Rollin', rollin' rollin',
To be honest, I had never watched an episode of Rawhide prior to the DVD set Rawhide: The Second Season, Volume 1 showing up in my mailbox. Now of course, I had heard about the show, and I knew it was Clint Eastwood's first big exposure that then led to his celebrated Sergio Leone films, but for whatever reasons, Rawhide passed right by me (being a one hour black and white western, I don't believe it was as widely syndicated as more easily marketable 1960s TV series). But after watching the sixteen episodes contained in this split second season (a senseless marketing ploy I despise), I was absolutely floored. For western stories filled with psychologically complex characters, densely plotted dramatics with tricky, intricate twists and turns, startling black and white direction and cinematography that ranks right up there with the best theatrical releases, while never skimping on plenty of gunplay and action, Rawhide simply can not be beat.
When Rawhide premiered mid-season in January, 1959, the Western was clearly the dominant genre on television. Reaching a peak of twenty-six on-going series airing on the three networks that year, despite the pedigree of its creator, there was no special reason to think that Rawhide would go on to be the fourth longest-running Western in television history (tied with the massively popular Wagon Train). Created by Charles Marquis Warren, who had directed several mid-level Westerns, as well as producing the legendary Gunsmoke, Rawhide was envisioned as a gritty, realistic take on the cattle drives of the old west. The nomadic nature of the drives back and forth from North Texas to Sedalia, Kansas provided plenty of opportunities for the writers to have the cast encounter various other characters and situations along the trail. Heading up the regular cast was Gil Favor (Eric Fleming), the trail boss; Rowdy Yates (Clint Eastwood), the drive's "ramrod," a sort of jack-of-all-trades on the runs; Pete Nolan (Sheb Wooley), the drive's scout; Wishbone (Paul Brinegar), the chuck wagon cook; Jim Quince and Joe Scarlett (Steve Raines and Rocky Shahan), drovers for the run; and "Mushy" Mushgrove (James Murdock), the young, not too bright kid who helped out Wishbone.
Opening each episode with a voice-over narration by one of the lead characters (On a trail drive, a man can find the things he wants: a sense of God's good earth, the room to move in, a job to be done. Of course, there's not always enough water, and you can't always choose your own company. There's some that say that's all that's wrong with hell. It's up to me to handle good and bad. I'm Gil Favor, trail boss.), almost all the Rawhide episodes this second season have as their backbone the imperative nature of getting those cattle to market. While each episode has a surprisingly intricate and well-written script that belies those notions that most viewers have that 1950s and 1960s TV Westerns are somehow simple and one-dimensional, the ongoing pulse of the show - just as that hair-raising theme song suggests - is that everyone has to keep moving. Whenever a character breaks off from the drive to help a stranger (which almost invariably backfires on the good intentions of the drovers), that relentless need to drive on those dogies serves as the suspense for the episode: will they make it back in time to the relative safety of the cattle drive, and will the cattle reach their destination before starvation or drought or infestation kills them? It's a remarkably tense series, week in and week out.
That's probably what I found most impressive about Rawhide: its relative realism, and its constant mediation on the nature of good deeds subverted by the necessities of characters' psychology or desperate situations. For a show that aired at 7:30 in the evening, and which some critics passed off as just another kiddie Western, Rawhide is resolutely mature and adult, with psychology - not action for action's sake - underpinning the show's dramatics. This isn't Hopalong Cassidy or The Lone Ranger (relax - I love those shows; they just have different aims than Rawhide). Every week, it's a life or death struggle not only for the cattle, the main prize of each episode, but often for the lead characters, as well. In a rather remarkable episode (typical of the excellent shows this season), Incident at Jacob's Well, the drovers come upon a desperate group of farmers who have dug hundreds of deep wells, looking for water, with no success. They've even been reduced to eating all their horses (you won't hear anything like that in a lot of these TV Westerns). So their leader tries to lie to Gil and the group, hoping the cattle drive has extra horses for them. Gil can't really help (it's a tough world out on the desert plains), but he does promise some cattle for eating, if they walk out to the next town; Gil doesn't have time for them to slow him up. The farmers set out to steal the drive's horses, and in the process, Eastwood's Rowdy lands painfully in one of the deep holes (along with the farmers' leader's daughter). He tries repeatedly to climb out, only to fall, re-injuring himself again and again. It's a nerve-wracking episode, and it works the tension on several levels. Will the desperate farmers make it out of their self-made hellhole? Will the cattle drive continue on without their horses? Will Gil outsmart the settlers' leader? Will Rowdy make it out of the well? And as is almost always the case in Rawhide, the good intentions of the drovers, specifically Gil's and Rowdy's desire to help out people, invariably backfires on them. It's a realistic take on people's motivations and self-interest, and marks Rawhide as a relatively sophisticated, mature drama, masquerading as a rip-snorting TV oater.
