Billy the Kid (MGM, 1930)
The first talkie Billy
As we were saying yesterday, in our post on Billy the Kid as legend (click the link for that) there were a couple of silent movies about the outlaw, or nominally about the outlaw, both with the title Billy the Kid, in 1911 and 1925, but those are sadly nowhere to be seen nowadays, so MGM’s early talkie of 1930 is effectively the first celluloid Billy we have.
It was produced and directed by King Vidor. Vidor, you probably know, was to become very famous, especially with his War and Peace in 1956, but his career was incredibly long: he made movies from Hurricane in Galveston in 1913 (he had lived through the horrific 1900 storm there) until The Metaphor in 1980. Billy the Kid was his first oater. He is best known in the genre for the 1946 extravaganza Duel in the Sun but he also made the 1936 The Texas Rangers (the Fred MacMurray one, rather good), was one of the directors used on the very weak Northwest Passage with Spencer Tracy in 1940 and then came the famous Cotton/Peck Duel, usually known as Lust in the Dust. His last Western was Man Without a Star with Kirk Douglas (watchable but not great).
This Billy came in the early days of the talking film and tried to be a serious effort, to stand alongside Paramount’s talkie The Virginian of the year before, for example, or Fox’s The Big Trail of the same year. Vidor was a great believer in talking movies; he thought spoken dialogue could give depth, subtlety and substance to the Western, a genre he suspected (poor deluded fellow) of vapidity. However, it must be said that in these early days of the form, the delivery of the dialogue is pretty plodding. Part of it was technical: outside, especially, microphones weren’t good, and actors had to speak slowly or even shout (especially true in The Big Trail). But part of it was also lack of mastery of lines by casts who were used to silent movies. All the actors in Billy the Kid, even experienced ones like Wallace Beery and Russell Simpson, deliver their speeches woodenly. This is particularly true of the young star, John Mack Brown, as he was billed, who sadly was not – at this time anyway – much of an actor and he ponderously recites the lines he has diligently learned. Everything stops when the characters talk to each other. There are even still title cards, a hangover from silent movies, to slow the action down and render everything more static. But it isn't just Mack Brown; the whole cast speaks the heavy-handed dialogue in such a way as to render the movie melodrama.
The screenplay was credited to a number of writers, six in all, chief among whom was Laurence Stallings, noted for She Wore a Yellow Ribbon for John Ford in 1949, but Billy the Kid was one of the first talkies he did and it kind of shows. Worse, they used Walter Noble Burns’s The Saga of Billy the Kid (1926) as a starting point, a best-seller but “flagrant with error, distortion, and misinterpretation” as Pat Garrett biographer Leon Metz said. They also added some very clumsy comic relief.
But the 1930 Billy the Kid is seminal: it established many of the clichés and falsehoods that were to be perpetuated by later versions and thus pass into ‘fact’.
It wasn’t all bad with Mack Brown. He does make an attempt at a Southwestern drawl and he does try hard to project the insouciant and light-hearted Billy Bonney. He does a dashing dance. He smokes, though, so that’s wrong. He was 26 (his predecessor, Franklyn Farnum, in the 1925 version, had been 47!) so that's not bad. He had been a sports star taken up by Hollywood for baseball movies and the like but muscular good looks could only take him so far. Clark Gable was getting the romantic leads at MGM so Johnny tried a Western. Vidor actually wanted Cagney and didn’t rate Mack Brown very highly but had to make the best of it. By the mid-1930s Johnny was making cheap B-Westerns for Mascot, then even cheaper Supreme ones and serials. He was immensely popular with juveniles, though, and made a solid career of oaters. He was in 131 altogether, the last being the Leo Gordon-penned Dan Duryea/Rod Cameron B, The Bounty Killer (1965) in which he had a modest part as the sheriff. It is said that a then retired William S Hart coached him for the Billy role and let him use Hart’s prize possession, Billy the Kid’s pistol, which, however, turned out, sadly, not to be. Hart had been conned by the seller.
