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(not actual title art of movie)

In 1936 Lou Gehrig agreed to pose in a loincloth for publicity shots which his agent later circulated with the rumor that Gehrig would star in the next Tarzan feature film. After this lack of good judgment, Gehrig was primed for public embarrassment and itching for a stint in Hollywood. In 1938 he cut a trail to Hollywood to star in a movie written with him in mind. He starred as himself alongside Smith Ballew, the singing cowboy whose looks rivaled Gary Cooper, in the low-grade Western Rawhide (no relation to the classic television series). For good reason critics ignored the film and many people snickered just seeing the movie poster. As far as entertainment purposes Rawhide is less than satisfying, but for the purposes of researching Gehrig the human and what he was like off-field, Rawhide is as a better vessel than many biographies. Via this movie, Gehrig fans see him, not the perspective with which biographies color him.

"I'm going to hang up my spikes for a swell old pair of carpet slippers."

Rawhide's premise: Lou Gehrig is frustrated with his Yankees contract negotiation and decides to forgo baseball and live on a peaceful ranch outside a town called Rawhide, but his refuge of "peace and quiet" is vulnerable to scum thugs and their corrupt puppeteers who get their kicks out of hassling ranchers.

Discounting the poor acting and the even-worse lip-synching, Rawhide manages to keep its chin above the bar that separates "OK" and "my butt is asleep" thanks to the plot line.

Lou leaves New York to join his sister, Peggy, and a hand nicknamed Pop on the ranch, arriving in the midst of the ranchers vs. scum battle. The scum is mastered by Saunders, the temp manager for the Ranchers Protective Association (a co-op that gains supplies for ranchers and sells the ranchers' stock). Among his crew are Association partner, Johnson; the deputy sheriff, Butch; and the sheriff. The complete corruption of the Association puts Rawhide ranchers in a catch-22. In order to buy supplies or sell livestock, they have to join the Association, but if they do join, Saunders assumes an unfair percentage of all ranch profits. If they avoid the Association and attempt to buy supplies in another town, Saunders' men rough them up, steal their supplies, etc. And if any of them, members or nonmembers, try to lodge complaints with the sheriff's office regarding Saunders, they are met with laisser-faire. Rawhide's Attorney-at-Law, Larry Kimball (Smith Ballew), has been trying unsuccessfully to find a rancher willing to join forces and take down Saunders. Cue Lou.

"Hey, fellas, look whose here - Lou Gehrig!"


At first Lou simply says no when Saunders encourages him to join the Association and tells Saunders he'll get supplies in another town, which he does. As punishment on the Gehrigs for buying fence wire from an outside source, Saunders sends Butch and a couple of thugs to take down the Gehrigs' new fence. Lou and Pop happen upon them; Pop confronts them; and Butch shoots at him, giving him a bullet burn on the shoulder. Lou tracks down Butch at the tavern and with Kimball's help beats the snot and spit out of Saunders' men. Lou even body slams a bad guy on the bar. At the zenith of the fight, Gehrig stations himself by the pool tables to bombard the bad guys with pool balls. Sometimes he shatters windows and once he hits the No Sale button on the cash register, but overall he retained good aim.

In the end, Lou and Larry rile up the rest of the Rawhide ranchers and drive Saunders forever out of town. Then they lock up the sheriff.

"I'm going to get that guy Gehrig if it's the last thing I do." - "You ought to make sure there aren't any pool balls around."

Granted, Rawhide is a terrible if compared to, say, Louis L'Amour, but the good - nah, great - thing about Rawhide is that generations born far beyond Gehrig's time are able to see him move, speak, and have fun. This latter is most important, at least to me. To those whose connection to Gehrig sprouts from impersonal photographs and video biographies showing snippets of him slicing, running, or posing, Rawhide is more an important movie than it is a good movie. Having a long look at Lou make a fool of himself but have fun in the process is helpful in establishing a well-rounded perspective of this legendary man.

For instance, who has seen Gehrig throw side-armed? Who? Anyone? I hadn't before seeing this movie because that's something I can't pick up from staring at photos of him swinging or posing in his uniform. I learned he had a touch of this infielders' flair because I saw the way he throws the pool balls. I got to see Gehrig do a lot of small, everyday things that don't seem important until we see our hero do it: drive a car, fold his hands, clap (well) to a beat, put up hay, wax macho, interact with kids, laugh. His 'Yorker accent also came through, which is something I had heard before in interviews he had done but not often enough that his "glad'd'no'ya" went unnoticed by my Midwestern ears.

