30 June, 2015

Rawhide

                  There seems to be something of a Birthday Bash in this round of our Top 5 Retrospectives.  We're celebrating Mr. Tyrone Power whose first entry -- Jesse James -- posted on what would have been his 100th Birthday, The Mark Of Zorro posted on what would have been that leading lady's -- Linda Darnell's -- birthday, and this entry posts on what would have been today's leading lady's birthday:  Miss Susan Hayward.

But that’s not the only benchmark in today’s write-up.  As I mentioned in The Black Swan, how surprising it was that was Ben Hecht’s first we’d talked about, it’s as surprising today’s film is the first in these Top 5s to showcase that marvelous maze of boulders called The Alabama Hills.  Yes indeed, today you not only get Tyrone Power and Susan Hayward, Dean Jagger and Jack Elam, Henry Hathaway at the helm from a script by Dudley Nichols;  as if all that wasn’t enough … dear readers, today’s the day we go on location in Lone Pine. 

You fans remember how today’s movie begins, don’t you?  The stagecoach barreling through desert and mountains, sun and snow, as we hear, “Yes sir, that’s it.  The Overland Mail.  San Francisco to St. Louis in twenty-five days.  Twenty-seven-hundred miles in twenty-five days and twenty-five nights.  When the weather and injuns behave.  A lot farther and longer when they don’t.  People said it couldn’t be done.  They laughed.  Called it The Jackass Mail.  But when mail and passengers and gold began coming through from California day-in and day-out, the whole country sat up and took notice.  San Francisco to St. Louis.  The shortest, fastest, back-breakingest ride you could buy for two-hundred dollars gold.  Meals included.  Yes sir, that’s it.  The Jackass Mail.”  And where does the stagecoach pull up for the night … and our adventure?

Rawhide (1951)
w Dudley Nichols
d Henry Hathaway

                 The Western is an interesting genre.  And let’s not round up “Cowboy Pictures” in this;  the hundreds of glorious B-Pictures with Roy Rogers, Hopalong Cassidy, Charles Starrett, the list goes on and on.  No, let’s just talk The Western.  The -- how do I put this -- straight dramatic narratives (and we touched on this a bit in Jesse James).  More than any other genre, this was my dad’s favorite (particularly the B-Pictures) so naturally I have a soft spot for them (hey, even Bob Hope got on a couple of horses).  Well, more than any other genre, there’s absolutely zero consistency to its popularity.  (We’re in the midst of Superheroes reigning Popular Supreme but you wanna talk Consistency?  Horror.)  Whenever a really good Western hits, we’re warmed by it being a Hollywood staple and simultaneously shocked by its wide appeal.  I kid you not.  Take a look at five off the top of my head --

                  Stagecoach (1939)                                                                             
                  Red River (1948)
                  The Gunfighter (1950)
                  The Good, The Bad And The Ugly (1966)
                  Unforgiven (1992)  

                  All of them great?  You bet.  But keep in mind those five don’t include --
 
Shane (1953)
The Searchers (1956)
Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid (1969)
Dances With Wolves (1990)
The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford (2007)

And those ten don’t include … you get the idea.  All of them?  Considered instant classics.  Well, they surprised even more.  [The only safe bet might have been John Ford behind a camera pointed at John Wayne but, remember, as our dear friend William Goldman said so well, “Nobody knows anything.”  Incidentally, Goldman himself wrote in 1982 -- thirteen years after Butch (which brought home the Screenwriting Oscar and the equivalent of $600 million dollars)  -- he doubts anyone would even read it then.  Crazy?  Maybe, but so goes the state of The Western.]

Rawhide then -- and keep in mind this an A-Picture with the likes of Ty in-front-of and Henry Hathaway behind the camera -- was not expected to be “a home run” but “a good base hit” -- suits really did talk like that -- meaning they’d make a good film and maybe break even (and note the order they cared for back then).  That we get a movie as good as this, and it did as well as it did, was indeed another surprise.  I’ve talked about a couple Westerns in these Top 5s -- San Antonio, Jesse James -- and it still surprises me they’re as random as they are.  Maybe ‘cause it takes a really good one to be talked about?  Nobody questions Saw 17 coming to a theatre near you but we’re reluctant to give the same amount of money to spurs and six-shooters that might be -- gasp -- good.

But I digress.     

So.  Rawhide.

First off, let’s not confuse this with the hit Clint Eastwood TV Show.  Maybe you hadn’t, nor were about to, but we’ve said it and can move on.  (Well as long as we’ve paused;  when our film today was shown on TV in the sixties, to differentiate the two, its title was changed to Desperate Siege.  Okay, now we can move on.)  This is Rawhide, the 20th Century Fox feature and -- if you aren’t familiar with it -- you’re in for a damn fine film.

