Monday, February 1, 2016

Outlaw, The (1943)

Director: Howard Hughes

Howard Hughes’ motion picture about the legend of Billy the Kid would be a matter of great Hollywood controversy as the producer/director directly contested the Production Code that censored American movies at the time. This poorly produced western would only blossom with the help of an alluring figure of a first time actress for which Hughes built his whole marketing campaign around. Despite the rather shoddy cinematic work, the draw of this young, voluptuous new starlet would bring the feature enough box office attention that the film manifested reasonable profits. However the feature would live on in cinema history for its publicity material more than for any of its actual screen time.

The Outlaw is a western sharing a tale of a meeting between two legendary American gunmen of the Old West, their playful friendship, and fierce rivalry as they attempt to outrun the law in the deserts of New Mexico. Three notorious gunslingers, the infamous Billy the Kid, gambler and outlaw Doc Holliday, and former gunfighter turned sheriff Pat Garrett, happen to converge in a small dusty county in New Mexico, the infamous Billy the Kid, gambler and outlaw Doc Holliday, and former gunfighter turned sheriff Pat Garrett. When a dispute between the notorious Billy the Kid and outlaw Doc Holliday turns the rivals into unlikely friends, Sheriff Pat Garrett decides he must hunt down the two dangerous bandits. Billy and Holliday’s back and forth rivalry grows further when Rio (Jane Russell), Doc’s New Mexican destination sweetheart, begins a romance with Billy. As tensions build a showdown between the three men lead to a chivalrous respect between Billy and Doc, but the slaying of Doc at the guns of Pat Garrett, who once was a dear old friend of Doc in days gone by. Left with only the two remaining men Billy outsmarts Garrett, permitting for his escape, but allows for Garrett the to build his own legend as the man that gunned down Billy the Kid as Billy and Rio ride off leaving behind the lawlessness, never to be heard from again.

As a major motion picture from with a supposedly storied history behind it, this feature falls dramatically short of being a tolerable western to view. Director Howard Hughes, a movie mogul that bought his way into the business, leaves little inspiration in his directing style in this picture. With primarily static shots more akin to an amateur filmmaker and uninspired acting by its novice star actors, The Outlaw comes align more in quality to that of a cheaply produced independent serial western than that of a supposed major studio film.

The legend of this feature’s background provides greater substance than this picture ever could have possibly provided. This weak story of Billy the Kid fictionalized with a meeting with the notorious Doc Holliday of O.K. Coral fame, tied into some attempted epic tale that Billy the Kid was perhaps not really slain at the hands of Pat Garrett comes off and sloppy, at very best. The production of this picture was the artifact of poor execution of filmmaking while attempting to feed off an short lived obsession at the time when the film was being conceived.

Mitchell, Buetel, and Huston having a showdown of sorts.
The origins of The Outlaw date back to 1940. At that time the subject of Billy the Kid was a hot topic in Hollywood as even MGM was in the works for a feature entitled simply Billy the Kid starring Robert Taylor. At RKO they were looking to make their own picture with director Howard Hawks at the helm shot on location in Arizona and New Mexico. From the dailies that were being shipped back to Hollywood RKO studio head Howard Hughes complained that Hawks was shooting at too slow of a pace. Upset at each other Howard Hawks left production in favor of filming Sergeant York with Gary Cooper which turned into the highest grossing feature of 1941.

Determined to finish this picture Howard Hughes took up responsibilities in the director’s chair and threw out all of what Hawks had completed. To star in Hughes’ new Billy the Kid-inspired film Hughes had the studio find new names and faces to be the focal point of the feature. Jack Buetel’s looks led to him being discovered while working as an insurance clerk in Los Angeles, casting the newcomer as Billy the Kid. However it was the role of Rio that was most important to the director/producer. Hughes. Casting calls had the studio on the lookout for the next big actress to steal the attention of the big screen. The focus of what Hughes wanted in this actress was not just her looks, but her sex appeal, more specifically a massive, attention stealing bosom. It would be nineteen year-old model Jane Russell who Hughes found to fill out the measurements he was looking for and base his entire film around.

Could Walter Huston save this picture? No, not really.
To round out the poor acting of the film’s two novice “star actors” Hughes added the talents of the revered Walter Huston and Thomas Mitchell to the roles of Doc Holiday and Pat Garrett. These additions were in hope that their stature and acting prowess might bring more respectability to the film and help bring up the performances of the young leading actors. Sadly with the poor cinematography coupled with the glaring subpar appearances of Buetel and Russell there is not much Huston and Mitchell can do to add to this sinking ship of a mainstream film, artistically speaking.

For Hughes he knew the biggest draw of the picture was going to be for the male audience enjoying the view of Miss Russell. He made no attempt to hide his intent of the picture as he dressed Russell in tighter fitting clothing that accented her figure. Furthermore Hughes commissioned the design of a specially made wire lined brassiere to further lift and shape her chest. Jane Russell, several years later in referencing this story stated that this bra she was told to wear was so uncomfortable that she never wore it on screen. Instead she discarded the wire clothing without the director’s knowledge and replacing it with her own brassiere which she further padded with tissue and had the straps pulled tighter for more lift. Hughes supposedly never brought the subject back up.

Jane Russell would live on as a American sex symbol.
As the story focused on the story of Billy the Kid, Hughes did what he could to focus on the sexuality of Rio in the film. Furthermore the marketing campaign focused almost completely on Jane Russell and her sex appeal. In the publicity shots and movie posters is featured Russell further drawing attention to her figure as she lays on a bed of hay with her revealing top pulled down over one shoulder to show even more skin. If anything was to bring this film money it was to be Jane Russell.

Of course following Hughes assemblage of the motion picture came the lash back of Hollywood censorship within the production code. Hughes and censors would fight over what was appropriate to play in American cinemas. Beyond the portrayal of the female figure was the display of sex within the movie. Never would it happen on screen, but it was heavily implied, including Billy’s rape of Rio, and a later scene eventually cut from the feature where Rio is said to begun to unbutton her clothes intending to slip into bed with Billy to keep him “warm.” Beyond sex, the censors disliked the idea that characters in the film that perform evil, do not pay for their dues. All of these aspects were ideals that the Production Code fought against in a time when Hollywood was attempting to censor themselves, and Hughes was the one to rattle the cage of what was acceptable. Much would be cut, but ultimately much was also left in.

Originally intended to release in 1941, the film would not premiere until 1943, but only for a short few showings. Censor issues would keep the film from wide release until 1946. The Outlaw could be considered a complete flop of a motion picture, but its impact in popular culture was definitely felt.

Jane Russell quickly became a major sex symbol following her appearance in The Outlaw establishing herself as a pin up during World War II. Jack Beutel would suffer from his performance in the picture, setting his career back for close to a decade. The Outlaw would not be remembered as a movie, as much it would be recalled for Jane Russell’s publicity which live on in American popular culture of the 20th century.

If one was to go in search of some of Hollywood most heralded westerns, The Outlaw falls far short of anyone’s expectations. In conclusion The Outlaw really is nothing more than three things: one, a poorly produced B-movie western, while two and three are things I would rather let your parents tell you about.

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