The blog of a Western fan, for other Western fans

The Rawhide Years (Universal, 1956)


Standard fare but quite fun


 
 
Universal
made a lot of Westerns in the 1950s. It was one of their favorite genres. And
they tried out various actors as lead. They were fond of Rock Hudson, whom they
had used in Scarlet Angel, Seminole, The Lawless Breed and Taza, Son of Cochise, and Jeff Chandler, who had been Cochise for Fox in Broken Arrow in 1950 and became
Universal’s tame Indian chief (or occasionally cavalryman) from The Battle at Apache Pass (1952) onwards.
Their fallback was of course Audie Murphy, who made a lot of fairly formulaic
but nevertheless solid oaters, and, like all Universal’s pictures, they were
competently directed, had reasonable budgets, and were usually nicely photographed
in attractive Western locations.

The
studios were using Tony Curtis for their Arabian
Nights
series and it was logical to try him out in a Western or two. He’d
had a bit part in Winchester ’73 in
1950, a bigger role as a Dalton in the Audie oater Kansas Raiders the same year, and also appeared with Audie in another
early-50s Western, Sierra. So they gave
him a go as lead in 1955, in The Rawhide
Years
. It didn’t take and he wasn’t really cut out for the genre but The Rawhide Years isn’t bad. The most amusing
part is Tony’s hair but we’ll let that pass.
 
 
They got
the posh Rudolph Maté to direct. Universal usually used second (but not third)
ranked directors but Maté was rather top drawer. Polish born, he had studied in
Budapest and worked under Alexander Korda and became one of Europe’s leading
directors (and cinematographers). He came to Hollywood in 1935 and although he
didn’t make any really great films (the 1950 noir D.O.A. was about his best) he certainly enjoyed great prestige.
Westernwise, he worked under William Wyler as cinematographer on The Westerner in 1940, then directed
Alan Ladd in Branded in 1950. The Mississippi Gambler with Tyrone
Power in 1953 was followed by Siege at Red River in 1954 (the latter distinctly B) and so The Rawhide Years was his fifth sally out onto the range. Later he
did The Far Horizons, The Violent Men (his best Western) and Three Violent People. None of these was what you would call a classic
but they were all perfectly watchable.
 
 
Tony is young
Ben Matthews, a cheating gambler on the Montana Queen. He finds a father figure
in Matt Comfort, a rancher (Minor Watson)
whom he has ruined at the tables, but the rancher is then murdered (there’s a
piece of business with a wooden cigar-store Indian). Once docked in Galena, Ben’s
cheating partner (Donald Randolph) is wrongly lynched by the townsfolk for the
killing. So Ben leaves his fiancée, the saloon gal Zoe (Colleen Miller, Rory
Calhoun’s squeeze in Four Guns to the Border) and goes on the run, to avoid a similar fate. He works his way West,
cowboying, hence the title. That title is a bit odd though because the rawhide
years take up very little of the movie. He is soon back in Galena, where he
hopes to disculpate himself and get Zoe back.
 
 
During
his travels (sorry, drifting) he has reluctantly teamed up with professional
charming rogue Arthur Kennedy and got into scrapes. There’s a bit where they
have to jump into the river from a cliff to evade pursuit and one can’t swim;
probably the makers of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid had seen that scene. The rest of the movie tells how, with
Arthur’s aid, Tony uncovers the plot, proves his innocence and gets the girl, in
traditional fashion.
 
 
Zoe has
a couple of saloon songs, naturally, and there’s an intensely enjoyable bit
with garter derringers. Peter van Eyck is the Frenchie saloon owner, a rather
classic villain. Despite his Netherlandish name van Eyck was Pomeranian born
and was good for any Nazi-ish bad guy you wanted in a movie, and if he is
supposed to be the froggy André Boucher in this one, well, European is European,
ain’t it? Anyway, director and Euroexile Maté perhaps liked the idea. Best of
all, however, is the fact that André’s right hand henchman is Robert J Wilke,
my hero.
 
 
The whole
thing is even more improbable than the average Western and Curtis is not
convincing as the naïve underdog who becomes a tough cowboy who beats the bad
guys and wins the fair maid.

A lot of
the blame must go to screenplay writer Earl Felton, though the great DD
Beauchamp did also work on the script. Still, there are shoot-outs and
explosions and fistfights, and a whodunit murder story (though you don’t need to be Columbo to work out who is the guilty party). There are nice
Technicolor shots of Lone Pine locations (Universal’s Western go-to Irving
Glassberg behind the camera, of Bend of the River fame). It’s fun, really.


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