Roy is Billy
It was inevitable that once Billy the Kid became a national character, which Walter Noble Burns’s 1920s bestseller The Saga of Billy the Kid and the MGM movie Billy the Kid of 1930 had done, he would enter the realm of the one-hour second feature Western destined for the juvenile market. The idea of Kid heroes was well suited: young boys could identify with such a champion. Equally obviously, the Billy the Kids that appeared had to be sanitized and bowdlerized versions, cleansed of all murderous intent. The real Billy didn’t smoke or drink, so that was good for Hollywood morality of the time, but on screen he also had to be a good man, rightin’ wrongs and such.
New Republic star Roy Rogers’s first Western as lead, Under Western Stars, released in April 1938, was immediately followed up with a Billy the Kid yarn, released in September. It’s one of those movies in which the star plays two roles, Billy the Kid and his lookalike. Rogers would pull the same stunt in Jesse James at Bay, in 1941.
Of course even the ‘bad’ Billy is a goody. He stands up for the sturdy homesteaders against the ruthless ranchers, a Western plot considerably older than the hills. But Pat Garrett shoots him, and Billy’s double, Roy, takes over, pretending to be Billy, in order to continue defending the farmers from the big cattlemen. The plot thus flirts with absurdity, but these oaters were never meant to be taken seriously.
Garrett (Wade Boteler, the Green Hornet’s bodyguard Mike Axford) wants to give Billy “one last chance” but the boy draws on him and so Pat is obliged to shoot him. This happens, oddly, before the Kid is taken as prisoner to Lincoln, so the writers played fast and loose with history in more ways than one. Boteler joins the long list of screen Garretts, and, as was traditional, is shown as an older man, a friend of the Kid who wants to help him but is forced to kill him.
Like most of these pictures, it was a 53-minute black & white job, directed in workmanlike fashion by Joseph Kane.
In the first Western Roy rode Trigger but it was just a horse like any other, if rather glamorous. In this one, though, Trigger is already beginning his advance to stardom. He gets a line (Roy asks him a question and he neighs in reply) and we can see it won’t be long before he will be the smartest horse in the movies. There’s still no sign of Dale or Bullet, though. They’ll come later.Naturally there are songs galore. Roy’s comic sidekick is Smiley Burnette again and Smiley gets two chansons, and he also duets on one of Roy’s (which Burnette co-wrote). Roy himself croons some catchy ditties such as Born to the Saddle, Sing a Little Song About Anything, and When the Sun is Settin’ on the Prairie (also reprised at the end). The plot contrivances to get these songs in are remarkable. For one, he has to sing to prove he’s not Billy the Kid because it is well known that Billy couldn’t sing a note. Naturally he passes the test with flying colors.
The swell dame he romances this time is Ellen Moore (Lynne Roberts, who was Roy’s love interest in three Westerns in 1938 alone, billed, however, as Mary Hart so that the studio could put Rogers and Hart on the posters). She is a storekeeper’s daughter and her dad (Edwin Stanley) opens up a rival emporium to that of crooked and ruthless ‘Morganson’ (there is no LG Murphy or Dolan), so conflict looms. Luckily Mr and Ms Moore have Roy/Billy to defend them.
There’s a horrid bit where a double for Trigger is spurred off a bluff into a lake below. It always makes me cringe.
An LA Times ad of 1938 shows that this film had its world première at the Los Angeles Orpheum Theater with a personal appearance by Roy Rogers, “Acclaimed the Screen’s Greatest Find of the Year, Singing the Songs of the West … The Songs You Love Best!” He wasn’t yet ‘King of the Cowboys’ but he was on the trail.
It’s one of those movies whose copyright was not renewed so is now in the public domain. Happily, though, the print on YouTube isn’t bad – often these public-domain films are copies of copies and pretty poor quality.
It’s harmless enough though maybe not quite as good as the non-Billy Under Western Stars, or Shine On Harvest Moon released in December.
The next major-studio Billy the Kid outing would be back at Metro in 1941, and the studio would cast one of its top stars in the role. We’ll be looking at that. But before then, Bob Steele in 1940 and Buster Crabbe in ’41 began their long series of Poverty Row Billy pictures so we ought to have a look at one of each anyway. Those, dear e-pards, will be coming up next.