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The Outlaw

The Outlaw(1943)


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teaser The Outlaw (1943)

The Outlaw (1943), Howard Hughes' would-be epic about the adventures of Billy the Kid, was a triumph of motion-picture marketing. Originally intended as the Western to break all the conventions of Westerns, the film's controversial sex appeal and salacious ad campaign turned the picture into an outlaw itself.

Though a film about the notorious Billy the Kid was hardly groundbreaking at the time, The Outlaw could have taken an innovative approach to its portrayal of him. However, Hughes wasn't interested in pushing the envelope in regards to the basic storyline which opens with Billy the Kid, played by newcomer Jack Beutel, befriending Walter Huston's Doc Holliday. After Billy narrowly avoids capture by the law, he and Doc Holliday retreat to Holliday's ranch where Billy meets Doc's sexy mistress, Rio (Jane Russell). From this point on, the real stars of The Outlaw emerge - Russell's breasts and a peasant blouse that refuses to stay buttoned.

Directing the picture himself, Hughes attempted to coach winning performances from his two green-horn stars, though that wasn't really his main goal. Not concerned at all with talent, Hughes had cast Jane Russell from a stack of publicity photos knowing that he could put her two real assets to use - a strategy that ignited the subsequent fervor over the film.

From the very beginning, it was Hughes' goal to make a different, sexier kind of western that would break with the old genre clichs. It was that very goal which intrigued the publicist Russell Birdwell into taking the job. Both savvy businessmen, Hughes and Birdwell realized that the best publicity is controversy. And they didn't have to wait long. As soon as production began, The Hayes Office, charged with upholding the moral fiber of motion pictures, demanded a copy of the script for review. After reading it, The Hayes Office demanded several changes to what it considered "racy dialogue and situations," and cautioned Hughes to "avoid sexual suggestiveness." But Hughes had no intention of pouring water on his smoldering screenplay, and when the picture was finally released, Hughes got exactly what he expected. Censors objected not only to Russell's low-cut blouse, but also the treatment of her character as merely a sex object. Adding fuel to the fire was Birdwell's ad campaign, which employed seductive billboards of Russell on the famed haystack with the caption "What are the two reasons for Jane Russell's rise to stardom?" The dubious publicity not only peaked curiosity in The Outlaw, but made Russell into one of the favorite pin-up girls during WWII.

Due to its notoriety, The Outlaw had a very successful ten week run, before Hughes pulled the film and shelved it for three years. When he reissued the picture in 1946, it once again ran into controversy when The Hayes Office threatened to revoke its Seal of Approval. Not yet exhausted from his fight, Hughes sued the MPAA, sending shock waves through Hollywood which feared that if The Hayes Office could not enforce it's policy on films, then the government might step in. Unable to sway the judges, Hughes eventually backed down and agreed to make the demanded cuts.

To be fair, Hughes did achieve at least part of his goal to break the mold of conventional westerns. Regardless of Hughes' intentions, the controversy and lawsuit over The Outlaw, forced Hollywood to address its hypocritical attitude about sex. At a time when married couples on screen slept in separate twin beds, Hughes was able to show an alluring young woman climbing into bed with a man, bold steps that subsequent filmmakers have gladly followed off into the sunset.

Director: Howard Hughes, Howard Hawks (uncredited)
Producer: Howard Hughes
Screenplay: Jules Furthman, Howard Hawks (uncredited), Ben Hecht (uncredited)
Cinematography: Gregg Toland
Editor: Wallace Grissell
Music: Victor Young
Cast: Jack Buetel (Billy the Kid), Jane Russell (Rio), Thomas Mitchell (Pat Garrett), Walter Huston (Doc Holliday), Mimi Aguglia (Guadalupe), Joe Sawyer (Charley).
BW-116m. Closed captioning.

by Bill Goodman

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teaser The Outlaw (1943)