Ty -- a city boy sent West by his father to learn the trade -- works at a stagecoach way-station when Susan Hayward and her baby niece arrive, waiting for their next coach.  It’s hot and dusty and the food is barely that and this is no place for a baby;  and that’s when an escaped murderer and his henchmen show up, planning to rob a coach the following morning.  Will our heroes make it through the night;  given a chance, can they thwart the murderer’s plans?

One of the things I find interesting about this film is -- how do I put this -- how wonderfully lean it is.  Not as plain as that might sound, but how straight-forward, un-flourished it is.  Take, say, Casablanca -- an indisputable masterpiece -- where the drama, action, romance, even comedy, certainly the score, is heightened;  there are very big emotions playing there (and perfectly).  But here, the story is told very plainly, matter of factly, even the score (or lack of, even in the climax).  Hugh Marlowe just wants the gold.  He doesn’t want to bed Susan Hayward or burn down the world.  Even when we learn why he went to jail -- the travelers unknowingly ribbing him -- he doesn’t slaughter them, because that would detract from the gold.  Susan Hayward doesn’t particualrly care for what’s right or even safe -- at first -- she just wants to take care of her niece;  get home.  And Ty, well, he just wants to get through the week because then he gets to go back East to good food and clean baths.  This doesn’t detract him from the work to be done, not even his character arc is that great;  he does his job well, eats and sleeps when it’s time, learnin’ the business, but countin’ the days to get the hell out.  Even the love story, such as it is, is played out of a plotted necessity and Ty’s and Miss Hayward’s kiss is part of the ruse they can’t help but give into at that moment.  All simple, one-tracked motivations that stir the drama … and, wonderfully, never lead to melodrama.

                  Except for Jack Elam who is so perfectly evil it’s a tornado barreling through the realism.  There are few truly evil characters in stories.  Top of my head, Reverend Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum) in Night Of The Hunter (1955), Noah Cross (John Huston) in Chinatown and Mrs. Baylock (Billie Whitelaw) in The Omen (1976);  I would include Amon Goeth (Ralph Fiennes) in Schindler’s List but he’s not as much a created character as the personification of Nazi atrocities.  You can’t even discuss The Joker or Darth Vader or Hannibal Lecter in the same list (and I love them all).  We’re talking people who couldn’t care less about theatrics;  who’ll tease, embarrass, steal from, rape, murder simply for the pure pleasure of it.  So, yeah, when Hugh Marlowe -- our villian -- has to look after and out-for one of his own men, I mean, the only one in the movie you’re worried about is Jack Elam.  Evil incarnate riding into our Stage Station.

Rawhide Station for The Jackass Mail.  

                    Remember that’s what it’s called in the bracketed narration:  The Jackass Mail.  Well, that was real.  While the Overland Mail ran from San Francisco to St. Louis, there was the company’s southern route from San Antonio to San Diego, pulled by mules, hence its nickname.  There were two trips a month, one leaving San Antonio and the other San Diego, with 30 days allowed for each.  That’s 1,476 miles – just short of half the U.S. – at about 40 miles a day.  It cost $200, and most of the meals were included, but it was tough going.  I mean tough;  swear to God you were asked to bring your own guns and ammunition to fend off Indians.  Our stage station at “Rawhide,” then, was The Ritz compared to the stops along the way;  unmanned water holes setup at thirty-mile intervals, when they held water.  And only three stops – San Antonio, El Paso and San Diego (so only one during the trip) – had buildings.  Over the course of its run – this is roughly 1857 to 1861 – about 40 trips of the entire route were made.

So, yes, the stage station set 20th Century Fox built for our movie today was gorgeous.  Aaaaand I guess this is as good a time as any to talk a little bit more about that.

You can read more on The Alabama Hills just west of the California town of Lone Pine – and its annual Film Festival (this year marking its 26th) – HERE but, briefly, it’s been a favorite shooting location since 1920 (the first film we know to have been shot there is Fatty Arbuckle’s The Roundup).  What makes the area particularly special is it’s still there.  I’ll explain.  While public land, The Alabama Hills are owned by The Bureau Of Land Management and The Department of Water and Power, so not only is it still there at all, it’s practically untouched since the classic movie days.  Which means you can still get out there and visit them.  Lone Pine’s hallmark film is the classic Gunga Din but get your hands on the list of over 450 movies shot there.  So you can visit.  And stand where Ty stood (a couple of times;  he did Rawhide and King Of The Khyber Rifles there).  And Errol Flynn.  And Gary Cooper and Kirk Douglas and Natalie Wood.  Did I mention Robert Downey Jr. and Jamie Foxx?  Sure, parts of Iron Man and Django Unchained were done there too.  For over ninety years, Hollywood has been going on location in Lone Pine. 

