Review by Cullen Gallagher
Posted on 30 July 2009
Source Sony DVD
“Put that money on the table or get ready to feel lead!” orders Phoebe Titus as she holds a shotgun on two lackeys who robbed her the night before. Although played by Jean Arthur (who was known for playing bold, independent female characters that could be both tough and romantic at the same time), this certainly isn’t the same actress we’re familiar with from Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, History Is Made at Night or Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Gone is the coiffed, good-humored sophisticate that was so endeared by audiences — that Jean Arthur has been replaced by one who’s face is covered in dirt and is clad in jeans, vest and cowboy hat (which is more in tune with Arthur’s performance as Calamity Jane four years earlier in The Plainsman). With the whole saloon at her knees, Phoebe gets her money back with the assistance of newly arrived Peter Muncie, but she could care less that he’s played by the soft-cheeked matinee idol-in-training William Holden. No — her eyes are on retribution and nothing else. “Timmons, take that whip and give Longstreet five of the best lashes you got in you,”she tells the crooks. “Longstreet, you do the same to him. And if either of you eases up, I’ll make it twenty.” Money in hand, Phoebe listens as the whip cracks off-screen. “Harder! That’s more like it.”
It is the eve of the Civil War, and Phoebe is the only white American woman in the burgeoning locale of Tucson in pre-statehood Arizona. Mission accomplished, she exists the saloon (“Brother, there goes a female army,”exclaims Peter Muncie) and heads across town to resume her livelihood as pie maker extraordinaire. Dropping the rifle, she dives straight into the oven and extracts several scrumptious looking treats (which are promptly purchased by hungry men) and then starts tossing the dough around, readying another batch. Here we see the true masculine/feminine dichotomy of her name at work. She is Phoebe – woman, but not just any woman, the mythological offspring of Uranus and Gaia, of Heaven and Earth – but she is also Titus, like the Roman emperor Titus Flavius Vespasianus, or perhaps it is Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus, another emperor albeit fictional.
This tension between society’s expectations of women and what Phoebe must do to survive is an on-going conflict in Arizona. When Peter says (coyly trying to find out if she is single) that she couldn’t afford to live in Tucson without a man, Phoebe snaps, “Eat your pie!”And when he flirts with her, saying that if she’ll put on a dress he will serenade her, Phoebe is outraged not at his forwardness but the insinuation that she must change her clothing: “You’ll serenade me the way I am!”Their relationship is a fascinating, fluid dialectic of gender: with his pretty-boy looks and her rugged demeanor, at different points in the narrative they each take their turns as “man”and “woman.” At first, he plays the wandering man resistant to being domesticated, but by the film’s end it is he who yearns to settle down and Phoebe who keeps sending him back out into the world for various “favors”(such as returning with 500 heads of cattle from Nebraska as a condition for their marriage). And instead of just being the woman left at home during all of this, it is Phoebe who is both financing and overseeing the construction of their home.
Phoebe’s biggest threat to society isn’t her prowess with a gun, but her keen business sense. Recognizing importer Lazarus Ward to be the price-inflating skunk that he is, Phoebe decides to start her own company to bring salable goods out West. Her success threatens not only Lazarus’ business, but also his masculinity (as an insult, upon driving into town her first wagon train she yells at him to start making pies). He is impotent to her rising success until the arrival of two-faced Jefferson Carteret (slimy villain supreme Warren William, who sleazed his way through Pre-Coders like Employee’s Entrance and Upperworld), who seemingly offers Phoebe friendly while covertly plotting her demise with Lazarus.
Steadfastly independent throughout the movie, only once does she break her credo, “I don’t ask nor get favors for being what I was born.”After being tricked into “borrowing “$15,000 from Jefferson that was stolen from her in the first place, Phoebe confronts Jefferson with her accusations — and hides behind the fact that she has a man to answer for her words. It’s the first moment of weakness she has shown in the entire movie, and it suggests the possibility that “love” has finally tamed her, and that she has fully taken on the role of the more conventional, submissive woman. However, such a simple reading would be both reactionary and dismissive of not only all that has come before, but all that is left to come in the movie’s final act.
By announcing Peter will stand up for her, Phoebe has arranged for the classic Western conclusion — the showdown between two men. It’s significant that the only moment when Phoebe becomes plays the conventional female allows Peter to have his one shining moment as the conventional male. This is no coincidence — after having dominated Peter in their relationship for so long, it seems likely that she is trying to give him one moment to shine (even though it might also end his life). Once again, Arizona reverses the Western formula by denying the audience the climactic, masculine duel it has built up. As Charles Silver rightly points out in his study The Western Film, “[Director Wesley] Ruggles borrows from Stagecoach by having the action occur off-screen, keeping the camera fix on [Phoebe] in her wedding dress.”1. In a tight close-up on her face, we see her stoicism as she orders sugar and other groceries for her impending honeymoon all the while gunshots resound in the background. Her expression is a torrential mix of faith and guilt, of fearing the worst and hoping for the best — of remembering her former independence, and dreaming dearly for a future in which she won’t be alone.
Whatever misgivings we may have had when Phoebe offered Peter up for the showdown are no longer relevant. Her dignity has been restored in the most painful way. She has come to realize not only her own vulnerability, and that her love for Peter is in no way compromises her strength. Rendered through Jean Arthur’s reserved, graceful acting, it’s a heck of a tenser climax than the shooting outside would have been, and it’s a pivotal scene in that she finalizes the movement of her character by firmly embracing all of her myriad feminine and masculine qualities.