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April 8, 1995
[Crossposted from H-Film <H-Film@Msu.Edu>, moderated by Steven Mintz <SMintz@UH.EDU>
>Date: Sat, 8 Apr 1995
>From: Susan Luftschein <LUFTSCHE@newschool.edu>
I have two queries for the list:
First, I have a student working on depictions of women in the frontier, and she'd like to include some film references in her project. Specifically, films that feature legendary female characters, like Calamity Jane or Annie Oakley. Any suggestions?
Second, another student is researching the resurgence of interest in the western. I know some articles have been published recently on this phenomenon, but not being a film historian, I do not know the bibliographic info. Can anyone recommend some good recent articles on this topic?
Prostitution in Film Westerns (2 posts) Comments: cc: firstname.lastname@example.org
>Date: Fri, 7 Apr 1995 09:00:11 -0500
>From: Cathy and Bob Spude <Bob_Spude@nps.gov>
To continue the discussion on Prostitution in Film Westerns:
I would be interested in knowing what Darrell Wilson's friend's topic is. I find the selection of "Stagecoach" and "The Unforgiven" interesting, but not particularly inciteful treatments of prostitution in the American West. They are, rather, interesting treatments of 1950s and 1980s popular culture's attitude about prostitution. In "Stagecoach," the soiled dove is the coarse heroine who saves the life of mother and babe largely through her grit and golden heart. The myth of the golden-hearted prostitute ran rampant throughout popular culture in the 1940s and 1950s as the elderly miners, cowboys and madams were beginning to put into writing their reminicsenses of the "good old days." These women were glamorized by the men who had patronized them, as none would dare admit they had consorted with common whores. The elderly ex-madames elaborated on those stories, justifying their own social existance; a sort of one-up-womanship between the respectable and not-so-respectible women of the western frontier towns. Ford's portrayal was hardly different. To a culture that admired such wifely attributes as nursing the sick and caring for the helpless, and at the same time was distainful of snooty women who looked down upon those who might be considered "common," the woman of John Wayne's character's affections was imminently admirable.
Eastwood does no better with the "Unforgiven." While I am not as familiar with the movie, I do seem to remember some prostitutes hiring Eastwood's character to avenge some wrong. These women were grittier, coarser and probably a little more truthful in depiction than Ford's. However, at the time the movie was made, popular culture did not particularly care much about the morality of prostitution, so it never becomes an issue in the movie. The women's occupation hardly seems to have much relevance to the story, other than the fact that they do not have access to justice in the same sense that other women might. They are used as a cinematic device to create a sense of identification for the audience, for who in the 1980s (or the 1990s for that matter) truly feels that they have access to justice in a system that seems over-run (in the popular mind) with money hungry lawyers and judges more intent on protecting the rights of criminals than of victims. Innocent prostitutes with a powerful gunfighter to champion them are good draws at the movie theator.
John Nichols' (University of Pittsburg) suggestion to look at "Bad Girls" falls into a much more vicious trap. That movie was pure and simple titilation, having no bearing on anything resembling what prostitution actually was in the frontier west, and, I would hope, not much bearing on what popular culture finds interesting drama. Gutsy women riding through the desert with hardly anything on, flinging around guns and changing their scanty costumes in every scene has nothing of interest to instruct us about the depiction of prostitution in film, or even popular culture. (Did I just ENDORSE this movie!!?)
A few commentors suggested Wilson's friend look at "McCabe and Mrs. Miller," and in that I would heartily agree. It is the first, and perhaps only western that strove to depict prostitution in a somewhat more realistic setting. The anonymous crib girls are not particularly attractive and are herded around like chattels. The madame is a savy business woman who does not fall into the same trap as those she manages, but who ultimately is consumed by the drugs that accompany her profession. Depressing? Yes. Realistic? Closer than anything else I've seen on the big screen, if you can get around Warren Beatty.
It might be interesting to consider Doris Day's depiction of Calamity Jane in the 1950s musical of the same name. The actual Calamity was as coarse, belligerant and promiscuous as they came in the 1880s; some could -- and have -- argued that she was a prostitute. Ms. Day's breezy, wholesome, innocent, and sparkly rendition is just about as opposite as they come. The film reeks of popular culture as well as propriety (Calamity and Wild Bill get married in the end!). We could go on at length on censorship; probably the best example of the feud with censors is "The Outlaw" with Jane Russell. Again, in the end, this fallen women is redeemed by the passing remark that Billy the Kid and she had gotten married. After the movie "The Outlaw" more sex scenes got by the censors.
I put David La Vere's suggestion -- "Cheyenne Social Club" -- somewhere between the calamity discussed above and "Bad Girls". Docile sex kittens trying to seduce the confirmed old bachelors fresh off the range, and petulant because they have no business is pure sexual fantasy on the part of 1960s male movie makers. It has no relationship whatsoever to the frontier prostitution of the late 19th century in the American West.
I have a rather large bibliography of decent academic publications on prostitution in the west in the pre-Reform era. (This was gathered while doing historical and archeological research in the former tenderloin of Skagway, Alaska within Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park for my PhD dissertation at the University of Colorado-Boulder in the Anthropology Department). I can send it along if Mr. Wilson's friend is interested. But then, he/she is probably more interested in the popular culture aspect than in what really happened back in the good old days.
>Date: Fri, 7 Apr 1995
>From: Cathy Spude <Cathy_Spude@nps.gov>
I had another thought or two about the portrayal of prostitutes in movies. A couple of other postings had mentioned "One Thousand Pieces of Gold," an excellent movie that was generally shown only in artsy theators when first released, and which has already appeared on network television. The original novel was based on the life of a Chinese woman who was sold for the purposes of prostitution by her parents in northern China in the 1870s. She ended up in a mining camp in Idaho, where she was "won" in a poker room bet, and set free by her new "owner." She went on to acquire a great deal of respect by the community and to homestead some land. Her story is extraordinary, and the movie only does partial justice to her.
What is interesting about the movie is how the whole subject of her prostitution is ignored, almost deliberately hidden. The movie makers appear to have made a point of imbuing her with a morality that was not hers to control. When the movie character succeeds in rejecting the advances of the saloon owner and his customers, the film-makers try to make her seem even more gutsy and courageous than if she had been compromised. I believe that treatment betrays the real Polly, whose ability to overcome the obstacles of Chinese women in America at the time was all the more admireable because of her treatment.
"1000 Pieces of Gold" is a wonderful movie, for the acting, the cinematography, the scenery, and for the rather realistic portrayal of mining camps. It becomes all that much more enjoyable if one reads the book as well.
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