powered by AFI
The film's title card reads: "Howard Hughes presents his production of The Outlaw." The film includes a written epilogue, which states that the truth about Billy the Kid "lies hidden forever among the secrets of the Old West." For more information about the real Billy the Kid, for Billy the Kid. Unlike the character in the film, the real Pat Garrett, a New Mexico sheriff, tracked down and shot Billy the Kid in 1881. Before becoming a lawman, Garrett had been a buffalo hunter, a cowboy and a Texas Ranger. In 1882, Garrett wrote a book called The Authentic Life of Billy the Kid. While working as a rancher in 1902, he was shot and killed by an unidentified gunman. Many films have featured Pat Garrett, including the 1930 M-G-M film Billy the Kid (see AFI Catalog of Feature Films, 1921-30; F2.0419), directed by King Vidor and starring Wallace Beery as Garrett; the 1950 film I Shot Billy the Kid ; and the 1973 film Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, in which James Coburn played Garrett. Although Doc Holliday was a gambler and gunman, as depicted in the film, he is not known to have tangled with Billy the Kid or Pat Garrett. Best known for his association with Wyatt Earp and Bat Masterson, Holliday died of tuberculosis and alcoholism in 1887. For more information about Holliday, please see entry above for the 1941 Universal film Badlands of Dakota. For more information about Masterson, please see entry for the 1943 United Artists release Woman of the Town (below).
Contemporary news items add the following information about the film's production: Howard Hawks, who had worked with Hughes on the 1932 film Scarface (see AFI Catalog of Feature Films, 1931-40; F3.3916), was the film's initial director, and Twentieth Century-Fox was its initial distributor. When production began, Hughes and Fox were in competition with M-G-M, which was readying to shoot Billy the Kid, and a spring 1941 release date was set. In mid-November 1940, Hawks and his crew left for location shooting in Arizona and New Mexico. Some scenes were filmed in Moencopi, near Tuba City, AZ, and second unit shooting was done in Socorro, NM. On December 10, 1940, after two weeks of shooting, Hawks quit the project. According to a December 15, 1940 New York Times article, Hughes, who had the dailies flown back to Los Angeles every day, accused Hawks of economizing too much and not "taking enough time" with filming. Hawks reportedly argued that, as his salary consisted of a percentage of the film's profits, it was in his best interest to keep production costs down. In a modern interview, however, Hawks claimed that he left the production so that he could shoot Sergeant York (see below) with Gary Cooper and happily turned the reins over to Hughes.
Hughes took over direction of the film on the Samuel Goldwyn lot in late December 1940. Hawks's director of photography, Lucien Ballard, was replaced by Gregg Toland at that time, and Hughes announced that the entire picture would be reshot. It has not been determined if any of Hawks and Ballard's material was used in the released film. (In her autobiography, Jane Russell noted that Hawks did not direct any of her scenes.) Pat West, Billy Newell and Nena Quartero were announced as cast members, but their appearance in the final film has not been confirmed. According to an internal memo contained in the MPAA/PCA files at the AMPAS Library, screenwriter Jules Furthman filled in for Hughes as director on December 31, 1940, after Hughes became "indisposed." Modern sources state that Furthman filled in as director for many days.
Although the film was completed and copyrighted in February 1941, it was not shown theatrically until February 1943. The delay was due, in part, to censorship problems with the PCA. Materials in the film's file in the MPAA/PCA collection at the AMPAS Library provide the following information about the picture's censorship battle: In a late December 1940 letter to Hughes, PCA director Joseph I. Breen complained that the film's final script depicted Billy the Kid as a "major criminal who goes unpunished." He also objected to the suggestion of "illicit sex between Billy and Rio," the "trick marriage," and the "undue brutality and unnecessary killings." Furthman conferred with PCA official Geoffrey Shurlock and agreed to change the objectionable elements of the script, in part by showing that Billy was innocent of the crime for which he was being hunted. Modern sources add that, during filming, Furthman repeatedly alerted Shurlock and others at the PCA about possible problem scenes in the production. In March 1941, Hughes also notified Shurlock about a new scene he was adding-a "bed" scene in which Rio nurses Billy by warming him with her body-which Shurlock approved. The 1941 retakes and added scenes, including the bed scene, cost Hughes $127,000, according to a New York Times article.
