From spring 1950, when The Kid was released, all through the 1950s Audie made Westerns at a rate of nearly two a year on average, and when the dreaded 60s dawned, a time when the public seemed to have lost interest in the big-screen oater, Audie rode on regardless, being one of the few to buck the trend. He appeared in fifteen in that decade, as well as episodes of Whispering Smith on TV. Altogether, therefore, counting Whispering Smith as one, he did 34 Westerns, and must be regarded one of the chief figures in our noble genre.
The Westerns weren’t all excellent, but some were, and even in the weaker ones he always seemed the fresh-faced Westerner roamin’ the range and beating the mean hombres when the going got tough. He was enormously popular, and though he sometimes seemed fed up with what he saw as the rut he had got himself into (he once said tiredly “I guess my face is still the same, and so is the dialogue; only the horses were changed”) for the audiences who paid to see his regular Western movies that was a good thing, not a bad one. They liked the formula and wanted it to continue.
Audie Leon Murphy was born in Hunt County, Texas in 1925, the sixth of twelve children of a far from prosperous family. The boy was a loner with mood swings and an explosive temper. His father deserted them in 1939 and his mother died in 1941. Audie left school in fifth grade to pick cotton for a dollar a day and find other work to help support his family. It must have been a truly traumatic time. He once said, “I can’t ever remember being young in my life.”
After Pearl Harbor Audie tried to enlist but was refused because of his youth and lack of weight and height. In June 1942 he tried again, declaring his age to be 18, and was enlisted.
When he was discharged from the Army in September 1945 he was one of America’s most decorated soldiers. For example, he was awarded the Medal of Honor for valor after he single-handedly held off an entire company of German soldiers for an hour in France in January 1945, when he was 19, then leading a successful counterattack while wounded and out of ammunition.
Murphy was affected by what would now be called PTSD. He suffered from insomnia and bouts of depression, and he slept with a loaded pistol under his pillow. A 1947 medical examination revealed symptoms of headaches, vomiting, and nightmares about the war. He took sleeping pills to help prevent the bad dreams and became dependent on them, until he locked himself alone in a hotel room for a week to break the addiction.
When actor and producer James Cagney saw the July 16, 1945 issue of Life magazine with its profile of Murphy, he invited the young man to Hollywood. Cagney and his brother William gave him training in acting, voice and dance, but the association ended in disagreement.
Murphy collaborated with Hollywood writer David ‘Spec’ McClure in writing an autobiography, To Hell and Back, which would later be filmed by Universal and star Audie as himself.
In February 1949 he married the actress Wanda Hendrix but it only lasted a year. She claimed he once held her at gunpoint.
He had a few small parts in movies in 1948 and ’49, then making a mark leading the cast as a juvenile delinquent in Allied Artists’ Bad Boy. Universal Studios signed him to a seven-year contract at $2,500 a week in late 1949. They thought he would be ideal in Westerns.
1950: Audie is Billy and Jesse
There was an astonishing average of over one Western per week released throughout the 1950s, 600 in total, a figure we can only dream of now, and Universal made 72 of them. Audie was in at the start with The Kid from Texas (1), released by the studio in March 1950.
It was logical that Audie would play Billy the Kid, and indeed his long-lasting baby face secured him ‘kid’ roles well into the 1960s. Audie was actually already 25, whereas the real Bonney died aged 21, but the star does look incredibly young. For yes, The Kid from Texas tells the tale of Billy the Kid (being Audie, they invented the fact that Billy came from Texas, which of course he did not) and it is one of those annoying movies that begin with a mendacious voiceover saying, “The facts were as you will see them.” This pseudo-factual approach is strengthened by the spoken commentary (by Parley Baer) that punctuates the narrative, giving a ‘documentary’ feel to the film. Many movies were perfectly happy to tell the fanciful legend of Bonney/McCarty/Antrim (take your pick) and have a lot of fun but without absurd claims as to veracity. But for some reason makers of Westerns often felt moved to claim historical authenticity, even for the most ludicrous exaggerations and falsehoods. Universal director Kurt Neumann and writers Robert H Andrews and Karl Kamb went down this route but the story of Billy as told is not “the facts”: it is in fact complete bunkum.
But as a Western movie it’s still a lot of fun. Purely as a Billy the Kid film it was no worse than many another and alot better than some, despite the monkeying about with “the facts”. It did well at the box-office. Murphy’s fame helped a lot and casting him as a troubled youth resorting to violence didn’t hurt.
Later the same year Audie would give another violent youth the same treatment when he played Jesse James in Kansas Raiders.
But before Kansas Raiders Audie appeared in Sierra (2), released in May. Sierra, based on the Stuart Hardy novel The Mountains Are My Kingdom, was a remake of Universal’s 1938 black & white melodrama Forbidden Valley with Noah Beery Jr. It was far from Audie’s greatest Western. It had a rather improbable plot and in it Murphy showed limited range as an actor. He spent most of it being surly, like his part in Bad Boy.
It was directed by Alfred E Green, a real vet who went right back to being an actor in the Selig Polyscope days in 1912, directing features, as Al Green, from 1917. Sierra was the last of only four Westerns he ever directed in that very long career, so he was hardly a specialist. The picture is attractive to look at. It was shot in Technicolor by Russell Metty and the locations round Kanab, UT are really nice. There are some great shots of running horses.
The co-star was Wanda Hendrix, still Mrs. Murphy at the time, though the marriage was on the rocks and they would soon divorce. There’s a story that during the filming the Murphys camped in the bed of the dry Kanab Creek but a sudden cloudburst caused a flash flood. Audie “leaped on the back of his horse, grabbed Miss Hendrix and rode up the canyon-side to safety.” Pity the cameras weren’t rolling. They could have used that footage in the movie.
In Kansas Raiders (3), Murphy’s Jesse is a decent boy shocked by the brutalities of Quantrill’s band. He leaves Missouri to join Quantrill in Kansas because Redlegs have burnt his farm, hung his Pappy and maimed his Ma in a fire-bombing. He’s a goodie Jesse just as he was a goodie Billy the Kid in The Kid from Texas.
PROC. BY MOVIES