Thursday, November 14, 2013

RAWHIDE (1938)

Distant as it seems now, there was a time when Westerns were probably the most popular B-movie genre. Rarely straying from the simple good guy/bad guy plots, often with a couple songs thrown in by the hero, these "oaters" (as they were known in the trade) brought the kids in by the wagonful every Saturday. In fact, the only thing that could rival them for kids' loyalty was baseball. So leave it to producer Sol Lesser to cash in double by producing Rawhide, starring that pistol-packin', sharpshootin' cowpoke Lou Gehrig. Yes, that Lou Gehrig. (The credits read that Gehrig's appearance was "by arrangement with Christy Walsh." Walsh was the first sports agent, and the credit was a free commercial on top of whatever Gehrig, and maybe the producer, were paying him. These days, Walsh would have demanded a producer credit, a new Lamborghini and a sterling silver cocaine tray.)

Smith Ballew chokes on his
bandana.
Probably the cheapest-looking feature ever released by 20th Century-Fox, Rawhide proves, if there was any doubt, that Gehrig was a born baseball player. Sol Lesser himself must have known that Gehrig couldn't carry a movie, even if he was playing himself. Enter cowboy actor Smith Ballew to carry to the heavy load and sing three of the four songs crammed into Rawhide's 58-minute running time. All "The Iron Horse" had to do was memorize some dialogue no more complicated than your average Golden Book, ride a horse without making a fool of himself and work in a couple of baseball bits. Yet if it hadn't been for Gehrig, Rawhide would have gone even further down the memory hole than it has already. It's an irony similar to that of another 1938 release, Religious Racketeers featuring Mrs. Harry Houdini. Only she never had a batting average of .340.


There's no need for a deep analysis of Rawhide's psychological intrigue; this caption on the back of an original Rawhide still will suffice:
No Mourning Becomes Electra, this.

Gehrig dares the reporters to
laugh at his get-up.
People who have heard Gehrig's voice only in his legendary farewell speech might find it a little jolting when he first opens his mouth, sounding as he does more like John Gotti than the idols of millions. "Take it or leave it, I'm t'rough wit' baseball," he barks at reporters before boarding a train at Grand Central Terminal. When a cynical scribe reminds him of the cheering crowds and excitement of the big city he'll be leaving behind, Gehrig replies, "Dat's just what I wanna get away from. I had all o' dat. I'm gonna wallow in peace an' quiet for da rest of my life." This guy was a real old-school New Yorker.


Big deal. Today's athletes use real
guns to shoot each other.
The ol' tenderfoot-out-West routine is played for all it's worth, which isn't very much. After trying unsuccessfully to put on a pair of spurs, Gehrig (or, rather, his stuntman) is thrown off his horse the first time he tries to ride -- all accompanied by appropriately "funny" music featuring empathetic oboes. Soon getting the hang of things, he (or, rather, his stunt singer) even handles a verse of Smith Ballew's number, "When a Cowboy Goes to Town." The singing voice doesn't come within an outfield of Gehrig's, but this being a more innocent time, most of the kiddies in the audience probably swallowed it as happily they did the popcorn. Fast-forward to today's swallow-anything concertgoers, who have no problem with paying $350 to watch their favorite idol lipsynch. Thanks, Lou, for setting the trend.


Gehrig throws an eight-ball slider.
At some point all this horseplay wasn't going to be enough for sports fans in the audience -- and, really, who else was going to pay good money to see Lou Gehrig act? Nope, Lou had to give his fans what they came to see. A poolroom fight (certainly no sports hero would ever be caught in a barroom) allows Gehrig to pitch a few poolballs at the bad guys' heads. Later on, stumbling across a sandlot baseball game, he deliberately hits a homer into the window of Ed Saunders, a desperado ripping off the local ranchers.

