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

Monday, May 9, 2011

The Outlaw (UA, 1943)



Quite dreadful
 




 

The worst Billy the Kid movie, or at least the worst I have seen, was The Outlaw, produced and directed (according to the credits) by the eccentric Howard Hughes, made in 1941 and released, finally, without a certificate, in 1943.

Brace yourself
 

It is the worst not because it is one of the most outrageous travesties historically (many movies were as bad) but because of the desperately wooden Jules Furthman screenplay, delivered by the principal characters in an appropriately wooden way.

Sultry Buetel - pursued by Hughes?
 

The lead, Jack Buetel, an insurance clerk chosen presumably for his sultry looks, cannot act to save his life, though actually the real lead is Jane Russell, who is worse. Hughes, who designed a special cantilevered bra for her, said, referring to the effect, that there were two good reasons why every American male wanted to see the film. (In fact, Russell later said she hardly ever wore it as it was so uncomfortable but the myth dictates that she wore it in the film). The famous billboard poster for the film, designed by publicist Russell Birdwell, showed the scantily clad Russell provocatively lying in the straw and holding a gun, and didn’t even show Billy (the outlaw of the title) at all. Or the bra.

Russell Birdwell's master stroke
 

Of course, though it caused scandal at the time, and deliberately traded on that, it is so tame now that we can’t understand what the fuss was about. We never see Buetel and Russell in bed; it’s only hinted at. When the movie was re-released in 1976 it got a G rating, “suitable for general family audiences”.

As, er, counterweight to the two glamorous screen leads, Thomas Mitchell and Walter Huston were drafted in as proper actors, to play Pat Garrett and Doc Holliday. What’s Doc Holliday doing in a Billy the Kid film? Don’t ask. Huston as Holliday manages to do something with his script. Mitchell, a totally unconvincing Garrett, just can’t.

In fact, of course, the censor was so obsessed with Russell’s cleavage, or insisting that she be married in the story before she spent the night with Billy, that he (it was always a he) completely missed the true salacious content of the film, which is, amazingly, a sadomasochistic homosexual love triangle. Or at least it sounds like that as the two older men, Garrett and Holliday, jealously compete for the love of the pouty youth Billy, the real sex object of the movie, unnoticed by the Hays office.

Russell squeezed out of the male love triangle
 

Thomas Mitchell, as Garrett, has this speech, addressed to Huston as Holliday: “I might have known you’d do this to me … Ever since you met him [Billy], you’ve treated me like a dog … You stand there, side by side, with that little snip of a kid, against me, me, who’s always been the best friend you ever had. And I still would be if it wasn’t for him.”

A jilted Garrett, jealous of Doc. What crap.
 

This is the petulant foot-stamping of a jilted girl. It comes very strangely out of the mouth of Thomas Mitchell but there the dialogue is. It has been suggested (Garry Wills in his biography of John Wayne writes that Lucien Ballard said this) that Howard Hughes was sleeping with an unwilling Buetel, not with Russell at all, and the script was a sly dig at Hughes’s relationship. Hughes must have been pretty obtuse if so, letting that script pass.

Howard Hughes. As a producer of films he made a great aviator.
 

Later, Billy submits masochistically as his ‘lover’ shoots nicks out of his ears and creases his gun hand, in a really quite gruesome scene for then (or even now).

Doc and his love interest
 

But all this seems to have slipped by unnoticed, overshadowed (as it were) by Russell’s bosom.

Overall, though, the word I would use to describe this movie is plodding. It’s a dreary, rather washed-out black & white that just looks cheap - extraordinary when you consider Gregg Toland was the photographer, with Lucien Ballard as assistant (two of the greatest cinematographers ever). The vast majority was filmed on studio sets (no excuse for wartime austerity obliging the producers to do that; it was filmed before the US entered the war). Not a lot happens and what does happen is silly. There is a great deal of standing and talking. And there is an irritating muted trumpet that goes wa-wa-wa to simulate laughter every time something ‘comic’ happens (not).

Hawks: bizarrely claimed 'credit' for this film
 

Howard Hawks, uncredited, directed and even wrote large parts of this movie, before being fired by Hughes. He called Red River (1948) his first Western but he actually worked on The Outlaw a lot, including on the script, with Furthman. He once even said, “I wrote The Outlaw.” If true, he should be ashamed of himself.

It’s junk.


 

 

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