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Westward the Women

Westward the Women

Laura E. Ruberto (July 7, 2008)
Italian Film Poster for the U.S. film "Westward the Women" (1951)

What Frank Capra and an obscure William Wellman western might tell us about Italian American women.


William Wellman’s relatively unknown 1951 film Westward the Women documents an Italian American woman’s conditional acceptance in society. Through the character of Signora Moroni, the film depicts Italian Americans as ethnic whites—at once different from but part of the status quo.

The film, written by Frank Capra, tells the story of 140 women pioneers who traveled from Chicago to California in 1851 as mail-order brides for men who had been living in the fictional Whitman’s Valley. Similar to some of the films Capra directed, such as Meet John Doe and State of the Union, Westward the Women’s Italian American characters have important supporting roles.
In great part the film is a typical western, invoking the idea of manifest destiny, a wild west with rugged terrain and savage Indians, helpless women, and a morally complex male hero. Yet it also incorporates ideas about gender and ethnicity quite unusual in Hollywood cinema: by featuring a post-World War II view of Italians as ethnic whites in a story set in the 1850s, and by emphasizing the experience of one woman, the film becomes a reflection on a certain kind of Italian American female identity.
westward the women poster                                                 
The Neapolitan-born Renata Vanni plays Signora Moroni, a widow with a young son. In the 1940s, Vanni was signed on by Warner Brothers, and her first credited film work was in Westward the Women. She had previously performed in Italian theater and radio in New York City; later she would go on to work in TV and film, including playing a Mexican woman in Gunsmoke, the landlady in That Girl, and Donna Toscana in the 1989 film adaptation of Wait Until Spring, Bandini. She died in 2004.
We first meet Signora Moroni in Chicago, where women are being chosen to make the trip to California. Her stereotypical peasant look is striking in comparison to the other women. In fact, we are never told she is Italian until the very end of the film, and thus we’re immediately encouraged to rely on our recognition of popular culture markers of an Italian immigrant to determine her ethnic (and national) identity.
Neither she nor her son, Tony (played by Guido Artufi), utter a word in English; their Italian is neither translated nor subtitled for viewers. Pantomime and shot-reverse-shot cues help the non-Italian-speaking audience, as well as the characters on screen, understand the Moronis’ dialogue.
That Signora Moroni gestures at a gunshot when she tries to explain “mio marito è morto” may merely be because it’s the easiest way she can think of to explain her husband’s absence. On the other hand, for a 1950s film audience—already schooled in images of Italians and the mob—the gunshot becomes a reference to a violent underworld in which Mr. Moroni may have been involved.
[BTW: the confusion many immigrants encounter(ed) with their names being mispronounced and misspelled—I, for one, am continually correcting how others spell my last name—seems to have been inadvertently documented in this film as well. The family’s surname is variously spelled and pronounced as Moroni and Maroni. The credits and the Anglo Roy Whitman give it an American pronunciation and spelling (Maroni). The woman and son, as well as the son’s headstone, say/read Moroni.]
Out of pity more than anything else, Signora Moroni and her son are permitted to join the wagon train west, but their outsider status remains. Midway through the film, Tony dies in a tragic scene (shown here).


From the point of his death on, Signora Moroni becomes a hysterical and degraded (and even more stereotypical) figure, tied to a wagon, wailing for her child; her isolation becomes even more pronounced.
But the film’s final sequence offers a significant turning point for Signora Moroni. It’s as though after overcoming death, draught, hunger, and the like, Signora Moroni can at last find a place for herself in this country. It’s as though under the sun of the Golden State, her ethnic identity can shine, still an outsider but now part of the crowd, too.  
Once in Whitman’s Valley, the women all approach a dance pavilion where they pair off with the eager men. Signora Moroni notices an orange tree nearby and guiltily picks a piece of fruit. The use of the orange here both as a symbol of California and of Italy is clever, however ahistorical. According to Jay Mechling’s history of the orange (found in Rooted in America), by the 1850s oranges were not very common in California, though by 1950 they were. Similarly, in Italy, oranges were mainly only known in the Southern regions.
With fruit in hand, Signora Moroni approaches a man (played by Zacharias Yaconelli) and, still speaking unsubtitled Italian, asks him if he is Italian, since, she gathered that he would be by his photo. Their exchange—half in English, half in Italian, curiously— leads to a love match. They are both from the North (Milan and Genoa), and they both like oranges! (Their Northern Italian origin works against a longstanding misconception that all Italians in the US come from Southern Italy, and at the same time reflects the history of Italians in California, most of whom came from Northern regions.) 
 In many ways, the film rather simplistically portrays the history of California and US racial politics (there are other immigrant characters, too—Irish, French, and Japanese). And yet the fact that it even approached such topics in the postwar years suggests that it merits more attention.
The film, with its majority female cast and interesting sexual and ethnic perspective, could tell us much about the centrality of maleness and whiteness in this country at mid-century. But like so many other creative works that ask us to consider the role of women in the formation of culture, Westward the Women barely rates a footnote in US film history.


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