powered by AFI
Audie Murphy's reputation as the most decorated soldier of World War II turned out to be a double-edged sword. It opened the door to a Hollywood career, but that opening proved narrow and confining as his image and opportunities were limited by perceptions that his stardom was linked to his heroism. Most public personalities who made the transition to movie stardom from other arenas of fame--singers, radio performers, even sports figures--had at least a minimum experience with appearing before the public. But Murphy, a brave soldier who had been an orphaned young man from backwater Texas before joining the army, had no such experience. The road to movie stardom was difficult for him, and it is a measure of his integrity and honesty that he worked hard to be a credible actor. Bad Boy (1949), his first starring role, was an important step on that journey.
James Cagney was the first to recognize Murphy's charisma when he saw the famous young soldier's photo on the cover of Life magazine in July 1945. At Cagney's urging, Murphy moved to California, living with the big star for over a year. However, the war hero generated little interest among the studios. He finally landed a small role in 1948 in Beyond Glory and an even smaller one in 1948 in Texas, Brooklyn and Heaven. In the meantime, Murphy was writing his autobiography, To Hell and Back, for Henry Holt & Co. with the help of a ghost writer.
Paul Short, a fellow Texan who was affiliated with an organization of theater owners called Interstate Theaters, had a different view of Murphy's potential based on the young man's popularity in his home state. Short penned a story outline for a topical film about juvenile delinquency that not only echoed Murphy's real-life background but took advantage of Texas-based institutions. He pulled together a cast and crew and served as producer for Bad Boy, which was produced and released through Allied Artists Pictures.
Alternately titled The Story of Danny Lester, Bad Boy offers an early example of the juvenile delinquency drama that peaked in popularity during the 1950s. Danny Lester, a 17-year-old boy who has racked up 62 convictions in his juvenile criminal career, finds himself in court once again for robbery and assault. Although Judge Prentiss is skeptical, she releases Danny to Marshall Brown, who runs the Variety Clubs Boys Ranch at Copperas Cove, Texas. The Ranch provides a home for troubled youth who are given a last chance to change their lives by working on the ranch while serving out their sentences. Polite and quiet on the outside, Danny proves to be a difficult case; his choir-boy face masks a dark heart scarred by the erroneous perception that he was the cause of his mother's death. His ambitious stepfather blamed Danny for his wife's death, disowning him as soon as the lad proved troublesome. At the ranch, Danny works hard to please Mrs. Brown, but he also picks fights with the other boys, sneaks off the ranch to steal from local merchants, and causes the death of a beloved horse. His path to redemption is undeniably rocky.
Though teenager Danny Lester was a hardened criminal, and certainly not a bona fide war hero like the 24-year-old Murphy, aspects of the character fit the experience of the young actor, including the loss of both parents at an early age, the temptation of the wrong path, and the alienation that comes with being an outsider. Audie Murphy also had a real-life connection to the Variety Clubs Boys Ranch, because his younger brother, Joe, was living there. Joe Murphy was not a juvenile delinquent, but he was one of Audie's three youngest family members who had been sent to an orphanage after their mother had died. When Audie was released from the service, he got his younger siblings out of the orphanage and found them homes. Through a connection, he was able to place Joe at the Variety Clubs Boys Ranch.
Now called Variety the Children's Charity, the Variety Clubs organization has been helping sick, homeless, and troubled children since 1927. In the late 1940s, Variety Clubs International consisted of 100 charities, with 8,000 members who had affiliations to 17,000 theaters. Producer Paul Short belonged to Interstate Theaters, whose members were affiliated with the charitable organization, which put up at least part of the money for the low-budgeted Bad Boy. He knew he could count on those 17,000 theaters to exhibit the film and that the ranch at Copperas Cove would have an added appeal to Texas audiences as would the participation of Audie Murphy.
