Roy Harold Scherer Jr, better known to the world as Rock Hudson, 1925 – 1985, was one of the great stars of Hollywood and one of its most famous heartthrobs. Probably most remembered for his late-50s/early 60s ‘bedroom comedies’ with Doris Day, he was in fact a considerable talent, nominated indeed in 1957 for a Best Actor in a Leading Role Oscar for his part in Giant the year before. There are those who consider Giant a Western, and it did have some Western credentials in a way, but Hudson performed well, and credibly, in ‘proper’ Westerns – a dozen of them in fact (depending on your definition of Western) between 1950 and 1973. And, being Jeff Arnold’s West, that’s where we’ll concentrate our interest, eh?
He was first cast in an oater by Anthony Mann, tenth-billed as an Indian, Young Bull, one of the many who acquires the title long gun in Winchester ’73. It was not a major part but he made a mark. The year after, he was promoted two places to eighth-billing when he played Burt Hanna in Tomahawk, also at Universal. It was another small part but he was progressing.
However, in 1952 Mann had him back and this time he was one of the leads in another James Stewart Western, Bend of the River. And he did very well. He was Trey Wilson, the smooth gambler, who is fast with a gun but “too soft”. The film is about at least the possibility of redemption and even dandy gunman Rock changes into sturdy settler and future husband. By now Rock Hudson was an established Western actor.
He got to top male billing – Yvonne De Carlo took the lead – in a picture Universal released in June that year which had some semi-Western tinges to it, Scarlet Angel, but it was a kind of adventure/romance really.
His next true oater was under Budd Boetticher, third-billed after Robert Ryan and Julie Adams in Universal’s Horizons West, released in September. Rock’s part was ‘lost’ a bit among a strong supporting cast which included John McIntire, Ray Burr as smoothie bad guy, James Arness, Dennis Weaver, Rodolfo Acosta, et al. Still, it was more valuable experience in the saddle.
He would be back with Boetticher in an oater shot partially down in Florida, Seminole, released in March ’53. This time, finally, he had the lead, as a soldier who understands and admires the Seminole people (led by Anthony Quinn as Osceola) and tries hard, despite the actions of the typical by-the-book idiot commander Hollywood so loved, to help them. It was a worthy pro-Indian story, rather à la mode in the early 50s, after Universal’s Broken Arrow in 1950, and though it wasn’t the greatest of films, it wasn’t bad either.
But director Raoul Walsh had seen Rock’s potential and now took him up – in fact put him under contract. Their first Western collaboration was The Lawless Breed. It purported to be a biopic of the Texas gunman John Wesley Hardin. Historically it was complete hooey (in the movie Hardin is a goody, natch) but nevertheless Hudson was strong in it. He was ably supported by John McIntire again, this time in two parts, as Wesley’s father and his uncle. The Lawless Breed was no High Noon, the picture that made the Western dollars that year, but it was modestly successful.
Very soon afterwards the team was in Arizona shooting another Western, which would be released in October ’53, Gun Fury. This was actually a pacier picture which Walsh had rattle right along. Rock and Donna Reed are going on to California to start anew after the Civil War but fall into the clutches of a group of bad guys, admirably led by Phillip Carey, on form, and Western heavy supreme Leo Gordon. Neville Brand and Lee Marvin are also in the gang. Excellent.
Universal released another vaguely Western (but not really) in November ’53, Back to God’s Country, in which In north-western Canada in the 1870s, sea captain Rock has a cargo of furs but two local crooks plan to steal it, along with his boat and wife.
I mentioned Broken Arrow. Universal wanted to capitalize on that and made a kind of sequel, released in February in 1954, which cast Hudson in the lead as Taza, Son of Cochise. Broken Arrow’s Cochise, Jeff Chandler, was back, just in the first reel, to die and pass on the mantle of statesmanship to his offspring, Taza and Naiche (Rex Reason). But though Taza is like his pater, and wants peace, Naiche is all for the warpath. So Rock was an Indian again, as he had been in his first Western. Directed by Douglas Sirk, the picture was, I fear, a bit of a clunker, but I guess you can’t win ‘em all.
