‘Strange Lady in Town’ Stresses the Importance of Women’s Points of View

The movie's real point is its message about strong women, which makes it a surprisingly undated bit of relaxation that stresses female points of view.

Although the plot includes a bank robbery and brief appearances by Apache Indians and Billly the Kid, Strange Lady in Town is a largely unsensational, untraditional, anecdotal, friendly, visually pleasing, and socially progressive western rooted in the time and place of 1880 Santa Fe, New Mexico. The film opens with a horse-drawn wagon popping a wheel in the wide-open space of the Cinemascope screen while Frankie Laine croons the title tune. A black-clad woman with a parasol traipses over to some cowpokes for help and introduces herself, to their surprise, as a lady doctor from Boston. She makes herself at home and charms them immediately, as she will swoop in by personality and expertise to charm most of the citizens of her new home.

The “strange lady” is Dr. Julia Winslow Garth (Greer Garson, all class and English accent and orange hair, and reportedly beset with appendicitis during filming). Those charmed include the Catholic monk next door (Walter Hampden) who runs a hospital for the Mexicans and Indians, and a striking tomboy-ish cowgirl called Spurs (Lois Smith), who’s in love with Julia’s brother David, a charming Cavalry soldier who’s nothing but trouble. He’s played by Cameron Mitchell, who, in typical Hollywood casting, is convincing as all of that except Garson’s brother.

The British-born Frank Butler, who mainly wrote comedies, created this project for Garson, who wanted to make a movie about Santa Fe. (The film’s exteriors were shot in Tucson, Arizona.) Butler’s script comprises many incidents and characters, and it skips over many sentimental cues as unnecessary. For example, we know Julia will cure a blind Mexican boy (Tomascito Diaz) who sings “Ave Maria” like an angel, so we don’t get the bandage-unveiling scene, and it’s just as well. We know an operation to remove a bullet from a cardplayer is important to brother David, so we’re left to assume its success. Billy the Kid (Nick Adams) is never seen after his early cameo, and we also get a cameo from Gen. Lew Wallace (Ralph Moody), governor of the New Mexico territory and author of Ben Hur.

The throughline that leads us through the accumulated months of incident is Julia’s hot and cold relationship with rival sawbones and short-tempered sexist Rourke O’Brien (Dana Andrews), who happens to be Spurs’ indulgent father. He resents uppity women and new-fangled notions like sterilization and stethoscopes and psychiatry, and he bears the symbolic function of representing conservative values that must be won over. Plotwise, it’s the type of stubbornly, pointlessly delayed love/hate romance all too common in movies, and we can’t take it seriously, but the two attractive stars handle it smoothly.

The movie’s real point is its message about strong women and what we’d now call cultural diversity (of a slightly patronizing variety), which makes it a surprisingly undated bit of relaxation that stresses female points of view. It takes a woman doctor to recognize and treat a traumatised female patient (Joan Camden) whose problem is solved by violent men (wasn’t that the cause?), and there’s a brief but notable appearance of one Bella Brown (Adele Jurgens), identified as owning the “gambling saloon” (wink, wink).

This may be the first Hollywood product to focus on the Lady Doctor in the Old West, an archetype that proved good for a guest role in many TV westerns, such as June Lockhart’s Dr. Thackeray in Have Gun Will Travel, Diane Brewster’s Dr. Alice in Tales of Wells Fargo, Jane Wyman’s Dr. Willoughby in Wagon Train, Gail Kobe’s Dr. Louise Amadon in Rawhide, Irene Dunne’s Dr. Sam in Frontier Circus, Jill Donohue’s Dr. Pat in The Virginian, Patricia Medina’s Dr. Karen Miller in Branded, Vera Miles’ Dr. Sam in Gunsmoke, and Maura McGiveney’s Dr. Amy in Death Valley Days, finally culminating in the series Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman with Jane Seymour.

Director Mervyn LeRoy handles his actors well and employs quietly artful visuals, aided by Gabriel Scognamillo’s attractive production design. Harold Rosson’s WarnerColor photography is evidently faded and could use restoration on this print from Warner Archive, but this minor title isn’t likely to receive such expensive treatment.

RATING 6 / 10