Review by Cullen Gallagher
Posted on 28 July 2009
Source Guinan Family Archives DVD
Categories Women of the West
When we first meet Texas Guinan in The Gun Woman - a character nameless except for the moniker “The Tigress” - she is outside of her saloon at night, lingering half in the shadows, lighting her cigarette. Pre-Dietrich and pre-Noir, Guinan has femme fatale written over every inch of her body — yet this was made in 1918, and it is a Western. The cinematic predecessors that influenced film noir (namely German Expressionist and American hardboiled literature, both of the 1920s) were years away from being developed. Yet there she is, a deadly, dangerous woman, lurking in the darkest corners of the Old West - our lady Tex, “The Gun Woman” herself.
Guinan is dangerous for a number of reasons, perhaps most of all because she is a successful businesswoman who runs the local hotel, saloon, and gambling hall. “The resort’s sole owner,” her introductory title-card reads, “a woman loved, hated, feared, and, from her ways, well named ‘The Tigress.’” In close-up, she vamps for the camera, outdoing even Theda Bara herself. A cut to the town’s sheriff unnerved and speechless reifies her reputation.
Back inside the saloon, she buys drinks for the house. In walks “A Mysterious Stranger,” a cigar-chomping young man in a black suit and hat. Instantly Guinan locks eyes with him and through movement of her eyes alone maneuvers him into a nearby table. Confident and aggressive, she sits in front of him and leans forward: all eyes on him, and positive that his are on her. When she sheriff interrupts their moment, informing her that Ed Bennett has committed suicide, she laughs it off. “Am I responsible when some fool kills himself because I won’t marry him?” With bobbed hair and a low-cut dress revealing her bare shoulders, Guinan leans back in the chair and looks around the room before chilling the sheriff with her stare: she doesn’t give a damn what anyone thinks of her, because she knows what they all know — in the town of La Mesa, Guinan is boss.
The central thrust of The Gun Woman is not so much its plot centering on a Deputy sheriff tracking down a notorious bandit known as “The Collector,” but Guinan’s personal change “as the Tigress becomes the Woman” (as a title-card puts it). She exchanges her revealing dress for something much more modest - a long sleeved, checkered garment with large white collars. Gone, too, is her gypsy-like headband. But even this costume change can’t transform certain facets of her persona; while on a date with the aforementioned “Stranger,” she can hardly withhold laughter when he expresses concern for leaving her “alone and unprotected.” And when he mentions plans for stepping up in the world - plans that, presumably, include Guinan - she offers to help financially. So threatened by her economic - and thus, by implication, sexual - superiority, he steadfastly refuses, even though it is to his disadvantage. Ultimately, their compromise is to operate her gambling hall together, and to cheat customers out of their money, which Guinan and the “Stranger” are to invest into their future together. “And The Tigress is sincere in her belief that ‘the little home’ will purify the money which is to be its price,” reads a title-card. The foreshadowing is clear: Guinan is slowly being maneuvered behind the eight ball, just like she maneuvered him to the table at their first meeting.
Balancing the immoral influence of “The Mysterious Stranger” is Guinan’s alternate relationship with the Deputy. At first, it is intended as partly comical - he is a fish-out-of-water Eastener bent on cleaning up the west, though he’s as impotent in his role as Guinan is potent in her many capacities. As the pair visit the same pastoral locations as Guinan did with the “Stranger,” their smiles are beaming, and the sun illuminates them as though from the inside out. This idyllic moment of pure, graceful love is the first sign of things to come from the young director Frank Borzage (only in his fifth year of directing) who is best known for his intimately stylized melodramas rather than this uncharacteristic excursion into the Western genre.
Ultimately, the climax of the film is not the discovery of “The Collector,” but Guinan’s discovery that she’s played the sap for “The Mysterious Stranger” who never intended to fulfill his promises of marriage and salvation. Immutable, the Tigress returns, as she always must. It is who she is, who she cannot hide. Torn from the light and kicked back into the proverbial shadows, Guinan bares both her soul and her pistol and wreaks vengeance like few women did on the big screen at that time; hers is retribution writ large and uncompromising. A scorned lover who was punished for showing her needs and vulnerabilities, Borzage is unapologetically sympathetic with Guinan. With no morally stringent Production Code to compromise her character, Borzage allows the film’s epithet to carry her punishment: “For each man kills the thing he loves; yet each man does not die” (taken from Oscar Wilde’s “The Ballad of Reading Gaol”). There’s no happy ending here - Guinan is wounded, and so she rides off into the night - alone.
Film historian Richard Kozarski has succinctly summed up both the historical importance and long lasting appeal of The Gun Woman:
What makes this “Western” live for viewers today are the characters that people Borzage’s Western town and the relationships between them. Another director might have been satisfied with the basic idea of Texas Guinan as a “female Bill Hart,” yet Borzgae links the Hart-like elements (such as revenge motivated by a code of primal justice) to a more important romantic theme, based on the emotional makeup of characters we have grown to understand and identify with throughout the course of the film.1
The other reason why this film continues to “live for viewers today” (an ironic phrase, considering how rarely screened and its difficulty to track down) is Guinan’s irrefutable and irrepressible charisma. Her cold stare could stop Dietrich or Garbo dead in their tracks, and while she has the self-assurance of Mae West (a real-life friend and colleague of Guinan’s) there’s also a warmth and sincerity that takes you into her confidence. Hers is a performance that carries the entire film - little happens by way of plot, but her expressive face and body are always brimming with feeling (though never over-acting, as silent acting is often wrongly stereotyped). Deadly and drop-dead gorgeous, rugged yet graceful, tainted but true — ninety-one years later, Texas Guinan’s conception of the Western woman is still just as modern and daring as ever.
The Gun Woman1918
Destry Rides Again1939
My Little Chickadee1940
Westward the Women1951
The Violent Men1955
The Last Sunset1961
McCabe & Mrs. Miller1971
The Ballad of Little Jo1993
The Quick and the Dead1995
Two Mules for Sister Sara1970