Wild Women Of The West: Bessie Barriscale

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Between 1914 and 1926, roper, rider, and actress Bessie Barriscale dazzled silent film fans in a series of fast paced Westerns. Movie audiences were fascinated with the versatile and beautiful star’s ability to outsmart and outshoot the outlaws in pictures such as The Bells of Austi and The Gambler’s Pal. 

Named Elizabeth Mary Barriscale at birth in New York City, she came to San Francisco with her family as a child and made her stage debut at the age of eight at the Baldwin Theatre. For three years beginning in 1905, she toured the United States and England in the play Mrs. Wiggs of the Cabbage Patch, playing the role of Lovey Mary. During the tour, the attractive blonde actress married Howard C. Hickman, actor, director, and author. 

Late in 1907, she starred in The Bird of Paradise at the Alcatraz Theatre where she remained a favorite in later plays. In 1912, she and her husband went to Los Angeles where she made her silent film debut as Juanita in Rose of the Rancho. The Western picture was based on a play by David Belasco and Richard Walton Tully and was directed by Cecil B. DeMille. Bessie’s character was the feisty love interest of a government agent sent to help California landowners battle with an unscrupulous banker threatening to take over the territory. The film cost $16,988 to make and grossed $87,028 in 1914. 

One of Bessie’s most popular films was Two-Gun Betty. The immensely talented cowgirl actress was able to show her incredible range in the tongue-in-cheek comedy Western. The premise was an inspired and unique one in 1918. Hoping to win a bet, Betty Craig (Barriscale) disguises herself as a man and lands a job as a ranch hand on the spread owned by her best friend’s brother, Jack Kennedy. It doesn’t take long for Kennedy and the other cowboys to see through Betty’s masquerade, but they don’t let on that they know that “he” is a “she”, and Betty becomes convinced that she has pulled off her deception. Betty and Jack inevitably fall in love and plan to get married, but first Jack must rescue Betty from a gang of desperadoes who don’t want to play along with her little game. Two-Gun Betty was directed by her Howard Hickman, produced by Robert Brunton, and distributed by Pathe Exchange. 

Bessie and her husband left Hollywood in 1919 and crisscrossed the country for eight years on the Keith-Orpheum vaudeville circuit. The pair performed comedy skits with Bessie adding in rope tricks when appropriate. Following the Hickmans’ retirement in 1927, the couple lived in Los Angeles before moving to Marin County in 1945. Howard died in 1949. Bessie died in 1965 at the age of eighty-one.

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