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Forgotten Hollywood: Cowgirls in Silent Films

By 1900, Western silent films were mostly a minute or so, and featured scenes of cattle roundups or staged incidents like stagecoach robberies or fights with Indians. Cripple Creek Barroom of 1898 was shot in a saloon and is an example of an ‘actuality film’, which uses footage of real events.

The Great Train Robbery of 1903, with 14 scenes coming in at 12 minutes, was directed by Edwin S. Porter and produced by the Edison Company. It’s the first widely seen Western, shown all over the country in vaudeville houses. In 1908, Maxwell Henry Aronson, the founder of Essanay Studios, became one of the pioneers of the genre. Though he had acted in other films, his 148 shorts as ‘Broncho Billy Anderson’ made him the first Western movie star.

The place of women in the early Westerns was that of mother, daughter, or love interest to the Western hero. While those portrayals continued through the decades, there were several silent Westerns in which women took the lead, saved the day and, sometimes, the hero as well.

A Woman’s Vengeance, a silent film of 17 minutes from 1920, starred Fritzi Ridgeway. She was a vaudevillian trick rider who made several 2-reel westerns for Capital Film. In her short film, she goes after the gang that steals a mining claim belonging to her father, retrieving the claim and rescuing her boyfriend. In Galloping Gallagher (1924), a 5-reeler of which only 29 minutes survived, Hazel Keener plays a minister who joins her town in fighting bandits. In The Arizona Cat Claw, Edythe Sterling plays the strong-minded daughter of a cattleman who vanquishes a Mexican bandit and leads a posse to hunt down a man who has done a woman wrong. The Bandits of Death Valley (1915), released by Trans-Oceanic Films, has the hero and heroine claim the prize money after they capture a gang of outlaws. It has 4 reels. Variety disparaged it by saying it had 3 reels too many.

Between 1912 and 1920, silent film serials became very popular. These were shorts released weekly, continuing a story that had the same characters, with a cliffhanger at the end of each. The first episode was usually 30 minutes, about 3 reels, followed by 2-reelers. A lot of them were Westerns and many were led by women. Marketed to the female audience, they featured their share of action made of fierce fisticuffs and shootouts.

In 1913, Louise Lester played Calamity Anne in one series of 15 shorts. Some of the titles: Calamity Anne’s Inheritance, Calamity Anne’s Vanity, Calamity Anne’s Beauty, and Calamity Anne, Heroine. Lester made the films until 1917. The Sacramento Bee of September 14, 1914, described her this way: “Calamity Anne is a distinct – and distinctly lovable type. Now she is known all over this country and Europe, and even from the far-off sheep ranches of Australia come the letters telling of Calamity Anne’s appeal.” The writer goes on to talk about the creator/writer/star: “Miss Lester is far from being a one-type woman, either as a writer or player. If she has a middle name, it must be Versatility or Charm.”


Marie Walcamp played the character Tempest Cody, chief peace officer of a Western town, in nine serial shorts. She earned the nickname “The Daredevil of the Films” because she did all her stunts. She was an internationally known star and appeared in hundreds of shorts, not all of them Westerns. She suffered from depression and died at age 42 of suicide.

Stuntwoman Helen Holmes starred in the series The Girl and the Game (1916), playing a worker overseeing a Western railroad.

Victoria Forde was the wife of Western star Tom Mix and a star in her own right. Forde started her career in films at age 14 and worked with several studios, including Biograph and Nestor, till she ended up at Selig Studios – where she met and married Mix, in 1918. She appeared with Mix in many films between 1914 and 1922, such as The Golden Thought and Western Blood. They both rode horses expertly and performed their stunts. They made 30 Western shorts together.

Olive Carey (born Olive Fuller Golden) started her career as a rodeo rider and made her film debut in Tess of the Storm Country (1912). She was 18. She told the Lubbock Evening Journal of May 7, 1956, that she had to go to work after her father’s death left the family destitute. “I was the oldest,” she recalled, “so I decided I better go to work. I got a job acting at a movie studio on Pico and Georgia streets in Los Angeles at $5 a day on a four-day guarantee. In those days you could feed a family of 5 on $20 a week.” Her star quickly rose, and she moved to Universal to work with Harry Carey, a Western star 17 years her senior whom she married.

They appeared together in the 5-reel Western A Knight of the Range (1916) and, according to cowgirlmagazine.com, got rave reviews. “Audiences were dazzled by the equestrian feats never-before-seen in a motion picture.” In a Hollywood magazine, this: “Stunts that are inconceivable of execution are performed before the all-seeing eye of the camera.” The reviewer goes on to add: “Lovers of riding will miss the treat of their lifetime if they fail to see Western stars Carey and Golden work their magic on horseback. Golden is one of the prettiest and most popular of film favorites. Her long golden curls droop over her shoulders and her bewitching smile is as golden as an Arizona sunset; golden also is her disposition. She will be a star as long as motion pictures are being made.”


Harry Carey retired the following year, after appearing in Golden Globe Winner John Ford’s The Soul Herder. Once her husband died, she once again found herself destitute. Had to keep on working. She appeared in Gunfight at the O. K. CorralThe Wings of Eagles, Two Rode Together, and Ford’s The Searchers, in which she played the mother of her son in real life, Harry Carey, Jr.

Born Elizabeth Barry Scale, Bessie Barriscale worked on stage for the first decade of her career, moving on to films in 1913. She made her debut that year in The Gambler’s Pal. The reviewer of Moving Picture World of September 5, 1913, had this to say about the short: “Merely a Western episode, in which the woodsman’s wife decides to go away with his former pal, the gambler. She starts, but on the way, her conscience bothers her, and she returns. The pictures are good, but this can hardly be called a fully developed plot.” Barriscale had better luck in the 1916 5-reel Rose of the Rancho, directed by Cecil B. DeMille. She plays the gutsy daughter of a ranch owner. She also won plaudits for Two-Gun Betty (1918), a comedy Western in which she played the lead, a woman who disguises as a man to become a cowboy. The other cowboys discover her trick and set her up for awkward situations. The film was directed by her husband, director Howard C. Hickman, with whom she toured the vaudeville circuit after leaving films in 1919.


It’s surprising that many silent films, lost in the US, were retrieved overseas from prints made for the international market. According to film historian and archivist David Pierce in his book “The Survival of American Silent Feature Films: 1912–1929,” “There is no single number for existing American silent-era feature films, as the surviving copies vary in format and completeness. There are 1,575 titles (14%) surviving as the complete domestic-release version in 35mm. Another 1,174 (11%) are complete, but not the original —they are either a foreign-release version in 35mm or in a 28 or 16mm small-gauge print with less than 35mm image quality. Another 562 titles (5%) are incomplete –  missing either a portion of the film or an abridged version. The remaining 70% are believed to be completely lost.” Pierce is talking about silent feature films. It is unknown how many film shorts have been lost forever.