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Annie Oakley: The Complete TV Series

VCI // Unrated // October 21, 2014 // Region 0
List Price: $99.99 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Stuart Galbraith IV | posted November 14, 2014 | E-mail the Author
I don't have a whole lot to say about Annie Oakley (1954-1957), the Gene Autry-produced Western series starring Gail Davis as the famous sharpshooter. As the saying goes, it is what it is, which in this case is a TV Western geared for juvenile audiences. VCI's handsome boxed set of The Complete Series seems to be targeting nostalgic fans who were kids back in the 1950s (and now in their sixties and seventies) rather than fans of Westerns generally. Although movie buff me has managed to nurture an appreciation of old black and white movies in my seven-year-old daughter, who without any other prompting surprisingly developed an interest in B-Westerns, it's fair to say kids weaned on Hanna Montana and iCarly probably can't relate to the more innocent charms of Annie Oakley.

When television was becoming popular in the late 1940s and early ‘50s, the first wave of TV Westerns consisted entirely of shows that transitioned the B-Western feature film format onto the small screen. Gene Autry, William "Hopalong Cassidy" Boyd, and Roy Rogers & Dale Evans all found success on television, reaping huge rewards they never could have imagined toiling away in their feature series. All of these early TV Westerns, The Lone Ranger and The Cisco Kid being two other examples, had children as their core audience. It wasn't until Gunsmoke debuted in 1955 that Western shows geared primarily for adults entered the scene.

The Gene Autry Show, which ran from 1950 to 1956, was the best-produced (but not most entertaining) early Western series. Where most of the others were done on the cheap, Autry's show really resembled a quality B-Western condensed to 26 minutes with equal parts of music, comedy relief, and Western action. Autry's success in the new medium led to other, similar Western programs produced by his Flying A Productions: The Range Riders (1951-53), Buffalo Bill, Jr. (1955-56), and The Adventures of Champion (1955-56) among them.

Annie Oakley appears to be Autry's most fondly remembered show other than his own starring series. Right up until Gail Davis's death in 1997 at the age of 71, women - kids when the series aired - frequently approached her, thanking her for the positive female role model she helped to create.

The series seems to have been influenced as much by MGM's popular film of the Broadway musical of Annie Get Your Gun (1950) and, probably, the strikingly similar Warner Bros. musical Calamity Jane (1953), as it was by the historical Annie. Davis even resembles Betty Hutton, the movie Annie Oakley, more than the historical figure.

The major differences between the real Annie Oakley (1860-1926) and her TV counterpart are that the real Annie Oakley generally used a .22 caliber rifle in Buffalo Bill's Wild West show and elsewhere, not the shiny six-shooters she fires freely and frequently on the series. (She does use a rifle, too, but it's much less prominent.) The other major difference is that the real Annie Oakley married marksman Frank E. Butler when she was barely 16 years old. (He was 29.) Theirs was apparently a loving, lasting marriage. When she died reportedly he was so grieved that he simply stopped eating, dying of starvation 18 days later, though some modern biographers dispute this.

On the show, Annie is a single, pig-tailed gal living in Diablo, Arizona (the real Annie was from Ohio), living with her kid brother, Tagg (Jimmy Hawkins). (The real Annie had eight siblings, mostly girls, nine counting a stillborn infant brother. One of the siblings was a half-sister.) The somewhat awkward setup has Brad Johnson playing Annie's sort-of-but-not-quite suitor, Deputy Sheriff Lofty Craig, who has an amazing knack for being out of town or otherwise indisposed when trouble's afoot.

By ‘50s kids show standards, Annie Oakley delivers the goods, with lots of a-shootin' and a-ridin', including an impressive stunt or two by Davis's double in most every episode. The real Annie was an incredible markswoman, but even she would be hard-pressed to pull off some of the fancy shooting Annie does on TV. Davis herself joked about how rounds would ricochet off teakettles, frying pans, etc., and still manage to knock a bad guy's pistol out of his hand.

The diminutive Davis is very good as Annie, in some ways better than the material (Davis was fine in her pre-Annie Oakley B-Westerns), striking a nice balance between being feminine and yet also a take-charge heroine. Interestingly, one of the extras included in the set is a pilot film with Billy Gray as Tagg. Apparently that was shot in 1951 or '52, long before the series premiered in January 1954, and rejected by potential sponsors. The consensus was that Annie was just a bit too feminine and fragile in that episode.

Video & Audio

Annie Oakley: The Complete Series features all 81 25-minute-plus episodes on 11 single-sided discs. The black-and-white, full frame show looks pretty good, if not quite as pristine as The Gene Autry Show episodes have elsewhere. The shows appear to be complete and unaltered, and the original commercials featuring Davis have been included as an extra feature elsewhere in the set. The English (-only) audio is fine, and English subtitles are offered. The set is all-region.

My one complaint, and something buyers will want to check on with their sets, is that mine arrived with the anti-theft security sticker firmly affixed to the readable side of Disc 10. I still haven't figured how to get it off.

Extra Features

The boatload of supplements is highlighted by a documentary running a bit more than 30 minutes, Pig-Tails & Six-Shooters: The Making of TV's ‘Annie Oakley'. Featuring Terrie Davis (Gail's daughter), Western historians Rob Word and C. Courtney Joyner, and Gail Davis herself via archived audio interviews, this featurette does a fine job covering Davis's life and the run of the series. Near the end, when Terrie discusses her mother's appearance receiving a Golden Boot Award, the show becomes quite touching.

Also included is the pilot episode featuring Billy Gray; Davis's TV commercials as Annie Oakley; a Bulls-eye! The Directors of ‘Annie Oakley featurette; an extended audio interview with Davis; an excellent and varied series of photo galleries, one focusing on Annie Oakley merchandising and another on Davis's private life; and a nice collection of trailers of B-Westerns featuring Davis (this isn't listed on the packaging for some reason). There's also a booklet episode guide, with plot summaries and guest stars noted.

Parting Thoughts

Though clearly targeting a very particular demographic, albeit one VCI caters to especially well, Annie Oakley: The Complete Series is a very nice set that should please nostalgic fans enormously. Recommended.

Stuart Galbraith IV is the Kyoto-based film historian and publisher-editor of World Cinema Paradise. His credits include film history books, DVD and Blu-ray audio commentaries and special features.

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