TB: This month we’re doing a different sort theme: Westerns where Stanwyck plays a strong woman leading men, dressed like a man.
We haven’t done a month on Barbara Stanwyck yet. Plus these westerns have a lot to say about male-female relationships as well as white-native relationships. Also, we’re going to look at films in the genre that Stanwyck made in the 1950s, each one at a different studio.
In some of these pictures Stanwyck’s character has major daddy issues. Especially in THE FURIES which we look at this week and in CATTLE QUEEN OF MONTANA, which we will get to next week. It certainly defines her role as the story plays out.
Despite the contrivances of the plot, we can see how the producers and costumers try to feminize her characters. But at various points do they just let her play the role as a “man.” For instance, in CATTLE QUEEN, she only appears in one dress if I recall, it’s a black dress, when she goes to town and it is hardly demure looking or womanly. For most of the action, she’s in pants. I think that when she wears the dress, she is still wearing boots. No high heels. No frilly hair. Not much makeup, if any.
Related to this presentation of Stanwyck’s western characters is the way her character’s relationships with the men might be sexual but more often than not, she is just interacting with them like “one of the boys.” Part of the “appeal” of watching her portray these tough western women and discussing these films is how a Stanwyck western performance can be read subversively. Is she ultimately playing lesbian roles?
Let’s get things started with THE FURIES…
JL: This is most famous as Walter Huston’s final film and there is no indication that he is suffering from anything health-wise since he is in great bombastic form. Here he’s T.C. Jeffords, the wealthiest cattle ranch owner of the 1870s, owner of The Furies property and, after the passing of his wife, he is still blessed with two spoiled brats, Vance (Barbara Stanwyck ) who has a touch of Scarlet O’Hara in her (“if you know what you want, why waste time?”) and Clay (John Bromfield), who pretty much disappears from screen once he gets married so we can focus on the bigger stars at hand battling it out.
This is one of the great daddy-daughter rivalry melodramas. T.C. may be pompous and domineering, paying off his debts with “TC” notes and sporting a Napoleon bust in his office, but he can’t always have it his own way as long as he has a daughter around. She even forces him to help himself when he gets stuck in quicksand!
TB: Exactly. So right away, we see how tough Stanwyck is as Vance. Also, she is called Vance, a masculine name, and not something dainty and feminine like Vanna. She’s basically a tomboy, a tough-as-nails offspring. And with her around barking orders, why would brother Clay be needed.
JL: Vance and T.C. are a mighty tight bond, but subject to outside influences that can separate them. Vance herself woos Rip Darrow (Wendell Corey), while also maintaining a strong, if secretive, friendship with Juan Herrera (Gilbert Roland)…and both of these men feel parts of The Furies land are rightfully theirs. The romance with Rip seems doomed at first because daddy is able to show him up in front of his daughter as the money-grubbing gambler that he is, accepting a pay-out over marrying her. (Ironically he does not spend it as we later discover.)
As Juan tells her in confidence, “Maybe in his time, he has been hungry. To a hungry man, money is always important.” Juan is himself basically the male “Spanglish” accented variation of Vance here, being equally in love with mommie dearest (the wonderfully trigger happy and rock tossing Blanche Yurka) who successfully severs the TC/Vance relationship after her own is severed by TC.
TB: I’m glad you mentioned Juan being a mirror version of Vance. In this regard, we are getting into how the film draws parallels between the races and cultures depicted in the core families. One has to wonder what it would have been like if the writing went in a different direction and the story had instead focused on Juan being T.C’s illegitimate son, with Vance having to deal with that. But of course that might upstage T.C.’s relationship with Vance.
JL: These relationships are about the balancing of powers. After losing Rip (temporarily, since he re-enters the picture later), Vance has to take on daddy’s romantic “interest.” Judith Anderson’s Flo Burnett steps off the coach and quips “I hope I shan’t be too much bother.” Vance responds: “You won’t be. No bother at all. We have guests coming all the time.”
TB: And guests going all the time, too!
JL: Much of the fun in this movie comes from the dialogue in Charles Schnee’s script, which is as double-sided as anything we hear in a 1980s prime-time soap of Dallas or Dynasty proportions. There is even plenty of subliminal sex talk too. For instance, Rip is flipping his cards as Vance comments “sometimes I think those are the only women that are in you to love.” His response: “Why not? They’re new and they’re smooth to touch. They’re exciting and they’re honest. When they’re against you, they don’t make you think they’re for you. When they’re for you, they bring you money.”
Vance: “Too bad they’ve got two heads.” Later, just before the two are reunited at his big bank, Vance confronts his “secretary” Dallas Hart (Myrna Dell) who introduces herself by saying, in a slightly condescending tone to imply she is younger and sexier material than Vance, “I’m new in town, honey.” In typical Stanwyck fashion, we get the acidic reply of “Honey, you wouldn’t be new anyplace.”
