning over the pretty girl. I cannot abide a man telling a woman she's getting muddled up in all her "feminine thinking."

Feminine thinking is, of course, short hand for "having emotions" because this is what every movie that purports to have something to say about the differences between the sexes concludes. Women make terrible decisions and have to be corrected by men because they're too EMOTIONAL to ever think straight. It's so insulting, it's hard to know where to begin.

By the end of the film, Calamity has come to realize that no matter how she dresses, she'll always be a mixed up, over emotional female and this is freeing, because now she can count on the good advice of men. I can't guys. I just can't. I'm never sure which bothers me more - that these statements inherently demonize emotions and imply that men don't have them or use them to make value judgments - or that women are inherently stupid for using emotions as part of how they make value judgments. I mean, take your pick, I guess.

If this was all this movie did wrong, however, it would be sitting pretty, and probably the least problematic of the bunch. But there are far worse crimes.

While most of Annie Get Your Gun's problems came from deviating from history, Calamity Jane is hampered by the true events it's based on. Because yes, the real Calamity Jane did lie constantly about her accomplishments, and was mostly illiterate and yes, she did skirmish with and shoot Sioux nationals frequently. And it's that last point where things get icky, because if shooting members of a single ethnic group is a defining trait of your heroine, your 1950s G rated movie is going to develop some values dissonance over the years.

Calamity Jane clearly has NO IDEA how to handle this issue. No one scene featuring the Sioux is as cringey as "I'm an Indian Too" but there are plenty of little scenes that build up to what is probably a worse whole. Whether she's freeing someone from a Sioux camp, shooting at riders from a stagecoach or laughing at Bill when he loses a bet and must dress up as a Sioux woman, the tone is insensitive and off the whole way through.

Ladies and Gentlemen, may I introduce... HOWARD KEEL!
This particular scene with Bill kinda sums up the film's main problems. There is nothing more humiliating for him to dress up as than a Sioux woman. Through this scene, a small Sioux family is hanging out behind him because... I don't know! I seriously still don't know. Are they his friends? They lend him a baby for a little while. Did they conveniently forget that he's also shot dozens of their people? Oh gosh, this hurts my brain!

The one part that does manage to veer all the way from cringe to cringe comedy for me comes when Calamity and Bill are admiring the Dakota hills and she wistfully says, "no wonder the injuns fight so fierce to hang onto this country." It's like for five seconds she acknowledges that American settlers were, effectively, invaders and those people who lived in the Dakotas for generations are the same ones she and Bill have gleefully been shooting all movie long. The lack of self-awareness is awe inspiring.

So if you, a 1950s filmmaker, can't win by changing the past to fit modern sensibilities and you can't win by actually portraying parts of the massacre of indigenous peoples, what IS your 1950s Wild West Musical to do???

Answer: Make a story up and just ignore the race issue entirely! YEE-HA!!!!

Entry #3: Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954):

Is it love or animosity? Or is it just a mustache?
By the time MGM got to making Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, there was some anxiety that the film wouldn't do as well as previous Wild West musicals. Audiences might have hit market saturation, and so the budget was slashed in favor of funding Brigadoon. As a result, they couldn't shoot on location and the Oregon country side is built out of a conspicuous number of painted backdrops.

This feels particularly ironic now, because not only was the film successful, but President Eisenhower loved it so much he told all his fellow Americans to go see it. It went on to be honored as one of the greatest musicals ever made. It was nominated for Best Picture. And while the music from Annie Get Your Gun might be more well known, in my experience, if you've only seen one of these movies, this is the one you've seen.

And rightly so. You've seen the best one. So what makes this film so great, even when it is simultaneously - erm... problematic?

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly:

The thing that sets apart Seven Brides for Seven Brothers is that, unlike the other two, which have bad aspects and moments, this movie just dives straight in and makes at least some attempts to deconstruct the weird politics around gender and love. Whether or not it's successful is something of a matter of opinion.

First, let's talk about race. Seven Brides is by far the least offensive here, not because it does anything right, but because it doesn't give itself opportunities to do things wrong. There are conspicuously few indigenous peoples in 1850s Oregon in this film. It's not realistic, but it's a sin of omission rather than commission.

Now to the meat of the matter:

Our story follows Adam Potipee, a handsome, arrogant backwoodsmen who comes into town one day interested in finding a wife. He's tired of living in a perpetual man-cave with his six younger brothers and figures a woman could help keep things in order. The townsfolk tell him no girl in her right mind will follow him up to his ranch in the mountains, but these townsfolk have forgotten that they are up against Howard Keel. Within a day, he's talked one of the most popular local girls into marrying him, a sweet, feisty, resourceful frontier woman named Milly.

