Wednesday, April 18, 2012

B-Western Wednesday: Rawhide (1938)

A friend of mine from my days in exile in Morgantown once told me about a friend of his who defined sports as comprising two seasons: baseball and “the void.”  I quickly made use of this philosophy for my own purposes (under H.R. 1948, also known as The Berle Act) even though I’ll admit that I have more than a passing interest in college football from time to time.  With the beginning of baseball season on March 28, however, it seems inappropriate for me not to acknowledge it…and then my muse whispered into my ear this morning that this would be the ideal opportunity to talk about Rawhide.

No, not the popular television western that ran on CBS from 1959 to 1966 and made a household name of Clint Eastwood (though I would certainly be willing to discuss that when we have the time)…not even the 1951 oater starring Tyrone Power and Susan Hayward (which is a Western re-do of the earlier slam-bang crime flick Show Them No Mercy! [1935]).  It’s the 1938 Rawhide, which stars short-lived singing cowboy Smith Ballew…and an unlikely co-star in “The Iron Horse” of baseball hizzownself, Lou Gehrig.

“Rawhide” is the small town out west where Gehrig’s sister Peggy (Evelyn Knapp) owns a cattle ranch…one that the Pride of the Yankees has decided to give up baseball for, as he tells a gathering of reporters in the Grand Central Terminal in NYC at the beginning of the film.  (One of the reporters, asking for Lou’s autograph, asks him to “put your brand on that.”)  Arriving at the spread, Gehrig is introduced to the sebaceous Ed Saunders (Arthur Loft), who is in charge of an outfit known as “The Ranchers Protective Association.”  It’s an organization that was launched by the pro-cattleman rancher L.G. McDonnell (Lafe McKee), but Saunders has managed to worm his way into McDonnell’s good graces and transformed the R.P.A. into a real shakedown operation—they charge ranchers exorbitant “association fees” and refuse to allow them to buy supplies outside of town, insisting they “buy locally” (what my grandfather used to refer to as “the company store”) and marking up the price of those goods in the process.  Saunders and his henchman Butch (Dick Curtis) have been leaning on Peggy to join the Association, but she has refused to do so—so Butch and a few of Saunders’ other goons start tearing down fences on the Gehrig ranch, and when Lou tries to stop them one of his hands, Pop Mason (Si Jenks), is shot and wounded in the process.

The iron hand of the R.P.A. has drawn the attention of lawyer Larry Kimball (Bellew), particularly after one rancher (Fred Burns) relates to him how he was ambushed by Saunders’ men after having the audacity to buy feed out-of-town.  Kimball confronts Saunders in the local saloon, but the smarmy villain smugly knows that Lar hasn’t a thing on him, especially since he has the sheriff (Cy Kendall) in his pocket.  But Saunders didn’t count on Lou showing up—and a fierce barroom brawl breaks out, with Gehrig managing to dispatch Saunders’ men with some well-thrown billiard balls.

Larry, Lou and the ranch hands travel out of town to purchase some hay since the local merchants won’t sell to anyone not in the R.P.A.  As can be predicted, Butch and the Saunders gang intercept them as they head back toward the Gehrig ranch and turn over the hay wagons, setting the hay on fire.  So Larry resorts to a bit of chicanery; he asks the foreman (Ed Cassidy) at Saunders’ ranch for help in filling up the wagons with some of Saunders’ hay—the boss has okayed this, since Lou is now an association member.  Foreman Fuller complies with this request, and Saunders is so steamed at being hoodwinked that he pulls out all the stops on his villainy—he diverts the water that runs through the Gehrig’s ranch in attempt to get rid of Lou once and for all.

Larry decides that enough is enough—he’s going to confront old man McDonnell, who’s being kept prisoner at his ranch by Saunders and his men (and who’s slowly being poisoned, thanks to disgraced doctor Edward Cecil), and blow the lid of Saunders’ racket…particularly since Saunders stands to profit from the sale of R.P.A.-sanctioned cattle, with the ranchers not getting a plumb nickel.  Lou tries to stop his sister from signing up with Saunders (she agrees to do so for Larry’s sake) while Larry rescues McDonnell from his captives…then a posse is formed to stop Saunders and his gang from fleeing town with the cattle sale money.  With Saunders, Sheriff Kale and the rest of them hombres locked up in the hoosegow, it looks as if Lou is finally going to settle in living the life of a successful rancher…but a telegram from Florida announcing the start of spring training soon changes his mind, as Rawhide comes to a close.

