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Billy the Kid (1930)
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Billy the Kid (1930)

Largely forgotten today beyond the purview of B-western enthusiasts and collectors of football arcana, Johnny Mack Brown (1904-1974) was in his day one of the first American athletes to parlay success on the gridiron into a career in motion pictures. A fleet-footed halfback for the University of Alabama, Brown's pigskin prowess allowed the "Crimson Tide" to defeat Washington State at the 1926 Rose Bowl. Alabama's second half comeback that day not only put southern college football on the map but made a national sports superstar of Brown, whose face began appearing on boxes of Wheaties breakfast flakes the next year. The camera-ready phenomenon was soon invited to Hollywood for a screen test and was offered an MGM contract. Although Brown's claim to fame remains the run of B-westerns he made from the 30s through the 50s, he was originally typed out as a "dude," or dashing leading man for indoor dramas, comedies, love stories and adventure tales. He first donned cowboy duds for MGM's quasi-western Montana Moon (1930). In this early sound film, an uneasy mixture of jazz age musical, misunderstood youth picture and odd couple farce, Brown played a good-natured modern cowboy who falls for Joan Crawford's spoiled flapper heiress. Brown's next assignment was a complete about-face from this good natured romp – a dramatization of the life and crimes of one of America's most notorious killers.

Director King Vidor was aghast when Metro announced John Mack Brown (the "Johnny" brand came later, during his B-movie heyday) as the star of their upcoming western extravaganza Billy the Kid (1930). At the time, the popular perception of the real life William Henry McCarty (aka William H. Bonney, aka Henry Antrim) was of a short, ugly, unkempt juvenile, in every way the polar opposite of the dimpled, square jawed Brown, in whom Vidor saw little more than a varsity letterman. In truth, Billy the Kid was an inch taller than Brown; a skilled dancer and joke teller who was fluent in Spanish, the outlaw was far from being the "homicidal moron" of history and myth. (The only surviving photo of Billy the Kid, taken shortly before his death at the age of 21, was flip-flopped in its original printing, creating the misconception that he was left-handed.) The advent of talking pictures had been problematic for Brown, who retained his distinctive but limiting Southern accent. Although born in New York City, William Bonney was raised in Indiana and Brown's kudzu lilt seemed a fair tradeoff for Bonney's Midwestern twang. For Brown's taste, the part was a welcome break from his standard stock in trade. "Every boy who ever lived has played a bandit at some point in his life," he told an interviewer in 1930. "That's why I was so tickled when they gave me the part of Billy."

To give the production a boost of sagebrush verité, King Vidor filmed in and around some of William Bonney's old New Mexico haunts, where John Mack Brown got to interview aging locals who had known the young outlaw in person. Cowboy star William S. Hart served as a technical advisor, coaching Brown on how to shoot while angled away from his opponents to protect his heart from hot lead. Hart also presented Brown with a six-gun that had allegedly belonged to Billy, a relic that the actor kept for the rest of his life. Billy the Kid was filmed in an early widescreen process known as "Realife." (In addition to being lensed in 70mm, a standard gauge version was shot at the same time and remains the only extant version.) In his New York Times review in October of 1930, critic Mordaunt Hall averred that "the views on the wide screen are so compelling that when one goes to see a picture on an ordinary sized screen the standard image looks absurdly small." Despite the critical push, Billy the Kid was a box office disappointment that typecast Brown as a cowboy actor. Although he was considered as a potential King of the Apes for MGM's Tarzan the Ape Man (1932), Brown was instead loaned out to other studios before he found his true calling as a B-western star for Republic and other Poverty Row Studios.

It is likely that Billy the Kid would be an even more obscure title today than it already is were it not for the participation of Wallace Beery. When he stepped into the boots of U.S. Marshall Pat Garrett, the man who killed William Bonney in New Mexico on July 14, 1881, Beery was between starring roles in the silent sci-fi classic The Lost World (1925) and his career-defining turn as a doomed boxer in the early talkie The Champ (1931). Adept at playing sympathetic heroes, loveable losers, and hissable villains, Beery was a canny choice for a character comfortable (as was the real life Pat Garrett) on both sides of the law. Later in life, Garrett published a self-serving account of the killing entitled The Authentic Life of Billy the Kid before he himself was slain under questionable circumstances in February of 1908. A 1903 stage play about the life of Billy the Kid ran for twelve years and spawned two silent film treatments of the subject matter but it was the 1926 publication of Walter Noble Burns' The Saga of Billy the Kid that inspired MGM to attempt their own take on the tale.

The box office failure of Metro's widescreen Billy the Kid in the autumn of 1930 may have killed the A-list career of John Mack Brown but it in no way deterred subsequent recreations of the myth. The studio mounted a remake only ten years later, with Robert Taylor and Brian Donlevy in the Billy and Pat parts. This was followed in quick succession by a 1942-43 serial starring Buster Crabbe; Howard Hughes' The Outlaw (1943) with Jack Beutel and Thomas Mitchell; Martin Ritt's The Left Handed Gun (1958) with Paul Newman and John Dehner; and Sam Peckinpah's Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973) starring James Coburn as the lawman and Kris Kristofferson as the boy bandit.

Other films have focused on William Bonney's early years, such as Andrew V. McLaglen's Chisum (1970) with Geoff Deuel as Billy, Stan Dragoti's Dirty Little Billy (1972) with Michael J. Pollard and Christopher Cain's "Brat Pack" two-fer of Young Guns (1988) and Young Guns II (1990), both featuring Emilio Estevez as a Billy who is allowed to survive to old age. More off-the-wall projects employing the spirit of Billy the Kid (if nothing else) include the schlock classic Billy the Kid Versus Dracula (1966) and the British Revenge of Billy the Kid (1992), in which an interlude of ill-advised bestiality spawns a sheep-human hybrid with a chip on its wooly shoulder. Given what we now know of his sense of humor, the real William Bonney would probably find that very funny.

Producer: King Vidor
Director: King Vidor
Screenplay: Laurence Stallings, Charles MacArthur, Wanda Tuchock, based on the book by Walter Noble Burns
Cinematography: Gordon Avil
Art Direction: Cedric Gibbons
Music: Frederick Stahlberg
Film Editing: Hugh Wynn
Cast: Johnny Mack Brown (William H. Bonney "Billy the Kid"), Wallace Beery (Deputy Sheriff Pat Garrett), Kay Johnson (Claire Randall), Karl Dane (Swenson), Wyndham Standing (John W. Tunston), Roscoe Ates (Old Stuff).
BW-90m.

by Richard Harland Smith

Sources:
Johnny Mack Brown: Up Close and Personal by Bobby J. Copeland National Football Foundation's College Football Hall of Fame website Hal Erikson, The All Movie Guide
Biography of King Vidor by Dan Callahan, Senses of Cinema
Pat Garret: The Story of a Western Lawman by Leon Claire Metz
AboutBillytheKid.com

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