“Westward the Women” continued.
The fascinating thing about movies is that the actors bring themselves, their conscious and unconscious selves, to their roles. They can hide under makeup, but subliminally they can’t hide themselves. They’re humans naked in front of the camera. Their personality comes through—which is of course what gives us stars. The actors themselves are a subtext to any movie.
What do Robert Taylor as Buck, and Denise Darcel as Fifi, bring to their parts? Here is where it gets interesting, why this is perfect casting.
Robert Taylor was born Spangler Arlington Brugh. As a young man his goal was to be a concert musician. He later admitted he was a studious introvert. He fell into acting because of his pretty boy looks. His first big role was opposite Greta Garbo in “Camille.” Afterward his studio, MGM, put him on a physical fitness regimen and sent him out hunting to toughen him up, so he’d be suitable as a leading man in other roles. Taylor eagerly adopted the program. By 1951, when “Westward the Women” was made, he’d been playing tough guy roles for ten years. He’s believable in the role—but with him, rather than an oversized John Wayne, it’s to some extent still a role, part bluff, part will, and part intelligence—and it’s only through bluff, will, and intelligence that the character of “Buck” will be able to control his men—and the women—and get the train to California. This makes the situation more of a challenge. Subliminally the audience picks up on that. It also helps explain the character’s extreme “macho” attitude.
What of his opponent/partner in the matter, Denise Darcel? From what we know of her, the young Denise Darcel was the opposite of Robert Taylor. Apparently she was known for accompanying an American pilot in a small observation plane, at the end of the Second World War, buzzing the happy crowds of Paris. Like her character, she worked as a dance hall girl. She was apparently fearless and an extrovert. She brings that to the part, as well as her obvious natural attributes.
We already know that Robert Taylor was as self-created as Jay Gatsby. The character of Buck, as we’ve said, has to be that. The character of Fifi Danon is a self-creation also. We first see her as a flashy prostitute, ultra-feminine, a caricature of femininity. Fifi and her partner-in-crime Laurie realize the only way they’ll get onto the wagon train is by appearing “normal.” While other hookers are chased out, Fifi and Laurie leave to disguise themselves—or, in effect they drop their disguises. Laurie is able to pass as a normal woman in demure dress and bonnet. Fifi by contrast looks ridiculous in the get-up. Her outsized figure and her outsized personality, and her grotesque accent make her ridiculous, and she knows it. She’s a freak, an outsider. It’s probably what she’s been running from.
A movie screen, by the way, emphasizes Denise Darcel’s build. She comes across as a force of nature, a physical presence, even among a collection of the strongest women MGM could no doubt find, rivaled only by towering Patience, who’s kind of an Ajax with a sense of humor to Fifi Danon’s dynamic Achilles. Since we’re dealing with an epic, filled with heroes, the analogy is apt. Which I guess puts Buck in the role of Agamemnon, with Ito as his advisor Odysseus. (Or if you prefer, Ulysses.)
The patriarch, Roy Whitman, sees right through Fifi and Laurie. He presses Fifi as to why she wants to go to California. She finally admits, in an utterly sad voice, “To change.” Her facade has dropped. She stands exposed before us. What does she mean? What does she want? Likely she doesn’t know herself, only that she’s desperately unhappy in her current role, and hopes that in California she can find a role not available in Chicago. Whitman has been around enough to see this—as Buck surely doesn’t—so he allows them to sign on.
This is the subtext for the dynamic between the two lead characters. Stay tuned, if you’re still reading.