The blog of a Western fan, for other Western fans

The worst ever Billy the Kid film

While MGM was making Billy the Kid, in late 1940 and early 1941, another crew was putting together a rival Billy the Kid picture in California. It was a project of arch-weirdo Howard Hughes, as we are reminded less than subtly on screen (“Howard Hughes presents a Howard Hughes production, directed and produced by Howard Hughes”). It was considered so scandalous that it couldn’t be released in ’41 to rival the Metro picture. It didn’t come out till February 1943, and then only with major cuts. Fox washed its hands of it and United Artists finally took it on.

Personally, I wish they had never bothered. It is such a dreadful film that it could actually have challenged for the coveted crown of Worst Western Ever Made.

There was no challenger anyway for the title of Worst Billy the Kid Movie Ever. That competition it won hands down. Those Bob Steele and Buster Crabbe second features for PRC were art films by comparison.

The worst feature of The Outlaw is not the ridiculous plot and monkeying with history, although that is totally preposterous. All Billy the Kid films did that to a greater or lesser degree. It was the dreadful, boring screenplay, only relieved by the occasional unintentionally funny parts – there are laugh-out-loud moments when it’s trying to be serious. It’s strange because screenwriter Jules Furthman, a magazine writer who started doing screenplays back in 1915, had written the 1935 Mutiny on the Bounty, for which he was Oscar-nominated, and would later do some of Hollywood’s most highly regarded films, like To Have and to Have Not and Nightmare Alley. You wouldn’t know it from The Outlaw, which appears to have been written by a no-talent teenager. It is said that Ben Hecht contributed but I don’t know which parts. This extremely ponderous script is delivered by experienced actors who should have known better and new ones who were marginally more fluid and lifelike than a block of wood, but only just.


Writer Furthman

Added to that, the direction, by Hughes himself once Howard Hawks had been fired, is astonishingly clumsy and amateurish. The film positively drags. It is reported that writer Furthman also directed some scenes when Hughes was otherwise occupied (said to be quite often). Furthman clearly didn’t have a clue either.


PR for the picture

Hughes admires the Furthman script

There are very few action scenes and those are mostly done with the actors ‘riding’ those fake horses in a studio with back-projection showing pursuing Indians. It is highly unconvincing and in fact just looks silly.

I watched this movie again yesterday in order to write this review and I’m here to tell you that rarely have such sacrifices been made for the greater good (= Western blog). I devoutly hope I never have to see it again.


Poor Jack just wasn’t up to it

The lead, Jack Buetel, an insurance clerk of 23 chosen presumably for his sultry looks, cannot act to save his life, though actually the real lead is another ‘discovery’, Jane Russell, who is worse. Hughes, who had his aero engineers design a special cantilevered bra for Russell, said, referring to the effect, that there were two good reasons why every American male wanted to see the film. In fact, Russell later reported that she hardly ever wore it as it was so uncomfortable but the myth dictates that she wore it in the film. She later wrote “I never wore it in The Outlaw, and he never knew. He wasn’t going to take my clothes off to check if I had it on. I just told him I did.” The famed brassière ended up in a Hollywood museum—a false witness to the push-up myth. The famous, ubiquitous and highly effective billboard poster for the movie, designed by publicist Russell Birdwell, showed the scantily clad Russell provocatively lying in the straw and holding a gun, and didn’t show Billy (the outlaw of the title) at all. Or the bra. As an actress, Miss Russell thus had a couple of points in her favor but that was all.

Of course, though it caused scandal at the time, and deliberately traded on that, it is so tame now that we can’t understand what the fuss was about. We never see Buetel and Russell in bed; it’s only suggested, by Russell rolling down her nylon stockings to get ready (as you know, nylons were very common in 1880 New Mexico). All hints at sexual shenanigans are obliterated by yet another fade-to-black. When the movie was re-released in 1976 it got a G-rating, “suitable for general family audiences”.


Sex sells Westerns (even though there wasn’t any)

As, er, counterweight to the two glamorous neophytes, Thomas Mitchell and Walter Huston were drafted in as proper actors, to play Pat Garrett and Doc Holliday. What’s Doc Holliday doing in a Billy the Kid film? Don’t ask. Huston as Holliday manages to do something with his script. Mitchell, a totally ludicrous, short, fat Garrett, just can’t. I have read a suggestion that both Huston and Mitchell were playing it tongue-in-cheek. They weren’t. Mitchell, especially, in his worst ever performance on film, gave it all he had. Unfortunately.


They seem to have found something to laugh about anyway

Huston was a fine, Oscar-winning actor. From a Western perspective, he was Trampas in his first oater, The Virginian in 1929, and he remains the best Trampas of all the versions. He was splendid as the Wyatt Earp-figure in Law and Order in 1932, and after The Outlaw he would be notable as ‘the Sinkiller’ in Duel in the Sun, as TC Jeffords in Anthony Mann’s The Furies, and, in particular, his wonderful Howard in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, directed by his son John. All of which goes nowhere to explain his Doc Holliday in this appalling clunker.


Doc Holliday as Billy the Kid’s lover

As for Mitchell, he did seven Westerns and will be forever remembered for his drunk Doc Boone in Stagecoach, as well as his Mayor Henderson in High Noon. He was an unconvincing Ned Buntline in Buffalo Bill (a drunk again), he was quite entertaining at first but in the end tiresome as as the down-and-out lawyer John Plato Beck in Silver River, and was yet again a drunk in the remake Destry. Himself a recovering alcoholic, he should probably have been better in these parts. Myself, even in Stagecoach I never reckoned him a fine actor. But many people do.


