Film History Essentials: Annie Oakley (1894)

What it’s about:

Annie Oakley, facing away from the targets on the far side of the frame, drops something and then spins and opens fire with her rifle. She quickly hits all 7 targets, cocking the rifle between each shot. As soon as the last target falls, she drops into a crouch and exchanges her rifle for another that is lying ready on the ground. Meanwhile, her assistant (likely her husband, Frank Butler), crosses quickly in front of her and then squats down. He begins tossing small items (possibly glass balls) into the air, and Oakley fires at each one. The film ends as she triggers the 7th shot.

Why it’s essential:

Annie Oakley was born Phoebe Ann Mosey (there are conflicting records regarding the spelling of her surname) in August of 1860. She learned to shoot during a difficult and impoverished upbringing, but famously met her husband, a traveling performer, when she beat him in a shooting competition at the age of 21. They were soon married and performed together for a few years before joining “Buffalo Bill’s Wild West,” where Annie Oakley (as she now called herself) rapidly became one of the most popular performers.

During her first tour with Buffalo Bill, she became good friends with Chief Sitting Bull, who so admired her prowess with firearms that he nicknamed her “Watanya Cicilla.” This translated to “Little Sure Shot,” which became a title she would advertise and use frequently over the following decades. Through her show business career she became deeply associated with the American West, and was something of a model for the archetypal Western “cowgirl.”

This is ironic given that she was born in Ohio, and never traveled West except as a performer, but she struck an appealing balance between jaw-dropping skill in a male-dominated activity and “proper” Victorian femininity. Even though she could outshoot virtually anyone, and once offered President William McKinley a regiment of women sharpshooters if the United States went to war with Spain, she also sewed her own costumes (which always included skirts, never pants), was by all accounts a consummate hostess, and opposed women’s suffrage. She combined spunk and skill that earned her the respect and admiration of her male peers without threatening their masculinity or appearing interested in upending societal gender roles in any alarming way.

By the time she arrived at the Black Maria to be filmed, she already had over a decade of experience touring and was quite well-known. But she also remains quite well-known to this day, and I would hazard to say that this is the earliest surviving appearance on film of a celebrity who is still something of a household name. Of course, Buffalo Bill himself also appeared in front of the kinetograph at around the same time, but the film featuring him is currently believed to be lost.

Why you should see it:

Oakley is noticeably ill-served by the Black Maria set-up. The stage is so confining that she appears to be about 10 feet from the targets she’s shooting, and most of the targets thrown up into the air end up outside of the camera frame when she fires. However, the quality of the picture also makes it difficult to tell whether she hits even the ones that are on the screen.

And yet, even so, her performance is thrilling. She moves so quickly, but with such precision. It’s not easy to tell, as the film moves a bit slower than real-life, but she is fast. Even at slower than actual speed, she turns, shoulders the rifle, and drops 7 targets in under 10 seconds. 3 seconds later, she’s holding a different rifle and is prepared to fire again. And yet all of this is tame compared to her other reported feats: Shooting from horseback, shooting the end off of a cigar that someone is smoking, shooting backward while looking in a mirror . . . No, the kinetograph doesn’t come close to doing her justice, but I feel lucky that this exists, nonetheless.


~ by Jared on February 1, 2023.

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