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In 1935, Director George Stevens' long apprenticeship as a cameraman and director of comedy shorts and B-movies finally paid off when he directed Katharine Hepburn in the superb Alice Adams. Suddenly, at age 30, Stevens was the hottest (and youngest) director in Hollywood.
It's proof of how highly regarded Stevens was at RKO that his follow-up film was Annie Oakley (1935). A fictionalized life of the markswoman known as "Little Sure Shot," it's the story of backwoods girl whose remarkable skill with the rifle makes her the star of the flamboyant Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show. The rivalry between Annie and fellow sharpshooter Toby Walker (Preston Foster) turns to love, and Annie also develops a strong friendship with another member of the troupe, Chief Sitting Bull.
The star was Barbara Stanwyck, an established leading lady with a string of successful films for such directors as Frank Capra and William Wellman. But Stanwyck had been unhappy with her recent films at Warner Brothers, and was once again freelancing. Annie Oakley was her first film for RKO, and her first-ever western. It was a genre which would become one of her favorites, both in feature films and in the long-running television series, The Big Valley. Annie Oakley was also George Stevens' first western. With Alice Adams he had proved how well he could handle Americana. Now he had the chance to portray historical, picturesque Americana, and he was up to the task, depicting the era with great style, and the meticulous attention to detail which would mark his later period films, like Shane (1953), and Giant (1956).
Critics were delighted that Stanwyck once again had a vehicle worthy of her talents. "It comes as a gratifying relief from the banal roles she has been required to fill heretofore," wrote Bland Johaneson in the New York Daily Mirror. Andre Sennwald of the New York Times also thought it was "her most striking performance in a long long time," and that the comedy of Sitting Bull coping with the problems of the white man's civilization "achieves a fine picaresque quality."
Decades later, critic Pauline Kael found that Annie Oakley holds up admirably, in sometimes surprising ways. Stanwyck, Kael wrote, is "consistently fresh and believable, and she brings a physical charge to the role. The film, directed by George Stevens, makes some of the points about race he made later in Giant, (and that Arthur Penn made in Little Big Man, 1970), but here they're lighter and better. They seem to grow casually out of the American material; the movie feels almost improvised."
Annie Oakley's success was also a personal one for Stanwyck and Stevens. Stanwyck was signed to nonexclusive contracts with both RKO and 20th Century Fox. Less than two years later, Stanwyck landed the role that would finally put her in the top ranks of female stars: Stella Dallas (1937). Stevens would spend the rest of the 1930's going from success to success, demonstrating his versatility with musicals (Swing Time, 1936), comedies (Vivacious Lady, 1938), and dramas (Gunga Din, 1939). It was a winning streak that would only be halted by his service in World War II.
The story of Annie Oakley would also prove durable. In 1946, it was the basis for Irving Berlin's smash Broadway musical, Annie Get Your Gun, starring Ethel Merman, and the film version of it starring Betty Hutton in 1948. Recent revivals have featured stars like Mary Martin, Bernadette Peters, and Reba McEntire. There was an Annie Oakley TV series in the early 1950s with Gail Davis. Barbara Stanwyck's Annie, less well-known, is also less broad, more faceted, and one of the actress's finest performances.
Director: George Stevens
Producer: Cliff Reid
Screenplay: Joel Sayre, John Twist, based on a story by Joseph A. Fields, Ewart Adamson
Editor: Jack Hively
Cinematography: J. Roy Hunt
Art Direction: Van Nest Polglase, Perry Ferguson
Music: Alberto Colombo
Principal Cast: Barbara Stanwyck (Annie Oakley), Preston Foster (Toby Walker), Melvyn Douglas (Jeff Hogarth), Moroni Olsen (Buffalo Bill), Pert Kelton (Vera Delmar), Andy Clyde (MacIvor), Chief Thunderbird (Sitting Bull).
BW-91m. Closed captioning.
by Margarita Landazuri