March 12, 2010
Long-running television shows are like the proverbial elephant: they feel very different depending on where (or when, in case of a TV series) you touch one. A few, like Bonanza or C.S.I., have gone for a decade or so without changing much, but those are the exceptions. Most of the time, there are significant changes along the way in a show’s cast, producers, writers, premise, setting, tone, or budget, and these inevitably affect its quality.
I always think of Rawhide, a popular western which ran on CBS from 1959 to 1965, as the most extreme example of this phenomenon. On the surface, one episode of Rawhide looks more or less like any other. It began as the story of a cattle drive, and remained true to that concept for most of its eight seasons (actually, six and two half-seasons, since it began as a midyear replacement and closed as a midyear cancellation). The stars were Eric Fleming as the trail boss and Clint Eastwood, a sidekick who almost but not quite achieved co-lead status, as his ramrod. A few secondary cowboys came and went, but the only major cast change occurred in the last year, when Fleming was replaced by a worn-looking John Ireland.
Behind the scenes, though, the creative turnover was significant, and the types of stories that comprised Rawhide changed with each new regime. A thumbnail production history is in order.
The creator of Rawhide was Charles Marquis Warren, a writer and director of B movie westerns who had played a significant role in transitioning the radio hit Gunsmoke to television in 1955. Warren stayed with Rawhide for its first three years (longer than he had remained on Gunsmoke, or would last on his next big TV hit, The Virginian). For the fourth season, CBS elevated Rawhide’s story editor, Hungarian-born screenwriter Endre Bohem, to the producer’s chair. Vincent M. Fennelly, a journeyman who had produced Trackdown and Stagecoach West, took over for the fifth and sixth seasons. During the seventh year, the team of Bruce Geller and Bernard L. Kowalski succeeded Fennelly, only to be fired in December and replaced by a returning Endre Bohem. A final team, comprising executive producer Ben Brady and producer Robert E. Thompson, couldn’t save Rawhide from cancellation halfway through its eighth season.
Most Rawhide fans will tell you that the early seasons are the best. I can guess why they think that, but I believe they’re wrong. Warren’s version of Rawhide played it safe, telling traditional western stories with predictable resolutions. The writers were second-rate, and Warren padded their thin plots with endless shots of migrating “beeves.” Warren was content to deploy totemic western tropes – Indian attacks, evil land barons, Confederate recidivists – in the same familiar ways that the movies had used them for decades.
During the Bohem and Fennelly years, things began to improve. Both producers brought in talented young writers, including Charles Larson and future Star Trek producer Gene L. Coon, who contributed quirky anecdotes like “The Little Fishes” (Burgess Meredith as a dreamer transplanting a barrel of fragile Maine shad fry to the Sacramento River) and pocket-sized epics like the amazing “Incident of the Dogfaces” (James Whitmore as a malevolent but terrifyingly effective cavalry sergeant). There were still episodes that coasted on routine genre action, but they alternated with meaty, character-driven pieces.
When Kowalski and Geller (the eventual creators of Mission: Impossible) took over Rawhide in 1964, they pulled off a daring experiment that has never been matched in the history of television. The new producers upended Rawhide, dismantling western myths and muddying genre barriers with surgical precision and undisguised glee. Geller and Kowalski commissioned teleplays like “Corporal Dasovik,” a Vietnam allegory which portrayed the cavalry as slovenly, dishonorable, and homicidal, and “The Meeting,” a surreal clash between the drovers and a prototypical mafia on a weirdly barren plain. The two-part “Damon’s Road” was a rowdy shaggy-dog comedy, complete with infectious Geller-penned showtunes (“Ten Tiny Toes”) and a subplot that reduces Fleming’s hero to buffoonery, pushing a railroad handcar across the prairie in his longjohns.
Geller and Kowalski’s Rawhide segments may be the finest television westerns ever made. Taken as a whole, they represent a comprehensive rebuke to the myth of the Old West. They anticipate the brutal, disillusioned revisionist western films made by Sam Peckinpah and others in the following decade. Peckinpah’s The Westerner (1959) and Rod Serling’s The Loner (1965-1966) touch upon some of the same ideas, but they do not take them nearly as far. Not until Deadwood, forty years later, did television produce another western that looked, felt, and smelled like the seventh season of Rawhide.
