June 16, 2009

Review of Annie Oakley

PBS's American Experience, the series that gave us We Shall Remain, also took a look at "the first American woman to become a superstar."

Annie OakleyIn 1926, just a few months before her death, Will Rogers described Annie Oakley as "the greatest woman rifle shot the world has ever produced." As the star attraction of Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show, she thrilled audiences around the world with her daring shooting feats. Her act helped fuel turn-of-the-century nostalgia for the vanished, mythical world of the American West. Over time she became an American legend--the loud, brassy, cocksure shooter celebrated in the musical "Annie Get Your Gun." But that legend had little to do with the real Annie Oakley. Although famous as a Western sharpshooter, Oakley lived her entire life east of the Mississippi. A champion in a man's sport, she forever changed ideas about the abilities of women, yet she opposed female suffrage. Her fame and fortune came from her skill with guns, yet she was a Quaker. This probing American Experience production examines the dramatic life of a uniquely American icon whose complex character manifested many of the paradoxes of the nation.Film Description

The Wild West Show

For our purposes, the key portion of Oakley's life is her stint with Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show.

TranscriptNARRATOR:  Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show was a lavish spectacle. Part melodrama, part circus, part rodeo. It offered a taste of life on the old frontier to an American that was rapidly industrializing.

In the crowded urban centers of the East, people flocked to Buffalo Bill’s show, eager for a glimpse of the Wild West.

PAUL FEES:  The whole world was fascinated with the West, and as it was becoming settled, those elements that were seen as the foundation of America’s uniqueness—the rugged individualism, and the adventure, and the conflict with Indians, and with buffalo, and all of those reckless parts of America’s past—seemed to be coming to an end. Buffalo Bill was a representative, a living representative, of that story, of that adventure. And it’s that adventure that he put into his Wild West Show.
And:NARRATOR:  Frank became Annie's press agent, playing on the deep fascination Easterners had with the Old West. He advertised his Ohio-born wife as “The Girl of the Western Plains,” and he never tired of telling the story of the night Chief Sitting Bull, the old Sioux warrior, asked if he could adopt Annie after watching her shoot the ace of hearts out of a card at 30 paces.

DONALD FIXICO:  When Sitting Bull first saw she had these amazing abilities to handle a rifle, and her keen eyesight, then obviously she had some endowed power of some sort, that he recognized immediately. When Indian people look at such individuals that have been empowered like that, then we have the greatest respect.

NARRATOR:  Sitting Bull christened his new daughter “Watanya Cecilia: Little Sure Shot.” For a time he toured with Annie in Buffalo Bill’s show, but the great chief soon left, saying he had grown sick of "the noises and the multitudes of men."
Some contemporary reviews of the Wild West in New York:Staten Island

Madison Square Garden

The New York Times, November 25, 1886

The third epoch ... is the cattle ranch, illustrating the cowboy in his glory, riding the bucking mustang and lassoing the bounding and bumptious steer. Suddenly comes the curdling whoop of the Comanchee and Kiowas, led by Seven-Fleas, Son-of-a-Gun, Loaded-for-Bear, Busted-Flush, Peach-Blow-Spittoon, Two-Buckets-of-Red-Paint, and other famous chiefs, who go into the hair-raising business with a painstaking enthusiasm which fanned the audience to an uproar. Just at the most exciting point of the massacre, a troop of cowboys arrive and the noble red men are sent to the happy hunting grounds in a body.

Oakley's role as a proto-feminist: In a Man's World.

Comment:  Annie Oakley uses the same mix of talking heads, still photographs, and reenactments as in We Shall Remain. It's about as good as those documentaries.

Of particular interest are rare movies showing Oakley and the Wild West Show in action. I didn't know films of either existed, but they do.

One key point the documentary makes is that traveling shows such as Buffalo Bill's were a primary source of entertainment in the pre-motion picture era. The shows began dying out when Westerns began offering the same thrills in theaters.

It seems the Wild West Show was even more instrumental than I thought in forming America's perceptions of Indians. The Plains stereotypes migrated from reality to real Indians in stage shows to phony Indians on the screen.

For more on the subject, see A Brief History of Native Stereotypes.

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