After the Silents: Rawhide (1951)

Welcome back! In this series, I discuss the careers of silent movie personnel during the talkie era. In this case, director Henry Hathaway, who worked his way up from chair boy (more on that later) and assistant director in the silents to major studio director in the talkie era. The film in question is Rawhide, a relatively underrated western with more in common with gangster films than other oaters.

Home Media Availability: Released on DVD and Bluray.

Rawhide (1951)

Rawhide doesn’t always make the list when fans talk about great classic westerns but it deserves a little more love. For a start, it hits the ground running and doesn’t let up for a second until the grand finale. The whole thing takes place at the Rawhide Station, a rest stop for the Overland Mail Company.

No, not THAT Rawhide!

There’s no denying the fact that the opening of the film is as corny as a box of Cracker Jack. We get a mid-century narrator (Gary Merrill) telling us about the stage line— $200, meals included—with Oh Susannah playing in the background. Groan. Fortunately, our narrator disappears for the rest of the film and we are allowed to enjoy the story in peace. (The narrator returns for the final wrap-up, unfortunately. And Oh Susannah still comes back to haunt us throughout the picture.)

Owens vs. Holt
Round 1: Holt

Tom Owens (Tyrone Power) is a dapper easterner whose father is a bigwig with the company and wants his son to learn the ropes from stationmaster Sam Todd (Edgar Buchanan). Owens is… okay at his job but clearly just cooling his heels until he can return home. The next stage arrives and one of the passengers is Vinnie Holt (Susan Hayward), who has a toddler named Callie (Judy Ann Dunn) accompanying her. The film plays Button, Button with whether or not she is a single mom but it is later revealed that she is the child’s aunt.

The outlaw cometh.

There’s peril afoot! A gold shipment is set to travel through Rawhide Station the next day and four convicts have just broken jail and targeted the money. They are Rafe Zimmerman (Hugh Marlowe), Tevis (Jack Elam), Yancy (Dean Jagger) and Gratz (George Tobias). Because of the danger, no children are allowed on the stage, so Holt is dragged off and forced to stay at the station until the criminals are caught.

That goes over about as well as you might imagine. Holt is an ex-dancer who can generally take care of herself and she objects to being forced to stay with Owens and Todd. As it turns out, she would have been safer on that stage. Passing himself off as a lawman hunting the gang, Zimmerman talks his way into the station and takes Owens and Todd prisoner.

And you thought you were having a rotten day at work.

The other members of the gang show up at Zimmerman’s signal. Tevis is a proper psycho, Yancy is a not-too-bright kleptomaniac and Gratz is loyal to Zimmerman and nothing else. Tevis murders Todd when he makes a break for it and quickly rounds up Holt and Callie. Zimmerman and his gang assume she is Owens’ wife (her bags were found in his room) and Owens goes along with it hoping it will offer her some protection.

And so the plan is revealed: Owens will continue to run the station as before with his “wife” and the child as insurance that he cooperates. There is one passenger stage going through before the gold shipment and they must suspect nothing.

This calls for a risky, one-in-a-million escape attempt!

The thing is, it’s terribly clear that Zimmerman and his gang will not let their prisoners go once the job is done. Their only hope for survival is to work together to plan an escape. To make matters worse, Tevis is obsessed with Holt and he doesn’t really care if she’s married or not.

Um, help? Cavalry? Cavalry?

Extremely solid bit of suspense, this, and cleverly plotted too. The film quite literally keeps the audience on the edge of its seat until the final seconds so if you are a fan of hostage films or westerns on the darker side, this is the film for you.

Silhouettes in doorways, as required by the Law of the West.

Henry Hathaway’s direction is spare but effective. He keeps the tension simmering with a constant threat of boiling over and makes good use of the claustrophobic Rawhide Station, contrasting it with the wide open spaces and majestic mountains of the Lone Pine shooting location. (If you are in California and you love movies at all, you owe yourself at least one trip to Lone Pine.) This is a sparse, stark western that has the style sensibility of a gangster picture.

