Thursday 21 February 2013

The Outlaw (1943)

Director: Howard Hughes
Stars: Jack Beutel, Thomas Mitchell, Jane Russell and Walter Huston

Bad movies aren't always made by people without enough money to make good movies. They can also be made by people with more money than they know what to do with, like Howard Hughes. In 1941, Hughes was well established in the movie industry, having inherited the family fortune at 18 and taken his millions to Hollywood a year later to produce films. He found quick success, with his second picture, Two Arabian Knights, a hit with the public and the critics, winning Lewis Milestone the Oscar for Best Director (Comedy) of 1927-8. An experienced flier who would set a number of world speed records later in the thirties, Hughes spent almost four million dollars on his 1930 aviation epic, Hell's Angels, which saw his first credit as director, although he had uncredited assistance from Edmund Goulding and a debuting James Whale. His second would be The Outlaw, thirteen years later, which would prove just as controversial, if for different reasons.

With Hell's Angels, the controversies were many. For a start, there was Jean Harlow, eighteen year old platinum blonde bombshell. She'd been working solidly in uncredited roles since 1928, but this launched her to stardom, after the advent of sound overtook the film's long production and Greta Nissen, the Norwegian leading lady, was no longer viable when her role became a speaking one. Production delays also prompted a law suit, as Hughes feared that Darryl F Zanuck's The Dawn Patrol would steal his film's thunder before he could finish it and sued to stop its release. On a darker note, Hughes crashed a plane while shooting a scene his stunt coordinator refused to allow his men, World War I pilots all, to do. He got away with facial surgery, but four other members of the crew, three pilots and one mechanic, lost their lives during production accidents. With The Outlaw, there was only one controversy, spun deliberately for publicity: Jane Russell's bust.

And that's really what The Outlaw is about. Ignore all the many suggestions to the contrary, this entire film exists so that Howard Hughes could show as much of Jane Russell's bust as possible. Sure, the screenplay was by massively experienced writer Jules Furthman, who had been Oscar nominated for his screenplay for the 1935 version of Mutiny on the Bounty. Sure, there were also uncredited contributions by versatile producer/director Howard Hawks and his long term writing collaborator, Ben Hecht, who had met while working on 1932's Scarface for Hughes and ended up working together on nine films, including Twentieth Century, His Girl Friday and The Thing from Another World. Jean-Luc Godard called Hawks 'the greatest American artist'; Richard Corliss called Hecht 'the Hollywood screenwriter.' Hecht won the first Oscar for best original screenplay and ended up with two from six nominations. These aren't minor names.
Neither are those they wrote about, the story revolving around wild west legends Pat Garrett, Billy the Kid and Doc Holliday, perennial Hollywood subjects in the forties, after odd earlier portrayals: Edith Storey played the title role in Billy the Kid in 1911, with Garrett and Holliday both originated on screen in 1937, Robert Homans playing the former in Jim Hanvey, Detective and Harvey Clark the latter in Law for Tombstone. Billy the Kid was especially popular, Bob Steele playing him six times in 1940 and 1941 and Buster Crabbe thirteen between 1941 and 1943. The actors giving them life here are even more prestigious. Garrett is played by Thomas Mitchell, whose Oscar was for 1939's Stagecoach, but could equally have been for any of four other classics he made that year. Holliday is Walter Huston, who didn't win until The Treasure of the Sierre Madre in 1949 but had already landed three nominations. Only Jack Buetel was new to the screen as Billy the Kid.

Well, Buetel and Jane Russell, both of whom became stuck under Hughes's thumb for seven years. The Outlaw was originally shot in 1941, but spent two years in limbo because of how prominent Russell's breasts were in the film. While Hughes initially bowed to the requirements of those who administered the Production Code and cut half a minute of footage, his distributor, 20th Century Fox, cancelled their agreement. In response, Hughes orchestrated a counterintuitive campaign to build public outrage about his unreleased film, fuelling the fires beneath a controversy about his 'lewd picture' until the demands for it to be banned generated enough publicity to reach screens in 1943. However it only lasted a week before its violations of the Production Code prompted its removal. When it finally saw wide release in 1946, Buetel and Russell had been stuck promoting for six years, locked into contracts for Hughes that disallowed them from making other movies.

Looking back from today, it's almost unfathomable how this happened. Russell doesn't get naked in the film; she doesn't even get topless. This was Production Code era Hollywood and that simply wasn't allowed, whatever imaginative publicity Hughes might have generated. She merely shows a decent amount of cleavage, but that was shocking enough. A great review at IMDb talks about how a fourteen or fifteen year old youth sneaked in to see it on original release. His friends were eager to know how fast Billy the Kid was, who shot who and how. 'All I wanted to do was describe Jane Russell,' he said. It's a telling anecdote, but it's not merely a reflection on Russell's charms, which gave their names to pairs of mountains across the globe and prompted Bob Hope to joke that 'culture is the ability to describe Jane Russell without moving your hands.' It's also a nod to how there's nothing else here to see. The time honoured stories are told at their most ridiculous.
For a while, you might think that the story is all about Doc Holliday's strawberry roan, which has been stolen. It's 'about thirteen hands high and cute as a bug's ear,' as he describes him and he catches up with him in Lincoln, NM, where it arrived in the hands of Billy the Kid, who swears he bought him fair and square. Given that Doc's old friend, Pat Garrett, is working as the sheriff of Lincoln County, we get to meet all three of them quickly in perhaps the best scene of the movie. They're shot well, hardly surprising as the cinematography is by Gregg Toland, at the peak of his career after Wuthering Heights, The Long Voyage Home and Citizen Kane. Unfortunately, he's the only one impressing. Huston isn't bad in his awful chequered trousers but he gets progressively worse as the film runs on. This is already the worst I've ever seen Mitchell, usually such a reliable actor, and he gets worse too. Buetel never gets the chance to impress, but this is his best scene.

