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Bonnie & Clyde, romantic rogues, re-visited on PBS

In a new documentary, Bonnie & Clyde, the star-crossed lovers are put in the context of their time in a way that adds color to their exploits and frames their inevitable deaths by law enforcement.
In a new documentary, Bonnie & Clyde, the star-crossed lovers are put in the context of their time in a way that adds color to their exploits and frames their inevitable deaths by law enforcement.

The legend of the beret-wearing, gun-toting Bonnie Parker and her shady-looking gangster beau Clyde Barrow is part of American folklore.

But even as much as the public thinks it knows about the star-crossed bank robbers and killers, it turns out there is more to learn - and to see.

In a new documentary, Bonnie & Clyde, premiering Tuesday on PBS from 9:00 to 10:00 pm ET as part of the American Experience program, the star-crossed lovers are put in the context of their time in a way that adds color to their exploits and frames their inevitable deaths by law enforcement.

The show opens with remarkable footage of lines of people outside two funeral homes in Dallas in May 1934 who had come to see the bodies of Bonnie and Clyde, wiped out by a barrage of more than 150 bullets in Louisiana as they were in a car by the side of the road. Their notoriety was so great that the lines continued for three days.

But what was behind the intense interest? One expert in the period and their lives, Jeff Guinn, an author and former Fort Worth Star-Telegram writer who wrote a book about them, “Go Down Together: The True Untold Story of Bonnie and Clyde,” sees a “Romeo and Juliet” effect.

Both children of the Depression, the two came from poverty-stricken Texas families who had settled in Dallas and had no prospects other than each other. The public ate up the tabloid-driven images of a couple on the lam, fueled by playful photos of Bonnie as a cigar-chomping glamorous gun moll that police found after they escaped a police raid in Joplin, Mo.

Interviews with a niece of Bonnie’s and a nephew of Clyde’s, as well as family photos, give a fuller understanding of the families that stood behind them, even as they knew their crime wave spelled their demise.

“Bonnie was just a cute little Texas girl,” said Rhea Leen Linder, Bonnie’s niece. Bonnie was close to her widowed mother and loved going to the “picture houses” to see movies. Barrow was a small-time hood from a large family who was very good at working on cars and stealing them.

It turns out that cars were essential to Barrow’s early success as a thief - not only could he jump-start them, the new powerful Ford V-8s gave him the speed to get away from the cops.

Clyde met Bonnie in 1930 and they had an “electric” connection from the start that later fascinated the press. But Barrow moved up from small-time crime to shooting and killing police who tried to stop him. Bonnie was very much an accomplice though it is not clear that she killed anyone. And the rotating number of misfits who joined them in their on-the-road adventures robbing banks and gas stations were determined not to get caught.

The program does not sugar-coat the Barrow Gang’s killings - nine law enforcement officers as well as several civilians - but it doesn’t focus on the victims, either. Barrow killed Tarrant County Deputy Sheriff Malcolm Davis Jan. 6, 1933 when Parker and gang members stumbled into a police trap set for someone else.

And in horrific murders on Easter Sunday 1934, Barrow and Henry Methvin killed two motorcycle cops, state patrol officer Ed Wheeler of Fort Worth and his partner H.D. Murphy. The policemen had surprised Parker and the two men who were sitting in a car in a rural area north of Fort Worth waiting to meet family members.

Wheeler’s widow, Doris Brown Edwards contacted the Star-Telegram in 1996 , upset about the ongoing romanticization of the duo. “What is everybody thinking?” she said. “My husband was killed by Bonnie and Clyde.”

The executive producer of Bonnie & Clyde is Mark Samels and it was written, produced, and directed by John Maggio.

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