When Milly arrives at his home and discovers he "forgot" to mention the six other men she's expected to feed and care for, the plot kicks off. Milly realizes that she can either babysit these man-children forever, or force them to grow up and find wives of their own. And maybe, if she's lucky, slap some sense into Adam as well.

So much glorious red hair!!!!
The relationship that develops between Milly and the younger boys is the highlight of the movie. Howard Keel is as spectacular as ever, but he's up against a full cast of charming, dancing, crooning red heads. As she makes them shave, learn to dance and treat people with respect, they fall in love with her in that family kind of way. It doesn't take long for them to see the value in her and realize that women, in general, are pretty rad and something they've been missing out on for too long.

In my opinion, this movie is the reason we never needed a live action adaptation of Beauty and the Beast. It was already done amazingly well in this movie. It's the tale as old as time of a helpless girl digging down and finding the will to survive an impossible situation with men who are used to living like beasts. The damaging aspects are fairly obvious - it relies on the fantasy that a good woman can "fix" a man and that a fella who literally kidnaps women can be redeemed.

Cuz, oof. It's time to talk about the kidnapping.

As Milly gets the boys to go into town and meet girls, the townspeople respond by pushing them away, scared those no-good Potipee boys are going to steal even more of the local girls. Heartbroken, they start talking about leaving and building lives elsewhere. Both Milly and Adam are horrified at the thought of the family breaking up and Milly asks her husband to speak to his brothers. In classic Adam fashion, it is the worst possible thing she could ask him to do.

Adam, who has recently discovered reading, thanks to Milly, tells his brothers that according to Plutarch, the Romans solved their frontier problems by just KIDNAPPING the women they wanted. The boys, who no one claimed were intelligent, are excited by the idea and so they take off into town, kidnap the girls and trigger an avalanche, stranding everyone on the homestead until the pass opens in spring.

So yeah, the townspeople were right. They did steal the local girls.

And here is where the question of deconstruction comes up, because the plan doesn't work. Milly takes the girls under wing, throws the men out of the house and gives Adam such a dressing down about his misogyny, he runs off to the trapping cabin and sulks the next eight months away.

It might not sound like much to modern sensibilities, but the movie gives voice to a lot of the hurt and frustration experienced by women in the 1950s. It's a story where the most sensible character is female and her consistent demands for respect are eventually rewarded. Annie Oakley and Calamity Jane sure didn't get that kind of ending.

Whether or not you think the men suffer enough before their change of heart is accepted might be a matter of opinion, but for what it's worth, here's mine. I've always read the story as intentionally over the top and farcical. All through the kidnapping scene, the joke is that the men are behaving stupidly and no one should ever do this. It's trying to cross the line, for the sake of humor and to parody how entitled men feel to the women they love.

And while it might seem insane that the women eventually take them back, within the universe of the film, the Potipee boys are probably still the best option. The townsfolk are just as possessive and controlling, but in subtler ways. No one except Milly cares about the agency of the other girls, and she does all she can to protect them and their choices.

Is it enough? Maybe, maybe not. But if you're choosing between an oaf in town and an oaf in the mountains, you might as well choose the oaf who can dance.

I've spent most of my time on this film rambling about the plot, but the magic of the movie really is in the dancing and lively sense of humor. The best song is probably "Bless Your Beautiful Hide," which introduces Adam. It later serves as the soundtrack for the legendary Barn Raising Scene, which may just be the best group dance number in Movie Musical history.

Closing Thoughts:

So what do we even learn by looking at these films? Tricky to say. I guess I find myself hoping that we don't tell stories quite the same way anymore - that it's taken more as a rule that men and women stand on equal ground and have much that's of value to offer each other. And that when we talk about the Wild West, it's hopefully with a bit more reflection on the lives and cultures of Indigenous Peoples, which were cut short by the brazen invasion of white settlers.

I also think they help serve as a cautionary tale about romanticizing the past. The 1950s turned to the Wild West for comfort and a "good old days" where things weren't so complicated, but in doing so, tended to project their own cultural baggage onto an earlier time. Today, we tend to do the exact same thing to the 1950s, a time that seems simple with it's meat loaf dinners and drive-in movies. But that's a comforting image we've reconstructed, that ignores the Cold War and Jim Crow laws and Korean War.

As I mentioned earlier, I don't think that means no one is allowed to enjoy these films anymore, but they're the kind of movies I hope we at least feel a little troubled by - troubled enough to discuss what they're trying to say, why they're trying to say it and whether or not we agree with them.


  1. You're right, of these three, I only saw Seven Brides. Didn't remember the plot, just some guys singing and dancing while swinging around a bunch of broad axes. Enjoyed the article!

    My guilty pleasure is pulp stories.