January 27, 2015
Woman They Almost Lynched is a funhouse Western, exaggerating and undermining the genre’s familiar tropes. Its Civil War border town is named Border City, with the line between North and South cut down the middle of the town bar. Every male character is an outsized historical personage (Jesse James, Paul Quantrill and Cole Younger all make appearances), but the plot shunts them aside to focus on the women – who shoot straighter and punch stiffer than their male counterparts. Even the iron-fisted mayor is a woman. The film inhabits its inverted world so convincingly that by the end it seems normal, almost sincere, and its broad, swaggering characters gain some measure of pathos. It is the only Hollywood film I can think of that builds a sympathetic portrait of a matriarchal society (at least until John Carpenter’s Ghosts of Mars). Only Allan Dwan could have made it. A prolific worker since the silent era, Dwan had fun where he could, and playfully subverted all manner of genres. He had already taken the Western down a peg in in his 1916 parody Manhattan Madness , made with Douglas Fairbanks, Sr. Woman They Almost Lynched further displays his natural inclination towards play, and it is now available on Blu-ray from Olive Films, so future generations can now puzzle over its beautiful excesses for decades to come.
Allan Dwan signed with Republic Pictures in 1945, “set to receive $1,000 a week for 52 weeks per year, plus five percent of the net profits of all his pictures” (Frederic Lombardi, Allan Dwan and the Rise and Decline of the Hollywood Studios). In 1935 Herbert Yates merged six Poverty Row studios under the umbrella of Republic Pictures, who quickly became known for their adventure serials and B-Westerns starring John Wayne. They were built for quick turnarounds and quicker profits. Though their bread was buttered in programmers, they had four categories of productions, as described in Republic Studios: Between Poverty Row and the Majors: Jubilee (“Westerns with a seven day schedule and $30,000 budget (later $50,000)”), Anniversary (“Westerns, action/adventure and musicals with a two-week schedule and budgets up to $120,000 (later $200,000)”), Deluxe (varied subjects with 22 day schedules and $300,000 budgets (later 500,000)), and Premiere (one month shooting schedules and million-dollar budgets). Dwan worked in all of these categories, in every genre. His first project for Republic was the wartime screwball comedy Rendezvous with Annie (1945), and went on to do musicals (Calendar Girl), “frontier operettas” (Northwest Outpost), lyrical children’s films (Driftwood), and Depression-era comic fables (The Inside Story). His received his largest budget for the “Premiere” production of Sands of Iwo Jima (1949), but would never get that level of investment again.
Woman They Almost Lynched was probably an “Anniversary” production, clocking in at 90 minutes though having few sets – the whole film takes place on one Western backlot street. The film was based on a short story of the same name by Michael Fessier, first published in the Saturday Evening Post in 1951. Steve Fisher adapted the story into a screenplay, though Dwan didn’t remember him fondly. When Peter Bogdanovich asked Dwan if the writer understood that the film would be played as a parody, he responded, “I don’t think he’d know now that it wasn’t serious. If the actors said the words, it was OK with him.” The words tell the story of Border City, which straddles the Missouri-Arkansas border during the Civil War. Mayor Delilah Courtney (Nina Varela) has declared that the town is neutral, and executes by hanging anyone that stirred up Union or Confederate sentiment. When the mercenary band of Quantrill’s Raiders roll into town, the Mayor puts them on notice that they have to leave in 24 hours. Arriving at the same time as William Quantrill (Brian Donlevy) is Sally Maris (Joan Leslie), a city girl traveling to meet her saloon owner brother. When her brother gets shot and killed, Sally is burdened by his debts, and has to run the saloon herself instead of being thrown into debtors’ prison. Sally falls for a dashing Confederate spy named Lance Horton (John Lund), who wants to keep the renegade Quantrill from accessing the town’s lead mines. All the while Quantrill’s cantankerous wife Kate (Audrey Totter) has an obsession with knocking off Sally. Kate was once the fiance to Sally’s brother, and Kate now wishes to wipe that history off the face of the Earth. Dwan deftly balances these overlapping narratives in a film that hurtles along with no wasted motions.
The heart of the film lies in the relationship that forges between Kate, Sally and the saloon girls (one of whom is played by Ann Savage of Detour, her last screen role for 30+ years). Each has learned how to live in the world of men, adapted to it and suffered for it. In Woman They Almost Lynched, Sally represents the promise of an independent, distinctly feminine future. Both Mayor Courtney and Kate have carved out their islands of independence by acting more masculine, by constantly indulging their capacities for violence. The Mayor lynches people with little provocation, and littler evidence. Coded as a “spinster”, she uses violence as sexual release by other means. Kate is a fount of uncontrollable rage, who gets her joy by rendering William Quantrill powerless. When she starts on one of her hate binges, all Quantrill can do is stand back and shrug his shoulders. In a remarkable transmutation, Kate is even able to turn the nightclub song into an act of violence, attacking Sally’s brothers with one of their old favorite tunes. Audrey Totter is a force of nature, an open nerve ready to lash out at everyone around her. She is explosive, abusive, and hilarious. Joan Leslie said that, “Audrey later told me she played the whole thing for farce, while I was doing it straight.” This dynamic is evident in their famous bar brawl, in which Totter badgers her into a scrap. Leslie is earnest, the fear and regret rippling across her face, while Totter’s expression is locked into a snarl. Leslie again: “I had a terrible time with it. I was supposed to hit Audrey, and I just couldn’t. Not hit her on the face! Director Allan Dwan tried to explain, and Audrey told me to go on and do it. Somehow it did get done, but it was a very difficult thing to do.” This is a perfect pairing for Dwan – Leslie playing it straight and sincere while Totter is the clown, destabilizing things from within.
Jeanine Basinger described their relationship as “fighting over the issue of what it means to be a woman. In fact, the whole movie is structured on this very issue.” After Sally bests Kate in a quickdraw in the middle of the street, she yells, “Why don’t you try acting like a woman? You were born a woman but look at you. A bloodthirsty female. A disgrace to all women.” Instead of being content with being as good as a man, Sally insists on the integrity of being a woman – and urges Kate to live up to that standard. And the feminine code of the film is not one of sensitivity and lace, but of assertiveness and principle. Leslie has the grace and goodness of Henry Fonda in My Darling Clementine. In the most moving moment of the film, Kate gives a monologue about her years of violent marriage: “At first I fought him. I tried every way I knew to try and escape. And later on I…I became just like him. Passion for vengeance and hatred. No trust in anybody, suspicious of everything. And all the time, all the time it was Quantrill I really hated for what he had done to me. So I took my rage out on the world. All hail the awakening of the ex-Kitty McCoy, cafe singer. Two years too late. Two centuries and a dead heart too late. Why don’t human beings ever learn?”