A secondary effort from the output of independent film impresario Benedict Bogeaus, the Mexico-shot sagebrusher My Outlaw Brother (1951) remains an interesting curio for its improbable star trio of Mickey Rooney, Robert Preston and Robert Stack, all of whom put forth efforts to try and lift the project beyond its budgetary constraints. Adapted from Max Brand's 1936 opus South of the Rio Grande by Gene Fowler, Jr., who would have a far more estimable career in the industry as an editor, the scenario opens on Denny O'Moore (Rooney), late of New York City and looking every bit of it as he clumsily maneuvers his nag and buckboard across the Texas prairie in search of the town of Border City. The object of his quest is to surprise his big brother Patrick (Stack), who headed west eight years prior to seek his fortune, and has since regularly sent cash home due to his stewardship of a silver mine. At least, that's Denny's understanding.

He reaches the town just in time to get caught in the crossfire when the local bank is robbed by a gang lead by the misshapen Native American bandit El Tigre. The Mexican government has implored the Texas Rangers for assistance in bringing El Tigre to heel, and the local captain gives the assignment to his best man, Joe Walter (Preston). Walter's gambit is to ride alone across the border to El Tigre's stronghold in San Clemente, and attempt to flip the bandit's trusted American lieutenant--who is, of course, the older O'Moore.

Procuring Patrick's Mexican location, Denny sets out to find him--and Walter, impressed with the green kid's tenacity and pugnacity--offers to ride alongside, while staying surreptitious about his own motives. The action shifts to San Clemente, where Patrick is introduced making a bid to court the petite and beautiful Carmel Alvarado (Wanda Hendrix). The senorita, however, is aware of his subservience to the heinous El Tigre, and wants nothing to do with him. When Denny reaches town, Patrick orders his capture and return to the States; Joe frees the kid and flees with him when Patrick refuses to turn on El Tigre. From there, Denny is forced to confront the truth about his sibling, and his flight for freedom with Walter makes for plenty of gunplay and the revelation of the true nature of El Tigre's hold on Patrick.

My Outlaw Brother would prove to be the penultimate directing assignment for Elliott Nugent, whose resume was marked by a string of memorable farces including Three-Cornered Moon (1933), The Cat and the Canary (1939), Nothing But the Truth (1941), Up in Arms (1944) and The Male Animal (1942), adapting the stage hit that he co-authored with good friend James Thurber. Born to a stage family, Nugent was a busy boy ingnue on Broadway and Hollywood from the mid-'20s through early '30s, and he gave himself a walk-on here as a Ranger. The working title of the project bounced from El Tigre to The Gringo to My Brother, The Bandit; the choice of My Brother, the Outlaw was foredoomed with the filing of litigation by RKO, who asserted infringement upon the Howard Hughes-Jane Russell opus The Outlaw.

In his 1980 memoir Straight Shooting, Stack didn't look back upon My Outlaw Brother with a lot of warmth, deeming it "a piece of Limburger that put a temporary damper on the careers of Robert Preston, Mickey Rooney and me". Of his outlaw disguise, the actor claimed that "the stuffing from a car seat" was responsible for his added bulk. "No matter how much I tried to be scary, I'm afraid I wasn't too impressive," Stack wrote. "The only one I scared was my horse, who bucked me off during my most evil scene...Happily, I fell on my back and the car seat stuffing took the worst of it. I wish I could have used the car seat stuffing on the reviewers."

Producer: Benedict Bogeaus
Director: Elliott Nugent
Screenplay: Gene Fowler, Jr.; Al Levitt (additional dialogue); Max Brand (book "South of the Rio Grande")
Cinematography: Jose Ortiz Ramos
Art Direction: Edward Fitzgerald (uncredited)
Music: Manuel Esperon
Film Editing: George Crome
Cast: Mickey Rooney (J. Dennis 'Denny' O'Moore), Wanda Hendrix (Senorita Carmel Alvarado), Robert Preston (Joe Walter), Robert Stack (Patrick O'Moore), Jose Torvay (Enrique Ortiz), Carlos Muzquiz/El Capitan (Col. Sanchez), Fernando Wagner (Burger)Hilda Moreno (Senora Alvarado).

by Jay S. Steinberg

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