Rollin', rollin' rollin',
Paramount has released the second volume of the Second Season of Rawhide, one of the finest dramas to come out of the golden age of TV Westerns. Having already written a lengthy treatise on the series, and seeing that Rawhide: The Second Season, Volume 2 doesn't deviate in the slightest in terms of quality, my review for this set is essentially the same as the first (since nobody apparently likes to click on those embedded links to earlier reviews). While I would like to delve further into the idiotic (and greedy) practice of studios splitting up single seasons into two volume releases, frankly, what's the point? If they can make money doing it (something which on principle I don't begrudge them), they're going to continue to do so. Dedicated, loyal fans of an excellent series like Rawhide, however, would be willing to buy these sets as complete seasons, but evidently, the studios understand that the fans, craving quality, vintage material like this, will also shell out just a little bit more for the inconvenience of the two-volume seasons - or risk not having further seasons come out because "sales were disappointing." It's a Catch-22 situation for fans, with not a lot of leverage they can muster. So...we either put up with it, or kiss such releases goodbye for good.
To be honest, I had never watched an episode of Rawhide prior to the first DVD set Rawhide: The Second Season, Volume 1 showing up in my mailbox last spring. 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, 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. 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 volume of Rawhide's second season, containing 16 episodes on four discs, continues to deliver one excellent episode after another - viewed together, the quality of the 32 episodes for this second season is rather astounding (especially in comparison to the paltry number of hit-and-miss episodes you'll find in current seasons of TV dramas). Standouts this season include the spooky Incident of the 100 Amulets; the equally disquieting Incident of the Murder Steer; the cleanly plotted Incident of the Sharp Shooter (which plays like a western Columbo episode); and the tense, almost surrealistic Incident of the Night Horse. Watching the dramatic progression of the season is obviously more difficult when the viewing of the episodes is separated by several months, but it's clear that the quality of the writing didn't fade as the episodes came out. One can start to see that young Eastwood might eventually take a more prominent role in the series (quite a few of the episodes revolve around him in this second batch), but other characters still get their due, as well (Sheb Wooley, always quiet and watchable, and Paul Brinegar, irascible as Wishbone, star in two of the season's better episodes: Incident of the Dust Flower and Incident of the Tinker's Dam.
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.
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 the four-disc box set Rawhide: The Second Season, Volume 2 , as described on their slimcases:
Incident of the Tinker's Dam (2/5/1960)
Incident of the Night Horse (2/19/1960)
Incident of the Sharpshooter (2/26/1960)
Incident of the Dust Flower (3/4/1960)
Incident at Sulphur Creek (3/11/1960)
Incident of the Champagne Bottles (3/18/1960)
Incident of the Stargazer (4/1/1960)
Incident of the Dancing Death (4/8/1960)
Incident of the Arana Sacar (4/22/1960)
Incident of the 100 Amulets (4/29/1960)
Incident of the Deserter (5/6/1960)
Incident of the Murder Steed (5/13/1960)
Incident of the Music Maker (5/20/1960)
Incident of the Silent Web (6/3/1960)
Incident of the Last Chance (6/10/1960)
Incident of the Garden of Eden (6/17/1960)
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.