Saunders assures a rancher, "If you like your
barbed-wire fence, you can keep your
barbed-wire fence."
Ed Saunders is one really bad galoot. Having temporarily taken over the Ranchers Protective Association from the honest but ailing L.G. McDonnell, Saunders hires a bunch of goons to force the locals to buy their supplies from him. Had he been smart, he'd have called it the Affordable Ranching Act. McDonnell is being treated by a doctor -- on Saunders' payroll -- with a "medicine" helpfully labeled POISON. Saunders would like the quack to finish the old guy off once and for all, but laments, "He's one of those guys with scruples."  We've already learned that the doctor isn't allowed to practice "back in Chicago" anymore -- 1930s movie code meaning anything from malpractice to performing illegal abortions -- so you'd have to wonder what kind of scruples he's talking about. I mean, it's pretty difficult to confuse POISON with CIPROFLOXACIN anyway.

Smith Ballew takes umbrage at being called
a Gene Autry clone.
And speaking of killing people, there's violence a-plenty in Rawhide. I counted a dozen gunshot victims, while Gehrig beans five or six more at the poolroom. Buckboards are hijacked, property burned, horses tumble off the road -- you'd think Rahm Emmanuel was the mayor. And as with the old Roy Rogers Show, anachronistic touches run throughout Rawhide. Cowpokes ride their horses along the town's dusty main street, then go into their offices and make phone calls. Everyone dresses like it's 1872, but Lou Freaking Gehrig just bought the ranch down the road. On the other hand, I use chopsticks to eat Chinese food when I have a perfectly fine set of 21st-century silverware, so who am I to talk?

The cowboy cliches come fast and thick in Rawhide. The old, toothless Gabby Hayes-
Saunders and Kimball play a round of
"Can You Top This Banality?"
wannabe called Pop. Saunders' ornery thug named -- what else -- Butch. One conversation at the poolroom between Saunders and Larry Kimball (Smith Ballew) overflows with bromides:
KIMBALL: There's an old saying, Saunders. If you lie down with dogs, you get up with fleas.

SAUNDERS: I know another old saying. If you play with fire, you're gonna get burned. Keep on trying to throw a monkey-wrench into me and you're gonna wind up right there, behind the eight-ball. 

All they needed was "a stitch in time saves nine" and "a watched pot never boils" and everybody could have gone home for the day.

Although a native of Texas, Smith Ballew definitely was a step away from the likes of his
"Yo, Lou -- mind if you eat somewhere
else so I can give your sister a little
pulled pork of my own?"
fellow singing cowboys. Unlike the nasal twang of Gene Autry or the baritone of Roy Rogers, Ballew's pleasant crooning style harkens back to his earlier career as a jazz singer. Evalyn Knapp -- the "pretty girl" from the photo caption above -- plays Gehrig's sister Peggy. But her main job is providing a romantic interest for Ballew, which no little boy in his right mind watching Rawhide would have stood for. History doesn't record what Lou Gehrig thought about interacting onscreen with a sister that he didn't have in real life. I'd like to think they had an affair, just for the ewww factor.

Rawhide was released in April, 1938, the beginning of what was to be Lou Gehrig's final full season as a professional baseball player. By the time he said his goodbyes, his one movie role had been forgotten, which was probably for the best. His personality in Rawhide is as flat as the Texas plains; his diction reflects the street-tough Yorkville neighborhood where he was born; and the script certainly didn't do him any favors. But speaking as a decidedly non-sports fan, every second he was onscreen all I could think was, "My God, that's Lou Gehrig in this movie." As it was in 1938, that's all that matters today.

 As for Rawhide's finale, once Smith and Lou put the Saunders' gang behind bars, Gehrig finally gets to wallow in peace and quiet like he always wanted -- until he receives a telegram from the Yankees informing him that they've agreed to his salary demands. Before you can say "you're out," Lou is on his feet and packing his bags, his alleged "retirement" nothing but a ploy to get a raise. Try that gag at work sometime, see how well it works.

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1 comment:

  1. I've always had a soft spot for this movie,
    for the same reason you shared, Kevin.
    "My gosh, that's Lou Gehrig up there!"
    And he seems to be enjoying himself, too.

    ReplyDelete