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The Outlaw (1943), Howard Hughes' would-be epic about the adventures of Billy the Kid, was a triumph of motion-picture marketing. Originally intended as the Western to break all the conventions of Westerns, the film's controversial sex appeal and salacious ad campaign turned the picture into an outlaw itself.
Though a film about the notorious Billy the Kid was hardly groundbreaking at the time, The Outlaw could have taken an innovative approach to its portrayal of him. However, Hughes wasn't interested in pushing the envelope in regards to the basic storyline which opens with Billy the Kid, played by newcomer Jack Beutel, befriending Walter Huston's Doc Holliday. After Billy narrowly avoids capture by the law, he and Doc Holliday retreat to Holliday's ranch where Billy meets Doc's sexy mistress, Rio (Jane Russell). From this point on, the real stars of The Outlaw emerge - Russell's breasts and a peasant blouse that refuses to stay buttoned.
Directing the picture himself, Hughes attempted to coach winning performances from his two green-horn stars, though that wasn't really his main goal. Not concerned at all with talent, Hughes had cast Jane Russell from a stack of publicity photos knowing that he could put her two real assets to use - a strategy that ignited the subsequent fervor over the film.
From the very beginning, it was Hughes' goal to make a different, sexier kind of western that would break with the old genre clich¿s. It was that very goal which intrigued the publicist Russell Birdwell into taking the job. Both savvy businessmen, Hughes and Birdwell realized that the best publicity is controversy. And they didn't have to wait long. As soon as production began, The Hayes Office, charged with upholding the moral fiber of motion pictures, demanded a copy of the script for review. After reading it, The Hayes Office demanded several changes to what it considered "racy dialogue and situations," and cautioned Hughes to "avoid sexual suggestiveness." But Hughes had no intention of pouring water on his smoldering screenplay, and when the picture was finally released, Hughes got exactly what he expected. Censors objected not only to Russell's low-cut blouse, but also the treatment of her character as merely a sex object. Adding fuel to the fire was Birdwell's ad campaign, which employed seductive billboards of Russell on the famed haystack with the caption "What are the two reasons for Jane Russell's rise to stardom?" The dubious publicity not only peaked curiosity in The Outlaw, but made Russell into one of the favorite pin-up girls during WWII.
Due to its notoriety, The Outlaw had a very successful ten week run, before Hughes pulled the film and shelved it for three years. When he reissued the picture in 1946, it once again ran into controversy when The Hayes Office threatened to revoke its Seal of Approval. Not yet exhausted from his fight, Hughes sued the MPAA, sending shock waves through Hollywood which feared that if The Hayes Office could not enforce it's policy on films, then the government might step in. Unable to sway the judges, Hughes eventually backed down and agreed to make the demanded cuts.
To be fair, Hughes did achieve at least part of his goal to break the mold of conventional westerns. Regardless of Hughes' intentions, the controversy and lawsuit over The Outlaw, forced Hollywood to address its hypocritical attitude about sex. At a time when married couples on screen slept in separate twin beds, Hughes was able to show an alluring young woman climbing into bed with a man, bold steps that subsequent filmmakers have gladly followed off into the sunset.
Director: Howard Hughes, Howard Hawks (uncredited)
Producer: Howard Hughes
Screenplay: Jules Furthman, Howard Hawks (uncredited), Ben Hecht (uncredited)
Cinematography: Gregg Toland
Editor: Wallace Grissell
Music: Victor Young
Cast: Jack Buetel (Billy the Kid), Jane Russell (Rio), Thomas Mitchell (Pat Garrett), Walter Huston (Doc Holliday), Mimi Aguglia (Guadalupe), Joe Sawyer (Charley).
BW-116m. Closed captioning.
by Bill Goodman