The Girls of Westerns, Part 2; or, Catherine Allen of Will Penny

No heaving bosoms. No limpid eyes filling with tears. No female stumbling after the hero in stupid high-heeled shoes. Ahhhh. Finally. A western heroine who isn’t a wilting schoolmarm or tart with heart of gold, or who doesn’t try to outshoot, outdrink, outswear, or outanything the hero. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that.)

I can shoot, though. Sort of.

Will Penny, a 1968 film starring Charlton Heston and co-starring Lee Majors (no bionics here) and Donald Pleasence (Fantastic Voyage!) also has a very unassuming heroine, Catherine, played by Joan Hackett in her first major silver-screen role. She doesn’t wear lowcut dresses nor does she lecture the hero (Heston’s Penny) on the virtues of civilization. She’s much too busy surviving with her young son, forced to winter in the mountains when a trip to meet her new husband goes awry.

Will Penny is the archetypal aging cowhand. Illiterate yet savvy, basically moral but no saint, he lives hand to mouth in a glorious western landscape that quickly begins to show its winter badassitude. A “little run-in” with a nutso preacher and his sons (one played by Bruce Dern so we know they’re psycho) means that one friend is badly hurt, and Penny and the other friend part ways. He becomes a line rider, discovers a woman and her son living in the line rider’s shack, warns them off, and then (this you knew was going to happen) the preacher bushwacks him and leaves him for dead.

Heston and Lee Majors.

Being Charlton Heston, he displays supreme granite-jawed courage and gets back to the line cabin, where the woman helps him recover. Love blossoms achingly slowly, and at the moment of their second kiss–dangnabbit!–that preacher appears again. As I said before, being that they are Donald Pleasence and Bruce Dern, you know things are going to suck. Penny and his back-in-the-nick-of-time friends save the day, but the ending has a twist that rings true. (*spoiler alert* although everyone on the planet has seen this but me)¬†Penny does not marry the woman, nor does he ride off into the glorious cowboy-hero sunset. Just back to the daily grind of a cowhand, hunched over his horse in a driving wind.

The role of Catherine Allen, like the roles of most women in westerns, stands for civilization, but it’s the more realistic chin-up, make-it-work pioneer ethic she personifies, with a dose of the romantic as she begins to fall in love with an illiterate cowhand many years her senior. (It helps that it’s Charlton Heston, looking wonderfully grizzled.)

Stand up, Chuck!!!

Joan Hackett’s Catherine Allen is plain, honest, and smart. She oversees her son’s education and notes Penny’s illiteracy without any smarmy do-good overtures. She foils an attempted tryst by not one but two evildoers (sons of the pater evildoer Pleasence) by fast-talking and good luck. And she tries to keep Penny from leaving by basically telling him that all of the reasons he should leave–age, lack of prospects–mean nothing to her. A love story! Awwwww!

Catherine Allen appears first at the side of Will Penny’s badly hurt friend and, typical Eastern dudette, is sucked into the friend’s tall tales. But the character and her son (one of the best child stars I’ve seen, the screenwriter/director’s son)¬†shows a steadiness that is a nice foil for the drifting cowboys of the first half of the flick.

So I’d place her in my pantheon. Her quiet competence and spark won me over–me, who prefers the fierce and fab Barbara Stanwyck’s Jessica Drummond in 40 Guns and the sass and fire of Claire Trevor’s Dallas in Stagecoach and the doe-eyed Mother Earth of Claudia Cardinal’s Jill McBain in Once Upon a Time in the West!

So I’d disagree with Will Penny was when he says to Catherine, “It’s just a case of too soon old and too late smart.” I can learn a few new tricks!

Catherine Allen: How often do you bathe?
Will Penny: Well, eight or nine times. It depends.
Catherine Allen: On what?
Will Penny: The weather.
Catherine Allen: Eight or nine times a month?
Will Penny: Eight or nine times a month? A year!
Catherine Allen: A year?
Will Penny: Well sure. You have a real good one when you finish the shove up north, like at the hotel in Alfred. Then one or two in the winter, if you don’t catch your death. Then a couple in the spring and one more good one before you start the shove up again. The rest depends on what kind of water you hit on the drive. Well, what’s wrong with that? That’s as much as anybody!

Thanks to BadMoviePlanet, for photos and a very thoughtful review of Will Penny.

And by golly, I can’t let this one go. Check out CharltonHestonWorld. A site with a name like that has got to be worth gold!

5 comments to The Girls of Westerns, Part 2; or, Catherine Allen of Will Penny

  • Katherine Miller

    ok – I thought I was the only one who loved this movie… One of Chuck’s best. take care, k

  • bucko

    WP is often on top 20 lists for best westerns. I was surprised to like it so much. Probably because of my unresolved attraction/repulsion for C. Heston.

  • Katherine Miller

    OMG! ME TOO!

  • Bill

    Cass Elliot of the Mama’s and Papa’s great voice appeared a number of times in the movie singing “The Good Times Are Coming.” Absolutely One of my all time favorite Westerns. I saw it when it first came out. As I grow older, I often think of the line Charlton Heston spoke, “Too Soon Old, Too Late Smart.” I am not a Charlton Heston fan, but he nailed this role like no one else could I believe.

  • bucko

    Hi, Bill, and sorry for the late reply! Heston did nail it–he was helped by a good script too and direction, but he filled this role very well. Thanks for the Cass Elliot callout. I’ll be listening carefully next time around.

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