Billy the Kid (1930)

Feature Article Film Review

BILLY THE KID

Release Date: 18 October, 1930

Studio: MGM

Director: King Vidor

Starring: John Mack Brown (Billy the Kid), Kay Johnson (Claire Randall), Wallace Berry (Pat Garrett), Wyndham Standing (Jack Tunston), Russell Simpson (Angus McSween), James A. Marcus (Colonel Donovan), Warner Richmond (Bob Ballinger), Karl Dane (Swenson), Blanche Friderici (Mrs. McSween), Roscoe Ates (Old Stuff)

Writers: Wanda Tuchock (continuity), Laurence Stallings and Charles MacArthur (dialogue), Walter Noble Burns (book, The Saga of Billy the Kid)

Cinematography by Gordon Avil

Synopsis

A wagon train of settlers makes its way slowly across the vast panoramas of the west. Its leaders, cattlemen Jack Tunston and Angus McSween, having found a suitable area of New Mexico in which to settle, discover that the land is unlawfully controlled by the cruel cattle baron, Donovan, who attempts to forbid them from settling. Nonetheless, Tunston and McSween set up a settlement. Donovan then sets his posse to murder the settlers and steal their cattle. On this frontier, only Donovan is the law, and the settlers are powerless to defend themselves.

Tunston arranges a meeting of the settlers to debate their situation, when Donovan's gunmen arrive to break it up. A stranger shoots one of the gunmen down as he draws his gun to shoot Tunston. The stranger is William Bonney (Billy the Kid). Tunston and Billy become fast friends, and Billy works for Tunston as a protector against Donovan's toughs. With Billy's help, Donovan is kept at bay, and Tunston expands his cattle ranch.

After six months, Tunston sends for his fiancée, Claire Randell. Although Billy is devoted to Tunston, he cannot help his attraction to Claire, but keeps it restrained for a long time. Also new in town is the sheriff, Pat Garrett, who is a friend of Billy's, but wary because of his reputation as a killer. On the day of his wedding, Tunston is murdered by Donovan's band, led by Bob Ballinger, in front of Billy and Tunston's noble-hearted ranch hands, who are unable to save him. Billy swears to "shoot like a dog" everyone involved in the slaying.

In swift retribution, Billy guns down two of Donovan's men. Garrett comes to arrest McSween for the murders, and a gunfight ensues between McSween's men, led by Billy, holed by in McSween's house, and Donovan's boys aiding Garrett. A stalemate ensues. The men in McSween's house are without water, and Donovan hopes that thirst will drive them into the open. To prevent more bloodshed and spare his men from being burned out, McSween gives himself up. He is mercilessly gunned down by Donovan, who is quickly killed by Billy. In spite of Garrett's protests, Bob Ballinger continues the assault and sets fire to the house. McSween's men finally try to escape, but most are killed. Billy combs his hair, straightens his clothes, and bursts out of the burning house with a gun blazing in each hand. He fells several of his attackers and escapes.

U.S. army detachments stationed in New Mexico arrive to end the violence between Billy and Ballinger. Claire, whose feelings for Billy have deepened, and Garrett try to persuade him to accept a ceasefire in exchange for freedom from the law. Billy, however, cannot forget the murder of his fatherly benefactor and refuses. Billy rides away and hides, knowing that Garrett will pursue him. Garrett, accompanied by Ballinger's posse, corners Billy in a cave and starves him out. Garrett will not allow Billy to be harmed and takes him to jail to await trial. Billy outwits the overly trusting Garrett and breaks out of custody. In the street he guns down Ballinger and rides away.

The wily Garrett deceives Claire into thinking that Billy has sent for her. Billy and Claire, reunited, declare their love, but Garrett has followed her. Confronting Billy, Garrett softens and lets them escape over the border into Mexico and freedom.

Discussion

Even a simple narrative of his life makes clear why Billy the Kid is a legendary character (read a brief biography). In a short life, he participated in the Lincoln County War, killed an undetermined number of men (as many as 21 by some accounts), escaped from jail several times (his final escape was the most dramatic), and died, suddenly and violently, at an early age. During his lifetime, his exploits were highlighted in newspaper accounts; after his death, his story was sensationalized in numerous books, including The Authentic Life of Billy, the Kid (1882), written by Pat Garrett, and The Saga of Billy the Kid (1926), by Walter Noble Burns. Burn's exciting and dramatic book was a best seller in 1926 and remains widely read today.

