The first talkie Billy
There was a flurry of interest in the career of William Bonney (let’s call him that for the moment) upon his death, with dime novels, then at the height of their popularity, coming out – in all of which he was an out-and-out bloodthirsty bad guy – and in 1882 Pat Garrett cashed in, with a book with a very long title which I shall abbreviate as The Authentic Life, a tome largely ghost-written for him by his friend Ash Upson.
A flurry, I say, but there certainly wasn’t the fascination for Billy among the wider public that had been shown for the James boys, for example. Frank and Jesse appeared in motion pictures from the earliest days. Nearly all the silent movies featuring them have now been lost, even Paramount’s major 1927 picture starring the enormously popular Fred Thomson, but we know enough to say there were a great many. There were more motion pictures even about minor outlaws the Daltons than about Billy – perhaps because Emmett Dalton, the youngest brother, survived the Coffeyville shoot-out and, after a spell in prison, went into the movie business; so there were quite a few early Dalton movies.
That wasn’t the case with Billy the Kid. I suppose he just wasn’t well enough known, in the early days of cinema. His fame had faded. There were two one-reel silents, Billy the Kid in 1911 and Billy the Bandit in 1916, but they weren’t stories about ‘our’ Billy the Kid. In the first, Edith Storey starred as Billy, a girl brought up as a boy, while the second was about a certain Billy LeRoy, a Colorado outlaw not related to Bonney.
There was one silent movie in 1925, a 50-minute Independent Pictures production, also titled Billy the Kid. This one was indeed about the New Mexico Billy because we know that the star, Franklyn Farnum, was cast in it as ‘Billy Bonney’. But that’s all we know about it. Like the other two, this one is now lost. Farnum was 47 at the time, so a tad geriatric, one would have thought, to play Bonney. We know the picture was directed and written by JP McGowan, who also played a role in it, though we don’t know which. Slim Whitaker also appeared. But that’s all we know.
A year later, though, everything had changed. In 1926 Walter Noble Burns, a Chicago journalist, published his sensational The Saga of Billy the Kid. It was Burns who fixed the Robin Hood-style Billy in the public imagination. Years before ‘social bandits’ became a thing, Burns was already doing it. His Billy may have committed the odd crime, regrettably, and he could be rather humorously bloodthirsty, but he only did it in the service of righteous causes. Billy was as loved and admired by the Hispanic community of the Southwest as was Robin of Sherwood by the English peasants. The Saga was a huge best-seller, for years, rather as Stuart Lake’s 1931 Frontier Marshal, idolizing Wyatt Earp, was, and both books fixed their lead characters in the American psyche as heroes without peer. Just before publication of The Saga, Harvey Fergusson in The American Mercury had asked, “Who remembers Billy the Kid?” Now, everyone did.
King Vidor read the Burns book and was entranced. Vidor had directed the surprise MGM hit The Big Parade in 1925 and was now a hot property – as John Baxter in his biography of Vidor called him, “a valued artist able to choose his subjects and stars.” Vidor told the Los Angeles Times that Billy the Kid “had qualities which seemed to draw many people toward him. He undoubtedly possessed some very likable characteristics.” Vidor was to become very famous, especially with his War and Peace in 1956, but his career was incredibly long: he made movies from Hurricane in Galveston in 1913 (he had lived through the horrific 1900 storm there) until The Metaphor in 1980.
He is best known in our noble genre for the 1946 extravaganza Duel in the Sun but he also made the 1936 The Texas Rangers (the Fred MacMurray one, rather good), was one of the directors used on the weak Northwest Passage with Spencer Tracy in 1940 and then came the famous Cotten/Peck Duel, usually known as Lust in the Dust. His last Western was Man Without a Star with Kirk Douglas (watchable but not great).
By 1930 talkies were all the rage. Fox had made a sound Western, In Old Arizona, which garnered an Oscar for star Warner Baxter, and then bet the ranch on a massive production, the Raoul Walsh-directed epic The Big Trail, shot in distant locations between April and August 1930. Paramount put Gary Cooper in a new version of The Virginian, too. Metro wasn’t going to miss out.
