Billy lives to fight another day
One of the (very) many movies about the (entirely mythical) Billy the Kid was a B-Western of 1957, distributed by Columbia but made by Charles ‘Buddy’ Rogers Productions, with Buddy as the titular clergyman. Mr Rogers, ‘America’s Boyfriend’ (once), had been Clara Bow’s love-interest in Wings back in the day and was married to Mary Pickford for forty-two years, until her death. But in all his long career, this was the only Western he ever did.
The Parson and the Outlaw was directed by the amazingly prolific Oliver Drake (1903 – 1991), who helmed 153 feature Westerns, mostly Jimmy Wakeley, Sunset Carson and the like, and 50 episodes of different Western TV shows. The picture is clunky and has plodding dialogue by Drake with producer/writer John Mantley, who worked a lot on Gunsmoke. But it’s part of the Billy canon, so you know, you gotta watch.
It’s a 71-minute picture in Technicolor, so it wasn’t the bottom of the (gun) barrel.
In the opening scene we see Pat Garrett (Bob Duncan) standing by Billy’s grave at Fort Sumner and Billy turns up to ask Pat who might be inside the grave. You see, he has agreed with the sheriff (called a marshal but never mind) that he will hang up his guns and go straight, so Pat lets him live. And he does indeed hang up his guns, draping the two-gun holsters over the cross on the grave. This yarn was much used, as I am sure you know. Billy didn’t die under Garrett’s gun that day in July 1881; he lived to fight another day.
Billy was played by Anthony Dexter, who had landed the title role in Valentino in 1951 and he would be Captain John Smith, Captain Kidd and Christopher Columbus in future parts and would later change careers to become a high school English teacher. This was his only feature Western, though. He was 44 at the time, so he joined the ranks of all those geriatric actors who played the stripling, but they did their best with make-up and costume to make him look young.
Now Billy goes to make a new life in a distant town, Four Corners. He wants to become a goody and maybe find a wife and settle down. He takes the name Billy Antrum.
The trouble is that this town has been treed by one of those ruthless town bosses, a Colonel Morgan (good old Robert Lowery). This crook has killed the local newspaper editor – trying to muzzle free speech, you see. The paper had accused the colonel of corruption.
Now because all such town bosses had to have hired henchmen, Morgan has in his employ none other than arch-badman Jack Slade, played by Hollywood bad boy Sonny Tufts, who had led in the Western The Untamed Breed in 1948 but whose career was then on the slide (he’s still the most charismatic actor on the set). Slade is really annoyed that Garrett killed Billy because he had vowed to kill all the top gunslingers himself, and felt cheated. The thing is, on the way to town, Billy saved the life of Slade (who didn’t know he was Billy the Kid, of course) by rescuing him from Indians. So Slade kinda owes him.
Now the goody-goody preacher, the Reverend Jericho Jones (Rogers), is determined to stop Morgan and free the town and he knows Billy’s real identity – indeed, he has acquired those guns from the grave, though we don’t really expect a parson to be a tomb-robber – and, rather improbably, I agree, he tries to persuade the lad to strap them on again and use them once more, this time for good. The slain newspaper editor’s daughter Ellie (Madalyn Trahey) also tries to convince Billy, but no dice. Billy stoutly refuses. Not that he’s afraid of Jack Slade, of course, but he’s going straight, you see. No more shooting for him.
There has to be some love interest, and the town’s tramp Tonya (out old pal Marie Windsor) provides that, becoming Billy’s live-in servant. What with Outlaw in the title and all maybe they were going for a Howard Hughes The Outlaw vibe and Marie was doing her Jane Russell bit.
The goodies want to vote yes to being annexed by Texas. A sort of reverse Trexit. Crooked Morgan doesn’t want that, naturally. Well, voting-day rolls around. But of course Morgan has cowed the townsfolk and refuses to let them vote. It’s quite a pro-democracy Western, this. The feisty newspaperwoman accuses them of being sheep. But you know how pusillanimous townspeople are. It was part of the job description. Anyway, the Reverend Mr Jones grabs those pistols and goes up against Slade. They seem to be single-action because he forgets to cock them, allowing the evil Slade to shoot him down mercilessly. He slumps over the hitching rail in a crucified pose – symbolic, man.
This is all too much for Billy. Finally, he gets the message. A man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do – this is a B-Western, after all. So he faces up to Slade, there’s a classic quick-draw showdown in Main Street, he downs Slade, then all the other bad guys, including Morgan, obviously, though wounded himself, and saves American democracy.
Gripping stuff, you will agree. I fear it’s all a bit like a TV Western and there is little of quality in either the acting or the script. But well, you know.
Jean Parker is Mrs Jones and we get Bob Steele and Jack Perrin in small parts.
Dennis Schwartz was a bit down on it. He said, “the presentation is cold: Billy seems too rigid to be the Kid, the news-lady too shrill to care about, the baddies too one-dimensional, Marie Windsor is too hammy, and the preacher is too contrived a character to remind us of Jesus dying on the cross.” All true, of course, but still. Another reviewer said, “No movie with Marie Windsor in it is ever a complete waste of time, but a few of them come close, and even fewer of them come closer than this.” Also true, but hey.
It’s a Billy the Kid Western, so needs must.