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Wednesday, April 10, 2013


Jane Greer and Robert Mitchum: movie casting Heaven
in the Hellish masterpiece Out of the Past.

Time for another round of Would-a, Could-a, but Should-a???

Robert Mitchum is one of those heavyweight actors that the history of cinema would be unfathomable without. The very specific niche that he carved for himself-- half leading man/half mysterious outsider-- was an important step forward in the world of film acting. Actors with his earthy appeal and natural, unrehearsed acting style, combined with the guttural passions of John Garfield, for example, paved the way for the Method phenomenon that would soon take shape. It makes one wonder if we would have been ready for the impact of Brando without the Mitchum bridge to carry us over... For that reason alone, Out of the Past-- the film that further defined Bob's deviant, film noir persona-- carries great weight in moviedom. Had he missed this chance at what was to become a cult classic of fanatic proportions, Bob may have been pushed into an uncomfortable, more commercial corner of the business, which probably would have given him the urge to "adios" before he could make such a huge impact on the industry. This was very nearly the case, as the role of "Jeff" was first offered to the King of Noir, Humphrey Bogart (left). It made sense that writer Daniel Mainwaring would envision the lead of The Maltese Falcon, To Have and Have Not, and Dark Victory, in his tantalizing film about sexual manipulation-- with the usual, scintillating twists and turns. Fortunately for us, RKO was more interested in pushing their new rising actor and assigned Bob to the film. Bogie would have been good, no doubt, yet his aggressive toughness onscreen would not have made him easy prey to the luscious Jane Greer's diabolical machinations. Bogie's film persona always solved mysteries; he wasn't bamboozled by them. Bob, on the other hand, had the perfect blend of sinister elegance and man's man vulnerability to fit the role like a glove. Thus, Out of the Past is ad infinitum.

After 10 years in the business, Bob had staked his claim and earned some real elbow room. A dedicated but reluctant actor, Bob had always wanted to be a writer-- a family passion that was passed down to at least two of his children. One particular story that was constantly kicking around his head dealt with the moonshine business-- and its necessary use of fast cars. Soon enough, his pet project Thunder Road was going into production with him at the helm as lead star, producer, co-writer, and sometimes director. He did specific research for the film, studying all the different methods of making and transporting the homemade liquor, which he was, of course, happy to sample. The cast and crew would grow friendly with the locals of North Carolina during the shoot and even enjoyed borrowing "hot" cars for the film that were used by actual "criminal whiskey drivers." When it came to casting the role of his character's brother in the film, Bob thought immediately of Elvis Presley, whom he was been very impressed with in Love Me Tender (right). When Elvis was paid a visit by his hero-- the Robert Mitchum, (whose hairstyle he had copied from an early film to create his own signature look)-- he was absolutely ecstatic! Unfortunately, Elvis, as always, needed the permission of his overly controlling manager, Colonel Parker, before he could say "yes" to the deal. Bob, who never needed anyone's permission for anything, was understandably flustered by the younger man's codependence, and the chance passed Elvis by. Instead, Bob did the next smartest thing and cast his eldest son, Jim, in the role of "Robin Doolin." Heck, as father and son, they certainly looked like they shared the same DNA, so they made believable brothers. Though Jim, then 16, was never able to copy the success of his father's career, he did pursue acting after Thunder Road and, due to his golden name, was able to land some gigs in mostly B-features.

One of Bob's most memorable performances, and my personal favorite, was that of "Max Cady"-- the lecherous anti-hero of Cape Fear. The project began when the eternal American gent', Gregory Peck, read the novel The Executioners by John D. MacDonald. Being impressed with the subject matter, he passed the book to director J. Lee Thompson and suggested it as their next project. After screenwriter James R. Webb adapted the text into a taut, daring masterpiece about a lawyer vs. his recently released and vengeful former client-- a brutalizer and rapist-- the casting for Greg's counterpoint became a grave concern. Officially, the film was on a tight budget, so most of the moolah was going toward paying the star, Greg. Therefore, actors of less public and economic stature were initially suggested: Rod Steiger, Telly Savalas, etc. Still, it didn't  feel right. Then, Bob's name was thrown on the table, and a light went on over Greg's head! His walking opposite and another bankable name, Bob fit the bill perfectly! Greg made his pitch, but Bob wasn't interested. He had been overworked and was looking for respite. He knew a character like Max Cady would require a lot of energy and dedication, and he just wasn't up to it. So, tactically, the production team started asking his opinions on the character, and Bob started offering his advice and his own perceptions: "The whole thing with Cady, fellas, is that snakelike charm: "Me, officer? I never laid a hand on that girl..." While talking, he started to realize that this role was meant for him. Still, he demurred. Greg cleverly sent him flowers and bourbon, and later Bob gave him a call: "OK... I'm drunk. I'll do it." Praise the Lord, for never was there a Devil so Divine! (Greg and Bob wrestle in the Cape, left).

