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Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Another Outlaw Day --- Part One

There's too many Billy The Kids (or should I say Billys The Kid) for me to cover in whole. Three was a limit for consideration, these being John Mack Brown (he'd become Johnny later), Robert Taylor, and Paul Newman. The trio neatly represent their decade of notoriety and each have points of interest. Historic Billy dropped a number of varmints, but seems to have had a sense of humor about it. Research claims he made friends easy and wasn't the dingy psycho some would propose. Movies have given us charming Billys and ones less so. There's more than a mere gap of years between Robert Taylor's Glamour Billy and Michael J. Pollard's Dirty Little Billy. The march of BTK movies chart a culture headed up or down, take your pick. They'll never stop doing them, because it's a corking good story (I ran my selected three in two days, and didn't lose patience).

Accuracy to fact doesn't matter much and never did. Modern inquiry says Billy wasn't left-handed after all, but who cares? Picture makers latched onto him soon as cameras were invented. There were silent treatments of his life. Guess they're lost now. A first big talking do was MGM's Billy The Kid in 1930, directed by King Vidor and starring grid hero John Mack Brown, whose pigskin-ing had him in headlines for a couple years leading up to a Metro contract. Vidor would have preferred someone else, as Brown lacked a killer's vibe, but otherwise this Billy The Kid was true as possible to time and place (if not occurrences) of historic record. There were old-timers thick on location who remembered real-life Billy and counseled Vidor on what he was like. New Mexico's governor supplied a written forward for Billy The Kid that all but gave the outlaw folk hero status.

Vidor shot where it all had happened and rustic locations put the capital A on Austere. MGM, to its credit, left off refinements like music scoring and glossed production. You could as easy mistake Billy The Kid for a Tiffany western with Ken Maynard. Here's one where crudities are welcome. Brown's Billy is a likeable cuss and dances too. So did the real-life Kid. Brown did his own stunts/riding and had hair thick and black as oil in a drum. Vidor chose long shots and vistas in deference to 65mm Realife photography brought to bear on Billy The Kid, MGM's first and nearly only in the ultra-wide process that died hard when 1930 exhibitors refused to adapt to it. Those who saw king-size Billy exulted over image clarity, but I'm unsure as to how many, if any, showings a 65mm version actually had. It all matters less now for apparent fact that Billy The Kid in Realife is lost.

Brown's Billy with Soon-To-Be-Replaced Lucille Powers
Among glitches in production, there was also a leading lady that didn't work out and was replaced. Vidor alluded to this in later interviews and I assumed he was talking about finally-cast Kay Johnson when referring to the actress who couldn't act. In truth, it was one Lucille Powers who flaked out, and well into production, this conclusion based on a number of stills featuring her with John Mack Brown and other cast members. Powers was apparently let go and replaced with Kay Johnson. I can find no documentation as to the switch, but surviving stills and a finished Billy The Kid confirm it took place.

Another sidebar worth noting is old Bill Hart showing up to lend stamp of authority re Billy and his times. Hart had been off the screen a while, but he'd surface here and there, always in cowboy rig. Well, who wanted to encounter Two Gun Bill in street civvies? Vidor said that Hart's visit was just for lunch and to hang around the location for an afternoon, but John Mack recalled it as a Messiah's coming, Bill's distant speck on the horizon growing larger as he neared the location. From there on, it was Holy ground so far as Brown was concerned. Bill even gifted the young actor with what he claimed was Billy The Kid's own six-gun, which JMB treasured till the day he died. Did wiley Bill keep a drawer full of these at home? Anyway, he was there for publicity's value, and does not appear to have been creatively involved otherwise. I'd love knowing what, if anything, Hart was paid for dropping by.

MGM opted for a happy ending to their Billy The Kid saga (he'd die in Euro's cut). Precode release allowed for killers evading punishment now and then. Metro wouldn't countenance Brown's Billy being shot down by frontier pal Pat Garrett, played well by Wallace Beery. Hadn't there already been enough bloodshed in this picture? Irving Thalberg thought so. There's a funny story about he, Eddie Mannix, and other execs driving to Mabel Normand's funeral while immersed in Billy The Kid story conference. Sitting before the bier in church, Thalberg audibly whispered "Too many murders!" in reference to their outlaw bio, but mourners who overheard thought he was inferring that Normand herself had met death by violent means. Such was an industry's concentration on work at hand, even when one of their own was being lowered to last reward.


Blogger Brother Herbert said...

Widescreen authority Daniel J. Sherlock notes that Vidor's BILLY THE KID was likely never released in 70mm (see "Realife frame caption" on page 6):‎

Apparently the idea behind Realife was to exhibit 35mm prints with a wider aspect ratio extracted from the original 70mm (not 65mm) negative rather than use wide prints.

2:27 PM  
Blogger VP81955 said...

Kay Johnson by this time was used to replacing actresses. The year before "Billy," she took over as the female lead in "Dynamite" when director Cecil B. de Mille found the original actress he'd hired for the role inexperienced and dismissed her after a few days. Her name? Carole Lombard.

But that's not their only connection. Johnson married director John Cromwell, who would be at the helm for two of Carole's 1939 films, "Made For Each Other" and "In Name Only." The following year, Johnson gave birth to a son, the fine actor James Cromwell.

2:44 AM  

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