The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean

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It’s the late John Huston’s birthday, and so, a little tribute to his 1972 western The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean. This is a very interesting artifact, very much of a piece with the other new westerns of its time. Like Jeremiah Johnson and Little Big Man and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (the latter of which had also starred Paul Newman) it plays with the idea of the tall tale and the opposite idea that this story just might be true.  Texas Hanging Judge Roy Bean was a real historical figure, but he was also the stuff of legend.  (Like those aforementioned movies, Roy Beans gives its legendary story a tragic dimension. There is this idea of a flaw in the American character leading to unhappiness. For the most part Bean plays like a silly comedy, but there’s more to it. Also like other movies of the time, such as The King of Marvin Gardens or The Last Detail, it feels plotless and randomly episodic — experimental. Usually such films were rooted in verite though, whereas this one is outlandish.

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We also see that, in the wake of Butch Cassidy,  Paul Newman got the mistaken idea that he had a flair for comedy. That film also showcases Newman as another western legend, also wearing a derby hat. In this one, they blatantly copy the Raindrops Keep Falling on my Head sequence, with a montage scene cut to a terrible song called Honeysuckle, Molasses and Honey sung by Andy Williams. Fast forward over this! Newman plays Judge Bean, “the Only Law West of the Pecos”. A wanted bank robber, he walks out of the desert into a godforsaken frontier saloon one day, and is attacked by all the dirty people within. They cold cock him, drag him from a horse and leave him for dead. A girl gives him a gun and he returns to kill everyone in the bar. (The first tall tale of the film: he single handedly kills about 20 people). He finds a law book on the table, and sets himself up to be a judge. His main character trait is an obsession with the actress Lillie Langtry. He names the bar “The Jersey Lily”  in her honor, and calls the town that will grow there Langtry.

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Bean’s idea of justice is cruel and capricious. He shoots and hangs bad guys. He makes a bunch of low-lifes his marshals, and a bunch of prostitutes their wives. This is the core of his new town. John Huston himself plays Grizzly Adams, who gives Bean a big, beer drinking grizzly bear, who becomes his best friend. Stacy Keach plays a hilarious character called Bad Bob, a flamboyant albino who comes to town to cause trouble, and whom Bean literally shoots a hole through. Roddy McDowall plays a back east lawyer who ends up taking over the whole town. With some more shaping, this could have been a better movie. When we start to get interested it’s too late in the picture. The real meat of it should be Bean’s relationship with the Mexican girl who becomes his wife (Jacquelyn Bisset). He is an eccentric, too weird and ornery to show love. But then the girl dies in his arms from childbirth just as he has gotten back from a misguided quest to see Lily Langtry perform. Obsessed with someone he doesn’t even know, he has lost the only woman he’ll ever love who’s right in front of him. The last act happens 20 years later — 1919. The town is now an oil boom town run by McDowall. His daughter (Victoria Principal) is the ward of Bean’s bartender Ned Beatty. But McDowall is forcing them out. Bean returns and blows up the whole town, returning it to desert. In the end, his bar becomes a museum, and Langtry (Ava Gardner) finally comes to visit.

An interesting, if flawed film, and a worthy double feature with William Wyler’s 1940 The Westerner. 

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