THE AMERICAN WEST (mostly): Fact and Fiction (mostly fiction)





"NOBODY GETS TO BE A COWBOY FOREVER." -- Chet Rollins (Jack Palance) in MONTE WALSH (NG, 1970)

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Sunday, February 9, 2014

RAWHIDE (Fox, 1951)

 
Interesting poster; of course nothing remotely resembling it appeared in the film







DIRECTOR: Henry Hathaway; PRODUCER: Samuel G. Engel; WRITER: Dudley Nichols; CINEMATOGRAPHER: Milton Krasner

CAST: Tyrone Power, Susan Hayward, Hugh Marlowe, Dean Jagger, Edgar Buchanan, Jack Elam, George Tobias, Jeff Corey, James Millican, Louis Jean Heydt, Robert Adler, Milton Corey, Dick Curtis, Judy & Jody Dunn, Edith Evanson, William Haade, Howard Negley, Walter Sande, Max Terhune, Kenneth Tobey, Dan White

NARRATOR: Gary Merrill



THE PLOT.

Tom Owens’ (Tyrone Power) father has sent him out west from St. Joe to the Rawhide Pass relay station so that he can learn the stagecoach business under the tutelage of veteran station manager Sam Todd (Edgar Buchanan).  The stagecoach line is known as the “Jackass Mail” because it uses mules to pull stagecoaches that transport mail and passengers between San Francisco and St. Louis.  Rawhide is located in a remote and desolate area halfway between the two destinations and Tom’s father thought it would be a good place for his son to learn the business from the ground up.  Tom’s exile is almost over and he is anxious to return to the more hospitable environs back east.



One day while the passengers of an eastbound stage are eating their meal, soldiers arrive to warn Sam and Tom that an outlaw by the name of Rafe Zimmerman (Hugh Marlowe) and three other convicts have broken out of prison, held up one of the line’s stages, and killed its driver.  Fearing that the outlaws are planning to rob the eastbound stage and since it is the line’s policy that young children are never to be placed in jeopardy, the protesting Vinnie Holt (Susan Hayward) and her little toddler niece (Judy Dunn) are forced to remain at the station to await the next eastbound stage.


Arriving at the station later in the day is a man who claims to be a deputy sheriff.  Believing him, Tom and Sam relax only to have the man pull his gun and announce that he is Zimmerman.  He then calls in his three henchmen, Gratz (George Tobias), Yancy (Dean Jagger), and Tevis (Jack Elam).  Zimmerman’s plan is to allow the westbound stage to pass uncontested that evening and to rob tomorrow’s eastbound coach, which is reportedly carrying a rich cargo of gold bullion. 



With the arrival of the outlaws, the stage is set (pun intended) for one of those basic hostage stories that we have all viewed and enjoyed down through the years, films such as YELLOW SKY (Fox, 1948), THE TALL T (Columbia, 1957), DAY OF THEOUTLAW (UA, 1959), HOMBRE (Fox, 1967), and at least a dozen others that could be listed.  Those are all excellent films and it is a supreme compliment to say that RAWHIDE holds its own against all of them.



And why not?  What transpires after the arrival of Zimmerman and company is a taut story written by a talented scriptwriter (Dudley Nichols; worked on thirteen scripts for John Ford), directed by a veteran director (Henry Hathaway), featuring two A-list stars and an excellent supporting cast, topped off by brilliant black-and-white photography by an artist (Milton Krasner) who took great advantage of the Alabama Hills topography. 



If you have seen the film then you know how it all turns out and if you haven’t then I shouldn’t tell you.  You should watch it and find out for yourself to see what happens – and I don’t believe you will be disappointed.



THE STARS.

RAWHIDE was viewed by critics at the time as just another oater.  The Variety reviewer wrote, “Despite a strongly-told story…picture isn’t the proper vehicle for Power, who is wasted in part and comes off second best to a number of other players…Power is never permitted a chance as a hero.”  So, does Power always have to be the hero?  Is anybody this side of John Wayne expected to be always brave, courageous, and bold?  Sometimes the best acting occurs when actors are cast against type.



