Billy wears a star
MGM made a big-budget Billy the Kid picture in 1930, and would do another in 1941, but between these two, the B-Westerns took Billy up as a hero. Roy Rogers made Billy the Kid Returns at Republic in 1938, with a budget that certainly could not be described as big, and in 1940 Producers Releasing Corporation, PRC, often referred to as Poverty Row Corp, started a long series of second-feature one-hour Billy Westerns destined for the juvenile market, whose budget was so low that it made Republic’s look spendthrift.
In these pictures Billy had to be a goody, of course. In full Hays Code era, heroes like this, especially if role models for juniors, could not possibly be villains, could not even smoke or drink. And the writers of the plots took no account at all of the real William Bonney.
In this one, for example, the people of a Texas town, Corral, elect Billy sheriff because their burg has been treed by a bunch of bad guys. Carleton (misspelled as Carlton in the credits) Young is Billy’s brother – no, not Joe McCarty but a certain Gil. He has allied himself with the baddies and is tasked with shooting down the new sheriff before he can impose law ‘n’ order. At the last moment he recognizes his bro, and they fudge the showdown and hatch up a plot together to foil the villains. What’s unhistorical about that?
In the next Billy picture, Billy the Kid’s Gun Justice, Carleton would become Billy’s sidekick Jeff but he hasn’t been promoted yet.
Bonney did go to Texas and was in the Panhandle from time to time, rustling stock or carefully avoiding detection. So Billy the Kid in Texas does have some plausibility, I suppose.
The baddies are cowhands from the Lazy 8 but these aren’t simple cowpokes hurrahing the place (though they do that too) but crooks and thugs who hold up the express company’s deliveries. Their evil boss is named Flash (John Merton).
It all starts with a robbery, which Billy foils, obviously, and much galloping and shooting – one of those chases where they fire six-shooters with abandon on horseback, hitting nothing of course, and the revolvers have at least twenty shots in them before needing reloading. Anyway, ‘Billy Clark’, as he calls himself, recovers the stolen money and proves himself adept with a firearm so is the ideal candidate to wear the sheriff’s star. No one knows (yet) that he is Billy Bonney, you see.
Bob Steele was a good choice as Billy (he took the role three times in 1940 alone). Though a bit long in the tooth by then (he was well into his thirties) he had been a child star and was kind of fixed in the collective memory as a youth. In fact he started working with his father on stage when he was two. Later he toured in a comedy act for Fanchon and Marco. His first screen experience was at age 14 with his brother William in a Pathé epic Adventures of Bill and Bob. He was billed as Bob Bradbury Jr because his father was director/producer/writer and Western specialist RN Bradbury. He took the stage name Bob Steele at the end of the silent era. Altogether he was in a remarkable 300 big-screen and TV Westerns, between 1921 and 1974. Respect!
Well, Billy the Kid in Texas is all very predictable (note, I did not say corny) and formulaic. Producer Sigmund Neufeld, director Sam Newfield (Sigmund’s brother) and writer Joseph O’Donnell go through the motions and tick all the boxes (within the limits of the budget).
There’s a saloon where fisticuffs can take place, as was compulsory in them days. Naturally there’s a fair maid in town, Mary (Terry Walker).
Equally naturally there are some comic antics from Al St John, Fuzzy, who becomes a deputy.
Slim Whitaker is the driver. Billy is dressed all in black and rides a fancy palomino. Maybe he’s trying to be Randolph Scott.
They felt confident enough to re-release it in 1946.
It’s enjoyable low-budget fun, even if history teachers would be well advised to stay away, to avoid having palpitations.
After Billy the Kid in Santa Fe, Bob’s sixth Billy the Kid Western the following year, Mr Steele would move on and become Tucson Smith in a new series, and a more youthful (well, one year younger) Buster Crabbe would take over the role of the celebrated outlaw, but for Buster as Billy you will have to wait for the next thrilling episode of Jeff Arnold’s West’s Billy the Kid in Fact and Fiction. A bientôt!