Fox shot its Big Trail, a mega-budget affair, in its new widescreen process, Grandeur. MGM replied with its own format, Realife. The wonderfully-named Mordaunt Hall, film critic of The New York Times, praised it, saying, “The result is tremendously effective, for the picture not only fills a screen virtually the full width of the Capitol stage, but it has an increased height, which other such inventions did not possess.” The modern print, however, at least to judge by my DVD, is pretty muddy. Realife added a quarter of a million dollars to Metro’s costs for Billy the Kid and given that there was only a handful of movie theaters in the States equipped to show it, the studio may have later questioned its wisdom in using it. Most people saw the movie in standard format. And Mordaunt expressed the opinion – fairly, I think – that “This picture is chiefly noteworthy for this enlarged screen idea, for the story is merely a moderately entertaining and often unconvincing Western melodrama.”
Variety made a similar point. “Billy the Kid should stand up for slightly better than average business where shown on Realife … due to this novelty. Otherwise, just an ordinary Western which will have to climb uphill to reach normal business. No punch names to cast.”
Variety was prescient, because the picture bombed. The Big Trail was a flop so humungous that it nearly sank Fox. At least Billy the Kid wasn’t as expensive as that film, and Metro could wear it. But unfortunately both movies came out just as the Depression struck, audiences evaporated, and really, the adult A-picture Western died then and there. There was the commercially successful and Oscar-winning Cimarron for RKO the following year, true, but that was hardly a Western, at least after the first reel, more of a ‘family saga’, a genre of which Americans are inordinately fond. Proper Westerns from the majors largely disappeared from screens all through the 1930s, and with the occasional exception, such as Cecil B DeMille’s The Plainsman for Paramount in 1936, it wasn’t until the very end of the decade that the studios returned to big-picture oaters. Otherwise the genre was consigned to one-hour second features, chiefly for the juvenile market.
All Billy films really need an authoritative Garrett, preferably a senior actor with gravitas (even though the real Garrett was only 30 in 1880) and this one got Wallace Beery. Beery had joined the circus in 1902 and then made a career in music halls. He married Gloria Swanson in 1916 but it was a tempestuous and short-lived affair. He became a heavy in silent movies for Paramount but he had a rich, deep voice and MGM hired him for talkies in 1930. Beery was nominated for an Oscar for his part in The Big House in that year and he won Best Actor for The Champ the year after. He was one of the most famous ever Long John Silvers in ’34 and became one of the great stars of Hollywood. He was in 21 Westerns: nine silents in the 20s, then his first talkie oater as Garrett in 1930, and of course he was a great Pancho Villa in 1934.
In Billy the Kid, Beery’s Garrett is a key player - bizarrely, really, because the majority of the movie is set in Lincoln during the Lincoln County War, a conflict in which Garrett took no part (he was a barman at Beaver Smith’s saloon down in Fort Sumner then). And not only is he in Lincoln in ’78, he is a leading employee of the anti-McSween/Tunstall 'House' and deputy sheriff. It‘s most odd. Like the later Destry, Pat spends time whittling wood; he’s making a chain.
You see, in this one the chief villain is a certain Donovan, who is a kind of amalgam of House founder LG Murphy and his chief lieutenant and successor James Dolan, with a bit of Sheriff Brady thrown in. This Donovan is played by James Marcus, who has a rear end similar in dimensions to that of Obelix, and he has a sign in his office which explains all:
Willm P Donovan SHERIFF NOTARY PUBLIC JUSTICE OF THE PEACE POSTMASTER
So he’s got the town pretty well sewn up. And we see immediately what a bad egg he is for he cruelly evicts some poor farmers and then orders a henchman to go and kill them, in case they tell people. We hear bang, bang, bang off screen and Donovan gives an evil leer.
We see ‘John Tunston’, rather than Tunstall, played appropriately by Englishman Wyndham Standing, arriving in Lincoln with his great friend Angus (not Alexander) McSween. This Tunston is, as became standard, an older man (Standing was in fact 50) and goes about unarmed. The real Tunstall was 24, not that much older than Billy, and not at all averse to firearms. McSween is played by the great Russell Simpson, with a ‘Scots’ accent straight out of Danville, California. Billy was his seventeenth Western, though first talkie. He is a “man of peace” as he says, who will not use a gun, and he spends much of his time reading his bible. Simpson made rather a thing of religious elders of various kinds and he kind of started here.
Tunston and McSween are driving a herd of cattle. They decide to settle in Lincoln.Town boss Donovan will have none of this.
