Those who follow my writing and my research knows that two American filmmaker I have paid particular attention to are George Sherman and Henry Hathaway. There are many reasons for this, besides me liking their films, and one is that few others have paid much attention to them, especially not to Sherman, so whatever I found out about them I had to do on my own. One thing I noticed was that several of their Westerns were written by women. I did not go any further with it at the time, as my focus was on the directors, but it was obvious that I needed to come back to that. Now I have. Amazingly, hundreds of Westerns during the decades in which they reigned (1930s to the 1960s) were written by women. Women such as Elizabeth Beecher, Adele Buffington, Elizabeth Burbridge, Olive Cooper, Karen DeWolf, Frances Guihan, Patricia Harper, Lillie Hayward, Frances Kavanaugh, Doris Schroeder, Luci Ward, Marguerite Roberts and Leigh Brackett. Almost all these women are unknown today, and they were unknown beyond their peers when they were active too. In this they are like most men who were "only" writers and never became directors. Film history is much like marketing in that respect, almost all attention is given to stars and to directors, with some notable exceptions. This is not unreasonable, directors and stars may be considered the most influential people on set and are the people most likely to shape films and filmmaking, and also those that are most visible for the audience at large. But they are not alone on set and among these other creative individuals you can find many women. Even in Westerns.
Scholars, critics and historians usually try to describe any given genre in a precise way, with definitions that are said to be true for the genre as a whole, but invariably it never is. Most, maybe all, genres are too large and unruly, contain too many films and too many variations for you to be able to say anything about them in general other than the most vague and general statements, something tautologous such as "musicals are films with musical numbers in them". This is certainly the case with Westerns too, of which thousands have been made for over a hundred years, many of which are not even set in the West. Westerns are traditionally considered the height of masculinity, the most male-focused genre, and for this reason alone it is of interest that so many of those who wrote them were women. But it is also worth pointing out that histories and theories about the Western are focused on a small sample-pack, and one that primarily consists of the known masterpieces and classics. They vary a lot among themselves, but they are also in the minority among the large number of Westerns that were made each year. Most of these have never entered the canon and are rarely discussed or acknowledged. But for the average viewer in the 1930s and possible in the 1940s too, these now forgotten films were most likely the kind of Western they would watch, and these would often be written by one or several women. Many of these Westerns were part of series, such as films about the Three Mesquiteers, or the Rough Riders, or Gene Autry's Singing Cowboy, which has also helped ensure that they are almost invisible for critics and historians today.
With so many writers and so many films it will of course not be possible to say more than the bare minimum in a piece such as this one, a book is needed to cover the subject. I know that Luci Ward co-wrote Black Bart, Highwayman (George Sherman 1948) and Karen DeWolf wrote Silver Lode (Allan Dwan 1954) and both films are very interesting, and very good, and on their merits alone I would like to know more about Ward and DeWolf. Leigh Brackett is the most famous one, especially for her partnership with Howard Hawks, writing several of his best films, alone or in collaboration. She is also famous for writing the first draft of The Empire Strikes Back (Irvin Kershner 1980). Here is some information about a few of the less famous ones:
Yvonne De Carlo as Lola Montez in Black Bart
Adele Buffington was probably the most influential of them since she was one of the founders of the Screen Writers Guild and later an anti-communist hunter as aggressive as senator Joe McCarthy. Between 1919 and 1958 she wrote around 150 different films, sometimes under pseudonyms like Jesse Bowers and Colt Remington. She was born in 1900 and worked as an usher for a while before selling her first script in 1919. She was then discovered by Thomas H. Ince, one of the most highly regarded filmmakers at the time, and wrote for him. She was not just writing Westerns, West of Singapore (1933) for example (co-written with Elizabeth Meehan) is set on a ship sailing the waters of where you would expect from the title, and The Keeper of the Bees (1935) is about a soldier returning from the trenches of World War 1, suffering from what is today known as PTSD. But mainly her films were stand-alone Westerns or series such as the films about the U.S. Marshal Nevada Jack McKenzie.
