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The Dalton Girls

Wednesday, September 14th, 2011

Lisa Davis as Rose Dalton in The Dalton Girls

The Dalton Girls (1957) is a feminist western directed by Reginald LeBorg, which follows the adventures of Holly, Rose, Columbine and Marigold Dalton as they go on a crime rampage in the old west following the violent deaths of their brothers, members of the infamous Dalton Gang. When they visit Mr. Slidell (Glenn Davis), the mortician who is preparing the bodies of their brothers for burial, Slidell attempts to force himself on Holly, who kills him with a shovel in self-defense.

Just like Thelma and Louise (1991), the women are now on the run, and soon learn that no one will cut them an even break because of their past. They resolve to lead a life of crime, starting out with a stagecoach robbery, moving on to banks, poker games, and other potentially lucrative targets. Director LeBorg keeps things moving at a rapid clip, and the performances by Merry Anders, Lisa Davis, Penny Edwards and Sue George are all surprisingly convincing and sympathetic. Shot location near Kanab, Utah, the film is sparse, brutal and unforgiving.

What strikes one the most about The Dalton Girls is the speed and brutality of the narrative; it’s over in 71 minutes, and instead of being centered on a group of outlaw men, the Dalton women make their plight seem like a calling — ridding themselves of the patriarchy. As Rose Dalton observes of one of their “gentlemen admirers,” “Oh, honey, don’t think about him. They tell me he plays women just like he plays poker. Riffle, shuffle, fast cut, big deal, the sky’s the limit; and then all of a sudden you’re lying there in the discard.”

As Hal Erickson notes, “After all the members of the notorious Dalton outlaw gang have been killed or arrested, their sisters decide to pick up where the boys left off. Led by Holly Dalton (Merry Anders), who since killing a man in self-defense has been outside the law, the girls terrorize Colorado territory with their criminal raids. The other members of the gang are Rose, Columbine and Marigold Dalton, played by Lisa Davis, Penny Edwards, Sue George. In true Hollywood Chauvinist fashion, the Dalton girls are trailed by a bunch of matrimony-minded men; refreshingly, however, the ladies remain true to their heritage to the last.”

The film is also, despite its somewhat compromised origins, absolutely serious. The best essay on the film is Gwendolyn Foster’s “Crossdressing and Disruptions of Identity in The Dalton Girls,” in Film Criticism 20.3  (Spring 1996): 24-33, which was reprinted in her book Captive Bodies: Postcolonial Subjectivity in the Cinema (SUNY UP, 1999). The Dalton Girls is scheduled to be released to DVD a part of the MGM Classics Collection in late September 2011; another interesting film that finally makes it to DVD.

Here’s a clip.

About the Author

Wheeler Winston Dixon

Wheeler Winston Dixon, Ryan Professor of Film Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is an internationally recognized scholar and writer of film history, theory and criticism. He is the author of numerous books and more than 70 articles on film and appears regularly in national media outlets discussing film and culture trends. Frame by Frame is a collection of his thoughts on a number of those topics. To contact Prof. Dixon for an interview, reach him at 402.472.6064 or wdixon1@unl.edu.

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