The Woman of Western Films & TV Through the Decades

Women in Westerns Collage
Everett Collection

When you think of Western movies, it is most likely John Wayne or Clint Eastwood that comes to mind, the rough and tough rugged type. However, men weren’t the only gunslingers on the high plains. Many of the ladies were just as rough and tough to tumble with. Some actresses stuck out like a sore thumb in Westerns like Elizabeth Taylor playing a rancher in Giant, Marilyn Monroe as a divorcee in The Misfits or Audrey Hepburn as a settler’s daughter in The Unforgiven. Meanwhile others like Joan Crawford as a saloon owner in Johnny Guitar, Marlene Dietrich in Destry Rides Again or even the sultry Jane Russell in The Outlaw certainly held their own in the wild, wild, west of Filmland. Here is a look at some of the other women that blazed their way throughout the decades making their mark on the genre.

1940s

Dale Evans

Dale Evans, November 1944.

Everett Collection

Known as the “Queen of the West” she ruled the 1940s with Western musicals and was eventually cast alongside rising cowboy star Roy Rogers in The Cowboy and the Senorita (1944). The duo married in 1947 and went on to appear together in 20 consecutive films plus started the famous The Roy Rogers Show (1951-1957) along with their equally famous horses, Trigger and Buttermilk, where they sang the famous song “Happy Trails to You.”

1950s

Katy JuradoHigh Noon

HIGH NOON, from left, Katy Jurado, Grace Kelly, 1952

Everett Collection

Katy Jurado began her film career in Mexico, playing villainous femme fatale characters. Her Hollywood break came in 1951 with the film Bullfighter and the Lady. She learned to speak English for her role in High Noon, starring Gary Cooper and Grace Kelly. In it, she played saloon owner Helen Ramírez, former love of Cooper’s Will Kane. Jurado earned a Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actress for her performance and went on to appear in numerous Westerns over the next 20 years. She was awarded the Golden Boot award in 1992 for her many contributions to Westerns and continued acting until 2002, the year she passed away at age 78.

Doris DayCalamity Jane

CALAMITY JANE, Doris Day, 1953

Everett Collection

Calamity Jane, a Western musical released in 1953, was based on the life of Wild West heroine Calamity Jane and her alleged romance with Wild Bill Hickok. Doris Day, who had already made quite a name for herself as a recording artist, was just beginning to get big movie roles; two years before, the New York premiere of I’ll See You in My Dreams broke a box office record that had been standing for 20 years. In Calamity Jane, Day plays the gun-totin’, mail-deliverin’, Wild Bill Hickok-romancin’ Jane to the hilt. A song from the film, “Secret Love,” won the Academy Award for Best Original Song and became a No. 1 hit single for Day.

1960s

Jane FondaCat Ballou (1965)

CAT BALLOU, Jane Fonda, 1965

Everett Collection

The movie that made Jane Fonda a star was Cat Ballou (1965), a Western she starred opposite Lee Marvin. Fonda plays a schoolmarm who turns into an outlaw to avenge the murder of her rancher father. Marvin plays the dual role of the outlaw who kills Cat Ballou’s father and a drunken bum who cleans up to take revenge on the man. The movie was a hit — many consider it a Western classic — and for her work, Fonda would win a Golden Globe nomination for Best Actress in a Comedy or Musical. Cat Ballou also garnered five Academy Award nominations, including a win for Marvin as Best Actor.

Barbara StanwyckThe Big Valley (1965-69)

THE BIG VALLEY, Barbara Stanwyck, 1965-69

Everett Collection

Over her 60-year career, actress, model and dancer Barbara Stanwyck played every conceivable role, from Ziegfeld girl to silent-film star to leading light of the emerging “talkies.” She played a femme fatale in Double Indemnity, a con artist who falls in love with her mark in The Lady Eve and a columnist caught up in white lies in Christmas in Connecticut. In 1944, she was listed as the highest-paid woman in the U.S. As her film career cooled, Stanwyck took roles in TV, including the Western series The Big Valley, which ran on ABC from 1965 to 1969. Playing the widow of a 19th-century California rancher, Stanwyck transformed the refined lady of the manor into a rough-and-tumble cowboy. She was nominated three times for an Emmy for her work on the show (she won once), with three Golden Globe nominations as well.

Western Movie Credits: Annie Oakley (1935), Union Pacific (1939), The Furies (1950), The Moonlighter (1953), Cattle Queen of Montana (1954), The Violent Men (1955), The Maverick Queen (1956), Trooper Hook (1957), Forty Guns (1957)

1970s

Raquel WelchHannie Caulder (1971)

Hannie Caulder promo shot

Paramount Pictures/via MoviestillsDB

Raquel Welch had already starred in two Westerns — Bandolero! (1968) with James Stewart and Dean Martin, and 100 Rifles (1969) with Burt Reynolds — by the time she was cast in Hannie Caulder (1971). Welch plays the titular frontier wife whose husband is murdered by a gang that subsequently rapes her, burns down her house and leaves her for dead. Caulder recruits a bounty hunter played by Robert Culp to train her to be a gunfighter. Her revenge is slow and sweet but costly. Filmed in Spain, the movie is steeped in the tradition of the spaghetti Western — raw, lyric, graphic and funny. Quentin Tarantino once said the movie was one of his inspirations for Kill Bill.

