Monday, March 12, 2018

Reeling Backward: "The Outlaw" (1943)

As my friend and colleague Bob Bloom best put it, "The Outlaw" is a movie famous for two things -- and neither one of them has to do with the film's inherent attributes.

Literally the entire iconography of the movie lies with Jane Russell's ample bosom. The film was actually shot in 1941 but didn't get a released until 1943 after director/producer Howard Hughes tangled with the production code stewards. And even that theatrical run was only for one week, after Hughes ginned up a controversy to create demand for the movie, which the censors quickly shut down. It didn't actually see wide release until 1946, and became a box office smash.

I've always wondered how Russell felt about the hullabaloo from her first movie role. "The Outlaw" made her an overnight star and national sex symbol. Imagine having everyone in America looking at and thinking about your boobs. 

If you remember "The Aviator," you know that Hughes became obsessed with displaying Russell's breasts in the movie, even going so far as to invent a cantilevered bra with steel rods to push up her cleavage. Splashy posters showing her lying in hay with her shirt spread wide open -- and, in friskier versions, ripped into see-through holes -- instantly became part of the national popular culture.

That's why I was surprised to watch the film for the first time, and realize that moment never actually occurs in the movie. There is a scene in a barn, but she's never just lying there with a heaving chest. In fact, Russell's bust is actually fairly demure through most of the film's run time, though it gets a little more display toward the end.

What gives? How can a movie famous for one thing -- OK, two things -- not actually contain that which made it such a spectacle?

The answer is simpler than you'd think. Hughes' brassiere contraption was horribly uncomfortable, so Russell took it off a few minutes after first trying it on. She simply stuffed her own bra with tissue and told Hughes she was wearing his invention.

The garment now lies in a museum somewhere, a testament to Hughes' penchant for showmanship and flimflam. How delicious that the ultimate con man was conned by a stubborn starlet... and never even knew it.

Putting aside all the boobage lore, what we're left with is an incredibly trashy B-movie Western with solid production values. It's a complete mishmash of the historical record, less mythology than flight of fantasy.

In this story (screenplay by Jules Furthman), Pat Garrett and Doc Holliday are old rapscallion friends who become enemies after the intrusion of Billy the Kid. Now a sheriff, Garrett chases the pair around for awhile, as the old outlaw and the young one are constantly on the verge of drawing guns on each other. Garrett kills Doc after the latter refuses to draw on him, and then lets Billy go so he can ride off into the sunset with Russell's character, a tart named Rio.

Of course, in real life it was Garrett who pursued and killed Billy the Kid, notoriously shooting him dead while hiding in the shadows. And he and Holliday never even met, the movie witlessly transposing his famous friendship with Wyatt Earp for an invented one with Garrett.

"The Outlaw" was only the second of two movies Hughes ever directed, the first being the silent film about WWI pilots, "Hell's Angels." Whatever his gifts as an inventor and showman, the man had a pretty thumbless grasp for crafting scenes or getting halfway competent performances out of his cast.

According to Jane Russell's autobiography, Hughes never personally directed any of her scenes, leaving most of the on-set work to subordinates. Howard Hawks also reputedly lent a hand behind the camera.

Most of the movie was actually already in the can when Hughes brought in famed cinematographer Gregg Toland ("Citizen Kane") to replace the first DP, and it was reshot entirely. In between the film's initial production in 1941 and eventual wide release five years later, the actors were dragged back several times to reshoot scenes or add new ones, often to amp up the film's sexual overtones.

There are two implied rapes of Rio by Billy, played with comic ineptitude by Jack Beutel, who was also making his film debut. The barn scene where Russell supposedly splayed her chest is actually one where Rio attacks Billy for killing her brother. After overpowering her -- in a not entirely convincing fight scene, as the boyishly narrow-hipped Beutel was about the same size as Russell -- Billy lies on top of her as the scene fades to black.

The second instance is even more troublesome. After Rio nurses Billy back to health and they begin a tepid romance, the relationship turns sour after he believes she has betrayed him to Garrett. Contemptuously calling her "darling," they have this exchange in her bedroom:
Rio: "What are you waiting for? Go ahead."
Billy: "Say, that sounds real nice. I like to hear you ask for it. Keep it up. Beg some more."
Rio: "What would you like me to say?"
Billy: "Well, you might say, 'Please,' very sweetly."
Rio: (Scornfully) "Please."
Billy: (Approaching her menacingly) "Will you keep your eyes open?"
Rio: "Yes."
Billy: "Will you look right at me while I do it?"
(The pair trades intense looks as the music swells.)
In the parlance of Hollywood in that day, this would be read as Rio giving into Billy's smoldering manly manliness, rather than coerced sexual assault. In today's #MeToo lights, though, their up-and-down affair looks much less egalitarian.

 No matter how you want to read it, though, one has to admit it's one of the most overt references to the sex act you'll find in a Golden Age flick.

The film is almost saved by the presence of a pair of crafty veteran character actors for the other  main roles, Thomas Mitchell as Pat Garrett and Walter Huston as Doc Holliday. It seems clear the two were left to wing their own characterizations, and operate somewhat on autopilot.

Mitchell, best known as the bumbling Uncle Billy from "It's a Wonderful Life" and the drunken doctor from "Stagecoach," plays Garrett as a somewhat ridiculous figure, an outlaw-turned-lawman who pursues his new vocation with a cantankerous intensity underlining his desire to redeem his former life. A merely competent gunman, he knows he's outmatched on the draw by either Billy or Doc, and is left to use his wiles and subterfuge to gain the upper hand.

Huston, an engineer who turned to the stage and begat an entire filmmaking dynasty -- son John, grandkids Anjelica and Danny, great-grandson Jack -- is a mix of coyness and bombast as Doc. He has a favorite horse, a little roan named Red, that he and Billy are fighting over possession of for most of the movie.

There's clearly a part of him that sees himself in that young braggart, and wants to shape that. At the same time, Doc is a famous gunman facing the twilight of his career -- Huston was about 60 when the film was shot, his ample abdomen straining against twin holsters -- and isn't about to accept guff from any man.

The story is a confused litany of generic Western elements: faceless marauding Indians, subservient Mexicans, whipped-together posses and, of course, face-offs with pistols. I will say that the camera work is among the most convincing I've seen at depicting the speed at which gunslingers could clear their holsters.

"The Outlaw" has the rare distinction of being a film that's more exalted than it is remembered. People recall the controversy and nascent eroticism that made it famous. But they forget the squalid, grimy Western that lies beneath the timeless fa├žade.

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