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Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Part Two and Conclusion of Billy The Kid Days

1930's Billy The Kid lost money owing to high negative cost. John Mack Brown also got some blame, much as John Wayne would for the failure of The Big Trail. Epic westerns weren't career epochs for these two. Metro cared less to revisit Brown, but they'd not forget Billy's potential for action placement on marquees. The character was a natch to enhance male star standing, and so it was that Robert Taylor came to the role at age 30 for a 1941 Technicolor remake. Bob was starting to develop a wolfish look that would commend him to darkened image adjustment after the war. For now, his Billy sat an uneasy mount between pretty boy Taylor of star-making 30's and edgier countenece that would reveal itself later.

I'd left this Billy The Kid alone for being told it was a dud. Wrong again were naysayers, for I enjoyed it, the star and character-laden cast, plus location shooting all over the Southwest US map. There's even chasing across Monument Valley, which I'd suppose was a first occasion anyone shot there in Technicolor. This time however, Billy had to die at the finish, Code enforcement not permitting cold-blooded killers to evade punishment. Musical-chair directors were not unknown at Metro, starting out Frank Borzage being replaced by neophyte David Miller, who then was supervised by vet Norman Taurog. No wonder Billy plays at times like a patched quilt. You take these MGM specials for limitations you know are built in.

On topic of recycling, William S. Hart was summoned again, this time to host Robert Taylor at his ranch and speak to (if not debunk) ongoing legends about Billy The Kid. Bill had good latter life exposure in varied weeklies with his Billy accounts, and MGM got valued publicity for their fresh Kid. You wonder why they'd go to expense of borrowing Lon Chaney, Jr. just to essay a disposable bully part in saloon scenes --- it wasn't for nothing this was tagged a super-western. And what could be homier that Dick Curtis off the B west range as henchman number whatever. There's even former Hal Roach comic support Eddie Dunn as a badman shot down by Billy (thankfully offscreen --- that's not something I'd have wanted to see). There's no romance for Taylor/Billy, but despite its gloss, matte work, and rear projection, I found 1941's Billy The Kid at least as fun as what Fox did for bandit queen Belle Starr the same year.

As to a whole series of Billy The Kid westerns that would follow with Buster Crabbe, I remain silent for inability to round these up. Being PRC-produced, I'd guess prints are dicey. For that matter, Roy Rogers had been a Billy too, and so would Audie Murphy in 1950's The Kid From Texas, also gone from quality access. The one I did forge up was The Left-Handed Gun, Paul Newman's 1958 go at Billy The Kid for first-time feature directing Arthur Penn. You'll hear it's moody, arty, and all the unpromising rest, but stuff like that is at times my venison, depending upon mood of the moment.

Yes, Newman gives it a Method all, salvation coming of thankfully conventional players who temper his excesses. Did Actor's Studio gesticulators realize that it was firm foundation of lower-key colleagues that kept their performing out of absurdity's way? I look at The Left-Handed Gun and give thanks for John Dehner, James Best, and others who came to work, read their lines efficiently, and went home to wait for an agent's next call. Newman's OK, but give me the Dehners for steady diet. The Left-Handed Gun was adapted from a teleplay by Gore Vidal, also featuring Paul Newman. It, and the feature, were considered revisionist in 1958. Warners shrank a bit from Vidal's psycho-sexual detouring, though it was agreed there'd never been a Billy so high-strung and unpredictable as Newman's.

There's no surprise then, to learn of James Dean having been slated to play Billy. I'll bet his interpretation would have come off a near-photo finish to Newman's. After all, didn't PN more or less pick up Dean marbles after 9-30-55? Warners was true to form in selling The Left-Handed Gun as youth in further rebellion, a promoting theme so tired as to make you wonder if they'd ever again stir a beginner's soup outside the Dean pot. For all of effort put forth on behalf of male up-and-comers, it was Paul Newman that came closest to inheriting the Dean mantle, several parts he had at Warners likely to have gone Dean's way had the younger actor lived (think The Young Philadelphians with JD).

One amusing anecdote as passed along by former exhibitor Mike Cline: He drive-in played The Wild Bunch in the early seventies and needed Warner's exchange to send along a co-feature. What he got was The Left-Handed Gun, long in the tooth by that time and in black-and-white besides. Five minutes past starting it, Mike heard engines accelerating from the lot, then a big parade of vehicles exiting his Thunderbird Drive-In. Within minutes, the joint was near-vacant. All three Billys covered here (and in Part One) are available on Warner DVD, the John Mack Brown and Robert Taylor versions from their Archive, with the Paul Newman as part of a set devoted to the actor.


Blogger Reg Hartt said...

When I started my four hour marathon animation festivals in the late 1970s I booked the Chuck Jones' feature THE PHANTOM TOLLBOTH. Ten minutes into it and the full house was empty. Took me several weeks to re-build the audience. Mike should have shown LEFT HANDED GUN first (or did he?).

12:02 PM  
Blogger Mike Cline said...

Reg, THE WILD BUNCH played first, obviously the pic the folks came to see. I didn't mind the biggest exodus since Moses cut ties with Egypt. I might have gotten to go home early, I don't remember.

1:21 PM  
Blogger Reg Hartt said...

Whenever I have a program I want people to watch which I know they won't I put it in front of something I know they will watch. I showed William K. Howard's great WHITE GOLD (1927) in front of a Garbo film. The audience was adamant in letting me know they did not want to see it (it was an 8mm print when I normally ran 16mm). They were also unanimous in expressing their gratitude after having seen it. I did and do that a lot. When I do that I only give one starting time. That is how I build audiences.

8:43 PM  
Blogger coolcatdaddy said...

Your mention of Paul Newman taking over the mantle of Young Anguished Method Actor made me wonder for a moment what "The Silver Chalice" would have looked like with Dean rather than Newman.

Dean might have been the only actor around at that time that could have gone more over the top than Jack Palance in that picture.

9:41 PM  
Blogger Mike Cline said...

My favorite screen Billy the Kid is Audie Murphy in THE KID FROM TEXAS.

9:23 AM  

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