Louise Brooks once said that the movies were invented to enable rich men to own desirable women. The Outlaw is the stuff of legend less for itself than for Howard Hughes’ creation of the sex star Jane Russell, and his battle with the censors and Hollywood itself. We’ve always gotten the impression that nobody has told the full story behind Hughes, Russell and this ultra-hyped notorious western.
KL Studio Classics
1943 / B&W / 1:37 flat Academy / 116 min. / Street Date February 27, 2018 / available through Kino Lorber / 29.95
Starring: Jack Buetel, Jane Russell, Walter Huston, Thomas Mitchell, Mimi Aguglia, Joe Sawyer, Ben Johnson, Emory Parnell.
Cinematography: Gregg Toland
Film Editor: Wallace Grissell
Original Music: Victor Young
Written by Jules Furthman
Produced by Howard Hughes
Directed by Howard Hughes, Howard Hawks
“How’d you like to tussle with Russell?”
The most notorious film title in the censor debate of the 1940s is Howard Hughes’ The Outlaw, a Billy the Kid western shaped to the more-than-a-little misogynist tastes of Hughes, screenwriter Jules Furthman and perhaps Howard Hawks, who directed for only two weeks before Hughes stepped in to direct the movie himself. Hughes personally produced quite a few pictures but only directed two, this show and the early talkie Hell’s Angels. He seems to have purposely posed a challenge to the Production Code Authority. He defied its rules, yet after a few cuts got his way and was awarded a seal. But when various state censor boards banned the picture he cancelled its 1941 release, claiming restraint of trade. The whole point of the Production Code was to sweep away the myriad state rulings. Ten years before, state resistance had resulted in multiple versions of Hughes’ Scarface making the rounds.
In 1943 Hughes brought out a reportedly racier version of The Outlaw in a single city, San Francisco, and caused a limited sensation. His advertisers put up giant, unapproved billboards of star Jane Russell that were more revealing than anything seen at the time. Again the film disappeared, ‘for more work’ and for Hughes to renew his battle with the censors. When finally given a full release in 1946-47, it was said to be tamer, yet the protests continued. Hughes again played games with racy advertising not submitted for approval. He was also accused of circulating individually ‘hotter’ prints in various locations. The PCA was at a loss — it depended on passive producer compliance, but Hughes had no intention of playing ball. Peer pressure and sanctions meant nothing to him, and he had the monetary resources to be blatantly non-compliant. Unlike most filmmakers, his personal fetish productions didn’t even need to make a profit.
So, what exactly in The Outlaw justifies seven years of industry scandal? Not much, by what we can see now. The film is a talky western with an emphasis on rowdy humor. Hughes’ direction is nowhere near as incompetent as has been claimed, even though actor Thomas Mitchell all but said it to the director’s face on the set. Some of the acting is quite good, too, and the first half is fairly amusing. Jane Russell on the screen is nowhere near as provocative as she is in Hughes’ giant billboard art.
Despite all the advertising emphasis the film has no nudity, unlike the genuine ‘hot’ import movie Ekstase (1933) with Hedy Lamarr (which is actually a meritorious drama). Although Hughes’ certainly has a breast fixation with Jane Russell, the dental assistant that he turned into a star, numerous pre-Code pictures show a lot more skin. Suppressed sequences aside, the show has only a couple of medium shots that show more cleavage than is usual . . . for 1940.
The sex controversy was really outside the film itself, with all those color posters and salacious taglines like, “How’d you like to tussle with Russell?” Added ‘leaked’ news items whispered about a brassiere specially designed for Russell by aircraft engineers, that she reportedly never wore. News pieces about Hughes’ fight with the PCA kept The Outlaw in the news throughout WW2. Added to the mysterioso mood around Hughes’ secretive business dealings, his strange contracts with starlets and the controversy about The Spruce Goose, this one movie provided pundits with an unending flow of ‘interesting’ conjecture. Despite the fact that only a limited audience in San Francisco had seen it, the legend of The Outlaw grew. GIs serving overseas surely daydreamed that, if and when they got back home, the playboy Hughes would have a combination western and stag film waiting for them.