One thing I find particularly interesting about Rawhide is how the marketing materials are so spectacularly different from the actual content of the film. If you have heard of Rawhide, chances are you have seen some variation of this poster:

1950s caveman stuff, in short, indicating a lusty picture more in line with Duel in the Sun. In other words, exactly what Rawhide is not. The film consistently pushes the romance to the back burner in favor of cranking up the suspense and rightly so. The film does include some typical gender conventions but it also subverts and inverts our expectations of how a western (or suspense film) hero and heroine should act.

Owens does drag Holt off the stage but she manages to keep 100% of her clothing on.

The domineering posture of Tyrone Power is dead opposite of his character’s temperament and behavior in the film. You see, the main character trait of Owens is passiveness. While he does engage in a certain amount of western hero stuff, he consistently attempts negotiation, escape and cooperation. Susan Hayward plays the far more aggressive character. She is the one who bristles at taking orders from outlaws, she’s the one who takes charge when the plan goes haywire, (spoiler) she’s the one who fires the killing shot.

Go, Vinnie, go!

Examining the line where bravery becomes stubbornness and where caution becomes cowardice have been powerful film topics from the beginning and Rawhide dives right in. Neither Power nor Hayward exactly cover themselves with valor when the villains get the jump on them but any attempted heroism might have earned them a bullet in the back and resulted in a really short movie. Power feels no particular shame in his almost total surrender—he’s just trying to survive this—but Hayward conveys the resentment and humiliation that is eating away inside her character. The film does not take sides, we are simply shown two people handling a dangerous situation in different ways.

Stay at the station, they said. It will be safer, they said.

Of course, Hayward’s character makes perfect sense as the film establishes that the Zimmerman gang is made up of exactly the kind of men who had been pains in her rear for most of her adult life. Smooth-talking jealous guy? Yup. Ogling lecher? Uh-huh. Dopes who want something out of her? Old news.

The romance is tossed into the backseat where it belongs and while Power and Hayward to share an obligatory kiss, it doesn’t feel phony or forced. Shared danger can certainly bring people together but one tires of overblown romantic pronouncements in the midst of mortal danger.

Owens would like very much, please, for nobody, including himself, to be shot.

Tyrone Power’s character is an interesting subversion of the East-Coast-Dandy-Who-Finds-Danger-Out-West. Such story threads generally resolve with said dandy learning to appreciate the hard-bitten ways of the west and becoming a Real Man, etc. The screenplay rather efficiently does away with that notion. Owens is neither a spoiled brat nor an old west wunderkind, he’s not dropping his spurs and he’s not suddenly the greatest roper in the west. He is just doing his time until his father finally lets him return east. (Some reviewers consider Power too old for this part but the role is really more about Owens being something of a greenhorn rather than a literal youth. He seems capable enough of navigating the east coast as a well-heeled bachelor. The screenplay keeps background to a minimum and we are never told what motivated Owens’ father to send him west.)

Dear dad,
I quit.
Love,
Tom

Owens is reasonably competent but pretty much just an average guy who would very much not like to be shot. The everyman hero is found in westerns (most notably the excellent original version of 3:10 to Yuma) but I have certainly seen the type more often in noir; the everyman whose life is shot to hell by circumstances.

Power is not known as a western star but, to be honest, I prefer him to some other, more famous celluloid westerners. Too often, western stars in classic film would be propped up by the screenplay with phony, overblown feats of manly derring-do that, frankly, often backfired and made them look weak and insecure. There’s something refreshing and bold about a reluctant hero who nonetheless steps up to the plate.

Okay, so maybe her hair is a bit anachronistic but we’re looking at a first rate western heroine.

Susan Hayward’s Vinnie Holt would have fit right into noir as well. She’s a tough dame who doesn’t trust men because she’s never met one worth trusting. Her sole loyalty is to keeping herself and her niece out of harm’s way and she doesn’t appreciate the interference of do-gooders, especially when the do-gooders actually endanger her with their rules and regulations.

