Outlaw, The (1943): Howard Hughes Infamous Western, Starring Jane Russell

One of the most famously and infamously made pictures in Hollywood’s history, The Outlaw is an offbeat Western and a curiosity item par excellence.

This oddball Western, a loose retelling of Doc Holliday, Pat Garrett, and Billy the Kid, achieved notoriety back in the 1940s due to a number of reasons, which had little to do with the movie per se.

First and foremost, “The Outlaw” featured the very young Jane Russell in what was considered to be an audacious outfit, with deep cleavage that revealed her huge breasts (more about it later). Producer Howard Hughes, assisted by the brilliant publicist manager Russell Birdwell, orchestrated one of the most effective publicity campaigns, at once promoting, commodifying, and abusing the leading lady’s natural endowments.

 Second, Howard Hughes hired Howard Hawks, then at the prime of his career (right after “Sergeant York” with Gary Cooper), to direct.  However, dissatisfied with the dailies, Hughes fired Hawks and took over the helming himself.  (There have been disputes by critics and historians as to who shot what particular scene in a film that rather unusually credits both men as co-directors).

As noted, the screenplay, penned by Jules Furthman (but also padded by Hughes and other, uncredited), is a very loose, fictionalized version of Billy the Kid and the legendary myth that surrounded him as a hero.  Director Hawks, producer Hughes, and writer Ben Hecht have all touched and retouched the script, without getting credit and without much success.

Billy the Kid (Jack Buetel) and Doc Holliday (Walter Huston) are close friends until lawman Pat Garrett (Thomas Mitchell) attempts to ambush Billy and put him behind bars. Doc brings Billy to his ranch to hide out, but when Billy meets Doc’s girl Rio (Russell), he’s instantly attracted to her.

At first the attraction is carried out through looks and innuendos. Rio is smitten by Billy, despite the fact that he had murdered her brother.  Billy and Rio secretly marry, but their love affair goes up and down and up again (just like the surrounding movie).  The banter between the lovers is unintentionally campy, and preparation for the big kiss takes forever.

The rather simple plot becomes more involving in the film’s second half, centering of the arguments, fighting, and shifting coalitions among the quartet of central characters: Billy, Doc, Pat, and Rio.  They are put aside, when out of the blue, a tribe of Indians appear, serving as an excuse for some mediocre chase scenes, and close-ups of Russell riding a horse.

The film is by turns static, verbose, unevenly paced, and at times, amateurish too.  Though the cinematography is by the talented Gregg Toland, who had earlier shot Orson Welles’ “Citizen Kane,” visually, too, the movie is sharply uneven.  (It feels as if it were tempered in the editing room).

Hughes’s brilliant maneuvering had not only made a movie star out of Jane Russell, then only 19, but was responsible for one of Hollywood’s greatest marketing coups.  Stills of Jane Russell reveal a deep cleavage, while bending to pick up a pair of milk pails. Hughes then spent a lot of time, energy, and money to agitate the Production Code censors in order to arouse the public’s curiosity about his product. 

The newspaper ads asked provocatively: “What are the two reasons for Jane Russell’s rise to stardom?”  Comedian Bob Hope picked up on this and used to introduce the star as “the two and only Jane Russell.”

By today’s standards, the film is mild, innocent, and even innocuous.  The movie was initially released in San Francisco, in 1943, when United Artists refused to distribute it. But it was quickly removed from the screens by various civic and religious groups

The publicist Russell Birdwell then leased many billboards from coast to coast during a period of three years, showing a suggestive photo of Russell, scantily clad, reclining on a bed of hay, holding a gun in her hand.  By 1946, when Hughes finally released the film, viewers flocked to see it, and it became a blockbuster.

It takes 20 minutes of screen time for the voluptuous Jane Russell to make an appearance.  Playing a girl-woman femme fatale, the overtly sexual Russell and her big bust get extra-attention via regular and mega close-ups, all motivated by Hughes’s determination to exploit her buxum for the picture’s commercial benefit.

For the record: In press releases, Russell’s bustline is estimated to be 38 inches.  None of her shirts and dresses in this picture is too revealing, though they are deliberately very tight. Ace lenser Toland was instructed by Hughes to magnify her chest and shoot it from different angles, teasing the viewers and encouraging voyeurism.

End Note:

Russell survived her vulgar image and proved to be deft comedienne in the late 1940s and 1950s, in films like “The Paleface” opposite Bob Hope, and “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes,” opposite Marilyn Monroe.

Russell could—and did—sing in some of her movies.  In 1971, she replaced Elaine Stritch in Sondheim’s Broadway musical, “Company.” 

It may be ironic that in the 1970s, Jane Russell appeared in TV commercials promoting brasiers.

 

Cast

Billy the Kid (Jack Beutel)

Rio (Jane Russell)

Pat Garrett (Thomas Mitchell)

Doc Holliday (Walter Huston)

Guadalupe (Mimi Aguglia)

Charley (Joe Sawyer)

Stranger (Gene Rizzi)

Shorty (Frank Darien)

Bartender (Pat West)

Minister (Carl Stockdale)

 

Credits

Produced by Howard Hughes

Directed by Howard Hughes and Howard Hawks

Screenplay: Jules Furthman

Camera: Gregg Toland

Editing: Otho Lovering, Wallace Grissell

Art direction: Perry Ferguson

F/X: Roy Davidson

 

Running Time: 126 Minutes

There are also shorter versions. 

 

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