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  • Writer's pictureBruce Klein

The Outlaw (1943): How a Director Wrecks a Movie

Jane Russell made her movie debut in The Outlaw, a very boring and too long Western. Rio McDonald (Jane Russel) has a minor role in the movie. The characters include Doc Holliday (Walter Huston), Billie the Kid (Jack Buetel), and Pat Garrett (Thomas Mitchel). The movie is set in Lincoln, New Mexico in the 1880s. The plot’s nucleus is Doc Holliday’s long-time friendship with Pat Garret and his befriending of Billie the Kid. After a while, he becomes enamored of the friendship between Doc and Billy. Sherriff Garett becomes terribly jealous of Billie who he feels is stealing Doc away from him. Billy the Kid does not seem tough or bold in this movie. He seems like a child who is afraid that someone will steal his toys or trip him up. Doc seems like a happy go lucky Westerner who is dangerous but plays his cards right and acts civil.

In act one, Billie is hurt and Rio nurses him back to health. He is attracted to the lovely and voluptuous Rio. Rio and Billie strike up a relationship and although Rio is Doc’s live-in girlfriend, Doc puts up no resistance to Billie’s wooing of Rio. The romance between Billie and Rio is the subplot of the movie.

Howard Hughes directed The Outlaw. It was reported that he took too many takes of each scene and kept actors on the set late into the night. Since Hughes was not much of a director, he overworked the actors and crew out of desperation. Howard Hawkes, one of the best directors in Hollywood’s heyday, was scheduled to direct the film. After an argument with Hughes, he was dropped during early production and Hughes took over. His inadequate direction distressed his young new talents, Jane Russell and Jack Buetel. Both put in mediocre performances at best. Russell, who was 19 at the time, was somewhat better than Buetel. Excitement was created based on this young girl’s statuesque appearance which was exploited in advertisements appearing not only on the movie posters but also everywhere else.

The movie was controversial at the time because of Russell’s low-cut blouses and references to her sexual relationships. Although, this movie’s sexual come on was a con. Russell is not on the camera that much but two very good actors, Walther Huston and Thomas Mitchell are, and they carry the film. But Hugh’s stilted, tense direction blunts their performances. Jules Furthman’s talent as a screenwriter is squandered on the movie. Cinematographer Gregg Toland was rated by Orson Welles as the best in Hollywood. Toland worked quickly and Hugh’s worked so slowly that he was at odds with Toland and probably drove Toland to drink and relinquish his excellence.

The actors are never given a chance to do their best. Hughes ruined his movie but exploited Russell to successfully reach big box office numbers. If Hawks would have directed this movie, it would have been much better and maybe even great. After The Outlaw, Russell’s career went up hill. She found her talent in playing comedies and romances. After appearing in more movies, she gained ease and confidence in her acting style. Hughes came close to ruining her career but she broke though and became popular.

The musical composition makes the movie even worse. It was fit for a cartoon feature. The music plays the actors as buffoons and destroys the dramatic scenes. The audience does not believe the drama because the movie sounds like a Popeye cartoon. Victor Young, the composer, had a long career in Hollywood with many successes. There is no reason that his composition for the The Outlaw was so off. Maybe that was the style Hughes wanted.

Inept in just about every way this dramatic tragedy albeit with a happy ending is a waste. How Russell’s career survived this introduction is the real story. The number one reason to see it is Russell. Coming in at number two is Hughes poor direction which registers as a reason to never see one of his pictures again. He should have bowed out after his first movie Hell’s Angels, 13 years previous to The Outlaw. Lucky for Russell he never directed one of her pictures again. Or for that matter, any movie.


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