Vidor was a great believer in talking pictures; he thought spoken dialogue could give depth, subtlety and substance to the Western, a genre he suspected (poor deluded fellow) of vapidity. However, it must be said that in these early days of the form, the delivery of the dialogue is pretty plodding. Part of it was technical: outside, especially, microphones weren’t good, and actors had to speak slowly or even shout (especially true in The Big Trail). But part of it was also lack of mastery of lines by casts who were used to silent movies. All the actors in Billy the Kid, even experienced ones like Wallace Beery and Russell Simpson, deliver their speeches woodenly. This is particularly true of the young star, John (not yet Johnny) Mack Brown, as he was billed, who sadly was not – at this time anyway – much of an actor and he ponderously recites the lines he has diligently learned. Everything stops when the characters talk to each other. There are even still title cards, a hangover from silent movies, to slow the action down and render everything more static. But it isn’t just Mack Brown; the whole cast speaks the heavy-handed dialogue in such a way as to render the movie melodrama.
Well, exec Irving Thalberg greenlit Vidor’s project. Billy the Kid would hit the screen, and in a 70 mm widescreen process called Realife, MGM’s rival to the ‘Grandeur’ Fox was using on The Big Trail. Billy the Kid was in fact filmed simultaneously in standard format, and sadly only that now still exists, so we don’t know what it looked like it in all its original visual glory (unlike The Big Trail, which has been restored in 70 mm). Vidor said, “The difference was tremendous. There was just no comparison. The 70 mm film seemed to see around each object. This sold me forever on wide-screen films.” There was one snag, though: only twelve theaters in the country were equipped to show it in that format. Given that Realife added a quarter of a million dollars to Metro’s costs for Billy the Kid, the accountants may have questioned the ROI and the studio may have doubted its wisdom in using it.
The wonderfully-named Mordaunt Hall, film critic of The New York Times, praised the widescreen process, saying, “The result is tremendously effective, for the picture not only fills a screen virtually the full width of the Capitol stage, but it has an increased height, which other such inventions did not possess.” Mordaunt expressed the opinion – fairly, I think – that “This picture is chiefly noteworthy for this enlarged screen idea, for the story is merely a moderately entertaining and often unconvincing Western melodrama.”
Variety made a similar point. “Billy the Kid should stand up for slightly better than average business where shown on Realife … due to this novelty. Otherwise, just an ordinary Western which will have to climb uphill to reach normal business. No punch names to cast.”
Variety was prescient, because the picture bombed. The Big Trail was a flop so humungous that it nearly sank Fox. At least Billy the Kid wasn’t as expensive as that film, and Metro could wear it. But unfortunately both movies came out just as the Depression struck, audiences evaporated, and really, the adult A-picture Western died then and there. There was the commercially successful and Oscar-winning Cimarron for RKO the following year, true, but that was hardly a Western, at least after the first reel, more of a ‘family saga’, a genre of which Americans are inordinately fond. Proper Westerns from the majors largely disappeared from screens all through the 1930s, and with the occasional exception, such as Cecil B DeMille’s The Plainsman for Paramount in 1936, it wasn’t until the very end of the decade that the studios returned to big-picture oaters. Otherwise the genre was mostly consigned to one-hour second features, chiefly for the juvenile market.
But Billy the Kid was certainly a big-budget production. And the Burns book was reissued in a tie-in. Billy was the talk of the town.
Locations chosen included the Grand Canyon and Utah’s Zion National Park, but most of the picture was shot in New Mexico, around Gallup. Vidor said he was going for wide-open spaces and a Covered Wagon look, a reference to James Cruze’s silent 1923 epic. Vidor later said, “The Western was a chance to take people in cities, the ones who were sitting in the theaters, and allow them to experience all those great open spaces and vistas. The Western permitted this. Those were my main interests with the Westerns.”