Originally, Stephen Broidy of Allied Artists did not want Murphy for the starring role, but the studio exec finally agreed to a screen test. The screen test did not go smoothly and revealed Murphy's lack of experience and understanding of the process behind performing. He had difficulty handling the dialogue, which was originally more extensive for the Danny Lester character. Scriptwriter Robert Hardy Andrews cut the dialogue, and they re-shot the test. Broidy was convinced to hire Murphy, but whether the screen test factored into his decision is unknown. When Murphy saw the test, he was embarrassed at his weak performance, and he vowed to become a better actor or quit the business.
Short hired a cast of seasoned actors, including Lloyd Nolan, James Gleason, and Jane Wyatt, because he knew that editing between veteran actors and a newcomer in dialogue scenes often elevates the performance of the amateur. Nolan and Gleason added gravity and professionalism to their scenes with Murphy, while the young actor was most effective in scenes with minimal dialogue. During the 21-day shoot, an addled Murphy worked hard to live up to his commitment, but he felt out of his league on a daily basis. Cast and crew members recalled that he was so nervous he vomited often on the way to the ranch set, which was located in Thousand Oaks, about two hours north of Los Angeles. Whether it was a part of his natural personality, or a product of feeling inferior to the other actors, Murphy was aloof and emotionally distant during production. Costar Jane Wyatt commented that he was a nice, polite boy but little more. His strongest scenes took advantage of his baby-faced looks, which added sympathy to the hardened character, while his natural remoteness fit Danny's identity as an alienated youth.
One incident on the set revealed that Murphy was aware of his limitations. During a fight scene, he had difficulties following directions while maintaining the emotional level of the scene. He quipped to director Kurt Neumann, "You must remember that I am working under a great handicap." "What handicap," asked Neumann. "No talent," replied Murphy with a smile. While he may have been joking to relieve the tension of the afternoon, the anecdote reflected his low estimate of his abilities at the time. Unfortunately, Murphy's career never fully overcame the perception that he had become a star because of his celebrity as World War II's most heroic soldier. The anecdote from the set of Bad Boy was repeated so often that it took on a life of its own, often retold in conjunction with the productions of his better-known movies. The story became a signifier of undeserved stardom to critics, biographers, and Hollywood chroniclers, though fans and admirers remained loyal to the likable actor. This take on Murphy seems harsh in retrospect; while never skilled in technique, he worked hard to speak his lines with conviction and to create credible characters. He was capable of first-rate star turns and solid performances, most notably in To Hell and Back (1955), which was based on his autobiography, The Quiet American (1958), and The Unforgiven (1960).
Producer Paul Short arranged for a massive publicity tour for Bad Boy across the Southwest, beginning with the film's premiere in Dallas. A live show accompanied the film in addition to appearances by Murphy and his costars. Audie also stopped by Texas A&M University, which figures into the storyline of Bad Boy, and spoke at a joint meeting of the state House of Representatives and Senate on the issue of juvenile delinquency. The regional focus of the publicity tour generated huge crowds who turned out to see their local hero make good. Short's decision to promote the film at the same time that Murphy was making appearances for the release of his book doubled his exposure. The book reached The New York Times' best sellers' list on March 27, 1949, and Bad Boy was a bona fide hit that spring. As a result, Audie Murphy rode a crest of publicity and popularity through the first half of 1949, and Universal signed him to a seven-year contract at $2,500 per week for 40 weeks, or $100,000 per year.
Producer: Paul Short
Director: Kurt Neumann
Screenplay: Robert D. Andrews (screenplay and story); Karl Kamb (additional dialogue); Paul Short (story)
Cinematography: Karl Struss
Editor: William Austin
Production Designer: Gordon Wiles
Music: Paul Sawtell
Cast: Danny Lester (Audie Murphy), Marshall Brown (Lloyd Nolan), Mrs. Brown (Jane Wyatt), The Chief (James Gleason), Bitsy (Stanley Clements), Lila Strawn (Martha Vickers), Arnold Strawn (Rhys Williams), Ted Hendry (James Lydon), Charlie (Dickie Moore), Judge Prentiss (Selena Royle), Mrs. Strawn (Barbara Woodell).
by Susan Doll