"They're young...they're in love...and they kill people"
Much has been written about the film Bonnie and Clyde since it premiered in Montreal in 1967. It's often cited for the graphic portrayal of violence and frank sexuality, as well as its role in helping to establish the “New American Cinema.” As noted by Lester Friedman in his introduction to Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde, this film and its bold visual statements were made possible by “a unique nexus of conditions within the American film industry and the society that surrounded it: the economic breakdown of the Hollywood studio system, the ideological move toward more explicit depictions of sex and violence, the historical impact of escalating the Vietnam War, the aesthetic influence of European art house films, and the cultural creation of a new film ratings system” (3). The film is frequently considered a reflection of youthful unrest and dissatisfaction with the “establishment" and has been interpreted as a statement on or against police brutality, Vietnam, race riots, and political assassinations. In his contribution to the aforementioned collection, “What’s It Really All About?” screenwriter David Newman offers a number of explanations but ultimately concludes “What we were talking about was what is now known as ‘the Sixties’…If the film is ‘really about’ something, it is about that most of all” (39).
When the film was shown to audiences, frequent mention was made of ‘gratuitous’ or ‘graphic’ violence. The film’s director, however, felt the images shown on the big screen were no more graphic than those viewed nightly by families across America on the small screens of their living rooms. In a 1993 interview for Cineaste, Arthur Penn said “it didn’t even occur to me, particularly, that it was a violent film. Not given the times in which we were living, because every night on the news we saw kids in Vietnam being airlifted out in body bags, with blood all over the place” (9). During a pre-premiere seminar in Denton, Texas, Warren Beatty was asked about charges that the film glamorized violence. Beatty responded “Violence is a matter within an individual. The depression brought on Bonnie and Clyde’s spree. They had an excuse to strike out at The Establishment and they grabbed it” (Denton Record Chronicle, September 14, 1967).
The differences between a premiere of Bonnie and Clyde at the Campus Theatre in Denton, Texas and a premiere in Montreal, New York, or Los Angeles should have been anticipated. Those attending the Southwest premier in Denton, Texas had been alive during the Barrow Gang’s crime spree or knew someone who had a run-in with the notorious outlaws. Both Barrow and Parker were born in North Texas and were criminally active in the region. Many locals also participated as extras in the film’s production in towns like Lavon, Ponder, Pilot Point, Venus, and Midlothian or were let out school and work to catch a glimpse of Hollywood celebrities. Although many of those who lined up to see the premiere cheered when they saw their neighbors on screen, there was also disappointment with manner in which their town, friends, and families were portrayed. Denton Record Chronicle reporter Keith Shelton reported the next day that “A sobered audience filed out of the Campus Theatre after Wednesday night’s premiere of ‘Bonnie and Clyde,’ each person forming his own opinion of the film, but most in agreement that it was not your ordinary crime movie.”
The materials below document the production, premiere, and reception of the film in Denton, Texas and the North Texas region.