Marjorie Beebe: how a woman can take the lead in an old Western movie

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Our previous article on women in westerns honed in on three films respectively from the 60s, the 70s and the 90s. Personally, I am not familiar enough with the first two to comment on them, but the third The Quick and the Dead is a knockout film that I never tired of seeing- literally a knockout movie, with the wonderful concept of a quick draw gun competition after each round of which the competitors are halved, not so much knocked out as dead.

In fact you can go back far further than any of those three movies to find examples of sparky women protagonists in Westerns. In 1931 Marjorie Beebe was starring in Cowcatcher’s Daughter (Babe Stafford). She has been claimed as the great lost comedienne of the time, her career cut shorts by depressions, both national and personal.

Marjorie Beebe

Cowcatcher, a two reeler, has but four characters. But they resonate through the ages, the crabby old father (Pantalone), the dull fiancé in business with the father (Fool), and the roving handsome stranger who catches the girl’s eye (Arlecchino). For this is a Harlequinade, a form already centuries old by the time of Cowcatcher. Its characters derive from Italian commedia dell’arte but the four came together in Harlequinade as a feature of English pantomime.

But Cowcatcher’s Harlequin was overshadowed just as Fool was. Marjorie was in control here. The best scenes are when she spars with her long-suffering father recreating routines from the old lazzi of Commedia. It was Marjorie Beebe as Columbine who took the lead. She it was who played the tricks just as Harlequin had once done back in Bergamo. She is a rare example of a girl trickster, Harlequin become Columbine, and she does it superbly, a natural acrobat, horsewoman and swimmer. And unlike many later Western actresses who look just that, actresses in fancy dress, she looks the part, a real cowgirl with the men in her life wrapped round her finger.     

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