The town of Lincoln was in fact recreated in the San Fernando Valley but it was extremely well done, using old photographs, and looked very like the original Lincoln, NM. The cinematographer was Gordon Avil. This was his first Western and he went on to shoot 139 mostly TV oaters and the occasional movie, including Fort Yuma and the 1958 Zorro (if you class that as a Western). In Billy there are some impressive longshot New Mexican landscapes, and the scene where Billy holes up in a cave is beautifully photographed.
As for the cast, it was Thalberg who wanted Brown in the lead. Vidor wasn’t keen. He asked for Cagney. “I didn’t think Brown was ideal for the part but I wanted to do [the picture], and I was afraid that if I didn’t do it, somebody else would. I didn’t think Brown had the violent look of a killer.”
Brown was a recent MGM signing. His first ‘Western’, the comedy Western Moon, with Joan Crawford falling for a cowboy (Brown) released in March 1930, was a commercial flop but it was a start. Johnny was delighted to get the part of Billy.
He looked rather silly in his dime-novel wardrobe of gunslinger, and Metro old hands in the crew said that he always telegraphed his lethal intentions by screwing up his face before he went for his weapons. And every time he’d pull the trigger, he’d flinch. He really wasn’t a very good actor. But he did his best. He does make an attempt at a Southwestern drawl (he was a Southerner) and he does try hard to project the insouciant and light-hearted Billy Bonney. He does a dashing dance. He smokes, though, so that’s wrong. He was 26 so that’s not bad (better than Farnum’s 47 anyway!)
He had been a sports star taken up by Hollywood for baseball movies and the like but muscular good looks could only take him so far. Clark Gable was getting the romantic leads at Metro so Johnny tried a Western. He survived the commercial flop of Billy the Kid a little longer than young John Wayne did that of The Big Trail, but by the mid-1930s Johnny was making cheap B-Westerns for Mascot, then even cheaper Supreme ones and serials. He was immensely popular with juveniles, though, and made a solid career of oaters. He was in 131 altogether, the last being the Leo Gordon-penned Dan Duryea/Rod Cameron B, The Bounty Killer (1965) in which he had a modest part as the sheriff.
A then-retired William S Hart coached Johnny for the Billy role and let him use Hart’s prize possession, Billy the Kid’s pistol, which, however, turned out, sadly, not to be. Hart had been conned by the seller. Brown was greatly in awe of Hart – Vidor less so.
Wallace Beery got the role of Pat Garrett, and indeed was first slated to top the billing. He was such a towering presence, it was hard for Brown to compete, but the pairing established the Garrett/Billy mentor/tyro relationship that became the norm. In fact the movie established many of the stereotypes that were to become ‘gospel’: it established the clichés and falsehoods that were to be perpetuated by later versions and thus pass into ‘fact’, as well as details – for example, since this picture, Tunstall is shown in a buckboard whenever he is murdered in later movies, whereas in actuality he was on horseback.
All Billy films tried thereafter for an authoritative Garrett, preferably a senior actor with gravitas (even though the real Garrett was only 30 in 1880).
Beery had joined the circus in 1902 and then made a career in music halls. He married Gloria Swanson in 1916 but it was a tempestuous and short-lived affair. He was a heavy in silent movies for Paramount but he had a rich, deep voice and MGM hired him for talkies when sound came along. He was nominated for an Oscar for his part in The Big House the same year as Billy the Kid and he won Best Actor for The Champ the year after. He was one of the most famous ever Long John Silvers in ’34 and became one of the great stars of Hollywood. He was in 21 Westerns: nine silents in the 20s, then his first talkie oater as Garrett in 1930, and of course he was a larger than life Pancho Villa in 1934.
