Billy rides again
After the commercial flop (and artistic so-so quality) of Billy the Kid in 1930, which we reviewed last time, so click the link for that, MGM might have fought shy of trying again. In some ways it’s surprising that little more than a decade later they remade it.
But the 1930 picture, like its big Fox rival The Big Trail, also filmed in expensive widescreen, had been released just as the Great Depression hit, a time when millions of people stopped going to the movies and theater chains were struggling. However, by the end of the 1930s, the industry had recovered. Furthermore, the adult A-picture Western was back in vogue. Fox had started it with its blockbuster Technicolor smash hit Jesse James, in January 1939, with its top star Tyrone Power in the title role, and the other majors responded with the likes of John Ford’s Stagecoach, released by United Artists, Warners’ Dodge City with Errol Flynn and Olivia De Havilland, Cecil B DeMille’s Union Pacific at Paramount with Joel McCrea and Barbara Stanwyck (who had just become Mrs Robert Taylor) and Universal’s Destry Rides Again, with Marlene Dietrich and James Stewart. Only Metro missed the boat (or stagecoach). It had planned to release its clunkily-titled proto-Western Northwest Passage (Book I – Rogers’ Rangers) that year, with big name Spencer Tracy, but there were many problems and delays to that, and when it finally came out, in February 1940, it was a bit of a dud.
But MGM wanted some of the A-Western for grown-ups business. And outlaws were now all the thing. After Jesse James, Fox released a sequel in August 1940, The Return of Frank James, and would also release Belle Starr in September 1941, and Universal put out When the Daltons Rode (which also featured an unconvincing Brian Donlevy) in July ‘40. Outlaw Westerns were de rigueur. Irving Thalberg, prime mover of the 1930 version, had suddenly died in 1936 but Louis B Meyer, now in control of production as well as the business angle, was keen to have another go. He wanted a color outlaw picture, with his star du jour, Robert Taylor as Billy.
The new picture was a remake, in the sense that it too was notionally based on (or “suggested by”) the extremely dubious Walter Noble Burns book The Saga of Billy the Kid (1926), as sensational and lurid as it was historical bunkum. The ’41 film was written by Gene Fowler, from a story by Howard Emmett Rogers and Bradbury Foote, borrowing quite a lot from the 1930 script. And the 1941 attempt rehearsed many of the clichés and falsehoods of the earlier version.
But there were also notable differences, especially in plot and characters. And if the 1930 had erred and strayed from the path of historical rectitude, that was nothing to what the new one would do. It was the story of Billy the Kid only in the imagination. It’s a strange Billy the Kid film. They billed it “The first true story” about the outlaw, but that was an exaggeration, aka lie. The New York Times noted that “Metro decided not to hamper itself with known facts about the Kid.”
There is a store owner in Lincoln this time named Hickey (Gene Lockart, hitherto only small parts in two low-budget Westerns) who is presumably meant to be a kind of Dolan or LG Murphy, and an English rancher, the Tunstall figure, named Keating now (South African-born Ian Hunter, a regular in British films, no other Westerns). As had already become standard in movie Billy stories, the English rancher is a pacifist no-gun older guy (Hunter was 41) and the store owner is the violent crook. In reality, as we know, Tunstall was barely older than Billy himself, perfectly happy to use firearms, and there was little to choose between the equally obnoxious (and equally incompetent) factions, but movie versions always show Tunstall & Co as the goodies and the Dolan/Murphy clique as the villains. Tunstall is always Billy’s avuncular mentor (he wasn’t).
Some elements of the fact or the known legend are incorporated: Billy likes Mexicans – he is first seen breaking his pal Pedro (Frank Puglia) out of jail. He is left handed (Billy wasn’t but legend insists), he takes the bullets out of an opponent’s gun, and he kills a lawman while escaping from jail in Lincoln. But these are little more than allusions really and this version again plays fast and loose with both history and legend.
‘Tunston’ in 1930 had a glam fiancé, Claire, who could fall for Billy once her intended was no more, but this time rancher Keating has a beautiful sister for Billy to woo, Edith. It was to have been Maureen O’Sullivan but she left to join her husband John Farrow who was serving in the Royal Canadian Air Force, so the part went to Mary Howard, whose only Western credentials are this and a Purple Sage the same year.
However, Edith is engaged to US Marshal Jim Sherwood (Brian Donlevy).
And here we come to a major weakness of this movie. Donlevy was rarely convincing as a Westerner in range duds. He was, for instance, poor as Grat Dalton in 1940 and he was a perhaps the worst ever Trampas in the post-war The Virginian. He was quite good as a tough caddish-mustached heavy in a suit in a saloon (for example, Kent in Destry Rides Again) but he couldn’t do the tough ranch foreman/cow-puncher role he has here. He has a major part as Billy’s childhood friend and adult conscience. He is the nearest the movie has to a Pat Garrett figure – for there is no Garrett in this one. Mind, this is a personal view. The Los Angeles Times said Donlevy “brings a solid, common-sense assurance to the role” and Variety called his performance “excellent.” Well, viewers’ opinions of actors are notoriously subjective.
And to be blunt, much as I like Robert Taylor in other Westerns, even he as Billy wasn’t all that good. For one thing, he was in his thirties and looked older, and he was simply miscast as the adolescent killer. It’s just plain odd when the cast refer to him as “Kid”. This was effectively his first oater (unless you count Stand Up and Fight). Taylor was desperate to diversify and he loved Westerns. He begged for this role. He was a fine horseman, as he demonstrates in Billy the Kid, although there are also a lot of those annoying actors-on-false-horse-in-the-studio shots while stuntmen actually ride through the stampede. The New York Times said that Taylor “gives the impression of a kid in a new cowboy suit.” Life said, “Taylor, even in Technicolor, creates a poor copy of the fleet, slim killer of the border country.” There were some plaudits for the star but the balance was pretty negative.
