Monday, September 28, 2009

Billy the Kid (King Vidor) ****

Director: King Vidor

Cast: Johnny Mack Brown, Wallace Beery, Kay Johnson, Karl Dane

Background: King Vidor was a highly regarded silent film director (The Crowd, The Big Parade) who made an interesting, but unsuccessful departure with his first sound film, Hallelujah! He followed that up with the stagey comedy Not So Dumb. This would be his third sound film. In the cast are relative newcomer Johnny Mack Brown and veteran character actor Wallace Beery.

Story: Billy the Kid (Brown) seeks revenge for the coldblooded murders of two of his friends, but must deal with Sheriff Pat Garret (Beery), a man who likes Billy but is still determined to do his job.

Thoughts: Vidor's film is one of the biggest surprises since I started the project. This is a western that mixes many different elements to make a fantastically entertaining story. Instead of presenting the entire life of Billy the Kid, Vidor keeps the focus to a short period of time and his battle with Pat Garrett. This keeps the story in a nice, controlled situation making for very tense shootouts and standoffs. A scene where Garrett and his deputies have Billy and his friends cornered in a small cabin is incredibly suspenseful. But what really makes the film so great is the considerable wit displayed in both the dialogue and the way the events play out. It almost feels as if Ernst Lubitsch had directed a western. Take for example Billy's repeated attempts to escape from prison while playing poker with Garrett, just barely missing several opportunities in hilarious fashion. Johnny Mack Brown gives a surprisingly reserved and completely cheerful performance as Billy. He resists the temptation to overact and instead lets Wallace Beery steal the show with a memorable supporting turn as the gruff sherriff who also has his own touches of wit. And Vidor gives us a lovely ending that is straight out of Lubitsch, if not straight out of history. What a brilliant surprise and another reminder of what makes this project so much fun.

Postscript: The film hel;ped make Johnny Mack Brown a western star and helped Beery make the transition to sound films. Beery would go on to win the Best Actor Oscar for 1931's The Champ.

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