It’s been almost 50 years since actor/producer Warren Beatty revitalized his career with Bonnie & Clyde (1967). Directed by Arthur Penn, the film’s art-house take on the ill-fated Depression-era outlaw couple, Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker, turned true crime cinema on its ear and Faye Dunaway into an instant star and fashion icon.
Brutally violent and sexually explicit for its time, the film was also a game-changer in the fashion industry… glamorizing the clothing and accessories (the pencil skirt and beret, for instance) and boy toys (big cars and bigger guns) prevalent in the early 1930s. Aside from Dunaway, Beatty’s Bonnie & Clyde introduced the considerable talents of Gene Hackman and Estelle Parsons to the movie-going public. Not too shabby. Not too realistic either.
The PBS series, American Experience, attempts to set the record straight with Bonnie & Clyde, an informative, well-researched documentary debunking the romantic myths surrounding the deadly duo. The hour-long film, written, produced and directed by John Maggio and narrated by actor Michael Murphy, debuts on PBS tonight, January 19, 2016, 9:00 -10:00 p.m. ET. (Check local listings for air times in your region and http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience for DVD availability.)
Beatty’s opus saw the light of day half-a-century ago; but the media blitz surrounding Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker began in real time in the early 1930s, during their crime spree at the height of the Great Depression. This was decades before reality TV hit the airwaves and made media stars of similarly star-crossed lovers and tawdry fringe-dwellers.
Depression-era Americans were prime for escapist fare and entranced by underdog “heroes” to root for and against. It was a time when the media documented the exploits of ruthless, particularly “slippery” career criminals like “Pretty Boy” Floyd, “Baby Face” Nelson, John Dillinger and, eventually, Clyde Barrow and his female accomplice, Bonnie Parker.
Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker’s impoverished childhoods on the fringes of Dallas, Texas, seemed to drive their destiny. At a young age, perhaps out of necessity, Clyde followed his older brother’s chosen profession, petty thievery. But the boy soon passed on the penny ante and became an adept and notorious car thief. He set his sights on snazzy new automobiles with powerful V-8 engines, adopting his them as his signature mode of transportation and escape.
Bonnie, a good student and lifelong poet, was smitten with movie star glamour. Raised in a single parent home, she longed for a life on the right side of the tracks. She apparently found her soul mate in Clyde shortly before his particularly brutal stint in prison…an ordeal that sealed his resolve never to be captured and incarcerated again.
While on a brazen 12-state crime spree–robbing banks, gas stations and grocery stores–Clyde, Bonnie and their gang of ex-cons were forced to kill or be killed. The Barrow gang eventually included Clyde’s older brother, Buck, and sister-in-law, Blanche. Barely dodging capture in the spring of 1933, the Barrow gang left behind clothing, jewelry, weapons, Bonnie’s poetry and a stash of unprocessed film in their hide-out in Missouri.
The photos, including shots of Bonnie and Clyde canoodling with each other and their firearms, were developed and first published in The Joplin (MO) Globe and then in newspapers across the country. Their identities and mythic criminal exploits as the first ever outlaw couple fueled the media mill, i.e., newspapers, magazines and newsreels, of the day. Bonnie and Clyde found their arch-nemesis in relentless Texas lawman Frank Hamer and met their maker after Hamer deftly orchestrated their ambush and slaughter in May 1934 amidst a hail of 150-plus bullets.
Award-winning filmmaker John Maggio tells the tale of these star-crossed lovers via a briskly edited, fascinating mix of personal photos, visual samples of Bonnie’s hand-written poetry, vintage newspaper clippings and newsreel footage, anecdotes from the couple’s surviving kin and period context from articulate regional historians. Black and white news photos and newsreel footage documenting Bonnie and Clyde’s gruesome slaughter, bullet-riddled bodies and subsequent “movie star” funerals stoked the public’s fascination with the couple at the time and are eye-opening additions to this film.
Although American Experience: Bonnie & Clyde is much too brief to explore much of the couple’s personal motivation and back story, it should make for an interesting counterpoint to programs featuring Warren Beatty’s 1967 fictionalized bio-pic, Bonnie & Clyde. It will also serve as a discussion catalyst in schools, universities and libraries focusing on the dynamics of building and branding media stars who may be less than model citizens.
American Experience: Bonnie & Clyde, executive produced by Mark Samels for WGBH Boston, debuts on PBS tonight, January 19, 2016, 9:00 -10:00 p.m. ET. (Check local listings for air times in your region.) You should also visit http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience for updates on the film’s availability on DVD, as well as additional formats and further reading. –Judith Trojan