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The Law vs. Billy the Kid

The Law vs. Billy the Kid(1954)


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teaser The Law vs. Billy the Kid (1954)

Billy the Kid has been portrayed in over sixty movies dating back to 1911, and Sheriff Pat Garrett, who killed William ("Billy") Bonney in 1881, has popped up in over a dozen -- and even more with his character renamed. Some of the films that depict their story (or fictionalized versions of it) include Billy the Kid (1930), Billy the Kid Returns (1938), Billy the Kid (1941), The Outlaw (1943), The Kid from Texas (1950), I Shot Billy the Kid (1950), The Parson and the Outlaw (1957), The Left Handed Gun (1958), and Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973).

The Law vs. Billy the Kid (1954) is a low-budget quickie produced by Sam Katzman, head of Columbia Pictures' B unit, and directed by William Castle, who for ten years had been turning out B westerns, noirs and adventure films. Castle was still a few years away from the gimmicky horror films like The Tingler (1959) that would make his reputation.

Playing Billy here is Scott Brady, whose birth name was Gerard Tierney and whose brothers -- Edward and the better-known Lawrence -- were also actors. But the most interesting element of this film's making really pertains to its screenwriter, Bernard Gordon, who didn't receive screen credit until 1997.

Gordon had begun his career as a reader in the Paramount story department, and in 1952, he notched his first screenplay credit, for Flesh and Fury. But that same year, he was named as a Communist by a witness in the House Un-American Activities Committee, and he was immediately fired and blacklisted.

Two other films he'd written that were already in production bore his name upon release in 1953 and 1954, but going forward, Gordon was blacklisted, which meant that even if he could find work, he would not receive credit. So like other blacklisted writers, Gordon turned to using "fronts," or names of other people that would mask the true authorship of his scripts. In the case of The Law vs. Billy the Kid, as Gordon later recounted in his memoir Hollywood Exile, he got a call one day from Sam Katzman's assistant, asking for any western stories. The assistant never mentioned the blacklist. Gordon remembered that his friends Janet and Philip Stevenson (also blacklisted) had years earlier written an unproduced play about Billy the Kid, and he got them to allow Gordon to submit a synopsis of the play to Columbia under the name "John T. Williams." The ploy worked, and Gordon (as John T. Williams) was hired to write the screenplay, and he paid the Stevensons one-third of his fee.

John T. Williams in reality was a camera shop salesman in Los Angeles and a friend of Gordon's. Gordon used real people as fronts, he later explained, because they "had genuine social security numbers which could be used without creating further consequences."

Gordon managed to get quite a few scripts produced this way and found better success in Europe, but by and large he was paid little and his career never had the real chance it might have had but for the blacklist. In 1997, the Writers Guild of America restored credits for many blacklisted writers including Gordon, who was the most prolific of the bunch with nearly a dozen affected credits. But Gordon, while appreciative, was still bitter, telling The New York Times, "The action by the guild comes about 40 years too late to help my Hollywood career. I sure am angry at the way I was treated by all the major studios. They blacklisted me, and I couldn't get any work in this damn town.

Upon release in 1954, The Law vs. Billy the Kid received fair notices and some criticism for straying pretty far from the facts. Variety called it "standard fare for the outdoor film market... Billy the Kid, played by Scott Brady, is shown as practically forced to become a killer -- a dubiously sympathetic treatment." The Hollywood Reporter deemed it "better than average" but complained, "Scott Brady...looks more like a college boxing champion than a kid."

Leading lady Betta St. John had been a child actress in the early 1940s but then left Hollywood, finding huge success as "Liat" in the original Broadway staging of South Pacific, which opened in 1949. Following that production, she returned to movies in 1953 with Dream Wife, and continued a film and television career until she retired for good in the early 1960s. As of 2015, she is 85 years old.

This was one of eight pictures directed by William Castle released in 1954. Two others also dealt with famous western outlaws: Masterson of Kansas (1954) and Jesse James vs. the Daltons (1954).

By Jeremy Arnold

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