‘American Experience: Bonnie and Clyde’: Demythologizing the duo

For movie buffs, Bonnie and Clyde are the five-foot-seven Faye Dunaway and the six-foot-two Warren Beatty from the 1967 movie “Bonnie and Clyde,” but “American Experience: Bonnie and Clyde” reminds us of the reality.

Beatty was 29 when he produced and starred in the movie. Dunaway was 26. Bonnie Elizabeth Parker was almost 24 when she died. Clyde Chestnut Barrow was 25 and only a slight five-foot-four.  Bonnie was about 90 lbs. and just under five feet. As boyish as Beatty looked in the movie, he can’t project the vulnerability of a small man in a touchy situation, one whose power was in the guns he had outside of prison and who would have been a target to much physical and mental abuse in prison.  According to the program, Barrow was repeatedly raped in the Eastham Prison Farm where he was from 1930-1932 and his first murder was one of self-defense against his rapist tormentor. As a fellow inmate at Eastham Prison Farm puts it, Barrow changed “from a schoolboy to a rattlesnake.”

After he got out, he continued to rob gas stations, grocery stores and bank. Yet he was determined to avoid more jail time. While they did have a gang, they were nowhere near as organized as a mafia. What made these two criminals capture the American public’s imagination were the images they left behind after one of their escapes from the law. Undeveloped film was processed and the photos published. Bonnie and Clyde are seen clowning around with guns and posing with their car. In one, Bonnie, who reportedly chained smoked cigarettes, is seen holding a cigar.

Image is everything and the local curiosities, the small-town robbers, became the ill-fated lovers of the Depression era. “American Experience” uses archival footage and expert commentary to demythologize the two from their childhoods to their betrayal and bloody deaths, but also provides a sympathetic portrayal of the two outlaws.  “American Experience: Bonnie and Clyde” can be viewed online at PBS American Experience.

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