To continue our current Billy the Kid thread, we have looked at two big pictures from MGM, in 1930 and 1941, both (loosely) based on the sensational 1926 ‘biography’ by Walter Noble Burns, and how these works elevated the character of William Bonney (if we want to call him that) from pretty well unknown in the silent era to major outlaw figure of the Old West by the time of World War II. Now, everyone ‘knew’ the story of Billy the Kid, and thanks to Burns and the two films, many aspects of the legend were now established as ‘fact’ – and would be repeated in many later versions.
But in the 1930s, between the two A-pictures from Metro, Billy also migrated to the B-Western. It was inevitable, really, that Billy would enter the realm of the one-hour second feature oater destined for the juvenile market.
The idea of Kid heroes was well suited to the target audiences of these films: 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. You couldn’t have a B-Western Bonney with even a hint of villain about him.
We talked a bit about the new Republic star Roy Rogers’s screen beginnings, in our review of Under Western Stars, released in April 1938, so click the link for more on Roy’s early career. But that was immediately followed up with this Billy the Kid yarn, released in September. The title was a bit cheeky, as this was Billy’s first Republic appearance, but maybe they were referencing the 1930 picture.
It’s one of those films 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. He would differentiate the two characters by smiling a lot as Roy and looking stern as Billy. That was about the limit of his acting range in those days. He knew it. He later said, “I eventually learned acting pretty much the way I learned music – by ear. If I was a bad guy, I didn’t smile; if I was a good guy, I had plenty of pleasant personality and a lot of smiles. That was about it.”
The movie opens with screen text which rehearses the myth: “In the history of New Mexico appears the name of ‘Billy the Kid’, a bandit, who at the age of twenty had a record of twenty-one killings.” Despite this, 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 early on, and Billy’s double, Roy, who is a dead ringer, 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 the real Billy “one last chance” but the boy draws on him in a cabin 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 (he was 50), a friend of the Kid who wants to help him but is forced to kill him. Actually, Garrett was only 30 when he was hunting the Kid down, not all that much older than Bonney himself. But if we start looking for historical accuracy in Billy the Kid B-Westerns, or indeed any Westerns, we are on a hiding to nothing. At least there is a Garrett in this one, which is more than can be said for the 1941 picture.
There are certain vague references to history, such as a besieged burning store, but these are only slight allusions. The majority of the story is historical bunkum. That’s OK: all Billy the Kid movies were legend, not fact. And this one was a model of accuracy compared with some of those later Bob Steele and Buster Crabbe ones. In Happy Trails: Our Life Story, Roy Rogers and Dale Evans said, “We tried to give each picture a historical flavor.” Mmm, well, I don’t think they tried all that hard.
Like most of these early Roy Rogers pictures, it was a 53-minute black & white job, directed in workmanlike fashion by Joseph Kane. The avuncular Kane (in fact he was known as Uncle Joe) was not necessarily an inspired artist when it came to movie-making but he was a safe pair of hands who knew his business. Over a hundred of his 115 films as director were Westerns. Respect. See out tribute to Joe here.
Now here’s a trivia quiz for you: what do the director of the 1938 Billy the Kid film, the star of the 1941 Billy the Kid film and the author of this 2022 Billy the Kid blogpost have in common? Well, you’ll never get it, so I’ll tell you. They all played the ‘cello.
In his first Western lead, Roy rode Trigger alright but Trigger was just a horse like any other, if rather glamorous (he had once borne Olivia De Havilland). In this movie, 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 (Smiley didn’t seem to have noticed that Gene Autry looked a bit different now; soon he would be back sidekicking Gene and never noticed the difference then either) and he 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.
By the way, some Trigger trivia: Roy said in his book Happy Trails, “Smiley Burnette and I were hanging around the set one day and I was practicing my quick-draw. Smiley said, ‘Roy, as quick as that horse is, you ought to call him Trigger.’” So there you have it.
The swell dame he romances this time is Ellen Moore (El Paso-born 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. I say love interest; they never actually kiss or anything.
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.
In his book Billy the Kid on Film, Johnny Boggs says, justly enough, “There isn’t much history, but you don’t expect that from a Roy Rogers programmer. What you expect is what you get: kiddie action, Roy Rogers charm, Smiley Burnette’s vaudevillian humor, and some pretty good songs.”
As I said above, the next major-studio Billy the Kid outing would be back at Metro in 1941, and the studio cast one of its top stars in the role, in Technicolor, to boot. But before then, in 1940, much humbler PRC (Producers Releasing Corporation, often referred to as Poverty Row Corp) launched its own series of Billy the Kid B-Westerns, starring – at first – Bob Steele. The budgets and production values of these films would make Republic’s Roy Rogers oater look like a mega-budget A-picture. They were still huge fun, though.
But more of them next time…