After the film itself was screened in late March 1941, however, Breen wrote to Hughes that the picture was in violation of the Code and would not be issued a certificate. In addition to objections regarding the "illicit relationship between Doc and Rio," which was epitomized by the bed scene, Breen condemned the "countless shots of Rio in which her breasts" were not "fully covered." In a March 1941 interoffice memo, Breen said about The Outlaw: "...in my more than ten years of critical examination of motion pictures, I have never seen anything quite so unacceptable as the shots of the breasts of the character of Rio....Throughout almost half the picture the girl's breasts, which are quite large and prominent, are shockingly emphasized..." Breen acknowledged in the same memo, however, that, because of the way in which the scenes were filmed, most of the "breast" shots could not be easily eliminated. After Breen refused to issue a certificate for The Outlaw, Hughes requested an appeal hearing from the MPPA in New York. The MPPA board of directors screened the picture in early April 1941 and ruled in mid-May to uphold the MPAA/PCA decision. Both Breen and MPPA representatives conferred with Hughes about eliminations, and a long list of specific cuts involving shots of Russell's breasts was drawn up. Hughes made the requested changes, and by late May 1941, Breen agreed to approve the film, with a "footnote" stating that "approval is based upon the understanding and agreement that all prints put into general release are to conform exactly to the changes agreed upon." In all, approximately forty feet of film was actually cut.
In mid-August 1941, after Breen had left the PCA to be production chief at RKO, a PCA memo reported that Hughes had submitted an unedited version of the picture to various state censor boards, hoping to bypass the PCA in those areas. According to the memo, Hughes discovered that some state censors wanted many more cuts than the PCA had demanded. At the same time, Fox, which would have been subject to a $25,000 MPPA fine for releasing an unapproved picture, backed out of its distribution deal. Hughes continued to battle the state censors until the end of 1941, then shelved the picture for over a year. (Modern sources note that after America's entrance into World War II, Hughes focused all of his attention on his airplane manufacturing company and all but abandoned his filmmaking ventures.
According to modern sources, by late 1942, his film company had spent months trying to find and acquire the best theater in which to open the picture. The picture, running at 115 minutes, finally opened in San Francisco's Geary Theater on February 5, 1943 and caused an immediate furor. MPAA/PCA files indicate that The Legion of Decency condemned the picture and questioned the PCA's wisdom in approving it. In addition, a new controversy erupted over the film's advertising, which had been engineered by Hughes's publicist, Russell Birdwell. Birdwell, who had spent much of 1942 promoting Russell as Hollywood's newest star, ordered billboards to be posted around the city, with a still of the actress in a provocative pose, captioned by phrases such as "How would you like to tussle with Russell?" The Motion Picture Council of San Francisco wrote to the PCA to object to the "very disgusting portrayal of the feminine star...on large billboards." After public protests by the Council, the police ordered the billboards removed. In its review of the San Francisco opening, Variety called Birdwell's ad campaign "bosom art" and speculated that the film would profit at the box office because of it. As predicted, The Outlaw did well in San Francisco, grossing $10,000 in its first week. Russell and co-star Jack Beutel performed a live twenty-minute scene that had been cut from the film's script following each screening of the six-week San Francisco run. Comedian Frank McHugh was added to the stage show on 15 February 1943.
In March 1943, MPPA official Francis S. Harmon screened a print of The Outlaw in Hollywood in anticipation of the film's New York run and noted that it contained footage that had not been previously approved. Hughes maintained that he was merely re-editing the picture because of complaints by critics that it was too long, but in July 1943, Harmon revealed in an interoffice memo that seven prints of the film were in existence and only one print, Print 3, contained the PCA approved edits. Harmon advised Hughes to use Print 3 in New York to appease its censor board, which had already condemned the film. In the same memo, Harmon expressed fears that the picture might inspire juveniles to commit crimes and that Hughes and Hollywood would be blamed. Still preoccupied with the war, Hughes instead withdrew The Outlaw after its San Francisco run and put it back on the shelf until early 1945.
At that time, Hollywood Reporter announced that United Artists, which was not a signatory with the MPPA, would release the film in early 1946 as part of its new distribution deal with Hughes and his then filmmaking partner, Preston Sturges. Although Harmon assured the president of United Artists in a January 1946 letter that the picture "Hughes intends to release is the same as the picture approved in 1941," problems regarding the film's advertising delayed the film's re-issue. In a April 9, 1946 letter to Hughes, the secretary of the MPAA in New York noted that the unapproved advertising and exploitation of the picture constituted "grounds for...suspension or expulsion from [MPAA] membership" as they violated Article XIV of the organization's by-laws. According to the secretary, the by-laws specified that "standards of fair representation and good taste in the advertising of motion pictures" must be honored and that all advertising must be submitted in advance to the Advertising Code Administration for approval.