Owens knows better than to argue with her and he probably would have let her continue on her journey if he hadn’t been directly ordered to take her off the stage. His later concern for her is rooted in the fact that he knows she is ready, willing and able to escalate the situation and because he knows he bears some responsibility for her peril.

Can these crazy kids find love whilst cutting through the wall with a bread knife?

Holt is a hands-on heroine. She is always a part of the action, crawling under the bed to help Owens dig and taking the initiative to recover the knife when it is lost. The Fate Worse Than Death peril is a throwback to the silent era but at least she is allowed to be the focus of her own danger. (Too many films classic and modern use the threat of sexual violence solely to motivate and pain the woman’s designated male guardian within the story.)

Zimmerman is… not a nice man.

I tend to associate Hugh Marlowe with characters more on the weakling or rat side of the equation (you’ve probably seen him in All About Eve and The Day the Earth Stood Still) but he does fine work here as Zimmerman, the bad man with the good education. It’s never overtly stated but Marlowe and Power convey that they have more in common with one another than they do with the rough companions into whose company they have been forced. Had circumstances been different, they might have chatted over brandy at some debutante’s cotillion. Again, it’s not overdone, it just adds a nice layer to the hero/villain dynamic, which is always appreciated.

Planning an escape? Us? Why, the very idea!

Zimmerman’s main flaws are his inability to look beyond the obvious and his immense overconfidence in his own leadership skills. It never occurs to him that Owens may actually have a plan or that he may not be able to control Tevis indefinitely.

Jack Elam does his worst as Tevis, the resident Man You Love to Hate. I have to admit that growing up with Support Your Local Sheriff and Support Your Local Gunfighter, I prefer my Elam on the cuddly sidekick side of things. That being said, he is suitably awful and just as menacing as the Breen office would allow.

Brrr!

Content-wise, there is a scene that I object to. (Spoilers) During the grand finale, Tevis takes to shooting at Callie. Now, I realize that these would have been fake gunshots but the kid’s terror is too real. She’s too young to be acting and I don’t care how important a toddler’s fear is to the plot, I don’t like the idea of freaking a small child out like this. The credited actress is Judy Ann Dunn and I see that she did not appear in another film. If I were her parent, I would have made the same decision. For shame, Fox! For shame, Henry Hathaway!

It’s not in the credits but Rawhide was based on the 1935 Fox suspense-comedy Show Them No Mercy!, which starred Cesar Romero as the leader of a gang of kidnappers trying to unload their ransom money only to discovered that the bills are marked. The gang takes a small family (mom, dad, baby, dog) hostage and keeps them in a room in their hideout, planning to use them to test the bills and kill them later.

There are a few ways that screenwriter Dudley Nichols improved on the so-so original. First, by making the hostages new, hostile acquaintances instead of a married couple, extra tension is injected into the plot. Rochelle Hudson and Edward Norris are a twee pair who banter and jest in the compulsory 1930s manner (William Powell and Myrna Loy they ain’t) and they pretty much know what the other will do. Power and Hayward, on the other hand, didn’t know one another from Adam until a few hours before and then he went and dragged her off the stage, landing her and her niece into this pickle. Uncertainty? Tension? You’d better believe it.

Just one big happy crime family.

Second, the gang in Rawhide has not yet accomplished their main crime. Oh, sure, they knocked off another stage to get information but the main event will be the attack on the stage with the cash. This ups the stakes because anything can go wrong and what will happen to the hostages if it does?

Zimmerman is a murderer and he could have easily jumped across the Mexican border to evade capture but he wants the bigger things, namely lots of cash, before he goes. It is established that he was brought up on better things and just because he is a criminal doesn’t mean he’s willing to live in poverty. He’s entitled to that money in his mind and he already has a death sentence. What’s another? What can they do, hang him twice?

They seem nice.

