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During the 1950s, Barbara Stanwyck starred in a string of westerns that exploited the aggression and independence associated with her star image. The unofficial series, which included Cattle Queen of Montana (1954), The Violent Men (1955), The Maverick Queen (1956), and Trooper Hook (1957), culminated in Forty Guns (1957), the Sam Fuller western so beloved by the directors of the French New Wave. This period is generally brushed off as a time when the aging Stanwyck is trying to re-establish her niche in Hollywood, or worse, as a period of decline. After the 1957 release of Forty Guns, she did not make another film until the baroque Walk on the Wild Side, which was released in 1962. However, Stanwyck soon found her place on the small screen, first in The Barbara Stanwyck Show, which won her an Emmy, and then in The Big Valley. Later, she costarred in the mini-series The Thorn Birds and lent her considerable star presence to Dynasty and its spinoff, The Colbys.
It is fitting that two of the 1950s westerns feature "queen" in the title, because the word not only suits Stanwyck's regal bearing but also indicates the power and authority her characters wielded in most of these films. Women characters were conventionally of two types in classic westerns: They were either the school marm/settler's wife who represents the civilized values of marriage, family, and education in the untamed wilderness; or they were the rough and rowdy saloon girls, Indians, and "half-breeds," who belonged to the wilderness. Neither archetype conventionally represented power or authority, which is signified in westerns by mastery over weapons and horses. Stanwyck's series from the 1950s stands out not only because her characters can match any man with a gun or on a horse but also because they seem to reject the conservative values of the 1950s. During World War II, women had worked at male-dominated jobs and positions while the men were at war, but in the postwar era, they were pressured to give up those jobs to returning soldiers. Reflecting this change in cultural attitudes, Hollywood genre films, especially melodramas and romantic dramas, worked hard to return women to traditional roles. Stanwyck's westerns, including The Maverick Queen, seem to fly in the face of that trend.
In the film, "The Maverick Queen" refers to both Stanwyck's character, Kit Banion, and the hotel and saloon that she owns in the Colorado territory. Kit has formed an alliance with the infamous outlaws Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, assisting them in their plans to rob trains and rustle cattle. Kit and Sundance are involved in a relationship, though Kit clearly has the upper hand. After Sundance returns from being on the trail, he rushes to see Kit, but she pushes him away, griping, "Oh, for heaven's sake, take a bath first." The Queen begins to change after Jeff Younger, cousin to legendary outlaws Cole and Jim Younger, comes to town. She decides that Jeff is the "better man" she has been searching for and gives him a job as a faro dealer in her saloon. As her feelings for Jeff grow, she invites him in on the next train robbery and admits her connection to the Hole in the Wall Gang.
Vying for Jeff's affections is ranch owner Lucy Lee, another character that thwarts the female archetypes in westerns. As much at home on the cattle trail as in the ranch house, Lucy buys and sells cattle, orders the ranch hands around, and is in charge of destiny of her property. Powerful and authoritative, Lucy is the equivalent to Kit except she is on the right side of the law. The climax revolves around Jeff's true identity: He is actually a Pinkerton agent in disguise who is determined to bring in Butch Cassidy and the Hole in the Wall Gang.
The Maverick Queen was based on a novel attributed to Zane Grey, though the book may have been completed by Grey's eldest son, Romer. Still, the novel was in the style of the elder Grey, who happened to be Stanwyck's favorite western author. Apparently, the Old West fascinated Stanwyck. In one interview, she referred to the era's gunfighters, pioneers, and outlaws as "our royalty, our aristocracy." She noted, "All the immigrants coming over on the covered wagons and atop the trains, the little Jewish peddler with his calico and ginghams on his back, the good men, the bad men, they all made this country." After Stanwyck's divorce from Robert Taylor was finalized in 1951, she kept their ranch and continued to ride the horses. She was in prime riding shape for the westerns she made during the 1950s, and she was inclined to perform her own stunts. Forty Guns includes a dangerous scene in which her foot is caught in a stirrup, and she is dragged across the prairie. In The Maverick Queen, the Sundance Kid chases Kit across the wilderness at full gallop, forcing her to ride down a rocky incline, which can be a treacherous maneuver for horses. The stunt required the sure hands and steady seat that Stanwyck clearly exhibits.
Unfortunately, Republic Pictures was not up to the potential in the material. Republic, originally one of Hollywood's small, niche studios specializing in serials and programmers, had expanded its budgets during the war years. Studio head Herbert Yates had begun to tackle serious films with major stars, including Johnny Guitar (1954) and The Quiet Man (1952), which won John Ford the Academy Award for Best Direction. However, Republic's attempts to enter the big leagues with major stars in high-profile films only exposed its Poverty Row origins. Aside from Stanwyck, The Maverick Queen featured the studio's stock players, including Barry Sullivan, Scott Brady, and Mary Murphy, who were not in her league. Murphy in particular lacked the charisma and weight to hold the screen in her scenes with Stanwyck.
Director Joe Kane had a reputation for working quickly, and The Maverick Queen was his fourth film of 1955. Whether Kane cut too many corners, or whether he preferred to focus his energies on chase sequences, confrontations, and fight scenes, his directorial choices didn't always bring out the best in the material. Kane opted to depict the exposition and complex interrelationships in extended dialogue scenes. For example, a voice-over narration opens the film with commentary on the lawlessness of the post-Civil War era, which is then followed by a lengthy dialogue sequence between two incidental characters who reveal the entire backstory of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid as well as the set-up in which Jeff tries to infiltrate the gang. Not only was this a tedious approach to exposition, but the eye-lines between the characters in the conversation scene do not match as the camera cuts from one man to the other.
The Maverick Queen was shot in Trucolor and Naturama, which were Republic's color and widescreen processes, respectively. Trucolor offered bold hues that were bright and vivid, while Naturama flaunts the beautiful Colorado landscapes, though at 2:35 to 1, the process was narrower than CinemaScope. Whatever the film's shortcomings, a bravura performance by Stanwyck combined with the location shooting near Silverton, Colorado, where George Roy Hill's more famous Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) would be shot thirteen years later, make The Maverick Queen worthwhile viewing.
Producer: Herbert J. Yates
Director: Joseph Kane
Screenplay: Kenneth Gamet, DeVallon Scott (screenplay); Zane Grey (novel)
Cinematography: Jack Marta
Editing: Richard L. Van Enger
Art Direction: Walter Keller
Costume Design: Adele Palmer
Music: Victor Young. Song "The Maverick Queen" by Victor Young and Ned Washington, sung by Joni James.
Cast: Barbara Stanwyck (Kit Banion), Barry Sullivan (Jeff Younger), Scott Brady (Sundance), Mary Murphy (Lucy Lee), Wallace Ford (Jamie), Howard Petrie (Butch Cassidy), Jim Davis (Stranger, the real Jeff Younger), Emile Meyer (Malone), Walter Sande (Sheriff Wilson), George Keymas (Muncie)
by Susan Doll