And that was that for the 1950s, the Western’s greatest decade – unless, as I said, you count Giant. Rock wouldn’t mount up again until 1961. 1954 was the year of a much better Sirk picture than Taza, the romance-drama Magnificent Obsession, released in July, in which Rock co-starred with an Oscar-nominated Jane Wyman, and suddenly Hudson was a megastar, and other genres beckoned.
As the 60s dawned, Rock achieved something: he pushed Kirk Douglas down into second-billing when they co-starred in Robert Aldrich’s The Last Sunset. Co-starring with Douglas was always something of a poisoned chalice (but who in Hollywood can resist the bling of a chalice?) especially as Douglas was the producer, and it was he who hired the director. I’m not the greatest fan of The Last Sunset, or of Aldrich Westerns in general (though I greatly admire Ulzana’s Raid) but Sunset was a success, grossing $6.54m on its $3m budget. Maybe Aldrich was hoping to repeat the recipe of Gary Cooper and Burt Lancaster (who also produced) together in Vera Cruz back in ’54. At least Sunset wasn’t as overblown as Vera Cruz, and it had some merits. Rock is restrained, almost dignified, as the goody sheriff after gunfighter Kirk (who unusually uses a derringer). He joins forces with his quarry on a cattle drive for rancher Joseph Cotten (overacting, as usual) under the understanding that Kirk will come quietly at the end of it – though we know well there will be a last-reel showdown. The situation is complicated by Cotten’s wife, who, most fortunately, is played by the beautiful Dorothy Malone.
Most of the 60s now elapsed before Rock saddled up again. Well, the decade was hardly the high-point of the genre, and Rock was busy elsewhere. But in 1969 Fox made quite a big John Wayne Western, The Undefeated, and Rock agreed to co-star. The picture was directed by Wayne groupie AV McLaglen, not the greatest talent on the block, but it was shot by William Clothier, had a good supporting cast – Ben Johnson, Harry Carey Jr, Bruce Cabot, Pedro Armendariz Jr and Paul Fix, among others – and was popular at the box office. It has a slight (but only slight) Major Dundee vibe as Confederate (Rock) and Union (Duke) men work together south of the border.
That was nearly it for Rock’s career in the saddle. He did one more, in the 70s. Showdown (no relation to Audie Murphy’s oater of the same title a decade before) was quite a glossy picture, 99 minutes of Todd-AO 35 Technicolor with some great New Mexico and Sequoia National Forest locations shot by Ernest Laszlo, no less. This time Rock (now 48) was teamed with Dean Martin – it was Dino’s last Western too. The plot is that they grew up together and became partners in a ranch but Billy (Martin) left and fell in with some undesirable elements while Chuck (Hudson) stayed and became a lawman. There’s a slight (very slight) Butch Cassidy vibe as both pals exchange badinage and both fall for the same gal, Kate (Susan Clark). It’s harmless enough, no great shakes but perfectly watchable.
And that was that. Most people on this planet, the ones who are not Western addicts (for such sad souls do exist) probably wouldn’t think first of Rock Hudson in a Stetson. But in fact he was pretty good in the genre. He rode very well, for one thing. He looked the part. He favored the slightly low-key roles, not hogging the limelight but doing the strong silent type pretty well, and that helped when he was paired with a higher-profile or maybe more charismatic Western star, which he often was.
We’ve looked recently on this blog at some of Rock’s pictures, such as The Lawless Breed, Seminole and Gun Fury when we were evaluating the Westerns of that stellar year 1953, and Winchester ’73 and Bend of the River not too long ago in our Anthony Mann season. Click the links to read those. In the coming days we’ll review his other oaters – so come back soon!