"Each man has a song and this is my song." (Leonard Cohen)

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Billy the Kid (MGM, 1941)

The Swedish censors wouldn't have it

This representation is extremely free with history. In the Gene Fowler screenplay "based on" Walter Noble Burns's Saga of Billy the Kid, there is a store owner in Lincoln 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 (South African Ian Hunter, no other Westerns). As usual in movie Billy the Kid stories, the English rancher is the peace-loving good guy and the store owner the violent crook. In reality, as we know, there was little to choose between the equally obnoxious parties but movie versions always show Tunstall as the good guy and the Dolan/Murphy clique as the villains.

Some elements of the fact or the known legend are incorporated: Billy likes Mexicans (he is first seen breaking his pal Pedro out of jail), he is left handed (Billy wasn't but legend insists), he takes the bullets out of an opponent's gun, he kills a sheriff while escaping from jail in Lincoln. But these are little more than allusions really and this version plays fast and loose with both history and legend.

Keating conveniently has a beautiful sister for Billy to woo (it was to have been Maureen O'Sullivan but she couldn't - phew - so the part went to Mary Howard, whose only Western credentials are this and a Purple Sage the same year), though she is engaged to Brian Donlevy, and here we come to one major weakness of this movie. Donlevy was never convincing as a Westerner. He was, for instance, very poor as Grat Dalton in 1940 in When The Daltons Rode and he was a lousy Trampas in the post-war The Virginian. At a push he was OK as a smooth caddish-mustached charmer in a saloon (for example, Kent in Destry Rides Again) but he most certainly couldn't handle 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, frankly, hopeless. He is the nearest the movie has to a Pat Garrett figure.

And to be blunt, even Robert Taylor himself. He was in his thirties and looks older, and was simply miscast as the juvenile killer. It's just plain odd when the cast refer to him as "Kid". (Many screen Billies were far too old). Mr. Taylor was a matinée idol - fine, nothing wrong with that - but he was desperate to diversify and loved Westerns. He begged for this part. But he wasn't right for it. Taylor did become a strong Western lead later on, in pictures helmed by some good directors such as Anthony Mann, William A Wellman and John Sturges. 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 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 so he gunned the man down and "drifted" into New Mexico (cowboys always have to drift, they can't travel). This is presumably a kind of reference to McCarty/Bonney's murder of the bully Windy Cahill.

Keating/Tunstall is made a US marshal and wants peace. Evil Hickey's men shoot him in the back (he is unarmed, as the legend requires, although of course there is no evidence whatsoever that Tunstall was a pacifist - au contraire).

There are some good features of the movie, though. For one thing the locations are great. There's a lot of Arizona and saguaros, round Flagstaff, Tucson and Sedona, and there's also a good bit of Monument Valley. The scenes when Donlevy (on shining white charger, accompanied by Billy in black on a glistening black stallion) rides 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), to directors David Miller (his first Western but he later did the lovely Lonely Are The Brave) and Frank Borzage (his last Western; he'd done a lot of silents) and to MGM for financing it.

Lincoln looks nice and Pedro (Frank Puglia) 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.

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 frontier. Sounds a bit far-fetched, doesn't it.

Of course Westerns for adults, as opposed to programmers for boys, were in their infancy in 1941. Big-budget glamorous stars, love interest, location shoots and so on had only really come in with United Artists' Stagecoach (1939), Universal's Destry Rides Again (1939), Warners' Dodge City (1939) and Fox's Jesse James (1939) and The Return of Frank James (1940). MGM wanted a slice of that pie. They got it.

Well, anyone interested in Billy the Kid (that's everyone, isn't it?) has to see it. And it's not a clunker. But really it's a slightly second-rate remake of the 1930 picture.

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