Skip to main content

My Brush with History

Watching ‘the Outlaw’

May 2024
3min read

Free Passes to a Movie Milestone

One of the benefits of having a grandfather who was a former mayor of Boston, John F. (“Honey Fitz”) Fitzgerald, was that he had free passes to interesting events. Just by paying the tax on a baseball ticket, I could get into a Red Sox or a Braves game. Even better was the pass he had to the RKO theaters, which allowed the bearer and up to five guests to go to the movies free.
In 1949, when I was in junior high school, The Outlaw came to the RKO Keith Memorial Theater. A sexy Western involving Billy the Kid, Sheriff Pat Garrett, and Doc Holliday, it featured a new star, Jane Russell, as the “half-breed” Rio. Howard Hughes had produced the movie with the idea of displaying Jane’s physical attributes, especially her 38-inch bust. In the many advertisements for the movie, she appeared in a low-cut peasant blouse chewing on a piece of straw, a pose that filled my adolescent mind with all sorts of thoughts, or as many as Catholic guilt would allow to sneak in.
As Jane Russell bent over to minister to Billy the Kid, the screen suddenly went dark. The decency police had struck again.

At the time, the city of Boston had two watchdog organizations dedicated to guarding its citizens from moral harm. The Watch and Ward Society, organized in 1878, had given birth to the phrase Banned in Boston; before long, the authors of books, plays, and other entertainments actively sought the designation to draw audiences in other towns. The second group was the Legion of Decency, organized by Roman Catholics in the 1930s. People would stand up in church and pledge never to go to morally objectionable movies or to theaters that showed such films.

When The Outlaw arrived, with all its hype and promise, I couldn’t wait to see it. So one Sunday afternoon, Moosie Molloy, Bimbo Morrissey, Tootsie O’Toole, and I headed into Boston to get my grandfather’s pass.

My grandfather lived in the Bellevue Hotel, right next to the State House. He was always glad to see my friends and me, and after some small talk, we got the pass and headed for the door, full of ourselves and our good fortune. When we got on the elevator, we saw in it a tall man wearing a cowboy hat. A cowboy hat in Boston invited staring, and when I looked closely, I recognized the face under the hat. It was that of the Reverend Billy Graham. His steely blue eyes locked onto mine, and by the way he set his jaw I knew he knew what we were about to do. Guilt welled up in me. Fortunately, my grandfather lived on a low floor, and in a matter of seconds we were off the elevator, released from the reverend’s gaze.

The RKO Keith Memorial was an opulent theater with gold paint, crystal chandeliers, acres of red carpeting, and a grand staircase leading up to the balcony. When you went to the movies there, you felt you were someplace special. My friends and I decided to sit up in the balcony. We figured that by looking down at Jane, we’d have an advantage over those who were looking straight ahead.

Before long, we were treated to the scene in the stable, in which Jane takes a shot at Billy the Kid and then ends up wrestling around in the hay with him. Perhaps that stable is where she picked up the straw for her posters. Later in the film, Billy gets wounded and develops chills. Although Jane had first tried to kill Billy, her mood changes, and she realizes the only way to save him is to climb into bed with him to share her body heat.

As Jane bent over to minister to Billy, my friends and I moved to the edge of our seats. Suddenly the screen went dark, and when the picture returned, Jane was upright, dressed in more proper clothes, and in another room. Every time Jane stooped to adjust her stockings or pick up something from the floor, the screen went black. Eventually, there was an audible groan from the audience. The decency police had struck again. They were not going to let Jane Russell’s bosom corrupt the young minds of Boston, and I’ll bet Billy Graham had a hand in all this as well.

We returned the pass to my grandfather and headed back to Dorchester. As disappointing as the day seemed at the time, perhaps our ordeal was for the best; it allowed all of us to keep on imagining what we had missed. Not long ago, I rented The Outlaw. It really is a poor excuse for a movie. When I remember the agitation the film caused in the 1940s and reflect on what is available to the American public today, I have to smile. If they were still around, the Watch and Ward Society and the Legion of Decency would be busy indeed.

We hope you enjoy our work.

Please support this magazine of trusted historical writing, now in its 75th year, and the volunteers that sustain it with a donation to American Heritage.