The Barrow Gang’s Success was Due to the Large Number of Skirts they Hid Behind
Thanks to Arthur Penn’s movie, the impression was made that Bonnie and Clyde were self-sufficient, mature adults who could hold their own against anything that life threw their way. The truth is that almost all members were mentally and emotionally teenagers who had yet to cut the apron springs and relied on their family members to such an extent that they had secret meetings with mothers, fathers, sisters and other members of extended family at least once a month for the entire two years they were active.
In some instances, they even brought family members with them to their hideout. For example, when Bonnie was horribly injured in a terrible car accident in 1933, Clyde picked up her sister, Billie, so they could spend time together. Billie spent so much time hanging out with the Barrow Gang that she was accidentally fingered–and almost went to jail–in a case of mistaken identity when witnesses ID’ed her as an accomplice in a bank robbery.
Members of the Barrow Gang also ran to family for money and creature comforts. Floyd Hamilton, the brother of Ray Hamilton, recalled how the couple would go crawling back to family for cash and other things, saying that in spite of robbing so many places, Bonnie and Clyde were always poor. Bonnie, for instance, asked her mother for a pillow that could make sitting during her long stretches on the road more comfortable.
So many family members aided and abetted Bonnie and Clyde that almost two dozen of them were all indicted and sentenced to jail, including their mothers, Emma Parker and Cumie Barrow. They were not “old and feeble biddies”, either, like Emma Parker was depicted in the 1967 film. Not only did they know they were being watched by the police, they communicated in code over the phone for secret family reunions, because they knew their phones were wiretapped.
Wow, you touched on everything I dislike about this movie. Great article! The only way I can come close to enjoying this movie is to pretend I’m watching a fictional film whose lead characters happen to be named Bonnie and Clyde.
The only thing I wonder is how much of the blame can be placed on Warren Beatty himself. He was the producer and the star, and from what I’ve read he had just about influence on the tone of the picture as Arthur Penn. A moot point, possibly, but worth mentioning…
In researching this article, I do believe you’re correct about the extent of his influence. I remember reading that the real life Blanche Barrow and some other people were either approached by him personally or were made to understand that he was the one who was behind the entire project.
Fortunately, there were a few people that, when the film was released, saw it for what it was. Chicago Daily News columnist Mike Royko wrote a piece where he used quotes from of some of the pair’s victims to show that they were not heroes in any sense of the word. Also, the Mad Magazine parody ended with Beatty announcing his next picture – a film about another cute, fun-loving couple of the 1930’s: Adolf Hitler and Eva Braun.
Unfortunately, much of the cultural elite of the time got on the ‘New Hollywood’ bandwagon, even going so far as to lambast film critics that saw the film for what it was, a cynical effort to cash in on youth coulture.
I remember reading a book on the history of film criticism that belittled an older NYT critic by saying “and he didn’t even get Bonnie and Clyde!” Well, maybe he did, and just didn’t like what he saw.
I’m currently trying to fill in the gaps of what I thought I knew about New Hollywood (to counter the decades of propaganda), and in all the material that I’ve read, it’s been nothing but infuriating to read how the cultural elites you talked about successfully used this movie as a cultural flashpoint. From what I understand, it was Pauline Kael who led the vanguard, who–ironically (or maybe not)–later got screwed over by Warren Beatty himself out of spite for having poorly reviewed Heaven Can Wait.
What’s so ironic about the movie being lauded as oh, so countercultural was that it was actually subverting it. Folk music had exploded in the 1960s when American youth rediscovered the likes of Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger, who had been the voice of the dispossessed and laborers during The Great Depression. When the folk music renaissance was at its peak, this movie appropriated it to glamorize two criminal sociopaths who killed police and robbed and steal out of cowardice.
What resulted were two things: a subliminal message to The Establishment that this is what the countercultural movement really stood for (violence and mayhem), as well as spoiling the folk music renaissance so that the true members of the counterculture would immediately abandon it. This subversion was so beautifully played that I have to wonder if it wasn’t planned.