TB: Yes, those are great lines. And the way Stanwyck delivers this sort of dialogue is a lot of fun to watch.
JL: One flaw of this film is that the dialogue sometimes gets too witty for its own good, trying too hard to milk Stanwyck and Houston’s talents for quick delivery, and detracts from the heavy seriousness that Anthony Mann’s direction and especially Victor Milner’s cinematography seem to be striving for in a tale about revenge, death and disfigurement.
TB: Good point. I think this is a perfect example of a script being written before the director was assigned to the project. Or that the director did not really sit down with the writers, like Hitchcock would have done, to fine tune it to so that the dialogue would suit the director’s vision and approach with the material. So we get two types of authors– the screenwriter versus the auteur, instead of them working in tandem.
JL: At times, I felt there were two separate movies competing with each other. In regards to the camera work, there are some great scenes that may be too “arty” for their own good but still quite effective.
TB: Yes. This is where the cinematography is almost on a different level than the direction and script.
JL: I particularly like the deep focus shots, including one of Vance observing Juan with his mother at a distance as if she notices the similar relationship going on, and the film noir-ish silhouette scenes that often involve cacti lit from behind, exposing them individually in night scenes to suggest a “prickly” environment and its denizens. On the plus side, Franz Waxman’s music does tie some of the loose strings together, especially in the scene with TC wrestling a steer to prove he is still “king” of The Furies.
TB: The wrestling scene sort of ties back to Vance as a more masculine character. Daddy is showing her how things are really done here in the old west. If Vance had a chance to wrestle a steer and prove her worth to T.C. and the others in a similar way she would. There is no doubt that after T.C. is gone from this world, Vance should be the new “king” not Clay, not Rip, not anyone else.
JL: The most shocking moment (at least then for moviegoers) is the scissor throw involving Vance and Florence, causing the latter to lose her beauty (and Judith Anderson cleans up pretty well when introduced as a very classy middle-aged lady with high class connections in Washington DC).
TB: Yes, to me this is the most pivotal scene in the entire picture. This is an illustration of Vance’s great fury.
JL: In a way, this could symbolically be viewed as some sort of Freudian male sex act like Norman Bates’ knife in PSYCHO. I am curious as to what happens to Flo after TC is out of the picture, but the script leaves certain details unanswered for viewers like me to speculate on.
The primary purpose of this major event mid-way is to pit daddy and daughter in war with each other and prompt the former to hang Juan after Vance sides with him in a battle between forces. “It is me you should have hung because now I hate you in a way I didn’t know a woman could hate!” In turn, Juan’s mother seeks her own revenge in our climax in the end, but not until daddy and daughter are reunited.
TB: It does get somewhat soapy in spots. I think some of the intensely melodramatic moments are a bit too much, and the story is almost too ambitious. The heart of the story is really the doomed relationship between father and daughter, which is even more tragic because we know how much Vance strives to be a mini-T.C.
JL: Ultimately, Vance swindles daddy out of all of his TC “notes” and takes full control of the ranch. The story gets a little nebulous on to the specifics of “how” she does it, but there are some delightful montages of her traveling from bank to bank throughout the southwest and ending up with Rip helping her out at the all important Anaheim bank. She succeeds with plenty of charm with both the owner and his wife, Mrs. Anaheim (Beulah Bondi).
TB: It’s interesting that the casting of this picture includes so many Hollywood lesbians. Judith Anderson, Blanche Yurka and Beulah Bondi were all supposedly gay. And Stanwyck herself was rumored to be a closeted lesbian. So to have Stanwyck interacting with these women at various intervals in the picture, we get an added dimension. I am sure the casting of this picture is not accidental and done by Mann to suggest other meaning.
JL: Ironically the film (in its writing) caters to the new post-war mentality of Rosie the Riveter returning to the kitchen and nursery; and it adapts this logic to the 19th century story.
After we modern viewers enjoy seeing Stanwyck’s Vance succeed so successfully on her own against daddy and men in general, we get a very compact ending with dull-as-dishwater Wendell Corey’s Rip saying that he will make her “my” wife and talk about his son taking over the ranch later. Had this been made in more recent decades, she would have been the one in control in the end, just as she always was in control of daddy.
TB: Exactly, the premise is flipped over on itself in the end, to appease the production code office probably and ensure profitability with conservative moviegoers. It’s a bit disappointing that they’ve done so much to suggest ways in which Vance Jeffords is not your average typical female, for it all to be undermined at the end like this.
JL: Speaking of daddy, it is fitting that our last scene with Walter Houston on screen shows him dying in grace, as he no doubt did off-screen three months after filming ended. T.C. says: “There will never be another like me.” I quite agree.
TB: And there will never be another like Vance either.
THE FURIES may currently be viewed on YouTube.