In Billy the Kid, Beery’s Garrett is a key player – bizarrely, really, because the majority of the movie is set in Lincoln during the Lincoln County War, a conflict in which Garrett took no part (he was a barman at Beaver Smith’s saloon down in Fort Sumner then). And not only is he in Lincoln in ’78, he is a leading employee of the anti-McSween/Tunstall ‘House’ and deputy sheriff. It‘s most odd. Like the later Destry, Pat spends time whittling wood; he’s making a chain.
Kay Johnson, Mrs (actor/director/producer) John Cromwell, well known for posh dame roles, got the female lead – such as it was. There had to be a girl, of course, and the writers invented the character of Claire, the fiancée of English rancher Tunston (not Tunstall – many of the names are changed) and she arrives on the stage. But on their actual wedding day Tunston is wickedly shot down by the chief villain’s thugs, and dies, uttering Charlie Bowdre’s last words, actually, “I wish… I wish…” So now the gal naturally falls for Billy. The girl figure is, however, clearly a clumsy invention. Vidor didn’t want Johnson either: “We made a bad choice because we were halfway through the picture … and discovered that she couldn’t act at all.”
The screenplay was credited to a number of writers, six in all, chief among whom was Laurence Stallings, noted for She Wore a Yellow Ribbon for John Ford in 1949, but Billy the Kid was one of the first talkies he did and it kind of shows. The writers of course used Burns’s book as a starting point, “flagrant with error, distortion, and misinterpretation” though it was, as Pat Garrett biographer Leon Metz has said. They made significant changes, though, and also added some clumsy comic relief.
The chief villain of Billy the Kid is a certain Donovan, who is a kind of amalgam of historical House founder LG Murphy and his chief lieutenant and successor James Dolan, with a bit of Sheriff Brady thrown in. This Donovan is played by James Marcus, who has a rear end similar in dimensions to that of Obelix, and he has a sign in his office which explains all:
Willm P Donovan SHERIFF – NOTARY PUBLIC – JUSTICE OF THE PEACE – POSTMASTER
So he’s got the town pretty well sewn up. And we see immediately what a bad egg he is for he cruelly evicts some poor farmers and then orders a henchman to go and kill them, in case they tell people. We hear bang, bang, bang off screen and Donovan gives an evil leer.
This henchman is Ballinger, a version of the deputy Bob Olinger or Ollinger, and indeed this Ballinger will perish at the wrong end of his own shotgun. He is played by Warner Richmond, a favorite actor of Vidor’s. He’s quite a key character and he takes over when Billy finally shoots Donovan during the McSween house siege.
We now see John Tunston, played appropriately by Englishman Wyndham Standing, arriving in Lincoln with his great friend Angus (not Alexander) McSween. This Tunston is, as also became standard, an older man (Standing was in fact 50) and goes about unarmed. The real Tunstall was 24, not that much older than Billy, and not at all averse to firearms.
McSween is played by the great Russell Simpson, with a ‘Scots’ accent straight out of Danville, California. To be fair, though, an elderly Camelia Olinger, a relation (I’m not sure which) of the murdered Bob, came to see the film in 1930. Though she was not impressed at all, she did say, “The only thing in the picture true to the facts was the Scotch brogue of McSween.” Billy was Russell’s seventeenth Western, though first talkie. He was most notably Trampas in the 1923 version of The Virginian. His McSween is a “man of peace” as he says, who will not use a gun, and he spends much of his time reading his bible. Simpson made rather a thing of religious elders of various kinds, for John Ford, for example, and he kind of started here.
Tunston and McSween are driving a herd of cattle. They decide to settle in Lincoln. Town boss Donovan will have none of this.
Other spottable actors include Chris-Pin Martin as Santiago, the rather stereotypical but sympathetic Mexican, for once not a barman but a sidekick of Billy. Hank Bell’s mustache appears, with Hank Bell attached, because he plays a henchman, Polkadot. Dick Brewer, who would become captain of the Regulators, is also there, played by Jack Carlyle. But of course it’s two-gun Billy who is the real top gunman of McSween.