Power came from an acting family and he always resented the fact that he was celebrated more for his looks than his acting.  By all accounts, he relished his role in RAWHIDE because it was a change of pace from the swashbuckling costume dramas that had been his specialty.  In addition, he said he was thankful that he did not have a single costume change in the whole film (In fact, as far as I can tell, nobody did.).



And despite the view of the Variety reviewer, I would have to say that his character was heroic in the film.  He was an ordinary man who admitted that he was frightened and yet when the showdown arrived, as it inevitably would, he overcame his fear and rose to the occasion.  In the end, he did “what a man’s gotta do.”  Isn’t that how Westerns define a hero?



Power appeared in only a few Westerns, but he did have the good fortune to star in one classic, JESSE JAMES (Fox, 1939), in which he played the title role with Henry Fonda as brother Frank.  And while RAWHIDE, which receives better reviews today than it did at the time of its release, is never going to be considered a classic, it is a good representative of the many fine Westerns that were produced in the ‘50’s, the genre’s greatest decade.



Susan Hayward was known for her beauty, but unlike her co-star, was also recognized for her acting talent.  After being nominated for a best actress Oscar four times, she finally won the fifth time for her performance in I WANT TO LIVE (UA, 1958).



She also appeared in only a few Westerns.  The best of them was RAWHIDE and another excellent and underrated film, CANYON PASSAGE (Universal, 1946).  In RAWHIDE, she portrays a fiery, forceful, and resourceful female not usually found in the Western genre. 



THE SUPPORTING CAST.

Brian Garfield wrote a glowing review of RAWHIDE in his book Western Films: A Complete Guide.  However, the last line was surely the best review that one of the film’s actors ever received.  Garfield wrote, “[m]ost of all, however, it is Hugh Marlowe’s electrifying performance that makes it top-drawer.”



That’s not bad for a guy who came into the world as Hugh Herbert Hipple.  Therefore, he made at least one good move early in his career when he changed his name.  He was never a star but he did have some good supporting roles in a number of acclaimed films. 



He appeared in a number of TV Westerns, but like the two stars, he appeared in only a few on the big screen.  One of them was his role as Susan Hayward’s husband in GARDEN OF EVIL (Fox, 1954)The Western also starred Gary Cooper and Richard Widmark and was directed by Henry Hathaway.



An acting career that lasted fifty years was topped off by his role of the family patriarch on the TV soap opera, Another World, a role that he filled from 1969 until his death in 1982.  Although the New York Times failed to include Marlowe’s tenure in soap opera land in its obituary, it did say that he was survived by his brother G. Worthington Hipple.  I wonder what that G. stood for, but I digress.



Marlowe’s character had his hands full at Rawhide Pass.  He had to plan the hold-up, control the hostages, and keep his three henchmen in line – especially Tevis.  Tevis, as portrayed by Elam, was not only an outlaw; he was a depraved psychopath who could not be trusted to carry out orders.  Not only that, he had designs on the lady and they were not honorable.  And did he ever look the part in what turned out to be his breakthrough role.




The author of Elam’s obituary in The Guardian described him perfectly: “With his bony, stubbled face, beetle-brows looming over a dead left eye, and gravelly voice, he was the very embodiment of a skulking, no-account, two-bit varmint, and the relish with which he played his parts made every appearance, however fleeting, a pleasure.”

The dead eye was the result of a childhood accident that occurred in Boy Scout camp.  It was also the reason Elam became an actor.  He was told by doctors that he could lose sight in his good eye if he didn’t give up his current occupation as an accountant.  Jack was an accountant!

Far too early in the story, Elam kills off another great character actor, Edgar Buchanan.  Shot him, although he was unarmed, and in the back, of course, and enjoyed it.  Surely, Buchanan could have been kept around a little longer for the sake of some interesting interplay between him and Elam.  It reminds me of what happened in THE TALL T, when Henry Silva shot Arthur Hunnicutt.  True, Hunnicutt was reaching for a gun and Silva didn’t shoot him in the back, and perhaps it was necessary for plot’s sake to knock him off, but did it have to happen so early?