Mitchell the worst ever Pat Garrett

In any case, both Huston and Mitchell were star names with a strong Western profile. Given Mitchell’s dumpiness and Huston’s height (he was over 6 foot), Huston probably should have been cast as Garrett, though Mitchell would have been just as improbable as the slight and frail Doc Holliday.

In fact, the censor was so obsessed with Russell’s cleavage, or insisting that she be married in the story before she spent the night with Billy, that he (the censor was always a he) completely missed the true salacious content of the film, which is, amazingly, a homosexual love triangle. Or at least it sounds like that as, unnoticed by the Hays Office, the two older men, Mitchell’s Garrett and Huston’s Holliday, jealously compete for the love of the pouty youth Billy, the real sex object of the movie.


A tangled web of relationships

Mitchell as Garrett has this speech, addressed to Huston as Holliday: “I might have known you’d do this to me … Ever since you met him [Billy], you’ve treated me like a dog … You stand there, side by side, with that little snip of a kid, against me, me, who’s always been the best friend you ever had. And I still would be if it wasn’t for him.”

This is the petulant foot-stamping of a jilted girl. It comes very strangely out of the mouth of Mitchell but there the dialogue is. It has been suggested (Garry Wills in his biography of John Wayne writes that Lucien Ballard said this) that Howard Hughes was sleeping with an unwilling Buetel, not with Russell at all, and the script was a sly dig at Hughes’s relationship. Hughes must have been pretty obtuse if so, letting that script pass.

Later, Billy submits masochistically as his ‘lover’ shoots nicks out of his ears and creases his gun hand, in a really quite gruesome scene for then (or even now).

But all this seems to have slipped by unnoticed, overshadowed (as it were) by Russell’s bosom.

Ballard, by the way, was fired by Hughes early on as director of photography and replaced by Gregg Toland, who was made to reshoot scenes Ballard had done.


Filming the bed scene (most of which was cut)

Overall, though, the word I would use to describe this movie is plodding. It’s a dreary, rather washed-out black & white, with mostly corny studio sets as ‘exteriors’ that just looks cheap. Again, I have read that this was due to wartime austerity. It wasn’t that: it was filmed before the US entered the war. Not a lot happens and what does happen is daft. There is a great deal of standing and talking.

Another of the awful aspects of the picture is the ghastly music. Credited to Victor Young, it is by Rachmaninov in the ‘romantic’ bits, there’s a rip-off of the Stagecoach music when the stage comes rolling in, and, worst of all, there is a maddening muted trumpet that goes wa-wa-wa to simulate laughter every time something ‘comic’ happens (which it doesn’t).

The laugh moments come when in all seriousness Billy uses a cuckoo clock to count down to the fast draw against Doc Holliday, and when at the end there is a build-up to needing to say some words over Doc’s grave and, as fulsome and moving eulogy, they finally come up with, “So long, Doc.” How any director or writer could have countenanced such banal piffle is really quite remarkable.

Hawks, who had worked with Hughes on Scarface, directed for two weeks and even apparently wrote parts of this movie, he said, anyway, before being fired by Hughes. He called Red River (1948) his first Western but he actually worked on The Outlaw with Furthman first. He once said, “I wrote The Outlaw.” If true, he should be ashamed of himself. Why he would want to claim ‘credit’ for junk like that is beyond me.


He should have turned his back on it

An onscreen epilogue informs us that the truth about Billy the Kid “lies hidden forever among the secrets of the Old West.” It certainly wasn’t unearthed by this picture, I can tell you that.

Trivia note: it was a very early picture of Ben Johnson, uncredited as a deputy.

When the picture was finally released in New York (that was not till September 1947, after yet more cuts) it was slammed by the critics, whose opened-mouthed amazement at the dismal quality must have been the only thing that stopped them nodding off. “EJB” in The New York Times wrote, “Howard Hughes’ long-delayed and controversial The Outlaw arrived finally at the Broadway yesterday, and one wonders what all the excitement was about. This is a strictly second-rate Western, long and tedious and crudely acted for the most part, a great deal more soporific than swashbuckling.” This was astute and entirely accurate. The critic added, “This was the first picture in which the beauteous Jane Russell appeared and, while she is undeniably decorative in low-cut blouses, she is hopelessly inept as an actress. Jack Buetel is not much better as the boyish Billy the Kid.”

The Variety critic saw it in December 1942 (not quite sure how, or with which cuts) and said, “Pace is series of slow-moving incidents … as directed by Howard Hughes and isn’t quickened by the two hours running time, but slowness is not so much a matter of length as a lack of tempo in individual scenes.”

More recent reviewers have not been kinder. Of course the French loved it. André Bazin regarded it as “one of the erotic films ever made” (he must have lived in a dark closet). Brian Garfield was surprisingly indulgent: “It’s not a bad Western, merely a mediocre one.” But everyone else, like your Jeff, hates it.

It should perhaps be added that Jane Russell went on to learn to act (I think she was really good in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes), though Beutel was less fortunate. It is said that Hawks wanted him for Cherry Valance in Red River but Hughes wouldn’t release him from his contract. He did a bit of TV work, for example on Edgar Buchanan’s Judge Roy Bean, but in all honesty, he never had it in the first place.

The fact remains that, bad as it was, The Outlaw sold well. Scandal and shock among the ‘morality’ lobby in all its forms, often religious (the film was denounced virulently by the ‘Legion of Decency’), and calls for a movie to be banned always add to ticket sales.


Of course their protests were good for sales (Alamy photo)

By the end of 1946, the film had earned $3 million in domestic rentals. Additional re-releases in 1950 and 1952 (it was later colorized) brought its lifetime rental earnings to $5.075 million. Though the picture is, I hope you will excuse my French, total crap, it made Hughes a buck or two. As if he needed it.

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