The Female Boy on the Frontier: The Strange Case of Billy and His Pal (1911)
Laura Horak, Stockholm University
Billy, played by Edith Storey (left), is devoted to Jim (Francis Ford) in Billy and His Pal (1911)
In 2010, one hundred seventy-four American films long thought lost were discovered in the New Zealand Film Archive. Early films by John Ford and Alfred Hitchcock have received most of the attention, but I was most excited by a short Western drama called Billy and His Pal (1911), in which the nineteen-year-old actress Edith Storey plays Billy. (See the film here.)
In my Cinema Journal article, "Landscape, Vitality, and Desire," I analyze cross-dressed frontier girls in American film between 1909 and 1913. Scott Simmon alerted me to Billy and His Pal after the article went to press, and the film both fits and exceeds my article. In the article, I argue that filmmakers used cross-dressed women to attract audiences already fascinated by newspaper, dime novel, and theatrical accounts of heroic women disguised as men. The films celebrated female masculinity, as long as it was confined to a specific developmental period (girlhood) and specific places (the frontier or battlefront). In repeated cross-dressed chase sequences, white women performed a national fantasy of spatial mastery, while in romances between men and disguised girls, they made visible (even as they undid) desire between frontiersmen.
Billy and His Pal combines a sort of cross-dressed chase and a kind of man-"boy" romance--which is already unusual. But it has an additional twist--although Billy is played by an actress, the character is not intended to be a girl in disguise. While actresses regularly played boy roles in films at this time, this almost never happened in frontier films. Billy and His Pal is an unusual hybrid of modes of cross-dressing otherwise kept separate.
The story is built upon two triangles. In the first, Billy is devoted to Jim, who ignores him in favor of Madge.[i] In the second, a Mexican cowboy lusts after Madge, who prefers Jim. The Mexican cowboy and his friends abduct Jim and try to kill him. Billy alerts Madge, who gathers some white cowboys, and they ride to Jim's rescue in a climactic cross-cut sequence. Billy lags behind because the only steed he can find is an old donkey. Once the villains have been vanquished, Jim attempts to embrace Madge, but keeps getting interrupted by Billy. The boy looks forlorn when Jim ignores him. In the final image, Jim keeps an arm around Madge, but looks at Billy and smiles at him, and Billy smiles back.
The film's racial politics are (alas) typical of melodramas and westerns of this period. The atypical thing is that Storey's Billy is not a girl in disguise as in the films I discuss in my article, but meant to be an actual boy. This is confirmed by advertisements for the film in local newspapers and synopses that appeared in Moving Picture World.[ii] The fact that Storey played another Billy who does turn out to be a girl in disguise seven months later, in Billy the Kid (1911), shows that the expectation is not misplaced. In the latter film, Billy actually marries her pal--an interesting variation on Billy and His Pal.[iii]
It was not uncommon for girls to play boy roles in American films before the early 1920s. In my dissertation research, I found more than 100 examples.[iv] What was uncommon was for them to appear in a low-budget western. Female boys generally appeared in "quality" adaptations of children's stories like Oliver Twist and The Prince and the Pauper set in cities, castles, or family homes. Storey's Billy is an unusual combination of the genteel female boy and the rough-and-tumble cross-dressing frontier girl. The only other female boy on the frontier I have found is eleven-year-old Edna Foster's performance as yet another Billy in D.W. Griffith's Billy's Stratagem (1912).[v] While we find it surprising to see a woman in a boy role, audiences at the time may have found it most surprising to see a woman in a boy role in a western.
However, the press at the time cast Billy's relationship as simple loyalty or hero worship. An ad for the film in an Iowa newspaper, for example, describes it as "A touching picture of a boy's loyalty to his friend."[vi] Moving Picture World, on the other hand, wrote: "Boys will be boys and every boy has his hero as a model of what manner of man he would like to be when he grows up. Jim, the cowpuncher, is Billy's idea of what a man ought to be and he becomes his faithful admirer and pal."[vii] For MPW, Jim is Billy's role model. If Billy can't immediately become Jim, he can at least admire him, and provide him service when he is in need. This account shifts Billy's obsession with Jim from potentially perverse infatuation to wholesome character building. Billy becomes "every boy" and his attachment to Jim a normal part of growing up.