On April 24, 1946, the day after the film re-opened in San Francisco, Al Dunn, the manager of the United Artists theater, was arrested for exhibiting a film "offensive to decency," and prints of the film were seized. (Dunn was later cleared of all charges.) On April 26, 1946, Hughes, anticipating the revocation of the film's Production Code seal, announced his resignation from the MPAA and filed a $1,000,000 lawsuit against the organization in New York, with a request for triple damages. Hughes, under his corporate name, Hughes Tool Co., motioned for a stay of judgment empowering the MPAA to revoke its seal. A temporary injunction restraining the MPAA from interfering with the distribution of prints or advertising accessories was issued at that time by Judge Vincent L. Leibell, pending a later hearing. Through Russell Birdwell, Hughes argued that the Hays Office was "violating the First Amendment of the Constitution of the United States" and was in violation of anti-trust laws. In court, Hughes's lawyers argued that, through implied monetary penalties, which would result if the MPAA refused to issue a certificate to a given film, the MPAA used coersive tactics to force its members to comply with its demands. In an amended complaint, dated March 18, 1947, Hughes's lawyers added that Hughes's company had lost an estimated 7.5 million dollars in revenue as a result of the revocation.
On June 14, 1946, Judge John Bright vacated Judge Leibell's restraining order and ruled against Hughes, maintaining that the MPAA had not breached their contract and that Hughes Tool Co. "cannot have its cake and eat it too." Hughes immediately appealed Bright's ruling, and the MPAA agreed that it would take no action against the film pending the appeal. On September 6, 1946, however, Breen announced that The Outlaw's certificate was being revoked because of Hughes's continued refusal to submit for approval "all advertising and publicity material" connected to the film. The MPAA then filed a counter-claim against Hughes, asking the court to order Hughes to remove the Production Code seal from all prints of The Outlaw. Hughes eventually lost his appeal.
Despite the various legal battles, United Artists continued to roadshow The Outlaw in 1946 and 1947. An elaborate countrywide promotional tour, complete with skywriting and a blimp, set off in June 1946. The film, however, generated protests and bans throughout the country. Archbishop John J. Cantwell, writing in the Catholic publication The Tidings, stated that no Catholic could see The Outlaw "with a free conscience." In Minneapolis, The Outlaw was pulled in May 1946 and replaced by The Postman Always Rings Twice (see below), a picture that also encountered censorship difficulties. The Interstate Circuit in Texas refused to show the film because of complaints from clergymen. In September 1946, municipal Judge E. Paul Mason upheld an exhibition ban in Maryland, commenting that Russell's "breasts hung like a thunderstorm over a summer landscape." A Kansas censor complained to the PCA that Hughes's office had hired lawyers to try to force the Kansas censor board into passing the picture without eliminations. After Hughes refused to make some requested cuts, the Ohio censors banned the film in mid-December 1946. In Indianapolis, however, the mayor refused to ban the picture, calling it "just a western." Hollywood Reporter reported that many projectionists had practiced "inadvertent" censorship of the film, clipping out the "hot" scenes for their own private collections. A version dubbed in Spanish was completed in mid-November 1946 at the Eastern Service Studios in Astoria, New York.
An uncensored version of the film opened in London on November 29, 1946. Although the film itself received poor reviews, the British press praised Hughes for battling the MPAA. London journalist Sunderland Echo was quoted as saying, "This long-delayed attack on American censorship is welcome, for if Hughes wins his case it will open the way to more wholehearted sincerity in American films and will provide a better market for British films." A huge advertising banner of Russell generated a "nudity complaint" from the London County Council, however.