It must have been a bizarre setup, with Hawks starting out the picture and leaving, and Hughes orchestrating the sex symbol build-up for Jane Russell while trying to direct. The very sensible Ms. Russell was in no way unaware of Hughes’ focus on her body, although it is credible that she might be surprised when his glamour photographers seemed only interested in ‘special angles’ to accentuate her bust. One pundit memorably described Hughes’ interest as primarily topographical. Russell noted that she made only one movie in five years, and spent most of those five years posing daily for cheesecake ‘publicity’ photos.
A natural showgirl, Russell did not consider herself a great actress and knew what she was selling as a movie star. An incident reported by critic Joel E. Siegel illustrates this. New RKO producer Val Lewton was known for various eccentricities, including not wanting anyone to touch him. At a studio party somebody brought Jane Russell in on a prank: “Just as the party was in full swing, Miss Russell appeared, in a rather Outlawish dress, and began slowly advancing towards Lewton. Those in on the joke saw to it that a path was cleared between the actress and the puzzled producer. As Miss Russell, arms clasped behind her back, slowly and slinkily maneuvered herself towards Lewton, he heard her huskily murmuring, “Look, no hands! No hands!”
Jane Russell was nobody’s pushover. She had a mutual respect relationship with RKO’s bad boy Robert Mitchum, another actor well aware of his position in a rigid system of studio contracts. As described in Dick Dinman’s audio interview with Russell, she and co-star Jack Buetel spent the entire decade of the 1940s under contract to Howard Hughes. She was allowed to make only a couple of movies in nine years. Top-billed Buetel was prevented from working in anything, even though Howard Hawks wanted him for Red River. As a final insult, the credits misspelled Buetel’s name. (I can’t consistently spell it right, and have no idea how to pronounce it.)
The storyline of The Outlaw is far edgier than the visuals, and not in particularly good taste. Ace screenwriter Jules Furthman’s script is a Dirty Old Man’s version of the Billy the Kid legend. There is almost no action; the picture instead is a series of shifting confrontations between William Bonney (Jack Buetel), Sheriff Pat Garrett (Thomas Mitchell) and a historically dubious Doc Holliday (Walter Huston). Doc repeatedly prevents Pat from arresting Billy, and even kills a number of deputies while on the run. Doc wants to reclaim a coveted horse that was stolen from him, and is now in Billy’s possession. When on the run, Billy meets and seduces (read: rapes) frontier girl Rio McDonald (Jane Russell), not knowing that she’s ‘Doc’s girl.’ The humorous conflict between Doc and Billy makes constant lewd comparisons between the horse and Rio. In front of Rio, both men aver that they’d rather have the horse than the girl. Jokes about ‘being in the saddle’ abound; Rio is just a casual moll to be used and ignored. A particularly insulting laugh line has Doc Holiday explaining that he’s not keen on having Rio back, now that Billy’s slept with her: “Cattle don’t graze after sheep.”
Buetel reads his dialogue well enough but projects little personality or sex appeal. Russell claimed that Hughes made both of them do so many takes, all the life went out of their performances. But the old hand Walter Huston relishes every dirty line, making the most of the blue humor. As the competing gunslingers are unabashedly corrupt the situation should be amusing, but the appalling treatment of Russell’s Rio prevents that. Already considered a mere possession, or an animal (a familiar Hawks theme), our heroine is given not even a gesture of respect.
The Outlaw is a clear display of Howard Hughes’ general philosophy toward women. He was the original Mister Control, with ‘on the payroll’ starlets stashed all over Hollywood and kept uninformed about their ‘careers.’ None of these women were in a position to call him out in public. Some lived in a semi-nightmare state, not being used in movies and wondering if they were part of a decentralized Hughes harem.
Like I say, the film shows less of Ms. Russell than would be seen in public. The stories of racier cut scenes are possibly apocryphal, but can’t be confirmed or denied. The strongest scene is the rape, which is likely a substitute for a longer sequence. In the final edit Hughes simply holds on a wide shot, where Billy and Rio are just dark shapes on the other side of a barn. We hear them thrashing around; when Rio stops struggling Billy suggests that she stop making a fuss, or there won’t be much left of her dress. A slow fade-out follows.
