Over the course of the four Indiana Jones movies, the intrepid archaeologist has found himself in amorous entanglements with three very different women. Not surprising given that the franchise was inspired by the pulpy adventure serials of the 1930s, wherein the hero could expect to stir the passions of a new gal with each new adventure. In his first film, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Indy is partnered with Marion Ravenwood, an old flame and the daughter of his mentor (she also returns for the fourth film). In his third time out, The Last Crusade, Indy meets Dr. Elsa Schneider, a beautiful art professor with dubious allegiances. But between these two women (actually before them within the film’s continuity), Indy crosses paths with Willie Scott, an American singing star living in Shanghai. And in the eyes of the cinema-going public, one of these women is not as fondly recalled as the others.
Perhaps the most important aspect to consider when looking at where Willie Scott would fit into the world of Indiana Jones is the most obvious one: Temple has to follow Raiders, which is no easy feat to accomplish. In order to avoid the common pitfall of treading on old ground, something would have to be done in order to offer a contrast to what came before. With regard to the film’s heroine, Temple would have to offer something very different to the gutsy, resourceful, somewhat tomboyish and arguably alcoholic Marion. To stand out against that, the heroine of Temple would have to present a polar opposite, something more glamorous and instantly feminine. Already we start to move in the direction of a character unsuited to the type of adventuring Indiana Jones is known to engage in, though this doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a bad move, and in fact may instantly present good possibilities for both comedy and tension. Nor does it mean she would be unfamiliar with danger, but perhaps just used to dealing with it in a certain way.
Now, if we take all of these points as an established basis for the creators to begin building a fuller character, we could do as those creators did and think on the inspiration for the character as found in old movies (Spielberg had apparently originally envisaged a character similar to Rosalind Russell in His Girl Friday, but I personally don’t think this entirely fits). If we have the basic criteria of inventing a glamorous woman who could exist and even thrive in the criminal underworld of 1930s Shanghai, it would suggest a gangster’s moll with a penchant for performance… you know what that starts to point towards? What icon of cinema that description should instantaneously conjure up? Gilda. This is an idea that would seem to have a greater bearing when noting that Temple’s costume designer Anthony Powell had actually wanted actress Kate Capshaw to dye her brunette hair red (the signature colour of Gilda star Rita Hayworth) before it was decided for her to go blonde instead. Gilda would seem like a perfect basis for a character like Willie Scott, almost to the point that it would be downright plagiarism. She was beautiful, fun, sharp-tongued, quick-witted, devious, and an unapologetic seductress. Seems like Indiana Jones sharing the screen with a character like Gilda would be an incredible thing to see.
It is said by some of the more disparaging critics that Willie’s status as a shrill annoyance in Temple of Doom is a reflection of the fact that both Spielberg and Lucas were both going through a divorce at the time of production. Honestly, I find that rather harsh, suggesting that both men consciously tried to torpedo a character in their movie as some cheap form of fantasy fulfilment. I think it’s likely more to do with their attempts to make things funny, but the results coming off as rather juvenile (some have argued that Spielberg is at his weakest with overt comedy, but that's a debate for another time). They were just trying to make a fun film, but in doing so maybe lost a bit of a connection to what made Raiders of the Lost Ark so special.
The real problem with Willie Scott’s character, and perhaps the main reason why she seems to get such a hard time (aside from all the screaming), is that it feels like there is a promising character in there, but that it is pulled in directions that undercut the potential substance. The glamorous, intelligent and perhaps rather jaded gangster’s moll has much of that texture wiped away when, either by decision of Capshaw or Spielberg (remember his notion of a Rosalind Russell type), the comedy is played broader than necessary. She gets to set up all the jokes, but only when the punchline indicates that she isn't as smart as everyone else. Suddenly, she’s more a ditzy blonde than the sardonic femme, the possible arc of the jaded gansgter’s moll shaken from her cynicism by her experiences beneath Pankot Palace gone and replaced by… well, nothing really. I can't really say I see a real change in Willie, at least not a satisfying one, and both the character and Kate Capshaw deserve better than that. I can see it the other way, and it rests a little uneasy that it won't ever be seen.