There had to be a girl, of course, and the writers invented Claire (played by Kay Johnson, well known for posh dame roles), the fiancée of Tunston who arrives on the stage. But on their actual wedding day Tunston is wickedly shot down by Donovan’s thugs, and dies, uttering Charlie Bowdre’s last words, actually, “I wish… I wish…” So now the gal naturally falls for Billy. The girl figure is, however, clearly a clumsy invention.
Other spottable actors include Chris-Pin Martin as Santiago, the rather stereotypical but sympathetic Mexican, for once not a barman but a sidekick of Billy. Hank Bell’s mustache appears, with Hank Bell attached, because he plays a henchman, Polkadot. Dick Brewer, who would become captain of the Regulators, is also there, played by Jack Carlyle. But of course it’s two-gun Billy who is the real top gunman of McSween.
Billy kills Joe Grant but this Joe Grant is trying to kill Tunston (“’cos he killed my brother”) and so Billy sneaks out of a party, shoots him, slips back in, and blarneys Deputy Sheriff Garrett when he comes in to see who did it. Warner Richmond plays ‘Bob Ballinger’, the Bob Ollinger figure. He is not a deputy or anything, just the leading Donovan thug, and he takes over when Billy finally shoots Donovan during the McSween house siege.
There’s a lot good about the film. The scenery, for one thing. Much of it was shot around Gallup NM, and the ‘Lincoln’ looks really authentic. The cinematographer was Gordon Avil, who worked with Beery on The Champ. This was his first Western and he went on to shoot 139 mostly TV oaters and the occasional movie, including Fort Yuma and the 1958 Zorro (if you class that as a Western). In Billy there are some impressive longshot New Mexican landscapes, and the scene where Billy holes up in a cave is beautifully photographed. The opening shot, rather oddly, is of the Grand Canyon.
The climax of the picture is the siege and fire. It does get a bit static here, as siege Westerns often can, as the characters stand still and explain the plot to each other. Then Billy escapes – the last to leave, of course – and he leaps backwards onto a horse.
Governor Wallace now appears (Frank Reicher) and there’s a three-way interview between Wallace, Billy and Ballinger. The governor wants Billy to shake hands with Ballinger. Billy refuses. He’ll go out guns a’blazin’. As he leaves town, Wallace says, “I like that boy” and Garrett replies, “Yeah, me too.”
Pat now follows Billy who hides, alone, not in a rock house but in a cave, and Pat gets him out by cooking up bacon outside the cave, and Billy, weak from hunger, succumbs.
Back in Lincoln, Pat gives Billy a Winchester and they face down a lynch mob together. Then the Kid is imprisoned. Ballinger taunts him. He has, he says, eighteen nice new buckshot in each barrel of his shotgun. But Billy plays poker with Pat, deliberately drops a card, and when Pat bends down to pick it up he leans over and snatches Pat’s gun from its holster.
He shoots Ballinger with his own shotgun, athletically mounts up though still chained, and rides off to Fort Sumner. Claire is there and tells him, “Every killing you’ve done was needed.” Pat arrives, aims at but deliberately misses Billy, gives Claire his horse, off go Billy and his lady-love, The End.
In fact, two endings were filmed: the version I have has this American happy ending but there was a version for the European market where Billy’s ending is more traditional.
The movie began with a statement from the then Governor of New Mexico, a RC Dillon, giving the opinion that “though it has taken liberties with the details of his life” [boy, I’ll say] the film is true to the spirit of Billy the Kid’s fight for justice. Yes, well.
Billy the Kid was definitely not one of the better Westerns of the time. It isn’t a patch on Paramount’s The Virginian, for example, directed by Victor Fleming with Gary Cooper in the lead part; that remains probably the best of the many film versions. But Billy the Kid 1930 style is quite fun, and the fact that it’s historically absurd is no disqualification: all Billy movies were.
As I said above, A-picture Westerns now entered the wilderness years. In 1941 MGM would have another go, putting one of its top stars, Robert Taylor, in the lead role. Between the two Metro pictures, though, B-Westerns would take Billy to their hearts. In 1938 Roy Rogers would assume the mantle at Republic in the epic Billy the Kid Returns (and that, dear e-readers, we shall review next time) and Bob Steele in 1940 and Buster Crabbe in '41 would also begin their long series of Billy pictures. Such thrills in store, bet you can't wait.