Following closely on the heels of the publication of Michael Wallis' "Billy the Kid-The Endless Ride" (which I blogged about last month) comes a wonderful new article written in the New Mexico Historical Review (NMHR: Vol. 82, No.2, Spring 2007) by UNM Professor Paul Andrew Hutton entitled "Silver Screen Desperado - Billy The Kid In The Movies".
Billy The Kid never really came to life as an American historical character until the movies came along. Hutton had the joyful labor of illustrating just how influential The Kid has been in our imagination. Some quotes that must have been glorious to write:
His time on this earth was brief, his historical significance marginal, yet his grip on the imagination of the world truly astonishing. Henry McCarty, aka Henry Antrim, aka William H. Bonney, aka The Kid, aka Billy The Kid, is now a figure of international renown and certainly the most famous citizen ever produced by New Mexico. Not bad for a runaway Silver City boy, an itinerant gunman, and an occasional cattle thief, who perished in his twenty-first year.Regarding King Vidor's "Billy The Kid", released in 1930:
...It is a singular remarkable fact that more motion pictures have been made about Billy The Kid than any other figure in American, if not world, history. More than on Wyatt Earp or George Custer, more than on George Washington or Abraham Lincoln, more than on FDR or JFK. At least sixty films, both American and foreign, have celebrated the exploits of this dreamscape desperado.
The MGM publicity department trotted out several visitors to the set. One was Sophie Poe, widow of [Pat] Garrett's deputy John Poe, and the author of the classic New Mexico memoir "Buckboard Days." She was horrified by the glamorous depiction of the outlaw her husband had helped track down.Regarding Howard Hughes efforts to ram 1943's "The Outlaw", starring the stupendously-buxom Jane Russell, past Joseph Breen and the Hays production-code office:
"Sir, I knew that little buck-toothed killer," she declared to Vidor, "and he wasn't the way you are making him at all." Vidor had to smile. "Mrs. Poe," the director replied, "I understand your feelings, but this is what the people want."
As Hughes fought Breen, Birdwell began his masterful publicity campaign featuring Hurrell's photograph of Russell on billboards above the slogan "How'd you like to tussle with Russell?" The advertising campaign was far more salacious than the the film itself, which finally won Breen's approval after some cuts. The picture premiered to universally bad reviews at San Francisco's Geary Theater on 5 February 1943, but the Catholic Legion of Decency's ban of the film was great for business. After ten weeks of fabulous commercial success in this limited release, Hughes withdrew "The Outlaw". Under wartime distribution agreements, films were sent overseas for free screenings to the troops, the very audience that had made Russell a pinup celebrity. By withdrawing the film until a 1946 re-release, Hughes insured that millions of GIs would pay full ticket prices to see Jane Russell romance Billy The Kid. The film did record business, grossing over $3 million domestically. Thus did Billy The Kid break down American film censorship and add to the wealth and legend of the remarkable Howard Hughes, while setting the stage for American society's breast fixation of the 1950's.Regarding Marlon Brando's direction of 1961's "One-Eyed Jacks":
The sixty-day schedule expanded to six months. Brando's directing style astonished producer Rosenberg. "He pondered each camera set-up while 120 members of the company sprawled on the ground like battle-weary troops," Rosenberg recalled. "He exposed a million feet of film, therby hanging up a new world record." Brando's cut of "One-Eyed Jacks" ran four hours and forty two minutes, the movie itself going four million dollars over budget. When finally released in March 1961, after Paramount forced Brando to film a new, happier ending in which the Rio Kid rides into a California sunset, the film failed at the box office. Brando publicly disowned it.Regarding Dennis Hopper's "The Last Movie", in 1969:
The film, which is almost incomprehensible yet strangely compelling, tells the making of a Billy The Kid movie in Peru. In the film within a film, Sam Fuller is the crazed director, Dean Stockwell plays Billy, and Rod Cameron, [Pat] Garrett. When an extra is killed during filming, the local natives become confused on the difference between art and reality with terrible consequences for Hopper's character, Kansas. Hopper's pals Kris Kristofferson and Peter Fonda were along for this seemingly drug-induced ride. Europeans loved the film, of course, and it won first-prize at the Venice Film Festival.Regarding John Fusco's script for 1988's "Young Guns":
"When I first saw a tintype photo of Billy The Kid, what hit me was that it didn't correspond at all with the legend of the noble bandit: Robert Taylor dressed in black, the left-hander who whistled sad ballads, the lady killer," Fusco recalled. "I looked at the young man in the photo and said, No, there's something else here. This is a ferret in a derby."And what filmography about Billy The Kid would be complete without "Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure"?:
Bill and Ted take the wrong exit out of a wormhole and pick up Billy The Kid in their time-traveling phone booth.New Mexico Historical Review is a specialty journal, so this article may be hard to find, but it deserves a wide readership!