The most apparent thing I discovered about Gehrig by watching Rawhide was that he may have impeccable timing at the plate as if his arms bleed Swiss quartz, but when it comes to delivering lines, he is more like a wall clock sputtering on its last drops of AA juice. I've seen Gehrig act, I've seen Ruth act; Ruth has natural charm and charisma to make up for any timing flaws. Gehrig doesn't. God love him dearly, watching him approach his mark and say his lines, I could practically see him telling himself, "Walk, stop, look around, shake head/react to other characters, say line, wait for next cue." And I love that aspect of Rawhide because it shows he truly is hesitant and unsure of himself. It also shows that he picked the right day job.

"Gee, this is some fun."

By "have fun" I mean that he is in another element he loved. Baseball is obviously one element where he fit easily, but some may not realize that Gehrig was one of few who kept the B- to Z-grade Westerns spinning on their reels in movie houses back in the day. He was absolutely crazy about Westerns, and they were his principal escape vehicle from reality. He was known to sneak into the theaters by himself to be absorbed in a lifestyle very distant from his own. No doubt the geographical separation between Gehrig and the West had something to do with why he chose Westerns as an escape; that, and cowboy life is much simpler than a New York Yankee life, far away from loud, opinionated spectators and clicking cameras.

Gehrig must have had "some fun" in preparing for his role as cow poke. He had never ridden a horse before pre-production, and he broke into sweat trying to put on spurs for the first time. Regardless, in the movie itself, he does well in the saddle. The seven-gallon, chaps, and ornate scarf looked pretty good on him too. Interestingly enough, a six-shooter was not a constant part of his wardrobe as it was with some of the other ranchers. He pretty much leaves the shooting to Larry, which may not have been the best decision seeing as how Larry, while practicing his shot in his office, aims for a Coca-Cola bottle and hits the speed bag suspended three feet above it.

"Kimball shot Butch."

Rawhide does not skimp on the cowboy-flick cliches. Galloping-horse chases. Bloodless gunfights. A celebratory barbeque with red-checkered tablecloths. Songs randomly intermixed with action.

Smith Ballew was a singer and orchestra leader before crossing over to movies. Not surprisingly, the songs were led by his character. In one song Lou does get the privilege of singing an entire verse solo. Actually, he lip-synched to a voice that was laughably nothing like his own. The song was "A Cowboy's Life (Is an Easy Life)." Choice Lou lyric:

I played the major league for years

with versatility;

I rarely missed a fly I chased

And now the flies chase me.

"That's what I've been waiting for!"

If I could remember just one moment of Rawhide for the rest of my life, I would chose the very last thing Gehrig does in the movie. He's sitting in a wicker chair on the front porch when Pop comes up to him with a telegram from the Yankees: "Your terms acceptable. Report at once for spring training." Gehrig hops up from his chair and declares, "That's what I've been waiting for!" He then jauntily hurdles his chair to rush into the house, presumably to pack. This small moment when he jumps over the chair with beautiful ease and youth stands out because this was 1938. In about a year he would be retiring tearfully from baseball for reasons even he did not fully comprehend. In less than two years he would be crippled by a disease he could never beat but never knew he couldn't.

Since I learned that Gehrig was in a movie, I have been waiting to see it and to spot some monumental moment in which his humanity and all the reasons why he fascinates me would come to the forefront. It may sound a bit too imaginative, but that moment of his leaping so casually, so jovially over an obstacle, that was what I was waiting for, that is why I romanticize Lou Gehrig's life. His beautiful, calculated yet seemingly natural display of strength and the tremendous irony of it.

If for no other reason than to see this moment or to watch him hurl a dude like a sack o' potatoes, Gehrig fans should look in on Rawhide at least once.

Kaden would like to add:

Special thanks to Lonnie Woods for his generosity; I could not have written this without you!

For readers' reference:

Rawhide, 1938, 60 mins, black and white, VHS. Principal Productions; Ray Taylor, director; Dan Jarrett and Jack Natteford, screenwriters.

Quotes taken from movie.