Why Bonnie and Clyde Won't Die

The duo lives on in film after film because the ordinary couple's desire for fame, not riches, resonates through the decades.
A&E / Joseph Viles

“Who were Bonnie and Clyde?” asked the great novelist Nelson Algren in his introduction to a 1968 reissue of The True Story of Bonnie and Clyde by Emma Parker, Bonnie’s ma, and Clyde’s sister, Nell Barrow Cowan. His answer:

They were outcasts of the cotton frontier. They were children of the wilderness whose wilderness has been razed; who came to maturity in the hardest of times. Clyde might have survived to a sad old age by chopping cotton. Bonnie might have knocked about as a sharecropper’s wife or a prostitute until worn out by hard use. The two chose, instead, to give everyone a run for their lives. And, having once committed themselves, made a run which verged upon the uncanny.

“Verged upon the uncanny.” I can think of no better description to explain why two individuals are remembered eight decades after their deaths. Their story has been adapted and reimagined time and again, including in recent biographies, a 2011 Broadway musical that was also staged in Seoul this year, and a new made-for-television two-part production directed by Bruce Beresford. (Part One aired last night simultaneously on the History Channel, A&E, and Lifetime. Part Two airs tonight.) Each retelling has turned Clyde Chestnut Barrow and Bonnie Elizabeth Parker into avatars for the society’s shifting notions about what, exactly, makes seemingly normal people break bad.

As Algren hints, part of the duo’s appeal was that they stood the American dream on its head, using violence to achieve fame in a society that otherwise excluded them because of their low beginnings. Clyde was described by one biographer as “short and scrawny,” and Bonnie, said a family friend, was “a cute little old girl.” They met in the poverty-ravaged campground of West Dallas, known to respectable locals as “the Devil’s back porch.” Clyde already had a record as a petty criminal; his first offense was stealing chickens. He later graduated to gas-station and grocery-store holdups, one of which got him sent to the filthy hellhole of Eastham prison farm, where he was raped by a prisoner. (He took revenge by clubbing the man to death.) Parker was an out-of-work West Dallas waitress when she met Clyde, with whom she immediately felt a spiritual bond.

The two became celebrities from Texas to Alabama to Iowa, where newspaper stories and radio accounts of their bank robberies and armory break-ins (to steal automatic weapons and ammunition) fascinated the poor and desperate people struggling with the Great Depression.

The two might have been forgotten today if they had simply been captured and prosecuted. Instead, the special posse that had been tracking them for nearly a year ambushed them on a back road in Bienville Parish, Louisiana, on May 23, 1934. In that moment, Bonnie and Clyde transformed, forevermore, from real people into pure cultural spectacle.

“Officers had arrived to control the crowd,” Algren wrote. “Bonnie’s hair had been clipped off, her bloody dress had been torn to shreds, and her purse rifled. Somebody was prying off her rings and somebody else was trying to cut off one of Clyde’s ears when a doctor got there.” At Bonnie’s funeral, some of the crowd, estimated to be around 40,000, “would have hacked the wooden casket to splinters for the sake of having souvenirs. Hot dog and soft-drink vendors turned a pretty penny.”

People tend to think that it was Arthur Penn’s divisive 1967 film starring Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway that reestablished Barrow and Parker in the public’s mind. But in fact, by 1967 Bonnie and Clyde had already inspired enough movies to stock a film festival. The first few were based on a little-known classic of American literature, Edward Anderson’s Thieves Like Us. The book, a retelling of the Bonnie and Clyde story published in 1937, earned critical comparisons to both Hemingway and Faulkner. Raymond Chandler called it “one of the great forgotten novels of the thirties.”

Anderson, wrote critic Lawrence Block, “captured wonderfully the ordinary quality of criminals. Bowie [the Clyde figure] and T-Dub and Chicamaw [the gang members] are neither the exploited downtrodden souls of typical proletarian novels of the period or warped misfits … They see themselves as working men whose work is robbery, and see everyone in the street world—lawyers, politicians, businessmen, Wall Street capitalist—as thieves like us.”

Curiously, Anderson’s novel remains obscure even though it has inspired three well-received films. The first and most popular is Fritz Lang’s You Only Live Once, made in the year Anderson’s book was published. Henry Fonda and Sylvia Sidney are Eddie and Joan, lovers forced into criminal actions by the indifference and cruelty of society; Eddie, who’s been in jail three times, wants to find a job and be respectable, but “they”—the law and criminal justice establishment—won’t let him. Wrongly accused of a murder, he escapes from jail when Joan smuggles him a gun and kills his first man in self-defense. It ends the way all Bonnie and Clyde films end. Well made, well acted, with a sociopolitical view so simple that no one could fail to get its message, You Only Live Once is still regarded by many critics as one of the best films of the 1930s.

They Live By Night (1949), by another legendary director, Nicholas Ray, and starring Farley Granger and Cathy O’Donnell, has been called “possibly the most romantic crime film ever made.”  For this interpretation, Ray saw the lovers/bank robbers as reflecting rebellious and misunderstood youth. (It was a theme he would explore again in Rebel Without a Cause.)

Presented by

Allen Barra writes about sports for the Wall Street Journal and TheAtlantic.com. His next book is Mickey and Willie--The Parallel Lives of Baseball's Golden Age.

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