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Tuesday, 17 June 2014

Classic Film Review: Annie Oakley (1935)

Annie Oakley stars Barbara Stanwyck as the title character, an expert shooter plucked out of obscurity and made into a star. She takes a shine to fellow shooter Toby Walker (Preston Foster) but their agent Jeff Hogarth (Melvyn Douglas) also has his eye on her. While Annie and Toby's relationship flourishes in secret, he intervenes in a scuffle which may have lasting consequences, both for his future with Annie and his career. The film also stars Moroni Olsen as Buffalo Bill and Pert Kelton as Vera Delmar, an old associate of Toby Walker's.

This is certainly a romanticised biography but Stanwyck is more enjoyable as Annie than I had expected. Occasionally, the switches between her rough charm and wise ways are a little jarring and the film is heavy handed in showing her early 'benevolence' to Toby but, on the whole, Stanwyck inhabits the part reasonably well. Preston Foster as Walker is equally enjoyable. My only previous experience of him was in The Harvey Girls (1946) and it was nice to see him in a leading role that did justice to his screen persona. As for the rest of the cast, there are a lot of small parts that make the film feel less artificial although, despite enjoying Pert Kelton, I couldn't really work out the point of her character.

For a 1935 film, it still looks very good. The speeded-up fight scenes obviously feel dated but the Wild West showman scenes are probably as enjoyable to watch now as they would've been to their original audience. The choreography and planning is astounding and some of the horse stunts are brilliant. Perhaps what lets the film down most are the racial slurs which slide between demeaning and interrogatory. There are moments when you do glimpse an argument against racism but at other points it indulges in racism stereotypes. Some of them are meant to be taken lightly and almost work - Chief Sitting Bull (Chief Thunderbird) trying to camouflage himself on a street in full headdress for instance - but others just don't. However, as products of contemporary attitudes, they can be overlooked.

Overall, Annie Oakley is a good film, not great but enjoyable by any standard. Barbara Stanwyck certainly tries to get into the role and, in the end, the nice little relationship that develops between her and Foster is what keeps the film going.

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