Amanda BlakeGunsmoke (1955-1974)

GUNSMOKE, Amanda Blake (1955), 1955-1975.

Everett Collection

Amanda Blake appeared in a few Western movies in the 1950s when she was cast to play saloonkeeper Miss Kitty Russell on Gunsmoke. It was a role she would play until 1974. Tough as nails with the other customers, Miss Kitty carries a soft spot for Marshal Dillon (James Arness), a guy who needs to call on a saloon gal every once in a while. In 1968 Blake was inducted into the Hall of Great Western Performers, an elite crew which at that time only included Tom Mix and Gary Cooper.

1980s

Debra WinterUrban Cowboy (1980)

URBAN COWBOY, Debra Winger, John Travolta, 1980,

Paramount/courtesy Everett Collection

Urban Cowboy was a Western for the ’80s, set not on the open range but in a country-western bar named Gilley’s just outside of Houston. Debra Winter plays Sissy Davis, a feisty regular at Gilley’s who takes up with “Bud” Davis (John Travolta), dancing and romancing to the contemporary strains of Charlie Daniels and Kenny Rogers. The two get married, but things start to unravel when Bud’s desire to ride the mechanical bull sidetracks his passion for Sissy. There’s no rawhide in sight but enough line dancing to keep a Western heart smiling.

 

Diane LaneLonesome Dove (1989)

LONESOME DOVE, from left: Anjelica Huston, Diane Lane, 1989.

CBS/Courtesy Everett Collection

In the epic and popular four-part TV Western adventure miniseries Lonesome Dove, Diane Lane plays Lorena Wood, a prostitute working the bar in Lonesome Dove, Texas. She dreams of getting far away from the heat of Texas by going to San Francisco. It’s a long, hard road getting there. Playing “the whore with a heart,” Lane was nominated for an Emmy for her performance, and her movie career took off after that. It also stars Anjelica Huston as a lonely rancher’s wife.

1990s

Sharon StoneThe Quick and the Dead (1995)

THE QUICK AND THE DEAD, Sharon Stone, 1995,

TriStar/courtesy Everett Collection

Having gained sex-symbol status in Basic Instinct (1992) and raised her acting chops in Martin Scorsese’s Casino (1995), Sharon Stone then headed West in The Quick and the Dead (1995), playing a gunfighter who returns to the frontier town of Redemption to avenge her father’s death. Known as The Lady, Stone’s character enters a gunfighting contest held by the town’s mayor and former outlaw John Herod (Gene Hackman). In the end, The Lady is quick, and Herod is dead.

Cast of Bad Girls (1994)

Madeline Stowe, Mary Stuart Masterson, Andie MacDowell and Drew Barrymore

BAD GIRLS, Madeleine Stowe, Mary Stuart Masterson, Andie MacDowell, Drew Barrymore, 1994.

20th Century Fox Film Corp./Courtesy: Everett Collection.

Cody, Anita, Eileen and Lilly work together in a brothel until Anita is abused by a customer who is killed by Cody. The girls escape a lynch mob, are pursued by Pinkerton detectives, get in the middle of a bank robbery, lose their savings, take their revenge and move on. Reviewers were hopeful to see a Western cast around four tough women, but one critic spoke for the rest when he panned it as “Cowpoke Barbie.”

Honorable Mentions:

Maureen O’Hara

RIO GRANDE, John Wayne, Maureen O'Hara, 1950

Everett Collection

Though often associated with John Wayne in The Quiet Man she had quite an extensive cowgirl catalogue too.

Buffalo Bill (1944), Comanche Territory (1950), Rio Grande (1950), The Redhead From Wyoming (1952), McLintock! (1963), The Rare Breed (1966), Big Jake (1971), The Red Pony (1973)

Rhonda Fleming

WAGON TRAIN, Rhonda Fleming, 'The Jennifer Churchill Story', (Season 2, episode 203, aired October 15, 1958), 1957-1965.

Elmer W. Holloway/TV Guide/courtesy Everett Collection

Known as the “Queen of technicolor” since the camera loved her with her trademark flaming red hair and green eyes she also had a string of Westerns under her belt.

Abilene Town (1946), The Eagle and the Hawk (1950), The Last Outpost (1951), The Redhead and the Cowboy (1951), Pony Express (1953), Tennessee’s Partner (1955), Gun Glory (1957), Gunfight at the OK Corral (1957), Bullwhip (1958), Alias Jesse James (1959)

Betty Hutton 

ANNIE GET YOUR GUN, Betty Hutton, 1950

Everett Collection

Another Western musical this time about about famous sharpshooter Annie Oakley in Annie Get Your Gun (1950).

Who is your favorite Western lady? We know there are many more so be sure to let us know who we missed in the comments!

TV Westerns of the 50's & 60's
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TV Westerns of the 50's & 60's

September 2021

’50s and ’60s TV Westerns roundup, celebrating the shows and stars of their golden age.

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