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.