Old West Female Outlaws – Western Women In Fiction and Film


The Romance of Hollywood

Romantic notions about the outlaw west were first promoted by dime novels in the mid 1800’s. These were read by millions. Adventures of the exploits of male or female bandits were greatly exaggerated. For example, Belle Starr was touted as a “female Jesse James” and Calamity Jane met famous characters and performed braved deeds she never accomplished in real life.

The early Hollywood image most often portrayed Western women as innocent daughters, harmless tomboys or saloon girls with hearts of gold. The popular television series, Gunsmoke which ran from 1955-1975 started before I was born and ran clear past my high school years. This longest running and most popular Western starring Amada Blake as Miss Kitty Russell as a good hearted saloon girl and James Arness as sheriff Matt Dillon is responsible for many people’s concept of the West. In some ways this concept is true, in others it is pure fiction.

The Fictional Belle Starr

Shortly after Belle Starr’s death a book was written by Richard Fox and was published under the title Bella Starr: The Bandit Queen, or the Female Jesse James. It sold for 25 cents and greatly added to her fame as a notorious bandit. Since then, Belle has been the subject of many poems, books and films.

The first motion picture about Belle Starr was the 1928 silent film Court Martial, which starred Betty Compson. Another film simply titled Belle Starr ran in 1941 with Gene Tireny as Belle. The film, also starring Randolph Scott, was a highly romanticized version of her life.

In 1952, the film Montana Belle starring Jane Russell insinuated that Belle had reformed and tried to encourage the Daltons to turn themselves in. This film is the least credible of the lot, for Belle remained an outlaw all of her life and was not much of a reformer. This view of Belle is a reflection of the perception of women in the 1950’s as nurturers who, even though they may commit criminal acts, these acts are not “natural” and they instinctively lean toward a care giving role. Women were perceived in a similar way in the 1870’s, more likely to be led astray by a man than to be the instigator of crime themselves.

Calamity Jane-A Product of Fiction

Calamity Jane is a popular character who has been portrayed many times on radio, TV and in movies, as well as in dime novels. Through these dime novels she became a heroine, a larger than life character such as Billy the Kid and Wyatt Earp. Along with them, she became a symbol of the vanishing west.

From 1878 to the mid 1880’s Jane appeared in nearly 20 novels. She played a supporting role in Edward L. Wheeler’s Deadwood Dick series, books in which she was a tough-talking heroine. The plots were pure fiction which often centered around disguises and other melodramatic situations.

Calamity Jane in film has been played by sexy vixens and comediennes. In the 1930’s and 40’s her character was spoofed on radio in sketches in which Red Skelton played a character called Deadeye.

Jean Arthur played Calamity Jane with Gary Cooper as Wild Bill in the 1936 Cecil B. De Mille film The Plainsman. This film gave an exaggerated account of the virtually non-existent romance between Jane and Bill. Jane was portrayed as a tough frontier woman who secretly wants to be a wife and mother.

Jane appears in the 1949 film Calamity Jane and Sam Bass, which starred Yvonne DeCarlo as a tough Calamity Jane. This film was purely a work of fiction. Calamity Jane probably never even met Sam Bass in her own lifetime, let alone fell in love with him.

In 1953 the Doris Day musical Calamity Jane also set the tone of Jane as a rough and masculine woman who really seeks love and the protection of a man. Jane takes on a perky and cutesy image the real Jane would probably have despised. The real Jane was fun loving but not very attractive and her sexual explicitness, heavy drinking and cigar smoking definitely was not indicative of feminine charm. Many of the portrayals of her are not very true to her character, in fact it is unlikely she would even recognize herself as the perky Doris Day. However, she might, given accounts of her personality, see a sense of humor in it and give one of her riotous laughs.

More authentic portrayals of Jane have been attempted. A 1985 made-for-television film starring Jane Alexander went too far the other way by portraying Jane as a tragic victim rather the fun loving person she was according to accounts of her. In 1994 Anjelica Huston played Jane in a television series which was an adaptation of Larry McMurty’s Buffalo Girls. It was realistic in many ways, but also portrayed poor Jane as a victim. In 1995 Ellen Barkin played Jane in Wild Bill with Jeff Bridges. This is a close portrayal of Jane’s life and personality, even though romantic aspects were exaggerated. In the new HBO series Deadwood,the portrayal of Calamity Jane, played by Robin Weigert, is gritty and unromanticized.

Jane’s character appears to change along with the expected roles women at the time the movies were made. Between the 1930’s to the 1960’s she is portrayed as a woman in keeping with the contemporary goals of the time of desiring to settle down, find a husband and raise a family, despite her own protests to the contrary. Between the 1970’s to the late 1990’s her character more reflects society’s view of a more independent woman who does not need a man to make her life complete.

Etta Place in the Movies

Who hasn’t seen the 1969 film Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid starring Paul Newman and Robert Redford? When I was growing up it was all the rage with its theme song “Raindrops keep falling on my Head” and Butch and Sundance riding unicycles and squiring a lovely Etta Place, played by Katherine Ross, around like a couple of fun-loving schoolboys. Light-hearted and entertaining, this movie veered far from the ruthless people the two outlaws were in real life. The women got a film of their own with the 1976 movie Wanted: The Sundance Women. Once again Katherine Ross, who with her uncanny resemblance to the photo of Etta Place, played the starring role. According to the film critics, this movie is not true to history. I also do not believe it was very popular as I’ve yet to see a copy of it at the video store.

Other Films starring Women Outlaws

In 1980,there was a made for TV film of Cattle Annie and Little Britches. Also in 1980 Heaven’s Gate the film starring Kris Kristofferson and Isabella Hupert was released. This film was based on the story of Jim Averill and Ella Watson. The film, pure fiction, was one of the most costly films ever made and was a box office failure. Jim and Ella were not hanged at the film’s end which gave it an air of inaccuracy.

Big Nose Kate in Movies

The character or Kate appeared in the Western classic, The Gunfight at the OK Corral, released in 1957. In 1994 two movies were released concerning Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday, Tombstone and Wyatt Earp. In Tombstone, Kate was only a minor character, but in Wyatt Earp, Kate, played by Isabella Rossellini appeared in several major scenes.