In his book, King Vidor On Film Making (1972), director King Vidor writes that he had wanted to make a film about Billy the Kid for several years before the project was approved by the studio, though he does not state why he was interested in Billy's story. Vidor did not make many Westerns, before or after this film, but may have thought that the exciting life of the Kid would provide excellent material for a film. Burns' Saga of Billy the Kid was a very popular book at the time. It is a highly romanticized version of the Kid's story that characterizes Billy as a Robin Hood-figure and a Don Juan of New Mexico "whose youthful daring has never been equaled." Burns is credited as a writer for the film, and his book is obviously a major source of the film's scenario.

The events of the Kid's life offered dramatic plot material, and the setting provided impressive scenery, especially for the big screen. Apparently, Vidor was not concerned about exaggerating and romanticizing the history. A western film, In Old Arizona, had been a big hit in 1928 and its star, Warner Baxter who played the Cisco Kid, won the 1927-1928 Oscar for best actor. Vidor may have predicted that the public would be eager to see more Western adventures of romanticized bandits.

Although the film romanticizes Billy's story, many of the depicted events actually occurred during the Lincoln County War. The film reworks the personalities and actions of the persons involved in the history. Tunston's (based on the real-life rancher John Henry Tunstall) faction is depicted as innocent, friendly, generous, and non-aggressive. Donovan's (based on James Dolan) faction is portrayed as greedy and murderous. Billy is a killer, but his justification, stated in the film, is that he had been forced into killing by the murder of his father. Billy's illegal activities unrelated to the Lincoln County War are not shown in the film.

Actor John Mack Brown (born 1904) was only a few years older than the actual Billy at the time the film was produced. His soft voice, southern accent, and pleasing smile supply the necessary contrast between Billy's shy boyishness and his killer instincts. Wallace Berry portrays Garrett in the "aw-shucks", easy-going manner that he assumed in many of his films. In his book, King Vidor discusses the casting of Brown and Beery. Vidor had been trying to get the studio to agree to the film for three years. The studio finally said to go ahead if Brown played Billy. The studio also wanted to bolster the cast by using Beery, whose screen image was well established. Vidor hoped that the presence of Berry would interest filmgoers and bolster the success of the film.

Billy the Kid was shot in a widescreen process that MGM called Realife Grandeur. The specially built Mitchell camera produced a 70mm black and white negative. In the lab the 70mm negative image was reduced to a 35mm positive print. The 35mm print projected by standard equipment produced a wide image that required a large screen. Few theaters had a wide screen, and most theaters could not show the wide screen version. Vidor shot the film with both 70mm and 35mm cameras so that it could be shown in both the regular and the wide screen houses. In his book, Vidor states that the wide screen was greatly superior for exterior scenes, and that the panoramic views in Billy the Kid were magnificent in 70mm. Even on the small screen of a television, the western panoramas impress with their size and depth.

Vidor saw the film many years after it was made and expressed his satisfaction with it. Billy the Kid, he decided, "was a fine motion picture." His satisfaction is reasonable; his third talkie demonstrates his mastery of integrating dialogue with action, which many silent film directors had not mastered by 1930. The story is interesting, well-presented and moves briskly. The acting is also credible. The characters speak naturally and conversationally. Some of the comedy is forced and tiresome, but the death of principle comic Roscoe Ates is surprising and moving.

The main disappointment of Billy the Kid is the feeble ending. The death of Billy at the hands of Pat Garrett is the expected, historically accurate conclusion. The film firmly establishes their friendship, and Garrett's distress after killing Billy would provide an appropriate climax. Instead, the final scene, Billy riding away, Garrett deliberately shooting over his head, and the heroine preparing to follow Billy in her buggy, is an inadequate and abrupt wrap-up of the story. Apparently, the death of Billy would have been too distressing a conclusion for the members of the 1930 audience. The reviewer in Variety also points out the dislike of the audience for an unpleasant ending, stating "They're [the heads of the studio] still afraid of those cold finishes, and not without reason."

