A western spin on The Taming of the Shrew.
Rhonda Fleming plays a half-breed fur trading businesswoman who needs a man in her life like a horse needs a bicycle, but she does need a paper husband to fulfill the conditions of her inheritance. Madison is in jail, about to be hanged when the crooked Judge (Don Beddoe) who framed and put him there, comes to Madison proposing a deal. I’ll write you a pardon if you marry Fleming, a poor helpless widow with little starving children, so that she may inherit her husband’s estate. You’ll both remain anonymous to each other and part ways immediately, no obligations. Madison agrees, marries the gorgeous redhead, gets out of jail, then finds out the true story about Fleming from her slimy competition (Peter Adams), who tries to get control of Fleming’s business by using Madison’s status as husband and his anger at being taken advantage of. Madison is his own man though, and he wants Fleming and everything that comes with her, all for himself, and task of tempering her wild nature appeals to him.
I’ll join most other reviewers of Bullwhip in pointing out this story is a variation on Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew, so that tells you everything about the spirit, plot and outcome of the movie. Fleming is a headstrong, fiery half-Indian princess and completely capable leader, even if at times she’s an unattractively harsh and violent one. Madison does well in the role of the jolly, persistent and virile Alpha male who manages to anticipate Fleming’s ploys and schemes and always steps ahead of her. He enjoys her growing frustration, plays with her emotions and finally breaks down the walls around her heart. Though there are few laugh out loud moments, this is basically a romantic comedy in western garb and it works fine if you don’t expect too much more out of it.
The truth is, Fleming doesn’t need much breaking down in the romance department since from first sight she is powerfully attracted to Madison. After leaving the sham husband behind, her crew notices that her staring into space, her absentminded whip-cracking and furrowed brow are not normal behaviour and wonder out loud what’s gotten into her. Too bad they can’t hear her voice over where she tells us that she’s fallen for Madison and then immediately chastises herself for being a normal female with natural feelings. When Madison catches up to her wagon train, Fleming positively lights up at the sight of him, then almost rips his head off with her whip when he presumes to take command, give orders and call her the “Mrs.” It’s not him she’s fighting at all but the loss of control over her business.
Everything she thinks up to get Madison out of her hair seems to backfire. She steals the judge’s letter pardoning him, but it gets stolen from her, falling into the hands of her enemy Adams. She tries going to her tribe to get their help, but the Chief’s first act is to demand a meeting with her new husband and deal with him in all further business negotiations. She even tries to get her Indian friend/bodyguard to beat Madison up but her new Mister wins that too, asserting his dominance in nearly every area of her life, and rubbing it in with a grin. As much as she’s stymied and infuriated by what she sees as limits and walls thrown up all around her as a mere wife, she’s also increasingly impressed with Madison and getting more interested in all the benefits of being a great wife. When his life and freedom are jeopardized, she admits her love and is willing to give up something huge to help him, so as she hasn’t been lobotomized or beaten down, but chooses her husband.
In the story there’s a gunman (James Griffith) who’s hired by the judge to kill Madison, and then hired by Adams to keep him alive, so that adds some intrigue. There’s an interesting reversal of gender roles in the way Fleming is cold and heartless when it comes to helping a woman who just lost her child, in contrast to Madison who orders all the men to go out of their way to assist. That and many comments by her employees show us that Fleming’s character can stand to learn some humanity, softness and compassion. The movie drags on a bit long, and the dialogue is terribly cheesy and undercooked in places. Those in search of outrage fuel are sure to find some in the gender battle depicted here but over-sensitivity like that, applied to a slight film like this that would be a shame, since it’s harmlessly entertaining cowboy-Shakespeare courtship. My complaint about their tug of war is that Fleming and Madison needed hotter chemistry to make this work better; they seem a bit cool to each other where there should be sparks. (The first couple that came to my mind as a great example of incredible love-hate chemistry were Yvonne De Carlo and Rod Cameron in the fun Frontier Gal.)
Bullwhip was directed by Harmon Jones, and written by prolific screenwriter Adele Buffington, who worked up from being a ticket cashier at the cinema to selling her first script in 1919. She wrote tons of westerns (using pseudonyms Jesse Bowers and Colt Remington), and Bullwhip was her last produced screenplay. Nothing remarkable about this movie but as a random pick it was all right, I enjoyed watching Fleming and Madison, and a western written by a woman and centering on a woman’s personal development was a draw for me. It was fun to watch a strong feminist realize that loving might mean loss of independence but doesn’t necessarily mean losing worth or wealth, material or otherwise.
(it’s currently on YouTube)