Billy kills Joe Grant but this Joe Grant is trying to kill Tunston (“’cos he killed my brother”) and so Billy sneaks out of a party, shoots him, slips back in, and blarneys Deputy Sheriff Garrett when he comes in to see who did it.
The climax of the picture is the siege and fire. It does get a bit static here, as siege Westerns often can, as the characters stand still and explain the situation to each other. Then Billy escapes – the last to leave, of course – and he leaps backwards onto a horse.
Governor Wallace now appears (Frank Reicher) and there’s a three-way interview between Wallace, Billy and Ballinger. The governor wants Billy to shake hands with Ballinger. Billy refuses. He’ll go out guns a’blazin’. As he leaves town, Wallace says, “I like that boy” and Garrett replies, “Yeah, me too.”
Pat now follows Billy who hides, alone, not in a rock house but in a cave, and Pat gets him out by cooking up bacon outside the cave, and Billy, weak from hunger, succumbs.
Back in Lincoln, Pat gives Billy a Winchester and they face down a lynch mob together. Then the Kid is imprisoned. Ballinger taunts him. He has, he says, eighteen nice new buckshot in each barrel of his shotgun. But Billy plays poker with Pat, deliberately drops a card, and when Pat bends down to pick it up he leans over and snatches Pat’s gun from its holster.
He shoots Ballinger with his own shotgun, athletically mounts up though still chained, and rides off to Fort Sumner. Claire is there and tells him, “Every killing you’ve done was needed.” That’s alright then. Pat arrives, aims at but deliberately misses Billy, gives Claire his horse, off go Billy and his lady-love, The End.
In fact, two endings were filmed: the one I have gives this American happy ending but there was a version for the European market, with the film title The Highwayman Rides, where Billy’s ending is more traditional.
The movie began with a statement from the then Governor of New Mexico, a certain RC Dillon, giving the opinion that “though it has taken liberties with the details of his life” [boy, I’ll say] the film is true to the spirit of Billy the Kid’s fight for justice. Yes, well.
In fact Mrs Sophie Poe, author of Buckboard Days and widow of John W Poe, the lawman who accompanied Garrett in Fort Sumner on that fateful (and for Bonney, fatal) night, visited the set of the movie during filming and complained to Vidor about all this monkeying about with the historical facts. “Sir,” she said, “I knew that little buck-toothed killer, and he wasn’t the way you are making him at all.” Vidor answered, “Mrs Poe, I understand your feelings, but this is what people want.”
Billy the Kid premièred in October 1930, one month before The Big Trail. It was definitely not one of the better Westerns of the time. It isn’t a patch on Paramount’s The Virginian, for example, directed by Victor Fleming with Coop in the lead part; that remains probably the best of the many film versions. But Billy the Kid 1930 style is quite fun, and the fact that it’s historically absurd is no disqualification: all Billy movies were. It is also noteworthy as the first surviving film featuring Billy the Kid, and first talkie, and also as the movie that established many of the ground rules for the Hollywood legend of the New Mexico outlaw.
In his interesting and useful book Billy the Kid on Film, Johnny D Boggs wrote, “Today, Billy the Kid is an interesting movie to watch, but it’s not a good movie. Like many Westerns (or many early sound movies, for that matter), it’s often creaky, plodding and filled with former silent actors still displaying their dated, animated histrionics. The Western wouldn’t find its footing until after World War II.” That last sentence might be something of an exaggeration (viewers of Stagecoach in 1939 probably wouldn’t agree with it, for example) but broadly, Mr Boggs is right.
As I said above, A-picture Westerns now entered the wilderness years. In 1941 MGM would have another go, putting one of its top stars, Robert Taylor, in the lead role. Between the two Metro pictures, though, B-Westerns would take Billy to their hearts. In 1938 Roy Rogers would assume the mantle at Republic in the epic Billy the Kid Returns and Bob Steele in 1940 and Buster Crabbe in ’41 would also begin their long series of Billy pictures at low-budget PRC.