My colleagues Ian Jane and Paul Mavis reviewed Rawhide's first three-and-a-half seasons. Via these links you can read about the first season, the the second season, volumes 1 and 2, volume two of the third season, and Season Four, Volume 1. I had only vague memories of catching parts of reruns of Rawhide in the '70s, when it often aired in the middle of the night, and had not seen any of the earlier DVDs at all. And yet when a review copy of Rawhide - The Fourth Season, Volume 2 turned up unloved and in our screener pool, I anxiously snapped it up.
Alas, my enthusiasm all but vaporized once the discs arrived and I took a look at the first episode. Unlike other CBS-produced and/or owned shows from the era already out on DVD - Gunsmoke, Perry Mason, and Twilight Zone to cite three examples - this set looks like it might have been printed on rawhide. The video transfers are just terrible, far below 2011 standards, and probably derived from something like one-inch video masters created in the early 1990s or even earlier. The picture-quality is unaccountably bad; I've seen dollar DVDs of public domain titles look better than this $39.98 set of 15 shows.
I wouldn't be so harsh were this a marginally commercially viable TV series being released by a tiny indie label with limited resources, but the circumstances here are different. For one thing, Rawhide was the series that made second-billed Clint Eastwood a star, a fact not lost on CBS, which prominently features Clint's iconic face on the DVD's cover at the expense of Rawhide top-billed star, Eric Fleming, who's nowhere to be found, even on the back cover. (Both sides include Sheb Wooley and Paul Brinegar, however.) One would think Eastwood's name alone would make this a bigger seller than, say, CBS's Barnaby Jones, a title with contrastingly stellar video transfers.
Maybe someone thought Rawhide, being presold on Eastwood's fame, wouldn't require expensive new high-def transfers. But the eye-straining video on these shows can't be doing CBS any favors: If Rawhide were the first CBS title I bought on DVD, I'd assume everything by the label must look this bad and I'd be very reluctant to buy another.
As for the show, its set-up is unusual and intriguing though its stories lean heavily toward genre conventions. And yet if they looked as good as, say, Gunsmoke, it wouldn't matter all that much, at least to me, but coupled with these transfers I wasn't exactly mesmerized.
Rawhide - The Fourth Season, Volume 2 (1962) includes that year's final 14 shows plus a bonus episode from the Fifth Season, "Abeline." Also included are a couple of previews-of-next-week's-show and sponsor spots.
Rawhide follows a band of drovers on a seemingly never-ending cattle drive sometime in the 1860s. Gil Favor (Eric Fleming) is the trail boss, with Rowdy Yates (Eastwood) the ramrod. During this season scout Pete Nolan (Sheb Wooley) is slowly phased out, though cook G.W. Wishbone (Paul Brinegar) remains.
Back in the late 1950s and early '60s, television series were expected to complete up to 39 episodes per season. During the 1961-62 season, Rawhide was down to 30 shows per year, but even so the production schedule was grueling. Earlier series like Maverick soon found a way around this, by alternating stars so that two first-unit crews could work on different episodes simultaneously. The first episode in this set, "The Woman Trap," features both Fleming and Eastwood but the next two feature only Fleming while the three after that feature only Eastwood, before reuniting them once again for the seventh show.
Also easing the production crunch was the fact that, like Wagon Train, Rawhide was as much a quasi-anthology series showcasing the talents of guest stars rather than leaning too heavily on its regulars.
As television historian Stephen Bowie points out in his excellent essay about the series, "What We Talk About When We Talk About Rawhide, the show changed significantly through the years, mostly the result of a revolving door of producers each with their own tastes and interests. Charles Marquis Warren produced Rawhide's first three seasons, then story editor Endre Bohem took over for season four, before Vincent M. Fennelly (seasons five and six), and the team of Bruce Geller and Bernard L. Kowalski (season seven) took the reins until they were replaced by a returning Bohem midway through the seventh season. Ben Brady and Robert E. Thompson were next in line, but Rawhide came to end anyway, midway through its eighth season.
Bowie makes a convincing argument that the Geller-Kowalski season was Rawhide's most innovative, while noting the seeds of that experimentation began as early as Rawhide's fourth year under Endre Bohem. And, as Bowie writes, Fleming's contractual first-dibs and strong distaste for Rawhide's unconventional scripts was Eastwood's gain. Generally speaking, the Fleming solo shows are much less interesting the Eastwood ones.
A few episodes in this set hint at this. "The Woman Trap," about a wagon train of mail-order brides whose wagon master secretly plots to sell them into bondage elsewhere, is pretty standard stuff, but by early '60s TV standards it gets surprisingly violent. Gil Favor-centric shows like "The Boss's Daughters," in which Gil's visiting teenage daughters seem more impressed by a wealthy, respectable, but emotionally needy rancher (Paul Richards) than their own father, is boring and conventional.
Conversely, "Grandma's Money," in which Rowdy comes to the aid of a sweet old lady (Josephine Hutchinson) who in fact is a crafty grifter, is clever and funny. Eastwood is excellent in this episode, on one hand the hero oblivious and doting over the physically frail old lady he sweetly calls "Grandma," while Eastwood the actor ever so slightly hints that he, too, is in on the joke even if Rowdy isn't. In some shows Eastwood is the conventional Western second lead, but much of the time, perhaps consciously, perhaps out of sheer restlessness, there's an emerging flippant approach that would eventually become part of his screen persona.
Guest stars this half-season include Alan Hale, Jr., Karen Steele, Marion Ross, Candy Moore, Hal Needham, Harry Carey, Jr., Robert Dix, Mercedes McCambridge, Jim Davis, J. Pat O'Malley, Kathleen Freeman, Ross Elliott, Dean Fredericks, Frank Maxwell, Thomas Browne Henry, Olan Soule, Buddy Ebsen, Hugh Marlowe, Jack Elam, Debra Paget, James Coburn, Cesar Romero, Gail Kobe, Eduard Franz, Mala Powers, Herbert Patterson, Walter Pidgeon, Darryl Hickman, William Wellman, Jr., Anthony Caruso, Robert F. Simon, Rosemary DeCamp, Paula Raymond, Harry Shannon, Victor Jory, Karen Sharpe, Adam Williams, Coleen Gray, Audrey Totter, and Ken Lynch.
Video & Audio
Compared to other CBS shows, which generally look pristine, Rawhide is extremely soft with terrible contrast - it's all a dull, gray haze, especially on larger monitors. (See above.) Wide shots and anything with a lot of necessary detail in the background - trees, crowded saloons, bustling Western streets - become a big, blurry, dirty gray mess. At least shows appear to be complete and unedited. They're spread across four single-sided, dual layer discs. The mono audio is adequate, and English SDH subtitles are included on this Region 1 release.
Supplements include the aforementioned fifth season show, "Abilene," along with episodic previews for two shows and sponsor spots.
Even though it only occasionally breaks away from Western television conventions, I'd have no trouble recommending Rawhide - The Fourth Season, Volume 2 if the transfers weren't so poor. As such I recommend that you Skip It.
Stuart Galbraith IV's latest audio commentary, for Media Blasters' Godzilla vs. Megalon (with Steve Ryfle), is on sale now.