Not the greatest start for Audie’s Western career; still fun though
You know the story, I’m sure, how America’s most decorated WWII soldier returned the hero, was splashed all over Life magazine and went into the movies under the aegis of James Cagney.
War hero Audie Murphy went into movies in the late 1940s, first with a bit part in Texas, Brooklyn and Heaven (1948), then with a small role as a cadet in the John Farrow-directed Beyond Glory (1948), and then in his first lead as juvenile delinquent Danny Lester in Bad Boy (1949). It was absolutely inevitable, however, given his famous baby face and all-round boyish appearance, that his Western career at Universal would start with him cast as the juvenile delinquent of all juvenile delinquents, Billy the Kid, and sure enough, in 1950, he starred as William Bonney in The Kid from Texas.
He went on to make 33 feature film Westerns and 26 episodes of Whispering Smith on TV. The ‘kid’ roles lasted well into the 1960s. Even in his first Western, as Billy, he was already 25, whereas the real Bonney died aged 21, but Audie’s juvenile looks made that not a problem.
Many of his early Westerns were unambitious and conventional affairs, and Audie did his best but he was still learning. He himself modestly said, “I’m working under a great handicap . . . no talent.” That wasn’t in fact the case but certainly, at the start anyway, he tended to just be himself, not ‘acting’ at all. He often looked expressionless. But in a Western, that works. Western heroes are supposed to be reserved, taciturn, stoic. The Universal oaters had reasonable budgets and were no poverty row shockers but somehow they all looked like B-movies. The Audie ones are enjoyable and some of them are good (see, for example, Ride Clear of Diablo or No Name on the Bullet) but only in The Red Badge of Courage in 1951 and later in The Unforgiven in 1960, both directed by John Huston, did Audie really show what a powerful and talented professional actor he really was. “No talent,” my foot. But it is true that he doesn’t shine in the majority of his early Westerns, which he plays in a pretty low-key way.
The Kid from Texas is a typical early Audie Western. It tells the tale of Billy the Kid (being Audie, they invented the fact that Billy came from Texas, which of course he did not; he was a New Yorker) and it is one of those annoying movies that begin with a mendacious voiceover saying, “The facts were as you will see them.” This pseudo-factual approach is strengthened by the spoken commentary that punctuates the narrative, giving a ‘documentary’ feel to the film. According to Hedda Hopper, J Edgar Hoover offered to do the voiceover. Amazing, if true. In the end, though, they got Parley Baer to do it.
Many movies were perfectly happy to tell the fanciful legend of Bonney/McCarty/Antrim (take your pick) and have a lot of fun doing it without absurd claims as to veracity. But for some reason makers of Westerns often felt moved to claim historical authenticity, even for the most ludicrous exaggerations and falsehoods. Universal director Kurt Neumann (of The Fly fame but he also had the honor of directing the Tom Mix epic My Pal the King in 1932) and writers Robert H Andrews and Karl Kamb went down this route but the story of Billy as told is not “the facts”: it is actually complete bunkum.
As recounted in this version, Billy goes to work for an English lord in New Mexico, Roger Jameson (Shepperd Strudwick, who was born as near to London as you can get in North Carolina). Jameson – the Tunstall figure, obviously – is gunned down on his own ranch by the henchmen of evil rival rancher Major Harper (Denis Hoey). Jameson is a pacifist and has persuaded Billy to hang up his (over-fancy) two-gun rig but now of course the youth straps the pistols on again to get his revenge.
Jameson’s partner, the McSween figure, is Alexander Kain (geddit?), played by the great Albert Dekker. He takes over the business when Jameson is killed but is a two-timer. He has a glam young wife, Irene (Gale Storm) and Mr Kain suspects a liaison between her and Billy, but any affair between the two is only hinted at and Billy himself dismisses the idea loudly. Nor does Billy dilly or dally with any dusky maidens. He’s a very celibate Billy the Kid.
Governor Wallace (Robert Barrat) rides out in full Union General uniform to meet Billy in the wilds of New Mexico but makes no deal or promises, merely tries, unsuccessfully, to persuade the boy to turn himself in. Billy refuses, without saying why (nor is it clear).
There’s no election but Lew appoints Pat Garrett (Frank Willcox, looking quite like John Dehner as Garrett in The Left-Handed Gun) as county sheriff and after a quick escape from the burning Kain home and from the Lincoln County jail (the Ollinger figure he shoots with a shotgun is a certain Minninger, played by William Talman) Irene Kain goes off to stay with the Maxwells and play waltzes on the piano at Fort Sumner, Billy listens at the window and then Pat arrives… Fin.
You see? Complete tosh.
You will notice from the above that many of the actors are pretty well B-list. An article of the time in the Los Angeles Times reported that producer Paul Short (he had also produced Bad Boy) wanted Charles Bickford and Mona Freeman, but that didn’t happen. Still, diversion is provided by the great Ray Teal as No 1 corrupt Sheriff Rand (the Brady figure) and fat Paul Ford as No 2 corrupt Sheriff Copeland. Walter Sande is there and Robert J Wilke is a (disgracefully uncredited) henchman. We also have Will Geer in a sort of Gabby Hayes amusing-sidekick part as O’Fallon, I suppose a reference to Tom O’Folliard, though not at all like Tom. So there are some good Western character actors to divert us.
There’s some nice photography, by B-Western expert Charles van Enger, of San Bernadino National Forest locations. Not bad. Universal did not stint on this aspect and the pictures always looked good.
The dialogue is downright stilted, I’m afraid, and chock-full of clichés. The movie may have been alright for a 1950 juvenile audience (and their dads) but honestly, sorry to say it (because I’m a bit of an Audie fan) it is pretty second-rate.
Nevertheless, when it was released in February 1950, the picture did well at the box-office. Murphy’s fame helped a lot and casting him as a troubled youth resorting to violence didn’t hurt.
Purely as a Billy the Kid movie it was no worse than many another and a lot better than some, despite the monkeying about with “the facts” – but they all did that to a greater or lesser degree.Later the same year Audie would give another violent youth the same treatment when he played the teenage wartime Jesse James in Kansas Raiders. Then he would be The Cimarron Kid.
Don’t confuse this The Kid from Texas with MGM’s 1939 picture of the same name. That was about a polo-playing cowboy who goes East. Slightly different.
There were in fact two Billy the Kid movies in 1950. In July, Lippert released I Shot Billy the Kid, with Robert Lowery as the shooter (Garrett) and Don ‘Red’ Barry, as the shootee (Billy). The picture was made quickly to cash in on the success of I Shot Jesse James the year before. I shan’t be reviewing that now because I don’t remember it at the time (well, I was only 2) and can’t find it on DVD. But you never know. I bet you can’t wait.