Monday, May 07, 2007

Tonight's Movie: Westward the Women (1951)

I enjoyed WESTWARD THE WOMEN as much as anything I've watched in the last few months. The film tells the fascinating tale of a large group of women who trekked from Missouri to California, facing Indian attacks, floods, perilous mountain passes, and the desert. What makes the story all the more interesting is that the women accomplished their journey with the aid of just a handful of men.

John McIntire plays a benevolent rancher who sets out with a trail guide (Robert Taylor) to bring "good women" from the East to his California valley, where women are nonexistent. Roughly 140 women sign up, after being warned that one in three of them won't make it to California. Early on, most of the trailhands who had been hired to accompany the women abandon the wagon train. The women, who are seeking new lives or romance in the west, aren't deterred by the dangers and press on with the journey.

Taylor and McIntire are excellent as the tough guide and his kindly employer. Henry Nakamura provides needed levity as Taylor's spunky Japanese cook, and Pat Conway (son of MGM director Jack Conway) is a lovestruck hired hand who is the only other man who remains with the wagon train.

The women include French actress Denise Darcel and Julie Bishop as a couple of former showgirls who are allowed to join the wagon train when they promise to reform. Hope Emerson is a tough fisherman's widow who speaks of her wagon as though it were a ship. Beverly Dennis is moving as a young unwed pregnant girl hoping for a new life far from home -- this seems a relatively daring plotline for 1951 -- and Lenore Lonergan is particularly amusing as a girl whose meek "librarian" looks, glasses and all, bely her deadly accuracy with a gun.

I had to watch the film split over a couple of nights, and before I could finish it I felt like I'd had to put down a page-turning good book. It was a highly engrossing story, with an emotionally satisfying ending. I was sorry to part with the characters and not be able to follow them further as they settled into their new lives.

Viewer advisory: Young children may find some aspects of the storyline disturbing. As the women were promised when they signed on, the trail would not be kind to many of them. The violence is not overly graphic, but the body count is fairly high, and at times the deaths are shockingly unexpected; one sequence in particular might trouble children. This is not your typical cowboys-and-Indians shoot-'em-up.

WESTWARD THE WOMEN was directed by William A. Wellman, who also directed a film reviewed here last week, IRON CURTAIN. The script was based on a story by another great director, Frank Capra. The movie was filmed in black and white, with a running time of 118 minutes. As an aside, while some sources, such as Leonard Maltin, TCM, and the video box itself, list this as a 1951 film, IMDb lists it as 1952.

The movie was filmed on location outside Kanab, Utah. An interesting featurette on the location filming can be seen at the TCM website here.

Cast trivia: Julie Bishop was in SPRING MADNESS, reviewed here last week, billed under her earlier acting name, Jacqueline Wells. Bishop's daughter, actress Pamela Susan Shoop, may not be a familiar name to many, but her face will doubtless be familiar to anyone who watched TV in the '70s and '80s.

WESTWARD THE WOMEN has been released on VHS. It can also be seen on Turner Classic Movies.

Vote here for this movie to be released on DVD. This seems to be a popular movie, as there are already nearly 500 votes requesting a DVD release.

The trailer for WESTWARD THE WOMEN can be seen here.

April 2012 Update: It's been just about five years since I wrote this review, and there is great news to share: WESTWARD THE WOMEN comes to DVD at long last, via the Warner Archive. Even better, it will include a commentary track by film historian Scott Eyman and the "making of" documentary short CHALLENGE THE WILDERNESS (1951).

June 2015 Update: A WESTWARD THE WOMEN Photo Gallery.

2 Comments:

Blogger Carol said...

I've just learned
Lenore Lonergan was
related to me. What a thrill to view her excellent movies.
Westward the Women
is one of my favorites.
Thank you,
Carol Johnson

5:52 PM  
Blogger Laura said...

What a wonderful discovery, Carol! Lenore was one of my favorite things about WESTWARD THE WOMEN -- a really fun part.

Thanks for sharing --

Best wishes,
Laura

5:57 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home

Newer›  ‹Older