Vinson: Bonnie & Clyde changed culture

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On back-to-back nights, December 8 and 9, 2013, A&E, History, and Lifetime channels (all owned by A&E, by the way) aired a two-part series titled, Bonnie and Clyde: Wanted Dead or Alive. Each part was 2 hours long, and received good ratings.

 Fueled, in part, by the Great Depression of 1929, a logical theory is that the early-to-mid 1930s was Golden Age—the “Public Enemy Era”— for American gangsters and bank robbers. While banks were foreclosing on the homes and farms of honest, hard working, red-blooded Americans, there were those who didn’t adhere to legal protocol and, instead, were walking into those same banks, brandishing Thompson sub-machine guns, cleaning out the cash registers and vaults, sometimes spilling blood in the process.

 Names such as John Dillinger, Baby Face Nelson, Pretty Boy Floyd, and the male-female team of Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker, aka “Bonnie and Clyde,” were headline news on a near-daily basis, the nation over.

 Ironically enough, a good portion of mainstream America viewed these bank robbers as heroes, not villains. Why so? Because the bank robbers were taking back from the banks what the banks had taken from mainstream America. (NOTE: It has been written that as of 1933, Public Enemy Number 1 John Dillinger was the “most popular” person in America, more popular than even baseball star Babe Ruth and United States President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.)

 There are several stories as to how Clyde Barrow, an ex con, and Bonnie Parker, a waitress, met in Texas. However, history does credibly establish that Bonnie and Clyde went on a two-year robbing and killing spree and, in the process, became an integral part of American folklore. Along with sordid rumors of strange sexual behavior, their everlasting lore is enhanced by a photo of a petite Bonnie with one leg, unladylike, up on the bumper of a car, a revolver in her hand, a cigar in her mouth. From this photo, the Press dubbed her the “cigar smoking gun moll.”

 On May 23, 1934, near Bienville Parish, Louisiana, Bonnie Parker, 23, and Clyde Barrow, 25, were killed in a roadside shootout with a posse of Texas officers led by legendary Texas Ranger Frank Hammer.
The shootout was brutal, as the officers unloaded a reported 130 rounds into Bonnie and Clyde . . . and that, readers, is where this column takes a turn:

 In 1967, Warner brothers released the movie Bonnie and Clyde, starring Warren Beatty as Clyde Barrow, and Faye Dunaway as Bonnie Parker. Beatty also produced the movie. Though many obstacles had to be overcome regarding the production and release of the 1967 Bonnie and Clyde, it, ultimately, would be a mega success . . . popular to this very day.

 However, it’s the last scene that forever changed filmmaking in America. Barrow (Beatty) and Parker (Dunaway) are milling about their car, parked on the side of the road, when the Texas lawmen bushwhack them, riddling them with round after round. Trapped, Bonnie and Clyde helplessly cringe, jerk, flail about, and finally die, covered in blood. It was the first time in American film history that a movie showed to audiences, in color, such unbridled violence in such graphic, close-up detail.

The killing scene in Bonnie and Clyde flipped a “bird” to the Old Guard of the motion picture industry and opened a door to the more liberal, pony-tailed generation. The consensus was: “Hey, man, if our boys are getting blown away in Vietnam—when we shouldn’t even be there—then we have a right to see it on the screen.”

 Thus, violence on the big screen has been with us ever since.

 Of a lighter note, the theme song to the 1967 Bonnie and Clyde was the lively banjo instrumental “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” by bluegrass super group Flatt and Scruggs (Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs).
 Not only did “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” become a sensational hit and win numerous awards, it had a crossover effect and introduced bluegrass music to a whole new generation of listeners, and has continued to be mainstay of American culture ever since.

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Mike Vinson
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