Palestine, Texas native Smith Ballew certainly had the necessary pedigree to become a B-western hero…and his sweet tenor voice put him in great stead with other members of the singing cowboy fraternity, such as Gene Autry and Roy Rogers.  Ballew originally started out in the entertainment world as a bandleader and vocalist, and after making a noticeable debut in the 1936 film Palm Springs (alongside Francis Langford), independent producer Sol Lesser (for Principal Productions) got the idea to make him a singing cowboy.  Ballew’s five starring westerns (all released by 20th Century Fox) never really clicked with the moviegoing public (read: Saturday matinee fans) despite appearing at #8 in The Motion Picture Herald’s B-Western popularity poll in 1937.  He did some guest appearances here and there in the 1940s (notably the 1948 Columbia serial Tex Granger: Midnight Rider of the Plains) before retiring from the movie bidness in the 1950s and getting in the ground floor at General Dynamics in Fort Worth, TX.

I can’t really judge Ballew’s “cowboyness” since this the only Western of his I’ve seen…but I strongly suspect his voice might have had something to do with his not catching on with the public (it would be sort of like casting Dennis Day as the hero in a western).  And though my Facebook pal Hal Erickson once described Lou Gehrig’s acting (in his only foray into movies) as “strictly from hunger,” I really enjoyed his performance in this movie.  Gehrig’s not acting…he’s essentially being himself, and he’s got a naturalness and self-deprecating sense of humor that completely won me over.  There’s a very amusing sequence where Gehrig is having his first go at riding his horse (“How do you put on these spikes?” he asks Pop Mason, referring to his spurs) and Mason tells him that the key is “walk right up to him like ya wasn’t afraid.”  Gehrig chuckles and cracks: “Oh, I couldn’t be that deceitful.”  (Landing on his ass after he’s thrown by the horse, all Gehrig can editorialize is “Strike one!”)

The plot of Rawhide has been done in Westerns time and time again, so most of a viewer’s enjoyment will come from the novelty of Gehrig’s appearance (Gehrig even sings in a musical number by Ballew, A Cowboy’s Life, though his voice is dubbed by Buddy Clark!) and familiar character faces like Dick Curtis (whom I will always associate with Three Stooges comedies no matter how many Westerns I catch him in) and Cy Kendall (better known to you people who read the weekly Jungle Queen recaps here at TDOY as “Tambosa Tim”).  The one moment in Rawhide that had me laughing out loud is a scene near the end of the film where Ballew has infiltrated the McDonnell ranch in his attempt to rescue L.G. from the bad guys.  He’s hiding in a room when this henchman named Rudy (Tom B. Forman) starts checking the doors...and when he opens the door to Ballew’s hiding place, Smith punches him…

…he breaks the stair railing and hits the opposite wall…

 …then rolls down the stairs.  Ten seconds later, it’s apparent that what might have done some serious damage to any other mere mortal hasn’t fazed him in the slightest (“I’m O.K.!”)

I also found it hard to suppress a giggle during a montage sequence (Rawhide is directed by our old pal Ray Taylor) in which Ballew is rounding up the other ranchers to confront villain Loft (who for some odd reason kept reminding me of Eddie Mayehoff in this thing) and you see Knapp, Gehrig and another player I couldn’t identify making phone calls and Bellew meeting up with other ranchers, riding back with them to town.  I admire the speed and the economy that went into this—Ballew and Company were so speedy getting their team together that catching up with Loft was a piece of cake!

Rawhide is in the public domain, and has been made widely available in a number of formats—you can pick it up for a song anywhere, and for those of you who can’t carry a tune you can watch the presentation on YouTube.  It’s not a great Western by any stretch of the imagination, but it was the first and last time Lou Gehrig made a movie (I’ll resist the obvious crack about not giving up his day job) and if you want my honest opinion it shouldn’t have been his last.  He took the gig because he was a fan of these movies, and in Rawhide he’s clearly having the time of his life.  When I was watching this earlier on the bedroom TV my father came back to my room to request I make him some paper copies and I asked him if he recognized the cowpoke on screen.  Since Gehrig did not possess any automotive features, Dad drew a blank…and after giving him the answer he paused and said: “I like his hat.”


Kevin Deany said...

I read a biography of Lou Gehrig by Jonathan Eig called "Luckiest Man" which was really good. Anyway, in the mid 1930s producer Sol Lesser screen tested Gehrig for a Tarzan movie, I think "Tarzan's Revenge." I can't remember the exact wording, but Lesser thought Gehrig's legs in his loincloth resembled tree trunks. No sex appeal there. So instead, Gehrig made "Rawhide" his only movie.

Jeff Overturf said...

Saw this one years ago...good B Western fun.

Ivan G. Shreve, Jr. said...

Anyway, in the mid 1930s producer Sol Lesser screen tested Gehrig for a Tarzan movie

Gehrig as my niece used to say when she was younger, "I can't like it."

KimWilson said...

The things I learn from reading your blog, Ivan! Lou Gehrig in a western--plus he sings, too. You're right, the novelty alone makes me want to see Rawhide.

Stacia said...

“I’m O.K.!”


Every time I glanced at this post before finally getting around to reading it, I would see what looked like Lou Gehrig on the poster but kept thinking nah, it can't be. BUT IT WAS. I'm just agog at the idea of Gehrig in a western. You dig up the craziest things, Ivan. I love it.