With all the recent hullabaloo about the Sam Raimi prequel Oz the Great and Powerful, it is interesting to look back on The Wizard of Oz. There are many good films, quite a few classics, but there are few that  are bigger than time itself. The tale of "Dorothy" and her motley, goofy cronies' trip down the yellow-brick road holds its own specific place in eternity, where it steadfastly continues to inspire the young and old, make new memories, and resurrect forgotten or too rarely indulged dreams of innocent fantasy. The strange behind-the-scenes disasters somehow managed to come across brilliantly on the silver screen: the birth of little girl Judy Garland as a true movie star, the mythic and vibrant coming of age story, the nostalgic "Over the Rainbow..." Everything fell into place as it should-- even Dorothy's tornado swept house, which was actually filmed dropping from the camera and then played in reverse so it appeared to be crashing to the ground-- right on the Wicked Witch of the East! The "Wicked Witch of the West," (Hell of an alliteration, that), is the one we really remember. Margaret Hamilton's green-faced performance of horror, hysteria, and camp is the very one that she seemed specifically born for. A character actress with a notoriously unusual profile, there was little chance that she would become a screen sensation, yet she remains a legend still. However, the role was originally given to the glamorous Gale Sondergaard (right). The first interpretation of the character was to have the Witch much more sensual: evil hiding in beauty. However, as production went along, it was realized that there firstly was no place for sex in Oz and secondly, Gale was not exactly a frightening threat. MGM decided they needed more edge, so they tested some "ugly" make-up on her, but Gale was so aghast at her mutilation that she resigned from the role. Margaret picked it up, and the film caught fire, burning infinitely! (This can be taken more literally, as Margaret actually did catch on fire at one point during filming)!

Ooh-la-ahhhhhh! Maggie works her [black] magic!

In case it has somehow escaped your notice, Sunset Boulevard is my favorite film. (I am actually pretty sure that I could run a blog specifically about Sunset and Lon Chaney and never run out of material). A movies about movies? The ultimate, silent celebrity playing the ultimate silent celebrity (and spider woman)? Billy Wider?! I mean... Come on! Holden's not bad to look at either, but that goes without saying. I've mentioned in a previous post that Mae West was actually offered the role of the fading movie icon, "Norma Desmond," but she wasn't the only one considered for the epic part. Before Gloria Swanson won the role-- which she thought was a mere supporting part, only to be surprised that she was yet again the leading lady after so many years-- there was another woman in the running. When one thinks of silent cinema, of top Hollywood figures, of heroes, legends, and the talents that built this industry, there is only one woman who could ever bear the name "Mother Hollywood," and that is Mary Pickford (left). Mary's life was slowly starting to resemble that of Norma Desmond by the time she was offered the role. As she spent a great deal of her latter days in hermitage in her fading temple, Pickfair, grappling with her own sanity-- I'm literally making a sad face as I write this, :(-- her casting in the film, in retrospect, would seem not only to be a product of synchronicity at its best, but her understanding of the role and her presence in the film would have certainly made it a phenomenon. Yet, there were some hiccups. Mary may have been a bit too perfect for the role, for she immediately started indulging in her too little exercised inner diva of old. She felt the film should center entirely around Norma, making Holden's "Gillis" a mere speck of dust in the periphery of her own magnificent mania! Wilder wasn't sold on Mary's ideas, as they eliminated the bulk of the story. So, he went back to the drawing board and cooked up some other fading screen madams, including Pola Negri. Yet, it was Gloria Swanson's destiny to breathe vivid and disturbing life into Ms. Desmond, which she did to perfection. For that, Gloria, I heart you forever!

"We didn't need dialogue. We had faces!" Damn straight, Gloria!!!


  1. I just wanted to tell you that I've spent the last week pouring over this blog and reading every word. I grew up in LA with a mom who loved old films; because of her I am an armchair film historian who has read everything I can get my hands on and seen hundreds of old films over and over again. I too am a cemetary visitor... although now i live in NorCal. Thank you so very much for your passion and the beautiful, loving articles on some of my very favorite people.

    1. Ana, thank you so much for such a lovely commendation! Feedback like this always makes me feel justified for all my efforts! It is phenomenal how so many of us have such a shared love for these wonderful artists of the past and the industry itself. I am grateful to you for reading and responding. Clearly we are like minded, and I hope that you continue to enjoy my future and past pieces (and forgive the many typos. I can never seem to catch them all)! Take care :)