Betty Burbridge was equally prolific and also primarily a Western writer. She wrote some of the films about the Three Mesquiteers and she also wrote many of Gene Autry's films. Her career in film began as an actor, under her full name Elizabeth Burbridge, and in 1917 she began writing scripts. She also had a newspaper column under the pen-name Prudence Penny Jr. When TV had its major breakthrough in the 1950s she transitioned, with Gene Autry, to that format, writing for a handful of Western shows before she retired.
Gene Autry, with whom Burbridge was associated, was one the of the biggest stars of the 1930s and 1940s, and his films among the most popular each year. The audience for their films is said to be evenly balanced between men and women, and women did play important parts in them as self-sufficient characters. I am curious about films such as Colorado Sunset (George Sherman 1939), written by Burbridge, Luci Ward and two men, in which the women of the town seem to be in control of things.
Frances Kavanaugh was sometimes referred to as "Cowgirl of the Typewriter". She was born in Texas and lived her early life on the ranch. She wrote many films for Monogram Pictures, and she also helped create the popular hero Cheyenne Davis, aka "Lash" LaRue, dressed in black and carrying a bullwhip. (He was an inspiration for Indiana Jones and Harrison Ford was allegedly trained by Alfred LaRue). She wrote some 35 scripts, and almost all the films she wrote were directed by Robert Emmet Tansey.
Lillie Hayward did, unlike the three mentioned above, combined writing B-Westerns with writing more prestigious films, or at least A-films, including the great noir Western Blood on the Moon (Robert Wise 1948), one of Darryl F. Zanuck's horse films, My Friend Flicka (Harold D. Schuster 1943), and a fine Western directed by Michael Curtiz, The Proud Rebel (1958). At the end of her career she wrote for Disney. She wrote some 80 scripts.
Marguerite Roberts was also a writer of more prestigious films. She was also something of the antithesis to Buffington, as Roberts was a victim of the anti-communism scandal and became one of the blacklisted. She had joined her husband in the American communist party in 1949, when the party was Stalinist, but it seems Roberts was not a revolutionary herself. But she had a progressive touch and wrote Escape (Mervyn LeRoy 1940), one of the few anti-Nazi films made before 1941. She also wrote several Westerns, such as Henry Hathaway's three last ones: 5 Card Stud (1968), True Grit (1969) and Shoot Out (1971). She wrote some 35 scripts.
The argument here is not that women only wrote Westerns; the argument is that it is an interesting fact that so many Westerns were written by women. I wonder if this was the only genre where such a large proportion were written by women. Another argument, which I frequently make, is that even with Hollywood filmmaking, the most heavily researched area of film history, we have still so much to learn and explore. These women and these films do by themselves undermine a lot of conventional history about Hollywood, genres and gender.
A final caveat. Credits for screenwriting are often unreliable. Take The Proud Rebel for example. It was based on a story by James Edward Grant, and written by Joseph Petracca and Lillie Hayward. But to whom should we credit the film? All of them? None of them, in case Curtiz was primarily responsible for the script as well as the direction. Maybe Petracca wrote more or less all of it, and Hayward is credited because Curtiz brought her along as a script doctor (they had worked together before). Or maybe Hayward wrote most of it. I have no idea.
When I said "Darryl F. Zanuck's horse films" above I meant it. He produced or initiated several similar films, such as My Friend Flicka, partly inspired by his love of horses. One fine example is Home in Indiana (Henry Hathaway 1944).
There should be a blu-ray double-feature of Ophüls's Lola Montès (1955) and Black Bart.
While I have found no books about the topic of this article, here are related ones that were useful:
Script Girls: Women Screenwriters in Hollywood by Lizzie Francke
The Silent Feminists: America's First Women Directors by Anthony Slide
Doing Women’s Film History: Reframing Cinemas, Past and Future, edited by Christine Gledhill and Julia Knight
Women Film Directors: An International Bio-Critical Dictionary by Gwendolyn Audrey Foster
Back in the Saddle Again: New Essays on the Western, edited by Edward Buscombe and Roberta E. Pearson