Pounded to Death by Gorillas: HIS KIND OF WOMAN (RKO 1951)

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People don’t go to the movies to see how miserable the world is; they go there to eat popcorn, be happy“- Wynton (Jim Backus) in HIS KIND OF WOMAN

Right you are, Mr. Howell, err Backus. There’s an abundance of fun to be had in HIS KIND OF WOMAN, the quintessential RKO/Robert Mitchum movie. Big Bob costars with sexy Jane Russell in a convoluted tale that’s part film noir, part Monty Python, with an outstanding all-star cast led by Vincent Price serving up big slices of ham as a self-obsessed movie star. And the backstory behind HIS KIND OF WOMAN is as entertaining as the picture itself!

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But we’ll go behind the scenes later. First, let’s look at the movie’s plot. We meet down on his luck gambler Dan Milner (Mitchum) in a bar…. drinking milk! Dan just got done doing a 30 day stretch in a Palm Springs jail “for nothin'” (an in-joke reference to Mitchum’s 1948 pot bust ). He returns to his apartment only to be greeted by three goons, who promptly beat the crap out of him. He’s made an offer he can’t refuse to clear his debt: accept $50,000 and move to Mexico for a year, no questions asked. Dan’s no dummy; he takes the offer.

What he doesn’t know is that deported vice lord and “upper crust crumb” Nick Ferraro (bulky Raymond Burr) plans to hijack Dan’s identity and return to the states. While Dan waits for his plane at a crummy cantina, he meets songbird Leonore Brent (Russell):

The heat is on between Dan and Leonore, and their sexually charged banter crackles throughout the film. Leonore is heading to the same place as Dan: Morro’s Lodge, a swanky hotspot for the idle rich. It’s here we meet our cast of characters, none of whom are what they seem. There’s Morro (Phillip Van Zandt), who’s comfortable on both sides of the fence,  Krafft (John Mylong) a chess playing writer with a past, Wynton (Backus) a cheery sort who likes to play cards and hustle young women, and Thompson (Charles McGraw ), who’s mixed up in Dan’s deal.

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Then there’s Hollywood actor Mark Cardigan, played by the one and only Vincent Price, and he’s a hoot. Price has a field day as the vain blowhard in the Errol Flynn mold (when his latest swashbuckler is screened, a wag says, “It has a message no pigeon would carry”). His Cardigan has a thing going on with Leonore, that is until his wife (Marjorie Reynolds) shows up to put a halt to it. Whether spouting Shakespeare or rousing up a rescue party, Price shamelessly steals every scene he’s in. It’s probably his best non-horror role, and he plays it up for all he’s worth.

Back to the story: Dan’s biding his time, waiting to get paid off, while Krafft and Thompson are always lurking in the background. A hurricane is brewing, and a drunken pilot (Tim Holt) barrels through it. But he’s not really a lush, he’s Federal agent Lusk, and he spills the beans to Dan about Ferraro’s scheme to make a patsy out of Dan. Lusk is killed by Thompson, Dan’s kidnapped by Ferraro’s goons, and taken to the gangster’s yacht to await certain doom.  Macho man Cardigan leads the Mexican police on a raid, and a battle ensues. Dan finally breaks free in time to save Cardigan from Ferraro, and the good guys are victorious! Dan and Leonore get together at last and have the final say in a memorably STEAMY ending!

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That ending wasn’t the one concocted by credited writers Frank Fenton and Jack Leonard and director John Farrow. They weren’t even involved in it. RKO studio boss Howard Hughes wasn’t satisfied with the conclusion, feeling it wasn’t exciting enough. Hughes hired director Richard Fleischer and writer Earl Fenton, who’d just wrapped up filming on another RKO noir, THE NARROW MARGIN. The three brainstormed a new ending, building a replica of Ferraro’s yacht inside the studio’s water tank for the added action. This put the film way behind schedule, but there was more to come. When Hughes viewed the footage, he decided the actor playing Ferraro (Robert J. Wilke, later Captain Nemo’s first mate in Fleischer’s 20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA ) wasn’t appropriately menacing enough. Recalling seeing Raymond Burr in another film, Hughes recast the role, and Fleischer had to reshoot all the scenes featuring Ferraro!