And so Rawhide Director Henry Hathaway & Company went there, built our stage station, and shot all the exteriors there.  Hathaway loved those rocks.  He’d already been there for Lives Of A Benghal Lancer and would return for his segment of How The West Was Won. 

He was born -- ready for this? -- Marquis Henri Léopold de Fiennes in Sacramento, California;  the son of an American actor and stage manager, Rhody Hathaway, and a Hungarian-born Belgian aristocrat, Marquise Lillie de Fiennes.  He was by right a Belgian marquis, a hereditary title held by his grandfather who was on a mission for his king to acquire the Sandwich Islands.  Failing to do so, he settled in San Francisco (and lucky for us he failed because we now call those islands Hawaii).  Not surprisingly, Hathaway tended to keep his aristocratic lineage quiet.  After all, can you see How The West Was Won “Directed by Marquis Henri Leopold de Fiennes?”

When Mr. Hathaway passed in 1985, Kevin Thomas wrote for The Los Angeles Times, “[He] was so unpretentious he’s often underestimated in Movie History.  Although he worked in the same Western and Adventure genres that made Ford and Hawks legends, he rarely inspired the analyses accorded those two contemporaries.”  True and yet -- alongside Ford and Hawks -- few Directors hold up as well.  Look at Hathaway’s work in Noir:  Kiss Of Death;  Gritty Drama:  The House On 92nd Street and Call Northside 777;  Broad Adventure:  Prince Valiant (coming up in Miss Leigh’s Top 5);  and of course The Westerns for which he’s most famous:  not only did he direct John Wayne six times but helmed Duke’s only Oscar win.  Oh, and then there are the “little movies” with -- wait for it -- Mae West, Marlene Dietrich and Marilyn Monroe.  (Without digressing, there’s an oft-told Hathaway and Dennis Hopper story which I’ll leave for you to discover.)  My personal favorite Hathaway film?  If you haven’t seen the great -- and one of James Cagney’s best -- 13 Rue Madeleine, you’re in for a real treat.  For our turn today, Rawhide was the fourth of five films he and Ty made together. 

Screenwriter Dudley Nichols won The Academy Award the first time he was nominated … and was the first person to refuse it.  This was for John Ford’s The Informer (1935).  Why did Nichols refuse his Oscar?  Because The Screen Writers Guild was on strike at the time.  (The Screen Writers Guild was so impressed by this they nomimated him President the following two years.  Oh, they weren’t The WGA until 1954.)  Mr. Nichols worked on thirteen films for Mr. Ford, perhaps most notably Stagecoach.  But it’s for what many consider to be the screwball comedy that he’s perhaps most famous:  Bringing Up Baby.  Personally, I can’t help but think of him as writing, in my opinion, the best adaptation of Agatha Christie’s classic play Ten Little Indians:  And Then There Were None (1945).

Remember in the San Antonio write-up when we talked about its musical theme being used before?  Well, that happens more often than you’d think (and I’m not counting -- nor disparaging -- Quentin Tarantino’s scoring his films by homaging others).  Our Rawhide theme (this is 1951) is the same as 1948’s Yellow Sky (also, incidentally, shot in Lone Pine).  Rawhide is listed as “Music Sol Kaplan” while Yellow Sky is “Music Alfred Newman.”  Now, both were Twentieth Century Fox pictures -- studio pictures, under the studio system -- so, while not shocking, still worth mentioning.

I don’t know that Rawhide will go down as one of the greatest westerns ever made;  mostly, I think, because of how unflourished it is.  (But, then, I think of how wonderfully unflourished The Gunfighter is and it is on a lot of people’s lists.)  Perhaps it goes back to what I was saying about The Western Genre feeling comfortable and surprising at the same time.  I also read a comment on the TCM Website that said, in part, “The location is the only reason this flic [sic] could be considered a Western.  It could be a desert island, even a forgotten place in NYC.”  And I think there’s something to that.  Rawhide is a great character-driven drama that just happens to be set in The West.  And perhaps that’s why -- Hathaway, Nichols & Co telling a good story, making a good movie -- we remember this one.  At least I do.

I’ll close this with a personal anecdote, to share how you really can go out into Lone Pine’s Alabama Hills and visit some of these incredible film locations.  When my wife Diana and I were there for The Festival’s 25th Anniversary [October 2014], we stopped by The Rawhide Burial Site -- yep, that’s what it's called -- and she snapped this picture of me.  (And, yep, that round boulder really is there, a great landmark from the movie.)  I hope you can get out there and find more of your own.  That’s well worth it …




                Coming up, our last film in Ty’s Top 5 is also his last film, Witness For The Prosecution.


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