Stanwyck, the sharpshooter

Barbara Stanwyck: The Signature Collection

By now, nearly every great film has been released on DVD, and “signature collection” box sets of great actors, directors and genres have been reaching into the cinematic dregs for years. They’re less “signature collections” than “completist collections,” really, but occasionally the studios will stir up an underappreciated gem that genuinely deserves to be spruced and spotlighted.

The newly released Barbara Stanwyck: The Signature Collection doesn’t contain a Double Indemnity or a Baby Face, but it does have a few solid vehicles for Stanwyck’s deceptively wholesome sensuality. Executive Suite is a decent 1950s corporate drama directed by Robert Wise and featuring a stellar cast that includes William Holden and Frederic March, but Stanwyck is only a supporting player.

Much more pertinent to the cult of Stanwyck is George Stevens’ 1935 Annie Oakley, a gregarious, rootin’-tootin’ western hagiography. Coming off a string of scandalously sexual roles in the early ’30s, Stanwyck dials it down to play the legendary sharpshooter as a sweet, small-town girl. Instead of piling on the spunkiness, Stanwyck highlights Oakley’s simple, pre-feminist confidence in her superior marksmanship.

After developing a reputation for dead-eye quail hunting, Oakley is roped into a shooting competition with the famed New York marksman Toby Walker. Oakley shoots Walker to a draw, but ends up throwing the competition because “he was just too pretty.” Walker is played by mustachioed rake Preston Foster, who, indeed, embodied a very 1935-ish idea of male prettiness.

Oakley and Walker are both signed to star in Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West Show, where they become romantically involved despite maintaining a staged rivalry for the public. Typical of the Hollywood films from the 1930s, Annie Oakley is breathlessly staged silliness—a mix of picaresque comedy, light romance, petty tragedy and sudden bursts of action. In other words, delightful.