Reviews

The New York Times Film Reviews: A New Wide-Screen Process. Billy the Kid, by Mordaunt Hall. October 20, 1930.

The reviewer praises the effectiveness of the Realife enlarged screen process. However, he states that "the picture is chiefly noteworthy for this enlarged screen idea, for the story is merely a moderately entertaining and often unconvincing Western melodrama. The scenes in the open are impressive, and often they have a stereoscopic illusion…"

After briefly outlining the plot, the reviewer states that the story is "somewhat muddled." He praises the performances of John Mack Brown, Wallace Beery, Warner Richman, and James Marcus.

Variety Film Reviews: Billy the Kid. October 22, 1930

The reviewer discusses the Realife process and predicts that the film will do above-average in the theaters where it is enlarged. For theaters where it is shown in standard size, the picture is "just another western, not a good one." He writes that the film consists of a series of gun battles and a couple of personal encounters. "These scenes are as spasmodic as the continuity. The most important action sequences stand up, but the connecting links are weak … Minus Realife it looks as though the youngsters will like Billy the Kid, but there's lttle or no chance that the adolescents or their elders will be particularly interested … No punch names in the cast."

Biography of William H. McCarty, alias William H. Bonney, "Billy the Kid"

The year and place of birth of William H. Bonney (birth name William Henry McCarty, Jr.) are not definitely known, but he was probably born in 1859, possibly in New York City. His father died (or left his family) when Billy was a small child. During his childhood, his mother moved her family frequently, finally settling in New Mexico, where she died of tuberculosis in 1874. In 1875, Billy, arrested for stealing, made his first jail escape.

In Arizona Territory, early 1877, after months of horse stealing, Billy was arrested and escaped jail the same evening. In August, after words and a tussle with a blacksmith named Cahill, Billy shot and killed him. A coroner's inquest found the killing criminal, and Billy fled to New Mexico Territory.

In New Mexico, Billy hired on the ranch of John Tunstall, an English cattle rancher and merchant. Working for Tunstall, Billy became involved in the Lincoln County War, a conflict between the entrenched faction of rancher and merchant, James Dolan, and his partner, Lawrence Murphy, and the newly arrived faction of John Tunstall and his partner, Alexander McSween. On Feb 18, 1878, Tunstall was murdered by a posse sent out by Dolan and Murphy. Lincoln County Sheriff, William J. Brady, was with the posse. Billy, loyal to the memory of Tunstall, joined Tunstall's ranch hands in capturing and killing Dolan men involved in Tunstall's murder. In April, Billy and the Tunstall men ambushed and killed Sheriff Brady and his deputy on the main street of Lincoln. More killings ensued as Tunstall was revenged. In July, Billy, McSween, and other men were trapped in McSween's house by a posse that included Dolan men and U.S. cavalry soldiers stationed in New Mexico. After a five-day siege in which McSween was killed, Billy escaped. This event ended the Lincoln County War in Dolan's favor.

In March, 1879, the governor promised Billy amnesty, if he surrendered to Lincoln County authorities and testified about the events of the Lincoln County War. Billy's testimony led to the indictment of Dolan who was acquitted. Three months later, Billy remained in jail and had not received his pardon. Waiting no longer, he escaped and rode away. Over the next year and a half, Billy kept busy rustling, gambling, and avoiding arrest.

In November 1880, Pat Garrett, bartender and buffalo hunter, was elected the sheriff of Lincoln County. In December, the governor put out a $500 reward for the Kid's capture. A few days later, Garrett and his posse trapped Billy and other rustlers in a stone cabin. While Garrett and Billy talked, the posse cooked breakfast. Garrett invited the Kid to eat, and the hungry Kid and his cohorts surrendered. The Kid was tried in April 1881 for the murder of Sheriff Brady, convicted, and sentenced to hang. Moved to Lincoln for his hanging and guarded in the courthouse, Billy obtained a gun, killed his two guards, and escaped.

On July 14, 1881, Garrett tracked Billy to a house in Fort Sumner, N.M. That night, the Kid entered a darkened room and realizing that someone was present asked, "Quien es?" Garrett drew his gun and fired. Billy died at age 22.