Billy the Kid (1941)

Synopsis:

The life and times of the infamous 19th century gunfighter, played by Robert Taylor (Quo Vadis and Ivanhoe), whose exploits have become the stuff of legends.

Reaction & Thoughts:

Pretty much my least favorite movie about the legendary 1800s bandit — The Outlaw (1943), The Left Handed Gun (1959), Chisum (1970), Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973), and Gore Vidal’s Billy the Kid (1989) are much better movies about the outlaw — whose life is Hollywoodized here to a ridiculous degree. Billy the Kid, directed by David Miller (Sudden Fear) and (uncredited) Frank Borzage (The Mortal Storm), doesn’t even include Billy’s famous nemesis, Sheriff Pat Garrett.

The script is by Gene Fowler, Howard Emmett Rogers and Bradbury Foote based on Walter Noble Burns’s 1926 novel The Saga of Billy the Kid. The book had been filmed in 1930 with Wallace Beery  (The Champ) as Garrett and John Mack Brown as Billy. Both movies were produced by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. I haven’t seen the 1930 movie, but the 1941 remake isn’t a very good movie — content and execution don’t quite gel. And the film’s rewriting of history is done sloppily.

My apologies to all Taylor fans out-there, but … am I the only one who doesn’t care for Taylor? He was a good-looking, reliable leading man to strong actresses — Magnificent Obsession (1935), Camille (1936), Waterloo Bridge (1940), etc. — but on his own, Taylor was a rather bland, uninteresting actor. I just couldn’t accept him as a brooding cowboy. Taylor’s attempts at looking mean and menacing were almost laughable — simply put, he was grossly miscasted!

There are still small pleasures to be found here. Billy the Kid does have an absolutely delightful cast of character actors. The usually vivacious Brian Donlevy (The Great McGinty) does a good job underplaying Bill’s pal, Jim Sherwood, a character clearly inspired by Sheriff Pat Garrett (why change the name?). Ian Hunter (The Adventures of Robin Hood) plays a rich rancher, Gene Lockhart (Algiers) plays a corrupt cattle baron, Henry O’Neill (Jezebel) and Lon Chaney, Jr. (High Noon) play cowhands.

The best thing about the movie is its breathtaking Technicolor cinematography by William V. Skall (Joan of Arc) and Leonard Smith (National Velvet). Although the intense primary colors don’t really belong here — the gorgeous images are somewhat at odd with the gritty storyline — it’s by far the thing I liked most about the movie.  Billy the Kid looks like moving 19th century paintings.

Conclusions & Final Thoughts:

Billy the Kid is a glossy, but uninteresting western. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer was never good at this sort of sulky tale. The studio tended to make everything look pretty. Warners and RKO were much better at producing gritty movies. The movie isn’t a total misfire, but you are better off renting Arthur Penn’s The Left Handed Gun or Sam Peckinpah’s Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid. Color, 94 minutes, Not Rated.

4 responses to “Billy the Kid (1941)

  1. A tough film to welcome and your reasons are sound I do like Taylor in the later portion of his career. Like Fonda and Stewart it took some aging before entering the western with some credibility. Reminds me I have a copy of Dirty Little Billy I should give a go.

    Liked by 1 person

    • You’re right, he’s fine in a few ’50s westerns. I thought he was very good in Westward the Women and Saddle the Wind. To me, he’s not believable as brooding anti-hero though.

      Anyhow, I forgot all about Dirty Little Billy — Michael J. Pollard did a pretty good job as Billy.

      Like

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