Worst of all is the script. Already it's clumsy and occasionally cringeworthy, but it gets far worse than any of the actors. From this pivotal scene, it plays out like a love triangle, but one between three men. Garrett describes Holliday as his best friend and he reacts to the growing friendship between Doc and the Kid with what can only be regarded as jealousy. Each scene heightens the homoerotic undercurrents until they reach ludicrous level and then continue on regardless. That strawberry roan and the schemes and counterschemes to win him feel like a metaphor for their friendships. Just in case we might take any of this seriously, the score underlines that this is all a cartoon, complete with wah wah wah noises for every disappointment. Bizarrely the music is by Victor Young, a composer who was also at the top of his game. He never won an Oscar in his life, but landed 22 nominations, sometimes four of them in the same year, like 1940 and 1941.

In another film, Doc's strawberry roan would be the MacGuffin of the piece. Certainly owning him is the primary motivation throughout for both Doc and the Kid, which means that it becomes one important factor for Pat Garrett too, yet we don't care about him in the slightest. What makes the film so surreal is that all this continues unabated even when Rio McDonald shows up no less than eighteen minutes in. This is a rather unique film because it has a pair of different MacGuffins, one for the characters and one for the audience. Even as these legends tussle over Red the roan, the viewers are wondering when Jane Russell is going to show up. After all, it's her on the posters, her on the publicity stills and her that Howard Hughes had been pushing at the public for years, in a shirt that looks like it's held up only by the power of art but would fall off if she breathed. Hughes had even designed a brass bra for her, to push up those breasts and highlight that cleavage.
Well, we don't see her until the eighteen minute mark and then not enough to know she's female, let alone Jane Russell. She's just someone trying to kill Billy the Kid one night in a dark barn. Two minutes later they tussle in the hay, but even when she's revealed, she's fully clothed, shirt right up to her neck. After she tries and fails to kill the Kid for the last time, in revenge for the death of her brother a town or two back, it's hinted that he rapes her there in the hay. 'Hold still, lady,' he tells her, 'or you won't have much dress left.' That's it for Rio McDonald though for quite a while. We have more homoerotic love triangle stuff to struggle through, Doc taking the Kid's side when Garrett tries to stop him leaving the scene of a deadly shootout. That spurs a sequel, Doc taking down Pat's gun and Billy two of his deputies. With a through and through to the side though, he's in bad shape and Doc takes him straight to Rio's house. Rio, it seems, is his girl.

Now, we have to pause for reevaluation here, because this is the point the script finally gives up the ghost. Rio attempted to revenge her brother by killing Billy the Kid on her own, even though she's sleeping with one of the most legendary gunslingers in the west. She didn't ask Doc to take care of it for her, she tried it herself, failed and got raped in the process, but Billy's unconscious body in her bed is all she needs to realise that she's in love with him. She does wield a knife in a threatening manner, but decides to just use it to cut his clothes off, so she can nurse him back to health, even climbing into bed with him to keep him warm. Doc's gone for a month, but when he returns, he discovers that his new friend has taken his girl as well as his horse. The Kid graciously offers him one of the two, while Rio stands there dumbstruck, and he has the bad taste to argue with him when he picks the horse. He doesn't even kiss her goodbye.

It's a strange thing when every bit of publicity material revolves around Jane Russell's twin assets but the story itself really doesn't care about them in the slightest. They're the only reason she's in the film, as her acting talent is hardly notable here and her perpetual sneer is often painful to see. Maybe it's a pout, but it's hardly sexy, even if it smoulders. I wondered if the wind had changed on her. It turns out to be her Blue Steel: it's disdain, defiance, disappointment, every emotion from D to D. So she's here to show off as much cleavage as the Production Code would allow. For a while, her dresses get more and more revealing until a full 45 minutes in, she leans over the Kid's body and both he and we get a great view. From then on, the 1946 audiences dreamt of a fast forward button to see how much more she'd show and how soon. Her best scene has her tied up outside with leather straps soaked so they'll shrink. The world lusted. Doc and the Kid didn't notice.

The Outlaw is a stunning failure in almost all regards. The performances are embarrassments to the talents of the actors. The story is such a stinker that Hawks and Hecht must have been truly thankful to have been uncredited. The music is the most inappropriate score I've ever heard in a Hollywood picture. Only Gregg Toland's cinematography emerges unscathed, and even there it suffers from some awful rear projection shots. Russell didn't even wear the cantilevered bra that Hughes had carefully engineered with structural steel, instead secretly modifying her own a little and pretending. The film would have been a great candidate for the Razzies, had they existed at the time. Yet The Outlaw was also a box office hit that launched Russell's career as a global sex symbol and built her 38D-24-36 figure into the latest sensation. The publicity worked in ways the film itself couldn't dream of. Sometimes all you need is sex, and it doesn't have to be in the film.

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