Movie audiences in the early ‘50’s must have been taken aback to see Elam dispatch Buchanan in such cold-blooded fashion, but today I have to admit that it doesn’t have quite the same effect that it must have had then.  Part of the reason is that in his later years it developed that Elam had the heart of a clown with a gift for self-parody, which he displayed with amusing effect in SUPPORT YOUR LOCAL SHERIFF! (UA, 1969) and SUPPORT YOUR LOCAL GUNFIGHTER (UA, 1971).  Who knew that accountants could be scary and funny?

One other note: Edgar Buchanan was an ex-dentist.  In what other movie would you find an ex-accountant shooting an ex-dentist – in the back?

George Tobias is okay as the inarticulate lout, Gratz, and Dean Jagger noted for more sophisticated roles in BRIGHAM YOUNG (Fox, 1940), WESTERN UNION (Fox, 1941), and TWELVE O’CLOCK HIGH (Fox, 1949) is surprisingly good as the childlike Yancy.

Two other interesting character actors, James Millican and Louis Jean Heydt, have small roles in the film.  I will have much to say about them in a future post.


SOME FINAL WORDS.
I have one quibble about what I think is otherwise an excellent film.  The off-screen narration by Gary Merrill at the beginning and the end about the jackass mail was totally out of place.  Moreover, so was the over-blown musical theme that backed him.  Both the narration and the music belonged in an epic film about the building of the transcontinental railroad or the stringing of the telegraph across the West and maybe even the jackass mail if that had been what the film was really all about.  But it wasn’t.  It was about what happened at one relay station and had nothing to do with the historical significance of the jackass mail.

The musical theme would have even been fitting in a film about pioneers headed westward, perhaps a film such as BRIGHAM YOUNG.  In fact, it was the theme for that film, a film directed by Hathaway, starring Tyrone Power, with Dean Jagger in the title role.  A decade later, It was recycled for RAWHIDE.



I am going to give Brian Garfield the final word on RAWHIDE:


The story follows predictable lines to an equally predictable shoot-out but the course it takes in getting there is crisp and gripping, thanks to good characterizations and fine black-and-white photography…and uniformly good acting plus an outstanding performance by Marlowe as the chief villain….”


Alabama Hills

 

4 comments:

  1. It's been a long time since I watched this film. I liked the way the suspense and atmosphere built as the film wore on, but I also remember feeling that Power's character was too weak for the most part. Hayward really had a ball and deserves lots of credit. Still, I do think a western needs to have a strong male presence to work best. Now I don't mean he has to be some indestructible he-man type, just a man who's prepared to take on his own doubts and fears and do what's necessary. Like I say it's been a while and I'd really need to view it again, but I don't remember getting that sense from Power's character here.

    Colin

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    1. But I think you described Power's actions at the end. He was opposed by four armed outlaws, while he himself was unarmed. Early on he watched helplessly as the Buchanan character was killed while attempting to get to a rifle. The Elam character shot him in the back. Very coldblooded. Later he is on the verge of strangling Hayward before being stopped by Marlowe. He then shoots Marlowe in the back and also kills Tobias.

      Power is from back east, he is not a rugged frontiersman. But he awaits his chance and grabs it and takes on this mad dog killer. When he is finally able to get to a weapon, and despite being wounded, he engages Elam in a standoff. He shows great courage when he comes out of hiding because Elam is taking potshots around the feet of the little girl. It is then that Hayward, because Elam's attention is directed toward the unarmed Power walking toward him, shoots Elam. But she is only able to do this because of the courage displayed by Power.

      In the end, despite being afraid -- and who wouldn't be in the company of Jack Elam -- he did what was necessary.

      A decent copy of the film is available on You Tube. Since you have not watched it in a long time, I hope you give it another look. If you do watch it again, I would really appreciate your thoughts.

      Thanks for dropping by and forcing me to think more about my evaluation of the film.

      Stormy

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    2. That's annoying - I added a comment that seems to have disappeared into the ether!
      Anyway, suffice to say I'm grateful for your reply and I do need to view this again to see how I feel about the film now.

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    3. And we do agree that it is a very good film.

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