OTHER COWBOY STARS – Smith Ballew in “Rawhide”

December 10, 2010

This 1938 film is clearly a novelty-piece, an attempt to capitalize on the fame of baseball’s Lou Gehrig.  “Rawhide” opens with Lou Gehrig retiring from baseball and moving out west to live with his sister on a ranch.  He plays himself as a loud, brash New Yorker who doesn’t take guff from anyone.  Much of the humor of the film grows out of the city-slicker trying to be a cowboy, so much so that Si Jenks (a low-rent Gabby Hayes) is unnecessary as comic relief.  There’s also a fair amount of baseball references, as you might have guessed.  Lou gets thrown by a horse and says “strike one.” He gets in a bar room brawl and tosses cue balls.

The real lead in the film, however, is Smith Ballew.  His was a strange path to Western actor.  Guys like Yakima Canutt and Montie Montana were rodeo stars, Tom Mix and Ken Maynard graduated from the Wild West shows, Buster Crabbe and Johnny Mack Brown were athletes.

Smith Ballew was a jazz musician and big band orchestra leader.

Ballew has an interesting back story before coming to be a singing cowboy and minor Western movie star.  He was a serious jazz performer and singer who recorded with the likes of Duke Ellington and the brothers Dorsey.  You can read a comprehensive bio here.

As a cowboy, Smith Ballew is sort of a taller and thinner Charles Starrett.  He’s got an honest look to him.  He rides and fights adequately.  Most of the singing in this film is done with music appearing out of nowhere, like in a movie musical. He made 16 films between 1933 and 1951.

The plot is familiar: bad guys are shaking down the honest rangers with a tax scheme that would rival a George Lucas plot-device in its obscurity and excitement-free intrigue.

But Ballew is a fun star and he and Gehrig are good together.

A sad note, this film remains one of the final records of Lou Gehrig as a well man.  The next year, he would retire from baseball for real, as the onset of his disease would make playing impossible.  That story would be immortalized in “Pride of the Yankees” where Gehrig would be played by another cowboy star, Gary Cooper.

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