The only problem with the Geller-Kowalski Rawhide, which the producers undoubtedly understood, was that it had little to do with the Rawhide that had come before. Many observers just didn’t get it, including Eric Fleming, who refused to perform some of the material. (Eastwood, apparently, got the idea, and Geller and Kowalski shifted their attention from Fleming’s character to his.) Another non-believer was William S. Paley, the president of CBS, who was aghast at what had been done to one of his favorite programs. Paley fired Geller, Kowalski, and their story editor Del Reisman in what they termed “the Christmas Eve Massacre.” Paley uttered one of television history’s most infamous quotes when he ordered their replacements to “put the cows back in.”
During the final year of Rawhide, the new producers did just that. The series attracted some talented young directors (Sutton Roley) and actors, including Raymond St. Jacques as TV’s first black cowboy. But no one took any chances in the storytelling.
Critics don’t have much value if they neglect to interrogate their own assumptions, question their long-held opinions. Which explains why I’ve been slogging through the first and second season of Rawhide, screening the episodes I hadn’t seen before and looking for glimmers of life that I might have missed. (CBS appears to have abandoned the DVD release of Rawhide for the moment and, predictably, they’ve stopped with the third season – just before it begins to get good.) Most of the segments I watched in this go-round proved to be just as handsomely mounted, and fatally tedious, as the rest. But one episode, “Incident of the Blue Fire,” triggered some doubts about my dismissal of Charles Marquis Warren, and led me to write this piece.
“Incident of the Blue Fire” (originally broadcast on December 11, 1959) is a little masterpiece about a cowhand named Lucky Markley, who believes he’s a jinx and whose frequent mishaps gradually convince the superstitious drovers that he’s right. It sounds like one of those dead-end cliches that I listed in my description of the Warren era above. But the writer, John Dunkel, and Warren, who directed, get so many details just right that “Incident of the Blue Fire” dazzled me with its authenticity, its rich atmosphere, and its moving, ironic denouement.
Dunkel’s script gives the herders a problem that is specific to their situation, rather than TV western-generic. They’re moving across the plains during a spell of weather so humid that the constant heat lightning threatens to stampede the cattle. The drovers swap stories about earlier stampedes, trying to separate truth from legend, to find out if any of them have actually seen one. Eastwood’s character, Rowdy Yates, averts a stampede just before it begins, and explains to his boss how he spotted the one skittish animal. Favor, the trail boss, replies that Rowdy should have shot the troublemaker as soon as he recognized it. These cowboys are professional men, discussing problems and solutions in technical terms, like doctors or lawyers in a medical or legal drama.
Then Lucky appears, asking to join the drive with thirty-odd mavericks that he has rounded up. “Those scrawny, slab-sided, no-good scrub cows?” Favor asks. Not unkindly, he dispels Lucky’s illusions about the value of his cattle. Lucky shrugs it off, and negotiates to tag along with Favor’s herd to the next town. Then Favor and one of his aides debate the merits of allowing a stranger to join them. In one brief, matter-of-fact scene, Dunkel introduces viewers to an unfamiliar way of making a living in the west and to a type of man who might undertake it.
Warren directs this unpretentious material with casual confidence. He gets a nuanced performance from Skip Homeier, whose Lucky is proud and quick to take offense, but also smart and eager to gain ingratiate himself with others. Warren’s pacing is measured, but it’s appropriate to a story of men waiting for something to happen. Tension mounts palpably in scenes of men doing nothing more than sitting around the campfire, uttering Dunkel’s flavorful lines:
WISHBONE: Somethin’ about them clouds hangin’ low. And the heat. Sultry-like. It’s depressin’, for animals and men.
COWHAND: Yep, it’s the kind of weather old Tom Farnsworth just up and took his gun, shot hisself, and nobody knowed why.
“Incident of the Blue Fire” features some unusually poetic lighting and compositions. Much of it was shot day-for-night, outdoors, and the high-key imagery creates, visually, the quality of stillness in the air that the cattlemen remark upon throughout the show. (The cinematographer was John M. Nickolaus, Jr., who went on to shoot The Outer Limits, alternating with Conrad Hall.) There’s an eerie beauty to many of the images, like this simple close-up of Eric Fleming framed against the sky.
Does one terrific episode alter my take on the early Rawhide years? No – they’re still largely a bore. But now I can concede that Charles Marquis Warren was probably after something worthwhile, a quotidian idea of the old west as a place of routine work and minor incident. That the series lapsed into drudgery much of the time, that the stories usually turned melodramatic at all the wrong moments, can be lain at the feet of a mediocre writing pool. Or, perhaps, Warren capitulated too willingly to the network’s ideas of where and how action had to fit into a western. But Rawhide had a great notion at its core, and that explains how the show could flourish into brilliance when later producers, better writers, were given enough room to make something out of it.