Right-handed Taylor spent weeks perfecting his ability to draw a gun with his left hand in preparation for the film. It was still believed at the time that Billy was left-handed. And in fact in the ending they cooked up, Donlevy and Billy draw against each other but Billy deliberately draws with his right hand instead, to avoid killing his friend, and dies with a smile on his face, in Donlevy’s arms, boo hoo. “Thus,” we are informed, a tad inaccurately, “the last of the men of violence found his peace.”
The two have nicknames for each other, by the way, but not Big Casino and Little Casino. Sherwood calls Billy Hothead, while Billy calls the older man Holy. ‘Holy’ wouldn’t have done for the lifelong agnostic Garrett.
An elderly William S Hart, who had turned up on the set of the 1930 picture and ‘coached’ Johnny Mack Brown in gun-fighting techniques, returned to do the same to Taylor, and once more proudly showed him his pistol, which had once belonged to Billy the Kid. The gun had the front sight filed down “for a faster draw”. It turned out later that it wasn’t Billy’s, in fact, and Hart had been conned by the seller, but never mind.
The screen hero couldn’t be a villain so a backstory is invented to justify Billy’s career: a “rat” shot Billy’s pa in the back in Silver City (as happened in the 1930 version, though not in reality) so he gunned the man down and “drifted” down to Lincoln (cowboys always have to drift to palces, they can’t travel there). This is presumably a kind of reference to McCarty/Bonney’s killing of the bully Windy Cahill.
Evil Hickey’s men shoot Keating in the back, and he is unarmed, as the legend requires.
There are some good features of the movie, though. For one thing, as was the case in the 1930 picture, the locations are great. Lincoln looks nice (specially constructed on the MGM backlot; one wonders what happened to the superb one they built in the San Fernando Valley for the 1930 production) and there’s a lot of Arizona and saguaros, round Flagstaff, Tucson and Sedona. There’s also a good bit of Monument Valley – but of course in Technicolor this time. The scenes when Donlevy, on shining white charger, and Billy in black on a glistening black stallion, ride round the ranches gathering a posse are really good. So full marks to cinematographers William V Skall (The Return of Frank James) and Leonard Smith (Go West) – and indeed, they were Oscar-nominated for it.
Bosley Crowther in The New York Times praised the photography and the scenery but added, “The scenery is by far the most spectacular part of this bulging film. For, in spite of its elaborate coloring and its highly reputed star, Billy the Kid is just another routine horse opera—another glorified fable about one of the West’s more notorious outlaws—and not a very good one at that.” This actually echoed very closely the review of the earlier film by Crowther’s predecessor Mordaunt Hall.
The producer was Metro newcomer Irving Asher. As for the directors, the AFI Catalog tells us that “when Billy the Kid began filming in mid-December 1940, Frank Borzage, two-time Best Director Oscar winner, was the director and his brother Lew was the assistant director. According to HR [Hollywood Reporter] production charts and news items, Borzage directed portions of the film that were shot on location in Tucson and Flagstaff, AZ. A HR news item on 13 Jan 1941 reported that Borzage was being taken off the production and reassigned to a Joan Crawford project [that] was never made. At that time, David Miller was assigned to direct Billy the Kid.”
This was Miller’s first Western, indeed first movie as director (he had started out editing at Columbia) but he later did the lovely Lonely Are the Brave. It was Borzage’s last Western; he’d done a lot of silents. Apparently also veteran and Oscar-winning Metro director Norman Taurog acted as a “supervisor” for Miller during some of the production because Miller was a tyro.
Of the other actors, Puglia as comic-relief Mexican Pedro sings well. Chill Wills (in his late 30s) has a small part as the decent top hand shot by bad guy Hickey’s men during a stampede, whose last words to his loving wife are “Tell the kids…uh.” And Guinn ‘Big Boy’ Williams is amusing as the dumb blacksmith Ed Bronson. You can also spot Lon Chaney Jr, Grant Withers, Kermit Maynard, and Ray Teal.
There are a couple of shots of gunmen in town framed by broken windows which make me wonder if Floyd Crosby had seen this movie when he photographed High Noon.
The movie was not passed by the Swedish censors. I can’t for the life of me see why not. It is frankly tame, even by 1941 standards. Unless they didn’t like the political message: this movie was made in 1940 and came out in ’41. Mass murder was taking place in Europe but in this film American law and order was coming to the wild lands. Sounds a bit far-fetched, doesn’t it. They certainly can’t have objected to the sex. There wasn’t any.
According to MGM records the film earned $1.5m in the US and Canada on its $1.4m budget, so barely made a profit. That was at least better than the quite heavy losses made by the 1930 one.
Well, anyone interested in Billy the Kid (that’s everyone, isn’t it?) has to see it. And it’s not a total clunker. But really it’s a bit of a plodder and rather on the ordinary side. Brian Garfield called it a “sad second-rate remake”.
At the same time as MGM was filming Billy the Kid, another crew was shooting a Billy the Kid picture in Arizona. In fact the working title of that one was Billy the Kid, but they were too slow, and MGM, racing to wrap, grabbed the title. Metro needn’t have hurried: the other movie wouldn’t finally be released until 1943, and, as The Outlaw, would turn out to be not only the worst Billy the Kid movie ever but also one of the most dreadful Hollywood pictures ever made. So Metro’s Billy the Kid may not be a top-drawer Western but it was a work of genius by comparison.