New York's censor board banned the picture in November 1946, an action that was publicly denounced by the National Board of Review of Motion Pictures. In mid-December 1946, after an appellate division upheld the board's decision, United Artists asked the New York Supreme Court to rule on the state's decision. In late December 1946, New York City's licensing commissioner tried to have the film's license revoked, but when the State Board of Regents discovered that it did not have the authority to revoke the picture's license, it asked the state legislature in late January 1947 to give the Department of Education the authority to revoke film licenses on grounds of suggestive advertising. Hughes's lawyers then filed an appeal with the New York Supreme Court, requesting that the License Commission's claims be dismissed. In early April 1947, Hughes's appeal was dismissed, and after some consideration, Hughes chose not to pursue the matter any further. In mid-September 1947, the New York licensing commissioner finally lifted the ban on the film, saying that the objectionable material had been adequately altered. The Outlaw opened in New York on September 11, 1947 and was screened on a twenty-four-hour-a-day schedule, with "cleaned-up" advertising. In November 1947, General Bennett Meyers stated at a Congressional hearing investigating Howard Hughes's wartime business dealings that Hughes had authorized him to offer $150,000 to the Legion of Decency in exchange for the lifting of the New York ban. Hughes reportedly denied the charge, saying that it would not have been worth it for him to buy off the Legion.
In August 1948, Hughes forced Howard Hawks to recut a "gun-draw" scene from his 1948 United Artist release Red River because, he claimed, it was plagiarized from The Outlaw. Hughes argued that he had paid Hawks $150,000 for the story rights to The Outlaw, as well as for his services as director. Borden Chase, the credited writer on Red River, stated in affidavits that he resigned from the project in protest when Hawks asked him to write the disputed scene. In mid-August 1948, Hughes filed a motion for an injuction against Red River before its opening in Texas, and a hearing to consider the motion was scheduled for August 19, 1948 in Dallas. Anxious to avoid a lawsuit, United Artists executive Edward Small agreed to allow Hughes to cut the scene himself, and Hughes subsequently removed the entire scene from the film. However, in the end, only 30 seconds were cut from Red River. (For more information on the dispute, for Red River.)
Despite the complaints and the bans, The Outlaw broke box office records everywhere it was shown. A late February 1947 Hollywood Reporter news item speculated that, in cities where it had played, the film had been seen by about sixty-five percent of the total population. In late August 1948, after Hughes had become production head at RKO, the film was acquired for distribution by RKO, but because it lacked a PCA certificate, the studio did not immediately release it. In late October 1949, however, the PCA reinstated the film's certificate and the Legion of Decency, in reaction to certain changes made by Hughes, removed the picture from its "C" classification. By that time, the picture, which was made for approximately $1,200,000, had already made $4,500,000. Hughes sued United Artists in November 1950, claiming that the company had short-changed him $133,000 in receipts. The disposition of that suit is not known. By April 1952, the picture had grossed $2,600,000 for RKO. In June 1968, Hollywood Reporter reported that The Outlaw had made over $20 million at the box office.
As noted above, Russell made her screen debut in The Outlaw. Beutel also made his official screen debut in the picture. According to modern sources, Beutel was compelled by Hughes to change the spelling of his name to "Buetel," and although he is listed as "Beutel" in the onscreen credits, advertisements and some reviews list it as "Buetel." Hollywood Reporter reported that Russell was tested by Twentieth Century-Fox in mid-1940, but was subsequently dropped by the studio. According to an unidentified contemporary source, Hughes picked the nineteen-year-old Russell, a doctor's receptionist, during a search for new talent. The same source noted that for the scene in which Rio writhes while tied between two stakes, Hughes designed a special brassiere for the actress to wear. In her autobiography, Russell stated that Hughes wanted a seamless look for the shot, but as his bra was extremely uncomfortable, she created the desired effect with her own bra by covering the seams with tissue and pulling the straps off her shoulders. The New York Times review said of Russell's performance in the picture: "This was the first picture in which the beauteous Jane Russell appeared and, while she is undeniably decorative in low-cut blouses, she is hopelessly inept as an actress." In her autobiography, Russell herself described her performance as "terrible."
In addition to Russell's performance, the film itself was soundly criticized. The Time reviewer described the picture as a "strong candidate for the flopperoo of all time." The New York Times reviewer pronounced The Outlaw "strictly second-rate," noting that it was "long and tedious and crudely acted for the most part." In May 1948, the Library of Congress, however, publicly acclaimed the film as a "picture that truly reflected the modes and morals of the times in which the action takes place." For their compliment, Hughes gave the Library two prints of the film. Modern sources add the following actors to the cast: Frank Darien, Carl Stockdale, Dickie Jones, Ed Brady, William Steele, Wallace Reid, Jr., Ed Peil, Sr., Lee "Lasses" White, Ted Mapes, Lee Shumway, Dick Elliott, John Sheehan, Frank Ward and Cecil Kellogg. Some of these actors were not identifiable in the viewed print, but May have appeared in scenes cut from the film.