According to MPW, Billy is blissfully happy over the way his relationship with Jim has turned out: "the cowboy grasps the little fellow's hand and thanks him personally, which makes him quite the happiest youngster in all that region."[viii] However, when watching the film, Billy seems most happy when Jim's arm is around his shoulder and he is--structurally at least--equal to Madge. The final tableau, in contrast, seems like an acceptable, but less than ideal, compromise. This triangle and tableau are similar to another Griffith/Foster film released five months later, A Country Cupid (1911). In this film, another young Billy (played by Foster) is in love with his school teacher, Edith, who loves her adult fiancé, Jack. After Jack saves Edith's life, they embrace, and Billy stands beside them looking dejected in a posture similar to our Billy. But in A Country Cupid, Edith turns to Billy and the boy runs into her arms. Jack joins in and the three share a big bear hug. Tom Gunning notes that, "Griffith perhaps wisely does not give us time to speculate on the outcome of this premature ménage à trois.”[ix] Griffith's final tableau unites the three characters into a quasi-familial unit, implicitly submerging Billy's love for Edith into filial devotion. Billy and His Pal stops short of this, perhaps because Billy is slightly too old to be Jim's child or perhaps out of discomfort with physical closeness between men.
Billy (Storey) is left out of the romantic couple in Billy and His Pal.
Billy (Foster) is left out of the couple in A Country Cupid--but only temporarily.
Based on the types of boy roles Edna Foster was playing at Biograph at this time, I suspect that the Méliès Company cast an actress to play Billy because many believed that women could communicate interior emotions more effectively than real boys could.[x] Storey in particular likely seemed like a good choice because she had a background in theater and had played a male role in a film adaptation of Twelfth Night the year before. Though born in New York City, she built a persona as a rough-and-tumble cowgirl who answered to the name Billy in real life.[xi] A few months previously, she played a feisty suffragette who takes over a Western ranch in The Cowboys and the Bachelor Girls (1910) and shortly after, as I mentioned, she played a girl raised as a boy in Billy the Kid (1911). She is best known today for playing an heiress who becomes a man and woos her female friend in A Florida Enchantment (1914).[xii]
Billy and His Pal likely looks strange to us in ways that wouldn't have seemed strange when it was released. Back then, American production companies released an average of at least twenty-five films a year featuring cross-dressed women, and about a third of them were actresses in boy roles. Compare that to today, when mainstream American films feature a cross-dressed woman perhaps once every few years, and women virtually never play male roles.
And yet, Billy and His Pal may have also seemed a bit odd back then, as it brought together modes of cross-dressing that were usually kept separate--the genteel female boy and the cross-dressing frontier girl--and eschewed the "solution" of making a lovesick boy into a girl in disguise.
[i] I use the character names from the U.S. release--Billy, Jim, and Madge--while the copy online uses names from the British release--Bobby, Jim, and Helen.
[ii] See, for example: "The Edisonian,” Portsmouth Daily Herald, February 18, 1911, 6; Columbia, "Advertisement for Billy and His Pal,” Portsmouth Daily Times, February 20, 1911, 9; Majestic Theatre, "Advertisement for Billy and His Pal,” Sullivan Daily Times, April 13, 1911, 4; Unique, "Advertisement for Billy and His Pal,” Atlantic Evening News, March 10, 1911, 5; "Stories of the Films. Billy and His Pal,” Moving Picture World, February 25, 1911, 434; "Comments on the Films. Billy and His Pal,” Moving Picture World, February 25, 1911, 482.
[iii] The film is presumed lost. An ad for the film describes the plot: "'Billy' is a girl but the boys on the ranch don't know it until she is sixteen, then she marries her pal." Vitagraph Company, "Advertisement for Billy the Kid,” New York Dramatic Mirror, August 9, 1911, 23.
[iv] See Laura Horak, "Girls Will Be Boys: Cross-Dressed Women and the Legitimation of American Silent Cinema” (Ph.D., University of California, Berkeley, 2011), 43–73.
[v] For more on Foster's career playing boy roles, see my forthcoming article, "Cross-dressing in D.W. Griffith’s Biograph Films: Humor, Heroics, and Good Bad Boys,” in The Blackwell Companion to D.W. Griffith, ed. Charlie Keil (West Sussex: Wiley-Blackwell, forthcoming). While both Foster and Storey went by the name "Billy," young male actors also often used this name. It seems to have signified American boyhood generally rather than specifically female boyhood.
[vi]Unique. "Advertisement for Billy and His Pal.” Atlantic Evening News. March 10, 1911.
[viii] "Comments on the Films. Billy and His Pal.”
[ix] Tom Gunning, "A Country Cupid,” in The Griffith Project, ed. Paolo Cherchi Usai, vol. 5 (London: British Film Institute, 2001), 95.
[x] Horak, "Cross-dressing in D.W. Griffith’s Biograph Films.”
[xi] "Edith Storey,” Motion Pictures, December 1914, Locke Env #2185, Billy Rose Theater Collection.
[xii] On A Florida Enchantment, see: R. Bruce Brasell, "A Seed for Change: The Engenderment of ‘A Florida Enchantment’,” Cinema Journal 36, no. 4 (Summer 1997): 3–21; Siobhan Somerville, Queering the Color Line: Race and the Invention of Homosexuality in American Culture (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2000), 40–76. I analyze the reception of this film in my dissertation, "Girls Will Be Boys,” 112–144.