The Female of the Species: Gunslinging Gerta

Back in the early days of the American film industry, movies starring women in leading roles weren’t uncommon. Helen Holmes (Hazards of Helen, 1914-1917) and Pearl White (Perils of Pauline. 1914) showed that women could do action movies whether set on the ground, sky and water. Till the early 1920s, when movies transitioned from serials to features, action heroines were plentiful.

Carroll John Daly, living in New York in the 1920s, would have been well aware of these and other such movies. In collaboration with Charles Carey Waddell (originally Waddle), he came up with the character of Two-Gun Gerta, which placed the action heroine in the American West. A domain which had been exclusively male in movies.

Coming shortly after the crashing entry of Three-Gun Terry and Race Williams, the first hardboiled private eyes, into Black Mask, Two-Gun Gerta is interesting if flawed. First published in People’s, a Street and Smith pulp magazine, in 1923, it was recently republished by Steeger Books.

Two-Gun Gerta, who bursts into a saloon firing two revolvers in Chapter 2, has recently inherited a ranch on the border with Mexico, and with it a lot of trouble, financial and otherwise. An American businessman, allied with the local Mexican bandit leader, are making her life tough. If Daly and Waddle had continued letting Gerta be the star of the show and put in more action and less romance, the story might have been a lot better.

Instead, they make the novel into a rather mushy “will they, won’t they” romance with misunderstanding after misunderstanding keeping apart Gerta and the nice All-American hero who comes into town in Chapter 1. Gerta turns into a strong but sentimental female, falling in love with the hero quickly. Throw in a vamp, the Mexican bandito and treachery inside Gerta’s ranch. The plot moves quickly but the hero doesn’t take it seriously, and neither could I. There are flashes of the liveliness of Race Williams’ stream of consciousness narrative, but for the most part it’s sedate writing.

So why should you, after that review, still buy Two-Gun Gerta? The answer is in David Wilson’s introduction. With plenty of hitherto unseen photos of John Carroll Daly, it provides plenty of biographical details about both authors and situates this work in their careers. If you have any interest in Daly, read this.

For Daly, this was an attempt to branch out into other genres that didn’t work out so well. Still, he published a few other westerns in his career. Though I wonder why he never tried to break into western romances, perhaps under a pseudonym. It might have worked with a series character like Gerta.

Fast forward to today. The action heroine is still in short supply, though examples like Sigourney Weaver’s Ellen Ripley in Alien and True Grit’s Haillie Steinfeld show that we like strong kick ass women just as much as, if not more than, manly men.

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