Third, and on that same theme, the gang actually feels dangerous. In Show Them No Mercy! Cesar Romero comes off as entirely too affable and not in the “I’m charming right up until I shoot you” kind of way. The rest of the gang is buffoonish and Bruce Cabot is entirely too loud to hold any real menace. In contrast, Marlowe and Elam perfect their Lawful Evil/Chaotic Evil two-step with Marlowe periodically tearing off his veneer of civilization with sudden bursts of violence (usually directed at Power) and Elam spending the film as a leering maniac. George Tobias works as a hulking enforcer for Marlowe and the only true wild card (i.e. the guy unlikely to hurt our heroes) is Dean Jagger’s affable kleptomaniac.

My loyal gang that I met last Wednesday.

Further, the Rawhide gang has not worked together for long. They were just the guys who happened to be nearby when Zimmerman made his break and they’ve managed to hold up one stage but that’s nothing compared to the elaborate masquerade they must pull off in order to make the big score. This means growing tension in their ranks, which, you guessed it, bumps up the suspense another degree.

Fourth, Rawhide tones down the comedy relief considerably. Power and Buchanan banter at the beginning as befits workmates and Jagger has amusing moments, such as advising a toddler to never become a horse thief, but the main goal of the screenplay is always suspense. Show Them No Mercy! has a screenplay attributed to Henry Lehrman (that Henry Lehrman? It seems so) and his Keystone background shows with the villains dropping everything to shoot at woodpeckers. Unfortunately, the film is neither funny enough nor suspenseful enough to warrant this genre confusion. I am all for a little suspense in my comedy or comedy in my suspense but it needs to really work. Simply put, the gags just are not that funny and this is not a “you got chocolate in my peanut butter, you got peanut butter in my chocolate” situation.

Okay, this shot is pretty darkly humorous.

(Spoiler for Show Them No Mercy!) In fact, I would be ready to write off the 1935 film entirely if it weren’t for the last three minutes. Cabot goes off the rails and shoots Romero; he’s planning to kill his hostages next. Norris tells his wife to grab the gun that was placed on the sofa earlier and makes a break for it, Cabot shoots him and turns around. He finds himself face to face with Hudson, who is toting a machine gun. She chops him in half (oozing bullet holes and all on his chest) with the thing and then runs to her husband and chirps that she got the baddie.

Um, wow. That’s more graphic than anything they were allowed to show in Little Caesar or Scarface. I appreciate the sentiment and am glad the leading lady neither balks nor faints but wasn’t the Code on? Of course, the Breen office was pretty weird throughout the picture’s production. They objected strongly to the original plot (the abduction of a wealthy family’s infant) and made Fox age the baby up to a young adult and not show the kidnapping at all. Okay but then the censors were perfectly fine with a young family (including baby) being held hostage and constantly threatened with death for nearly the entire picture? Kidnapping is immoral to show on the screen but taking hostages is an all-American slice of wholesome entertainment? Is it too much to ask for prigs to be consistent?

They ticked her off once too often.

Rawhide retains the idea of the lady delivering the kill shot, of course, but it is not particularly graphic about it. Still, it is quite satisfying to see Hayward wrench a rifle from under a dead man’s body and open fire. (The rifle was established so early in the picture that it practically has “Chekhov” engraved on its barrel.)

The film is not without its flaws. The music by Sol Kaplan is Mickey Moused up the wazoo and what this picture actually needed was something minimalist and dark. The opening and closing narration sections are incredibly jarring and remind us that YES, THIS IS A MOVIE. It’s almost like the production team wanted to fool everyone into thinking they were seeing a traditional western and then once the film started, HA! Bait and switch!

I have a feeling he’s gonna have a thing or two to say to his dad when he gets home.

Rawhide isn’t perfect but it is a pretty darn good western-suspense mashup. If you have passed it over because of the poster, let me assure you that you don’t have to believe the marketing. This one is a winner.

Availability: Released on DVD by Fox and Bluray by Kino Lorber.

