Film Project: The Irish SINGER
By chuck pinNell
Behind the towering myth of Billy The Kid stood a real man.
His name was Henry McCarty.
This is his story.
Short treaTment (Excerpt)
It was once the largest county in America, with vast plains of grass rolling away to the east, a twin-peaked giant of a mountain rising up in the center, snowmelt streams winding down through endless canyons in all directions, and a high desert to the west. In the 1870s, this enormous swath of land is peopled with a contentious mix of races and cultures. The great mountain is still home to the subdued Mescalero Apaches, a large U.S. fort built of stone and garrisoned with Buffalo soldiers sits impressively in a lower valley, dozens of New Mexican adobe villages and numerous ranchitas spread out along the Rio Ruidoso, the great cattle baron John Chisum and his sprawling range consume much of the eastern grasslands, and a small but overlording group of tough Irish merchants and bosses hold court in the town of Lincoln—intent on keeping the county in their pocket.
In the fall of 1877, a young blue-eyed orphan named Henry McCarty arrives in Lincoln County on foot, having narrowly survived a solo trek across the Chihuahuan desert and a mountain encounter with Apaches. At the southeastern edge of Lincoln County he providently stumbles onto the Jones homestead and is nursed back to health. From then on, his fate is irrevocably linked with that country and its volatile mix of people. Within five years the world will know him by a catchy moniker—Billy the Kid. An alias created by the heated New Mexican press. One he particularly dislikes, and never uses.
Henry is born and raised in the Irish slums of New York and will carry a trace of brogue the rest of his life. From his colorful and strong-willed mother, he has learned the songs and the lanquage of their homeland, a love of books, a boundless generosity, an unshakable confidence. His mother's tuberculosis forces them West in the early 1870s, all the way to southern New Mexico. We first meet him on the stage of the Silver City Opera House, where he performs regularly, singing songs of the day in a remarkable tenor voice, and sometimes playing female roles in short melodramas and comedies. His mother succumbs to the disease in Silver City, New Mexico, leaving her remarkable son adrift in a dangerous world. Incredibly, this slight but scrappy young man survives and comes of age on the frontier, proudly. At seventeen he is a superb horseman, skilled at gunplay and fisticuffs, fluent in Spanish, and gifted at cards, tricks, and faro in particular. He is resolutely cheerful and always ready with a song or a joke, a snappy Irish proverb or a stinging topper, if needed, with one deadly encounter already under his belt—in the raw town of Ft. Grant, Arizona.
series treaTment: Season One
Epiosode 1. Treading the Boards (Excerpt)
Lincoln County !931
Under an overcast sky, a Ford pickup rattles along a dirt road in the open grass country of southeastern New Mexico, raising a ghostly cloud of dust as it cuts straight for the horizon. Behind the wheel is a weathered cowboy, stetson sharply angled and hand rolled cigarette flaring with a puff. His wife and young son are squeezed in close beside him. "How much further papaw ?" They were up and gone before sunrise, driving through endless fields of faded yellow. " We're a lot closer than we were when we started....quit worrying, we"ll make it in time.' The pickup finally pulls out onto a two lane that runs perpendicular to the eastward mark they've been on all morning, turning east again eventually, and declining towards a little town in the distance. The boy smiles. On the bustling main street they pass the Plains Theater marquee--King Vidor’s Billy the Kid is playing and a crowd is gathering for a Saturday matinee. The Ford noses into a parking spot down the street. As they wait in line, eight-year-old Dorsie Jones is fascinated by the film’s poster. Johnny Mack Brown and Wallace Beery are the leads. Soon they"re in the darkened theater and finding their seats, Dorsie holding onto to his mom"s hand, and his Dad pulling off the Stetson. The Hollywood fable begins to unfold on screen, illuminating a full house of upturned faces. In an impressive desert-wide shot (that looks much more like California than southern New Mexico), we see Billy the Kid ride up to an opponent and offer a challenge in a stagey Southern drawl. He’s dressed in black and always seems to be sneering. Dorsie is having trouble seeing over and around the lady seated in front of him but is nonetheless wide-eyed and amazed at the movie poster come to life.
Forty one miles to the southwest, besides a blackened stone fireplace, Buck Jones is sharpening an impressive pocket knife against a much used wet stone. His gnarled and weather-beaten hands are still deft at their work. Above the fireplace is the Winchester his father had carried all his life, and a reflective studio portrait of his mother hangs nearby. The old place was hearth and home to a large and proud ranching clan, all gone now except Buck and his son Dan. In the evening the clouds are breaking up to the west behind the main ranch house, and as the Ford pickup pulls up to a stop, unraveling with a final shudder--a dusky orange sunset begins to blossom. The much older, original homestead stands a few dozen yards away, on the edge of an empty prairie, with a line of blue mountains tracing the horizon. The boy jumps out and runs over to his grandfather’s place in a state of great excitement. His mother calls after him: “Tell grandpa we got him the medicine, and a block of ice!” His father gives him a knowing glance as Dorsie enters the house. He hovers about the sturdy chair where his grandfather is seated, looking over his shoulder at the knife and chattering about the trip to town and the big picture show. Suddenly Dorsie asks the question that’s burning inside him. “Papaw says you knew Billy the Kid. . . . What was he really like?” The old man looks up at him and breathes a heavy sigh. He rarely talks about the old days, and the “war” (it was a hard time, family blood was spilled). After a pause he begins. . . . The sudden heat in his voice, the impact of his words, stills the wideeyed boy between his grandfather and an open window. Softening light scrims across the rugged lines of the oldtimer’s face. “His name wasn’t Billy the Kid, or William Bonney—it was Henry McCarty and he wasn’t like anything you ever seen. . . . He was a wonder, and a good friend to this family in hard times.” There is a confused depth of emotion and exhilaration in the boy’s eyes. The camera glides past him and out the window, the color beginning to deepen as we speed toward the distant mountains
Silver City, New Mexico
This true story begins with an exterior wide shot of the Silver City Opera House façade, an impressive red brick structure with distinctive Italianate flourishes. The camera lingers briefly on various architectural details—the ornate cornice, elaborate scrolling wooden corbels, the arched windows and doorways—all seen in the long shadows and rich colors of late afternoon. In place of score we hear the sounds of the street, the clamor of accents and languages as patrons file into the building, stringed instruments being plucked into tune, interesting scraps of melody. A bizarre assortment of entertainers are waiting out their cues in a cramped dressing room and hallway. Some are applying makeup, others are playing cards and drinking. The first one up, an eccentric dancer, is going through an odd stretching ritual. The band strikes up a jaunty tune and a frontier vaudeville show begins. The hard-drinking crowd is noisy, howling and guffawing at the extraordinary capering of the dancer, but when a handsome young local named Henry McCarty steps out onto the small proscenium and a stunning tenor voice suddenly rings out in the boomtown theater—a hush begins to build. The camera has been moving through a series of medium-wide shots but now settles on a close-up of Henry. He has an odd, shortbrimmed hat tilted charmingly, pale blue eyes, a crooked grin, and slightly protruding front teeth. His confident physical presence is as unique as his voice.
Henry is collecting his pay backstage, but the manager, who is well aware of the boy’s talent and charm, will double the money for an additional performance of a sexual nature. After a beat, the boy turns to leave and is grabbed from behind. He pretends to go along with it but then wriggles free, dropping the man to the floor with a quick hard jab to the testicles and quickly departing after grabbing his money from the desk. Henry McCarty was on the small side at 5’8”, but muscular and quite a scrappy fighter. He had grown up in a New York City Irish slum—the infamous Five Points.