Thursday, April 3, 2014

DVR Diary: BILLY THE KID (1930)

Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer made four films about Billy the Kid between 1930 and 1973, as if the purchase of the screen rights to Walter Noble Burns' Saga of Billy the Kid gave them ownership of the semi-legendary gunman. The character attracted considerable talent, three of the four pictures being made by arguably canonical directors: Sam Peckinpah (Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid, 1973), Arthur Penn (The Left Handed Gun, 1957) and King Vidor in 1930. Vidor was one of Metro's prestige directors. The massive success of his WWI drama The Big Parade entitled him, in Irving Thalberg's eyes, to make whatever film he pleased, as M-G-M's motto puts it, "for art's sake." The result of that policy, The Crowd, is regarded as a milestone of late silent cinema. His sound debut with an all-black cast, Hallelujah, was another critical and popular hit. In 1930 Metro entrusted Vidor to put over the latest cinematic innovation: a panoramic widescreen process called Realife, touted as the nearest thing to three dimensions on the movie screen. At the same time Fox Film was making a widescreen western, The Big Trail, using a different process. Both films stumbled at the box office, mainly because exhibitors didn't want to invest in more technology so soon after wiring for sound, and during the Depression, no less. The Big Trail has a toehold on posterity as the starring debut of John Wayne, and it survives in its widescreen form to impress audiences today. To my knowledge a Realife print of Billy the Kid does not survive, though you can still appreciate the effects Vidor was aiming at, and it's certainly the least known of Metro's Billy pictures. As for its  Billy the Kid, rather than the clumsy beginning of something great, Vidor's film is arguably when Johnny Mack Brown jumped the shark.

Whatever happened to Johnny Mack Brown? The Statler Brothers' rhetorical question grows more pointed if you know what Brown was and might have remained. Like Wayne (aka Duke Morrison), Brown was a football star, winning national attention as a Rose Bowl hero for the University of Alabama. M-G-M decided to make a star of him, putting him in elite company. In silent movies, billed as John rather than Johnny, he was a romantic interest for Greta Garbo, when people could only imagine what either of them sounded like. Such associations explain the ballyhoo touting Billy the Kid as a romantic figure, a western Don Juan. Vidor's Billy the Kid is probably the apogee of Brown's career in A pictures, but it was downhill rapidly from there, at least as far as Metro was concerned.

The movie comes prefaced with remarks from the governor of New Mexico who validates the project despite "liberties" taken with history, dubbing it a "true tale" of pioneer days. Much of it will look familiar to anyone who's seen the other Billy movies, but how true it seems to you depends as much on what you expect to see in a Billy movie as on what actually happened to the real man. I claim no expertise on the Lincoln County war and won't bore you with details. To sum up Vidor's film, it suffices to report that Billy is always right and has a happy ending. Pat Garrett (Wallace Beery) pretty much allows Billy to escape history's death trap and start over in Old Mexico, with his girl Claire Randall (Kay "Madame Satan" Johnson) following close behind.

My guess is that Vidor was more interested in the artistic opportunities made possible by widescreen framing than in the matter of his story or the work of his actors. On the existing evidence, he was more interested in using depth than width, taking full advantage of his locations and staging action on a huge scale. He works in long takes, both to let the depth of the image sink in and to maximize suspense in action scenes. One of the best shots comes when one of the men besieged with Billy races out, risking gunfire, to get water from a well. A doorframe frames our view of Roscoe Ates racing out to the well, getting a pail of water, and tripping as he heads back to the house. The shot continues, Billy and the others rooting him on, as Ates goes back to the well, gets another pailful, and is finally shot full of holes by Billy's enemies, just managing to crawl back inside before dying. It's a great scene and I can't imagine the scene working any better in Realife. I can only imagine how impressive the more panoramic shots would have looked, or the shots of villains on a rooftop commanding a small town and Billy's besieged bastion beyond. The most eye-popping shot is a scene inside a huge cave, with Billy a tiny figure holed up in an upper corner, his voice echoing as he negotiates with Garrett, who literally smokes his man out by frying a pan of bacon to entice the starving outlaw.  Vidor ends the scene with a subtle exclamation point -- oh, you thought this was a set, eh! -- cutting to a medium shot of Billy finally exiting the cave, clearly the same location we'd seen in long shot. Show-off moments like these contrast with dull stretches of dialogue and feeble attempts at comedy from Ates, monosyllabic Karl Dane and others. Some of the comedy scenes actually have a leisurely, digressive quality that look forward to westerns of generations later; other simply stink.

Of the four M-G-M Billies, Brown at 26 was the closest in age to the historical outlaw, and the most I can say for him is that he plays Billy more like an overgrown kid than does Robert Taylor, Paul Newman or Kris Kristofferson. This is mostly a happy-go-lucky Billy, but when he vows vengeance at the deaths of various friends, the effect is somewhere between a child having a tantrum and someone self-consciously playing the avenger to an audience. Brown's southern accent might seem fitting for a westerner, but the real Billy was a Manhattan native and the actor's mellow drawl only makes the outlaw sound soft. Brown projects no menace, no viciousness, no cool; he doesn't register as anything like Billy the Kid as we think we know him now. Meanwhile, if I didn't know better I'd say that Wallace Beery was underplaying as Garrett; whatever he's doing the role of a subtle authority figure suits the old ham surprisingly well. Beery had shot to a new level of stardom in 1930 and was billed above Brown in ads in some markets. While he doesn't really have enough screen time to steal the picture from Brown, he definitely makes a better impression, at least on a modern viewer and probably in 1930 as well.

Beery would last at M-G-M; Brown would not. His accent seemed to handicap him; audiences wanted fast talkers and harder voices. Clark Gable was his nemesis. In The Secret Six Brown's character is killed midway through and Gable's becomes the hero by default. Joan Crawford may have finished Brown at Metro by demanding his replacement by Gable as her leading man in Laughing Sinners. He did some A parts at other studios, but by the end of the Pre-Code era he was settling in as a star of B westerns. He did dozens of them deep into the Fifties, often playing "Johnny Mack Brown" later on. He was a durable brand name, a star of comic books, and certainly beloved among some if not many. He found his level and apparently made the most of it. Was that enough? Did he compare his six-or-so pictures a year for Monogram to his big chance at Metro? Would he be surprised at what's remembered and what's forgotten? As far as all that goes I don't know whatever happened to Johnny Mack Brown, but Billy the Kid shows us what might have happened, and also why it didn't.

1 comment:

Clate said...

I wish that the ending of the European version, in which the Kid dies, would have survived. You are spot-on about the beautiful scenic shots: they are among the best that I've ever seen in a western, let alone something that is eighty-five years old, and in black and white. I can't imagine how stunning they must have seemed to the few who saw the wide-screen version.

Otherwise, this film has nice moments, and I appreciated the grittiness (MGM really should have keep its Tim McCoy series of westerns going after 1929!), but there are those lapses that drag it down. Poor Karl Dane, too; just a few grunts and he gets fourth billing. Well, I guess MGM was trying to let him down nicely.