Thursday, July 4, 2013

Two Billy the Kids for the price of one

In real life, Billy the Kid had a short but violent career before being gunned down by sheriff Pat Garrett. In the B-movie universe, though, he had quite a long (and rather more heroic) career.

In a series of 6 films made in 1940 and 1941, Bob Steele portrayed the Billy as a wandering Western hero who, despite his reputation as an outlaw, fights for the underdog and brings villains to justice.

The real Billy was involved in the Lincoln County War--a violent range war fought in New Mexico Territory in 1978. That's the backdrop of Billy the Kid Outlawed, Steele's first adventure as Billy. The villains are the owners of Lincoln's general store, who hold IOUs for just about everyone in the county and are using this to make sure one of them is elected sheriff. He has his thugs kill a troublesome rancher, but the murder victim was an old friend of Billy's. So Billy helps a federal judge try to clean up the town.

But the judge is murdered and the bad guy becomes sheriff. Billy and his two sidekicks are declared outlaws, forcing them to use outlaw tactics to fight back.

It's not a bad movie, though it has its flaws. It clocks in at under an hour, but still seems a little too long. The pacing is off--scenes of cowboys galloping from one location to another always seem to be a few seconds too long. The gun fights and fist fights are too loosely choreographed, with no real cleverness to them and with an over-dependence on Billy's comedic sidekick Fuzzy to provide slapstick moments.

But the story is a pretty good one and Steele does a good job of as Billy--especially in a scene where he bitterly decides the law is helpless and his only option is to embrace being an outlaw.

Buster Crabbe returned from Mongo and took over the role in 1941, playing Billy the Kid in 13 films. In 1943, he put on a lighter-colored shirt and became Billy Carson for 23 more films. He still had the same sidekick (with the same name) for a partner, though. Rumor hath it this was because someone (distributors, theater owners, or perhaps parents) were worried about making a real-life outlaw a hero. I suppose technically the Billy Carson films are a different series, but I prefer to think of them as the same--with Billy eventually adopting an alias so that he could leave his reputation as an outlaw behind. (You can even theorize that he and Pat Garrett faked his death between movies.)

Anyway, in 1942's The Sheriff of Sage Valley, Billy is still an outlaw. Despite this on his resume, the mayor of Sage Valley asks him to take the job of sheriff to clean up the town. He's reluctant at first, but
circumstances soon convince him to agree.

This puts him up against an interesting villain--the local outlaw leader is Kansas Ed, who just happens to be Billy's physical double. (And he just may turn out to be Billy's actual evil twin brother.) When Billy arrests one of Kansas Ed's men for murder, the villain kidnaps Billy and forces him to switch clothes. Then Kansas, posing as Billy, springs his man from jail. This convinces the townspeople that Billy has joined the outlaws. Now he not only has to catch the bad guys, he's got to prove his own innocence.

Sam Neufield was the director of all 42 Billy the Kid/Billy Carson films and he got better as the series progressed. Though still a little too dependent on poorly-done slapstick humor during the fight scenes, the action in Sage Valley is better choreographed and the story is better paced.

Crabbe is very likable as Billy (I like him better in the role than Steele, though that's very much just my opinion--both are good in the role) and he also manages to give a pretty good "evil" vibe in his double role as Kansas Ed. An actress named Maxine Leslie does a nice job as Kansas Ed's femme fatale girlfriend.

So Billy the Kid was quite active in the B-Movie universe. And changing his name and his shirt doesn't fool me a bit, by golly. Neither does changing actors. That's still Billy the Kid!

This clip will give you a chance to compare Bob Steele and Buster Crabbe in the role.


  1. Remember the movie where Billy the Kid fought Dracula?

  2. I do remember that. It would have been a much better movie if Buster Crabbe had played Billy.

  3. Well it did have John Carradine as Dracula.


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