Her brief appearance in front of Thomas Edison's kinetograph and a 1922 screen test notwithstanding, Annie Oakley never acted in a motion picture. But Hollywood soon saw the potential in film adaptations of her life.
The First Film
Annie Oakley died in 1926, the same year that Don Juan, the first film to feature music and sound effects, premiered. Released in 1927, The Jazz Singer had both speaking and singing, and it ushered in an era of "talkies" that put an end to the silent film industry. Within a decade, Hollywood had turned to Oakley's life, putting out, in 1935, Annie Oakley starring Barbara Stanwyck. While honoring Oakley's strong spirit, the film altered her real story in a number of telling ways. Rather than focusing on her career, the 1935 production centered on the love story between Annie and "Toby Walker," the film's stand-in for Oakley's husband Frank Butler. In the film, Oakley throws the couple's famous Thanksgiving Day shooting match so that Walker won't lose his job, a point that may have resonated with the film's Depression-era audiences. Oakley also spends much of the film pining away for Walker -- they are separated while she tours in Buffalo Bill Cody's Wild West show, but fortuitously reunited by Sitting Bull just in time for a happy ending. In this first Hollywood version of Oakley's life, the facts of the Butlers' long and happy marriage are pushed to the side, and Frank Butler's deliberate ceding of the spotlight to his wife is ignored.
A Major Broadway Hit
In the year after World War II ended, Oakley received an even more popular treatment, albeit one no more accurate than the 1935 film. Herbert and Dorothy Fields wrote the book for a musical based on Oakley's life, attracting veteran producers Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II and composer Irving Berlin, who created the songs. Written with famous singer Ethel Merman in mind, the show made Oakley brassy and very feminine, a combination that better suited Merman than the real Oakley. Annie Get Your Gun was a tremendous hit, making its Broadway debut on May 16, 1946, and running for three years and 1,159 performances. Once again the stage Oakley lost her shooting match to Frank Butler, but the musical had at least one fleeting moment of accuracy -- for the show's 100th performance, a gun that had belonged to Oakley was used. A touring version starring Mary Martin of Peter Pan fame played in 49 cities, and the musical was made into a 1950 film starring Betty Hutton as a girlish blonde in revealing costumes the conservative Annie would never have worn. The film made more than $4.6 million.
In the mid-1950s, TV audiences saw yet another portrayal, this time in a series starring Gail Davis, with Brad Johnson playing a brother named Tagg, that ran from 1954-1956. Annie Oakley and Taggcontinued to inaccurately portray Annie as a blonde, but it also emphasized her grit and shooting abilities. A companion comic book series also showcased Annie's shooting and horse-riding prowess. More recently, Annie Get Your Gun has been successfully revived on Broadway with well-known singer-actresses Bernadette Peters and Reba McEntire.
My American Experience
The legend of the Wild West has been played out in American Popular culture since the start of westward expansion. The real-life people who helped tame the west would shape the western heroes celebrated in film and television for decades.