THE OUTLAW is—to get the requisite boob joke out of the way—a bust. Monetarily it was a hit (a teat treat? sorry, you’re dealing with a guy-type-man here) but that was after several re-releases. Howard Hawks started directing Jules Furthman’s script (taking over from Ben Hecht) in late 1940, but was replaced (quit/fired) by producer Howard Hughes after two weeks. The peculiar zillionaire then took over the reins himself, directing veterans Walter Huston and Thomas Mitchell and untried discoveries Jack Buetel and Jane Russell.
As Russell later put it “Hughes wasn’t really sure what he wanted and did it over and over and over. It was the most insane thing I’ve ever seen. Walter Huston had the right idea, because he just took it as a big joke.” Censors didn’t take with good cheer its leering sexual innuendo and the Howard-designed poses of the voluptuous 19-year-old Jane: Production Code czar Joseph Breen all a-tizzy that it might provoke a trend to “undrape women’s breasts.” Legal haggling and re-cutting fought a cleavage contest for two years, accompanied by a shameless publicity campaign masterminded by Russell Birdwell and a barrage of come-get-me photo spreads of Russell that made her famous (and essential décor in barracks, warships, bombers and foxholes from Nome to New Guinea) before it finally premiered in San Francisco in mid-1943. Quickly withdrawn until ’46, when it made moola hand-over-bra, dueling for public panting with another sin-sodden western, Duel In The Sun. Yet a third run in 1950 scored as well. Hughes $3,400,000 fever dream eventually gathered $14,500,000.
Oh, the plot: utter fiction about Doc Holliday (Huston), his bosom buddy Pat Garrett (Mitchell), young cock-of-the-walk Billy the Kid (Buetel) and Doc’s hotcha babe-in-the-adobe ‘Rio’ (Russell) who falls for the Kid after she tries to kill him with a pitchfork and her rapes her in a haystack. A western for the whole family. Or just Dad and Uncle Gus.
Shot in Arizona (Hawks stuff) and on sound stages (Hughes), it had a class-A cinematographer in Gregg Toland, but the lauded composer Victor Young hit consistent sour notes with his obnoxious score (that same year Young wonderfully scored For Whom The Bell Tolls). Originally 116 minutes: some prints run 95, others 105.
Whichever length, it’s exceedingly talky, and the “love story” (cough) between Billy and Rio is decidedly secondary next to the man-crushes played up between Doc/Billy and Doc/Pat, so there’s plenty of eros v. cactus subtext if you care to sit through all the endless pretentious palaver. The outrun-the-Mescalero’s sequence is one of the most ridiculous Indian-fighting setups ever designed. Daft, doggedly mysogynistic claptrap makes little dramatic sense (none historically) and the comic interludes are so clumsy your teeth will hurt. Huston and Mitchell do what they can. Buetel, a 24-year-old former insurance clerk, displays swagger and a certain naïve charm, but a career didn’t surge forth: his contract with Hughes kept him shackled for seven years. Young Jane: after the hoopla and furor of The Outlaw (she was paid $50 a week) it took a few years for Russell to make good; then starting with The Paleface in 1947 she had a decade-long run of popularity. Hughes would never direct again, but as producer he’d take command of and wreak havoc with many more films (and RKO Studio) until the late 1950s.
With Mimi Aguglia, and Joe Sawyer. Twenty-three years old, cowboy-for-real Ben Johnson made his second appearance, uncredited as a deputy: easier than bustin’ broncs.