This second season, the series may even divert from the cattle drive to focus on a specific story that doesn't necessarily have anything to do with the drovers' goal of getting the cattle to market. In Incident of The Shambling Man, Gil and Rowdy become involved with a duplicitous little minx (Anne Francis) who wants to have her punchy, ex-prize fighter father-in-law (Victor McLaglen) committed to an asylum, in order to inherit his land. What's particularly daring about this episode is that in addition to the intricate details of the plot, the producers of Rawhide allow their heroes, Gil and Rowdy, to be completely wrong in their understanding of the situation at hand, even after the facts of the case come out. Believing that Anne Francis only wants good for her father (Francis is excellent as always, bringing out that slightly perverse eroticism from her pert face that she excelled in), Gil and Rowdy continue to misread the situation, believing in their own code of ethics about women instead of looking at the facts. It's a fascinating episode (cleanly directed by McLaglen's son, Andrew), and another indication that Rawhide, at least this second season, was one of the best dramas on television.
Audiences certainly agreed. When Rawhide premiered mid-season in 1959, it came in at a respectable 28th for the year. This second season - the first full season of the show - it had considerable competition for the youth audience from ABC's Walt Disney Presents, but this counter-programming worked well for Rawhide. It attracted adults who didn't want to watch old Disney cartoons or promos for upcoming Disney films; by year's end, Rawhide jumped ten spots to finish off 18th for the year in the Nielsen's. While I often heard that Clint Eastwood was the de facto star of Rawhide (which he very well may have been in later seasons), the ensemble cast seems to share duties pretty equally here, with Eric Fleming coming off quite well as the sturdy, fair, compassionate, but tough trail boss. Sheb Wooley has a nice, quiet quality to his acting that I found interesting, and Brinegar is suitably crusty and cranky, providing the often tension-breaking comic relief necessary for the show. As for Eastwood, I've read in his biographies that he doesn't particularly respect his early acting found here in Rawhide (on more than one occasion, he's referred to Rowdy as "the idiot of the plains"). While he's certainly no Olivier here, his hesitancy and relative inexperience work well for his character, and it's funny to see him so loose and smiling so often. The supporting character actors are uniformly excellent; this season sees Viveca Lindfors, Alexander Scourby, Richard Eyer, Beverly Garland, David Brian, Anne Francis, Victor McLaglen, Gene Nelson, Harry Carey, Jr., Patricia Medina, Henry Roland, Dean Williams, Paul Fix, Vera Miles, Gene Evans, Leif Erickson, John Agar, J. Pat O'Malley, Dean Stanton, Jack Weston, Lane Bradford, Karl Swenson, John Drew Barrymore, Kent Smith, Strother Martin, Charles Gray, Harry Lauter, Glenn Strange, Cesar Romero, Mari Blanchard, Regis Toomey, Scott Davey, Rick Jason, Fay Spain, Leo Gordon, Skip Homeier, John Erwin, Robert Cabal, Joe de Santis, Elena Verdugo, Frank de Kova, Claude Akins, Luana Patten, Byron Foulger, Don Keefer, Stanley Adams, James Dunn, Robert F. Simon, Neville Brand, Sheila Bromley, Louis Jean Heydt, Arthur Franz, and Steve Brodie along at some point on the trail. Directors for this second season of Rawhide include the legendary Jack Arnold, Stuart Heisler, Jesse Hibbs, Harmon Jones, Charles Marquis Warren, and Gene Fowler, Jr..
I don't think it's overstating matters to give a bit of credit for the show's success with audiences by singling out the show's absolutely thrilling theme song. A popular hit by "Old Leather Lungs" singer Frankie Laine, the theme to Rawhide (composed by Hollywood legend Dmitri Tiomkin and Ned Washington) is one of the most instantly recognizable themes songs in TV history, and its restless, relentless driving energy perfectly suits the nature of the show. I never tire hearing it. Rawhide would go even higher in the ratings the following season, finishing sixth for the year, firmly cementing its place as one of the classic Westerns of the 1950s and 1960s.
Here are the 16, one hour episodes of Rawhide: The Second Season, Volume 1:
Incident of The Day of the Dead
Incident of The Roman Candles
Incident at Dangerfield Dip
Incident of The Shambling Man
Incident at Jacob's Well
Incident of The Thirteenth Man
Incident at The Buffalo Smokehouse
Incident of The Haunted Hills
Incident of The Stalking Death
Incident of The Valley in the Shadow
Incident of The Blue Fire
Incident at Spanish Rock
Incident of The Druid Curse
Incident at River Station
Incident of The Devil and His Due
Incident of The Wanted Painter
Though the streams are swollen,
Keep them dogies rollin',
Through rain and wind and weather,
Hell-bent for leather,
Wishin' my gal was by my side.
Oh, the things I'm missin',
Good vittles, love and kissin',
Are waitin' at the end of my ride.
Move 'em on, head 'em up, head 'em up, move 'em on,
Move 'em on, head 'em up,
Count 'em out, ride 'em in, ride 'em in, let 'em out, cut 'em out,
Ride' em in,
Paul Mavis is an internationally published film and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.