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Director Frank Capra wrote the story – then called “Pioneer Women” – on which Westward the Women was based. Originally, he imagined Gary Cooper in the lead. However, the studios that he pitched it to, Columbia and Paramount, didn’t bite.
Still enthusiastic about the idea, he mentioned it to his friend and neighbor, director William Wellman.
“He flipped,” recalled Capra in his autobiography. “And Dore Schary bought it for Bill to make at MGM.”
1. It was a tough shoot.
Wellman expected his cast to be on their best behavior and warned them that they were in for a bumpy ride that would test them physically, just as their characters would be in the film. In order to train for their parts, the women’s regiment included calisthenics, horseback riding, shooting, and playing softball. Just in case it seemed like too much, Wellman allowed anyone who didn’t think they could handle the load to bow out before they started. In his words, there would be “no frills” and “no prima donnas.”
2. Wellman and Taylor got along.
The director and star had worked together first in 1936’s Small Town Girl. “I was crazy about Bob Taylor," said Wellman. “I think he's one of the finest men I've ever known in my whole life. And he’s an actor. He was probably handsomest of them all. And he did everything I asked him to. He was wonderful.” When Taylor took his personal plane to location, the director even had a path cleared to make a runway for him.
3. Accomplished stuntwomen left an impact.
While Westward the Women did have stuntmen, director William Wellman also hired just about every stuntwoman he could find in Hollywood. These ladies included Polly Burson, Opal Ernie, and Evelyn Finley. These talented women were known for doubling stars like Sophia Loren, Doris Day, and Barbara Stanwyck. One night while at a bar, a local made an offhand remark about the director, and one of the stuntwomen asked him to repeat it. He didn’t have time to finish before she slugged him, knocking him to the floor. The other three stuntwomen did the same to the others he was with. The only casualty: a broken nail.