Friday, August 10, 2012

The Rawhide Terror (Security, 1934)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2012 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Charles came home and he and I watched a really quirky movie I’d downloaded from The Rawhide Terror, a late-1934 independent Western from something called Security Pictures, starring … well, the top-billed performer is listed as “Art Mix.” Tom Mix was one of the biggest Western stars of the silent era, and as early as 1923 Victor Adamson, an enterprising actor-producer who’d emigrated to the U.S. from New Zealand and decided, starting in 1923, that he would knock off Tom Mix’s fame by billing himself as Art Mix, with the name “MIX” in huge letters on the publicity for the films while “ART” was in comparatively teeny type. (It would be like someone later in Hollywood history billing himself as “Tom Wayne.”) By late 1934 Adamson had decided he was too old to do the “Art Mix” gig on screen himself, so by the time The Rawhide Terror was made he was simply producing (though he plays a minor role as a townsperson under the name “Denver Dixon”) and he’d hired another actor, George Kesterson, to be billed as “Art Mix.” And Kesterson wasn’t the only actor in this film pseudonymously ripping off the name of a more famous star: the titular role of Black Brent, the Rawhide Terror, was played by someone billed as “William Barrymore” who also acted under the name “Boris Bullock” in other films (though according to he was really a Russian immigrant named “Elia Bulakh”!).  

The Rawhide Terror opens with a title explaining that in the 1890’s renegade whites frequently dressed as Indians and attacked wagon trains, though the wagon we see them go after is just one solo wagon and not part of a train. It belongs to miner Jim Clark and his wife and two sons; Jim has just struck gold and he’s on his way to file the claim on his mine when they’re attacked by a pack of the aforementioned renegades, some of whom look white while the ones who are disguised as Indians wear such tacky-looking attempts at war paint no self-respecting real Indian would have gone anywhere looking like that. The baddies get Jim and his wife to give them the gold they mined and the secret of their mine’s locations, and promise them they won’t be hurt — a promise which, of course, they break: they kill the parents and leave the older son for dead, while the younger one (Tommy Bupp) escapes. The older kid, it turns out, isn’t dead but has become permanently deranged by watching the murder of his parents, but not before he and his brother have compared their chests and noticed they have matching birthmarks. Then there’s another title that explains that the original renegades have used the profits from the Brent mine to take over the town of Red Dog (a real place in the California gold country, Charles told me) but a mysterious killer called the “Rawhide Avenger” is targeting them one by one. Now, after that intro, how much you wanna bet that the crazy older brother is going to turn out to be the psycho vigilante known as the “Rawhide Terror” and the sane but offensively cutesy-poo younger brother is going to become a lawman, and the climax is going to be the revelation that they have the same birthmark and therefore each is the other’s long-lost brother? No kidding.

The Rawhide Terror got into the George Turner-Michael Price book Forgotten Horrors on the strength of its Gothic elements — not only the Rawhide Terror’s unforgettable appearance (he wears a rawhide mask whenever he goes out to avenge his parents’ death by killing anyone who was involved) but the macabre way he has of murdering people (he ties a piece of rawhide around the neck, then ties them up like an S/M bondage practitioner and leaves them in the hot desert sun, which will dry the rawhide and thereby slowly and painfully strangle them) — but this is yet another promising idea for a movie weakened, if not altogether ruined, by the strangulation-poor level of its budget. Security was one of those bottom-feeder studios that shot only Westerns, and its writers took pains to write as few interior scenes as possible because interiors cost money to rent lights, while sunlight was free. Still, The Rawhide Terror has its points: it’s visually far in advance of most “B” Westerns (it had two directors, Jack Nelson and Bruce Mitchell, and both of them, along with dual cinematographers A. J. Fitzpatrick and Western veteran Bert Longnecker, come up with some quite striking compositions at times) and it’s also action-packed. Jack Nelson, besides co-directing, also came up with the script, and though it’s nothing much — it’s about the old sheriff (Edmund Cobb) and his deputy Al Brent (Art Mix) being stymied in their pursuit of the Rawhide Terror until, in an action-packed climax, they finally come upon him in a wagon with Betty Blake (Frances Morris), who’s Al the Deputy’s girlfriend and also the sister of local Tom Blake (William Desmond), who may or may not have been part of the original gang that targeted the Brents (enough “B”-westerns used that plot trope I may just be reading that into this one with no evidence for it in this film itself!).

Earlier the Rawhide Terror has literally blown off the side of a mountain with TNT (the dialogue says dynamite but the boxes we see in the film are clearly labeled TNT) to cause an avalanche that would bury his pursuers. In the end, of course, Al catches the Terror, sees his birthmark, realizes that he’s his long-lost brother and, though the brother dies, for everyone else (at least who’s still left!) it’s a happy ending. The Rawhide Terror ends abruptly and it’s entirely possible, as an “trivia” poster claimed, that the film was originally designed as the first episode of a serial and released as a feature only when Adamson and company ran out of money to keep making it. (Presumably if it had been a serial, the Rawhide Terror’s final exit would have been delayed.) It’s no world-beater, and the horror element is hardly as sinister as it would have been if Security had had the money to shoot at night (or at least to print scenes day-for-night like the major studios could!), but it’s also a fun movie and worth watching despite the uncertainty about the running time: the American Film Institute Catalog lists the length in feet, like a silent movie (4,500’); Forgotten Horrors says 50 minutes, says 52 and the version is only 43 — and yes, it does seem like some footage that ought to be there is missing even though the movie as it stands is not only coherent but offers almost non-stop action instead of the longueurs of some “B” Westerns of the time.