A Fistful of Ladies

True West|July - August 2020

A Fistful of Ladies
Women may love Westerns, but only a handful have directed one.
HENRY C. PARKE

Westerns have always had a sizable female following. But while we’ve long had female on-screen icons like Maureen O’Hara and Barbara Stanwyck, less than a half-dozen have sat in the director’s chair.

In the “silent” days of 1913, Canadian Nell Shipman began writing and starring in Westerns. By 1920, she was co-directing her own features in which, rather than playing the typical waif in need of rescue, the outdoorswoman was more likely to rescue the male lead.

Shipman retired in 1924, and it would be 35 years before another woman would take on the mantle. Sixteen-year-old British beauty Ida Lupino was already a star when, in 1934, she came to Hollywood. Continuing to act, in 1949 she began to write and direct tough films noir. Ten years later she directed her first Western, an episode of Hotel de Paree. Series star Earl Holliman, recalls, “She was a movie star, and I had watched her for years. Directors who’ve acted can be very helpful. She was sharp, knew exactly what she wanted, where she wanted the cameras.” Still, on her first Western, communication wasn’t always easy. “She was English, and she talked about when the heavies go up to the bar, ‘to have a couple of hookers,’ which in England means a tall whiskey. And the assistant director asks the producers, ‘Where will we get these hookers?’ Ida was talking about drinks; they were talking about whores.” Lupino would go on to direct episodes of Have Gun-Will Travel, The Rifleman, The Virginian, and others.

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July - August 2020