The telltale fade-outs stretch the convention of fades indicating off-screen sex. At least two more times Billy and Rio get it on, and a fade ends the scene over a shot of a blank wall, etc. When Billy is wounded and feeling cold with a fever, Rio has been charged with his care. Doc has advised ‘nurse’ Rio to keep him warm. She sends her aunt out of the room and begins to disrobe, allowing us all to imagine her climbing into bed with Billy. There’s even a line urging Billy not to move too much, so he won’t disturb his wound.
Even if the sex content is all in the dialogue, The Outlaw is still pretty salacious for 1941, ’43 or ’46. One murderer must answer for his bad deeds (conflicting with his historical counterpart) but plenty of mayhem and forbidden sex goes unpunished. The nearest thing to marriage we see is Rio’s personal decision (?) that she’s married to Billy. But she’s already living in sin with Doc.
The gunmen clearly prefer each other’s company to that of Rio, admitting that she comes in handy only when it’s cold outside, or when they need something to stave off boredom. Mention the desired horse, however, and Billy and Doc suddenly become enthusiastic fans and admirers. Being ‘ruled by emotions,’ All women are disqualified from the male fraternity as unreasoning and unpredictable: they sometimes retaliate when savagely wronged. Good male friends can be depended on to act like selfish swine in all situations.
The show has become a prime candidate for those that read a homosexual context into old movies: some dialogue and situations practically beg for it. I by no means believe that any of the males making The Outlaw thought for a minute that they were making a coded bawdy-comedy between men. This despite the fact that Billy’s manners extend to asking Doc if he wants to bunk with him. I go with the theory that beds were scarce.
The movie is very long, and all but falls apart in its last half hour, when we lose count of the cumulative double-crosses and stop caring about these guys altogether. Rio becomes irrelevant, and hovers outside of most scenes, while the men do the talking. The last twenty minutes are excruciating, being a drawn-out debate over things that no longer concern us — who will shoot who, who will get the horse, who will get the girl, etc. The jokey cynicism has long lost its entertainment value. Robert Aldrich would bring back the cynical double-cross gambit with a vengeance in 1954’s Vera Cruz, which arguably provided the template for the ruthless Italo westerns of the 1960s. But The Outlaw ends up both unfunny and charmless.
One more head-spinning mystery about The Outlaw. Victor Young gets credit as music composer, but much of the film’s petty chicanery is scored with excerpts of luxurious love themes from, of all composers, Tchaikovsky. In this dusty New Mexico context, this comes off as a complete fumble. Did Howard Hughes think he was being ironic? Did he even have a sense of humor?
The KL Studio Classics Blu-ray of The Outlaw is the best transfer I’ve seen of this title, with audio more clear than what I’ve heard on TCM. The film source is from France’s Lobster Films, which may account for the absence of English subs. We can tell that it’s not first generation but most scenes look quite good. We can even tell where Howard Hughes has editorially added a freeze frame, that holds for several seconds before imposing one of those fades that indicates sex activity. (I wonder, did this convention make clueless guys think that dimming the lights when necking automatically made women more compliant?)
One freeze frame is held so long that it makes the scene into a joke, inviting the audience to cat-call. But it may have been done to allow a change to the picture edit without disturbing an already-mixed soundtrack. By keeping the cut the same length, Hughes might be able to avoid an expensive re-mix of an entire reel.
On his commentary Troy Howarth offers a lot of information but also stresses the ‘homo’ humor in a way that implies that The Outlaw is some kind of proto-Camp epic. Yeah, the double-entendres are there, but I seriously believe that over time they’ve all been re-interpreted. Howarth begins with a George F. Kaufman quote that differs from what I’ve read. But newbies to the bizarre world of Howard Hughes’ sex fantasies will find the commentary light and amusing.
Did Hughes accomplish anything with his career of raspberries aimed at the Production Code office? I think he mostly satisfied his own desire to turn starlets into personal toys. But Otto Preminger soon made it his business to dismantle the Code, one publicity campaign after another. Otto was a trained lawyer, and knew exactly how to do it so as to also popularize his movie offerings.
Kino also offers a generous selection of trailers.
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Movie: Good, but only barely — more of a curio.
Sound: Very Good
Supplements: Audio Commentary by Film Historian Troy Howarth, trailers
Deaf and Hearing Impaired Friendly? N0; Subtitles: None
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: February 23, 2018
Text © Copyright 2018 Glenn Erickson