Henry Hathaway (1898-1985)

Even if their official credits did not reflect it, an enormous number of major directors of the classic film period got their start in silent films. Born in Sacramento, California, Henry Hathaway started acting in the movies when he was ten. He continued in the movies as an actor and moved up to prop boy at the age of fourteen. One of his more colorful jobs included work as Cecil B. DeMille’s chair boy. (His sole duty: stay behind DeMille and be prepared to place a chair wherever the director was about the sit.) Hathaway worked as an assistant to Paul Bern, who became his friend and mentor and helped him fill the gaps left by an uneven education.

To direct Ben-Hur, one must handle chariots and Francis X. Bushman

Hathaway was one of dozens of assistant directors brought into the fledgling MGM’s foundering production of Ben-Hur. The film had been in production in Italy for centuries but was brought home to Culver City to shoot (or, rather, re-shoot) much of the big stuff. The chariot race was the centerpiece of the film and it was also became a social event with the brightest stars filling the stands. Hathaway was assigned to direct a portion of the extras in the stands but he saw two chariots wreck on the racetrack and ran out to warn the other drivers of the obstruction. He was nearly run over for his trouble but the stuntman driving the hero’s chariot managed to avoid the wreck so the take was saved.

I generally am skeptical of Hollywood anecdotes but there is indeed footage of an assistant trying to flag down the horses and nearly being trampled as a result. Saving money and time has always been popular with Hollywood producers and the event did young Hathaway’s reputation good. He subsequently worked with Victor Fleming and Josef von Sternberg, both of whom had a profound influence on him. (Considering von Sternberg’s philosophy that the world is run by men whose strings are pulled by women, it is interesting to see how Hathaway and Dudley Nichols applied a similar notion to the male-female interactions in Rawhide.)

Hathaway didn’t get his chance to direct until the talkies and cut his teeth on westerns. While he worked until the 1970s and had popular films that included Lives of a Bengal Lancer and True Grit on his resume, his career is usually damned by faint praise. Terms like “reliable” and “steady” tend to follow him. His obituary in the New York Times sums up his general legacy:

“Although he lacked the personality or the inclination to be a ”colorful” Hollywood director like a DeMille or a Hitchcock or a John Ford, Mr. Hathaway, in his quiet, even plodding way, directed one technically and commercially successful motion picture after another.”

(You can read more about his life and career in Henry Hathaway: Lives of a Hollywood Director.)

Hathaway’ story is a classic example of a kid working his way up through the Hollywood ranks and ending up with a few genuine classics on his resume. He was no DeMille but I’m not sure he wanted to be and, anyway, he survived talkies and television, which is pretty impressive.

 

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8 Replies to “After the Silents: Rawhide (1951)”

  1. Nice summary of a talented director who should be better known For someone who turned out a bunch of tough-themed and tough-filled characters in film, who’d believe the sensitivity and tenderness of “Peter Ibbetson” (1935) ?

    I liked the Cecil de Mille story. It reminded me about the anecdote David Niven used to tell about Hathaway’s idiosyncracy of not allowing people to sit down on his sets (“I’m on MY feet all day”). Don’t know if that was actually true but it makes a good story!

    1. It’s quite possible considering his chair-filled salad days with DeMille. And I think Hathaway was the one who said he was awful on the set and knew he was awful because good guys didn’t succeed in Hollywood.

      1. Wow, nicely done! I’ve not read a better review of Rawhide, nor a summary of Hathaway’s career.

        Re: “good guys didn’t succeed in Hollywood.” Indeed. My old friend Wally Worsley used to say that you have to act like a royal S.O.B. to be a successful director. He included the theatrical realm, by the way.

  2. I can think of one reason for the whole “kidnapping for the whole family” being forced on “Show Them no Mercy”.. The Lindbergh kidnapping case, (too soon lasts a long time).

    1. Show Them No Mercy was specifically inspired by the George Weyerhaeuser kidnapping case earlier in 1935, according to reviews of the time. I don’t find it odd that a film of the 1930s would use kidnapping as a plot device, rather my confusion arises from the fact that the Breen Office had every objection under the sun to a child being kidnapped for ransom but seemingly no problem with a child AND parents AND fluffy dog being held hostage by gangsters with two members out of four shot by the villains.

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