THE BOOTLEG FILES: “THE OUTLAW”

BOOTLEG FILES 154: “The Outlaw” (1943 Western starring Jane Russell and her 36Ds).

LAST SEEN: Available for online viewing at MovieFlix.

AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: In public domain dupes.

REASON FOR DISAPPEARANCE: A lapsed copyright made it an orphan film.

CHANCES OF SEEING A DVD RELEASE: Only in PD presentations, although a colorized version is planned for 2007.

One of the most infamous movies of the 1940s was Howard Hughes’ “The Outlaw.” Thanks to aggressive publicity, this Western earned a level of notoriety unparalleled in Hollywood history. Even at this late date, the PR myths surrounding “The Outlaw” dominate with such fury that spin continues to be mistaken for truth.

As a public service to serious film lovers, and as a great excuse to talk about my all-time favorite movie mammary mama, this column will clear the air on “The Outlaw.”

MYTH: Jane Russell is the title character in “The Outlaw.”

FACT: Although Jane Russell was the focus of the film’s wonderfully tacky advertising, she is not The Outlaw of the title. That honor goes to one Jack Buetel, a former insurance clerk who plays Billy the Kid. Russell plays Rio, a half-breed girl who becomes Billy’s lover. If you’ve never heard of Buetel, that’s because “The Outlaw” was the only significant film he made. Howard Hughes kept him under contract but off screen until 1951 (no public reason was ever given for this decade-long exile). Hughes even kept Buetel from being cast in “Red River” (Montgomery Clift got the role and became a superstar through his performance). By the time Buetel was able to work steadily on screen, he was unable to move beyond B-movies and TV guest appearances.

MYTH: Howard Hughes designed an aerodynamically superior bra to show off Jane Russell’s 36D cleavage.

FACT: Yes, Hughes created such a bra. But Russell never wore it for “The Outlaw.” Russell would later complain that Hughes’ bra was so painfully uncomfortable that she only wore it for a few seconds. But the legend of the bra became so prevalent that in later life Russell would express undisguised irritation at having to talk about it.

MYTH: “The Outlaw” is laced with seething homoeroticism between the male leads Jack Beutel (as Billy the Kid) and Walter Huston (as Doc Holliday).

FACT: No, Howard Hughes didn’t beat Ang Lee to mano-a-mano cowboy territory. For some queer reason (sorry about that pun), several writers insist that the Billy the Kid-Doc Holliday relationship in “The Outlaw” has gay undercurrents. I have no clue where this came from, since the men spend the bulk of the film arguing about the ownership of a horse and the love of a girl. If any genuine emotion, even latent, was evident in the screenplay, it was certainly flattened on the screen due to the non-chemistry between Huston (who shamelessly overacts) and Buetel (who is, sadly, one of the least talented actors in movie history). While gay viewers may enjoy Russell’s presence as old-style camp, they won’t find any homo on the range in “The Outlaw.”

MYTH: Hughes, originally the producer of the film, fired director Howard Hawks and took over the direction of “The Outlaw.”

FACT: The exact nature of the Hawks-Hughes blow-up will probably never be determined. Some sources claim Hawks quit due to Hughes’ meddling in the films. Other sources claim Hawks jumped ship to helm a superior production called “Sergeant York.” And others claim Hughes was angry that Russell’s breasts weren’t being given the attention they deserved on camera. In any event, Hughes was clearly not comfortable as a director and “The Outlaw” went wildly over budget due to his insistence on endless takes (a reflection both on his obsessive-compulsive behavior and his insecurity in not getting the right shots). Screenwriter Jules Furthman eventually took over for Hughes as director, but he did not receive screen credit for that work.

MYTH: “The Outlaw” generated major censorship problems.

FACT: In reality, much of the censorship problems were strictly of Hughes’ creation, since Hollywood’s censorship board cleared the film for theatrical release in May 1941. However, many state and municipal censors demanded cuts that Hughes initially refused to make. So Hughes shelved “The Outlaw” until February 1943, when he self-released the film in San Francisco. Local censors demanded that Hughes cut a 20-minute love sequence with Buetel and Russell, but he balked and shelved the film again for three years. In 1946, Hughes agreed to re-release the film in San Francisco with the local censor’s cuts, but apparently he provided the uncut print and the owner of the theater playing “The Outlaw” was arrested on morals charges. United Artists, which had the distribution rights to the film, released it on a city-by-city roadshow basis in order to deal with local censorship boards. The film didn’t play in New York until September 1947. Needless to say, the squabbles with the local censors created a publicity goldmine and “The Outlaw” was a major hit in every city it stopped at.

And now, here’s some interesting trivia on “The Outlaw”:

Gregg Toland was the cinematographer for the production, and after it was completed he headed over to RKO to shoot a movie created by a neophyte filmmaker named Orson Welles (you can guess which one that is). Sadly, a colorized DVD version is planned for 2007 that will make a mockery of Tolland’s imaginative black-and-white cinematography.

Ben Johnson made his screen debut in an uncredited bit part; 30 years later, he would win the Academy Award for his performance in “The Last Picture Show.”

Russell, who was the center of Hughes’ vulgar publicity campaign, was not the hot-blooded sexpot in real life that she was in reel life. In fact, she was actually a deeply religious woman who hosted weekly Bible studies at her home. But the disconnect between her outrageous Hollywood image and her off-screen personality created significant emotional problems that resulted in a long-running battle with alcoholism.

Howard Hughes, for all of his fretting over “The Outlaw,” forgot to renew its copyright and the movie eventually lapsed into the public domain. Because of the numerous local censorship requirements, a variety of duped prints with different running times (ranging from 95 to 117 minutes) have been circulating for years. An attempt by the Hughes estate to recapture the film’s rights via legal channels was unsuccessful, and “The Outlaw” continues to gallop along merrily via online sites and DVD labels specializing in bootlegged public domain titles.

IMPORTANT NOTICE: The unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material is not widely appreciated by the entertainment industry, and on occasion law enforcement personnel help boost their arrest quotas by collaring cheery cinephiles engaged in such activities. So if you are going to copy and sell bootleg videos, a word to the wise: don’t get caught. The purchase and ownership of bootleg videos, however, is perfectly legal and we think that’s just peachy! This column was brought to you by Phil Hall, a contributing editor at Film Threat and the man who knows where to get the good stuff…on video, that is.

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Posted on November 3, 2006 in Bootleg Files, Features by
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