The Outlaw, 1943
Howard Hughes’s The Outlaw is the sort of movie that sours people on classic Hollywood films from the 1930s and ’40s. It’s the kind of movie that makes people swear off black and white, because they think all black and white movies are like this.
And you can’t really put the badness down to any one factor, except perhaps for Howard Hughes himself.
First, there’s the script, which is by Jules Furthman. Mr. Furthman was responsible for a great many scripts of films now considered classic, and more films which probably should be. Among his credits are Morocco, Mutiny on the Bounty (the Clark Gable version), Only Angels Have Wings, and his valedictory, Rio Bravo. Just on those, you cannot say that he was any kind of a bad writer (and I left out some few others, too). You can’t even say he doesn’t understand the western genre.
And yet here we have a movie written by him in which historical figures appear not as themselves, not even as caricatures of themselves, but as cardboard characters who just happen to have the same names as historical figures, and perhaps a few other characteristics.
We first meet Pat Garrett, who learns that notorious gambler Doc Holliday is in town. He exposits to his deputy (because he’s the sheriff, of course) that Holliday has nothing to fear from him — not only are they old friends, but they are best friends(!).
Doc Holliday is a gambler, but that’s about all he shares with his namesake. As stated, he’s best buddies with Garrett (until the story gets going, anyhow), and he’s also a doctor, not a dentist. No mention is made of Tombstone, nor of the Earp brothers, nor of tuberculosis.
The third factor, and star role, is William Bonney, AKA Billy the Kid. Everybody’s heard of hiim, but nobody says exactly why he’s famous. He’s known for his ability with a gun, and for having reason to be wary of the law, but that’s it. You’re supposed to remember the name, but not anything about him. He and Pat Garrett are strangers(!!), and he seems to have stolen Doc Holliday’s favorite horse in another town sometime before the story begins. He and Doc become fast friends, Garrett takes exception to this, and stuff happens.
By the end of the story, to add one more instance of the historical ignorance of this film to the list, Doc Holliday has been killed months before the Gunfight at the OK Corral took place(!!!).
That’s the script, or at least most of the problems with it (I’m saving another big one for later).
So how about the casting?
Thomas Mitchell and Walter Huston are both fine actors, often verging on excellent. (I made reference to the spectacular year Mitchell had in 1939 some time ago.) But Mitchell is just wrong for Pat Garrett, the historical figure. For the craven, petty, whiny little bitch that Garrett is in this film, he’s adequate, but not good enough to sell some of the horrible dialogue he’s saddled with. ((“…I ain’t gonna make no trouble for Doc Holliday. He’s my best friend!”)) Huston is also an odd choice, not because of any particular facet of the character as a character, but because he’s supposed to be involved with the girl, played by Jane Russell, and watching him kiss the nineteen-year-old bombshell is a little like watching a mummy french-kiss the queen of the prom — creepy. (It only happens once, but still.)
Then there’s the star of the show, Jack Buetel. To which your only response can be, “Who?”
He’s got the star role, the pivotal role in the film, the driver of what plot there is, the cause of conflict amongst all the other characters. That’s a heck of a burden to shoulder.
Have you seen Rio Bravo? Great flick, one of the all-time classics. It stars John Wayne, Dean Martin, and Ricky Nelson. Yep, Ricky Nelson. Ricky Nelson is, to be kind, not the strongest actor of the three. But he doesn’t have to be. He’s not the hero, nor the plot motor, nor the source of all conflict. He could be an absolute block of wood, mouthing his lines and hitting his marks, but you would still totally buy his character because he doesn’t need to sell it, he’s already got John Wayne, Dean Martin, Walter Brennan, and Ward Bond doing that for him. ((He does do a decent job of selling it, not great, but decent.)) The movie doesn’t live and die by his performance, and would still be a classic even had he done much worse than he did.
Well, Jack Buetel is in the same sort of situation, surrounded by superior talents, in over his depth, but there are two problems.
First, the picture does live and die by his performance.
And second, he’s a block of wood. A fairly handsome, boyish block of wood, yes, but still a block of wood.
The final piece of casting is the main reason this movie is remembered — Jane Russell’s rack. There was a nation-wide search for a big-breasted young thing to take the female lead, and Russell got the role. Howard Hughes and his aircraft engineers designed and made a bra for the sole purpose of emphasizing her cleavage in this film ((Russell does not, however, wear that bra in the film.))
This isn’t the Jane Russell of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, alas. Her expression through most of the movie is a sneer, her delivery is, at best, adequate. Nope, the reason she got the role was her chest (and what a chest it is!). There’s nothing more revealing than low-cut shirts, but Russell is worth looking at no matter how much she’s wearing.
But Russell’s character, Rio, is tangential to most of the film. Screenwriter Furthman was one of Howard Hawks’s regular scribes, and in fact Hawks was initially going to direct this film (he worked on the production for about a week before bowing out), and it does seem like a Hawks movie — a funhouse mirror version of a Hawks movie.
Most of the characters are men; the few women in the film are important only in their relations to the men and in how well they measure up to manly standards; a man’s worth is measured purely by how manly he is, and by nothing else. All of these might be said to be recurring characteristics of Howard Hawks’s films ((However, the phrasing I’ve chosen puts a nasty spin on them that Hawks rarely evinces)). And they’re all here in grotesque, ridiculous form.
One example is an argument Billy and Doc have over Rio, in front of her. They keep insulting her in terms that were offensive, even for the time. They each avow that the horse they keep stealing from each other is more valuable than the woman, and both of them could either take her or leave her and not care much either way. (This is after she’s saved Billy’s life, of course.) It’s more than uncomfortable to watch, it’s rather infuriating, and you wonder why Rio doesn’t go to the other room, get a Winchester, and do them both in.
But the best example of how ridiculous the whole thing is, is a scene between Doc and Billy, a showdown. They’re going to have a duel (inside a house!). Doc draws, but Billy doesn’t, just stands there. Doc tells him to draw, but he won’t. So Doc shoots off part of one of Billy’s ears. Billy stands there stoic, no pain, no annoyance, no nothing. And still he won’t draw. So Doc shoots off part of his other ear. Still no reaction at all. ((This was a scene shown in one of my film classes, a film noir class(!), out of context, to demonstrate how awful most studio films of the era were. That was not one of my more honest professors, alas.))
It’s played so seriously that you need to either laugh, or pull the movie out of the player and use it for target practice yourself.
So when you get right down to it, there are only really two reasons to watch this — to give it the MST3K treatment, or to enjoy the luminous Jane Russell at her most nubile. On any other level, The Outlaw is a dead loss.
You can get this one on two Mill Creek sets, the Western Classics 50 Movie Pack and the Western 250 Movie Pack. There are numerous other ways of getting it, but the print here is remarkably clean, and I doubt you can get it at a better price anywhere than in one of these sets. (Unless, of course, you just download it for free. It is in the public domain, after all.)