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Hopelessly over budget due to Hughes’ tinkering, HIS KIND OF WOMAN lost money at the box office. Today aficionados see it as a camp classic, a romp through film noir territory unlike any other of its day. Mitchum and Russell make an attractive screen team, Price is a riot, and the rest of the cast is more than up to par. Familiar Face spotters will want to keep their eyes peeled for Tol Avery, Danny Borzage, Anthony Caruso, Robert Cornthwaite, King Donovan, Paul Frees, and Carlton Young, not to mention a very young Mamie Van Doren. There’s no other film in the noir canon quite like HIS KIND OF WOMAN, so put it on your must-watch list today.

Christmas Confection: HOLIDAY AFFAIR (RKO 1949)

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On September 1, 1948, movie star Robert Mitchum went to a house party with an acquaintance and two young women. The quartet was raided by LA police and arrested for possession of marijuana.  Local cops were out to clean up the Hollywood “dope scene”, and Mitchum was used to set an example. Sentenced to 60 days in jail, Mitchum and his bosses at RKO figured his career was over. But during all this hubbub, the studio reluctantly released RACHEL AND THE STRANGER, a Western with Loretta Young and William Holden that Mitchum finished before the bust. It was a hit with audiences, who cheered at the sight of the laconic pothead on-screen! Mitchum did his time, then went on to make THE BIG STEAL with his Out of the Past costar Jane Greer. It looked like all was forgiven, but RKO was still unsure, and tried to soften Mitchum’s image by casting him in the Christmas themed romantic comedy HOLIDAY AFFAIR.

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This lightweight holiday tale has Mitchum playing Steve Mason, an idealistic dreamer who we find selling toy trains at a large department store in New York City. Pretty young Connie Ennis (a 22-year-old Janet Leigh) pushes her way through the crowd to buy a train set for her son. She’s really a “comparison shopper” working for a rival store, and Steve sees through her right off the bat. She brings the train set home, to return tomorrow, but her precocious 6-year-old son Timmy (Gordon Gebert) peeks inside the box and thinks it’s for him. When she returns it the next day, Steve is supposed to turn her in for being a spy. But after they talk, he has a change of heart and lets her go, causing him to get fired.

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Connie’s a war widow dating lawyer Carl Davis (Wendell Corey), a practical guy who wants to settle down. Timmy’s not too crazy about Carl, at one point kicking him in the shins and saying, “You’re not my father!” Carl and Steve become rivals for Connie’s affections, and complications arise. But it’s all pretty harmless, and you know from the get-go Janet’s going to wind up choosing Mitchum over boring Wendell Corey, who’s got all the charisma of a doormat. HOLIDAY AFFAIR will make you smile, but it’s not laugh-out-loud funny. There’s some good moments, and it’s a rare chance to see Mitchum do romantic comedy, but this isn’t a can’t miss film. In fact, it didn’t do well at the box office,  and RKO put Bob back in noir territory with his next film, Where Danger Lives. It’s only when HOLIDAY AFFAIR began showing on television that it developed a devoted following.

Young Janet Leigh is lovely to look at, and showed glimpses of better things to come. I never cared that much for Wendell Corey, who seemed stiff and boring in most of the roles I’ve seen him in. He’s stiff and boring here, too. But little Gordon Gebert is swell as Timmy, a natural child actor who actually acts like a child. Harry Morgan (billed as Henry) has a small part as an exasperated cop, and gives the scene he’s in a boost. Director Don Hartman was primarily a comedy writer, with credits including some Hope and Crosby “Road” trips and two Danny Kaye vehicles (WONDER MAN, THE KID FROM BROOKLYN). Screenwriter Isobel Lennert was responsible for films like ANCHORS AWEIGH and EAST SIDE WEST SIDE. After being sidetracked by the House Un-American Activities committee (where she named names), Miss Lennert continued her career with PLEASE DON’T EAT THE DAISIES and FUNNY GIRL.

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Robert Mitchum went on to a long and successful film career after his marijuana arrest and incarceration. Photos from the pot trial show Mitchum with co-defendant Lila Leeds, a 20-year-old bit player married to Lana Turner’s ex. Miss Leeds also did sixty days in stir, and upon release she chose to star in something called I SHOULDA SAID NO! (aka WILD WEED), an exploitation movie along the lines of REEFER MADNESS. The film, and the pot bust publicity, did nothing to further her acting career, and she tumbled into a cycle of more arrests, heroin addiction, and prostitution. Lila Leeds eventually found religion, and volunteered at local missions in LA. She died in obscurity in 1999.

Merry Christmas, everybody!!

 

Swing and a Miss: Robert Mitchum and Faith Domergue in WHERE DANGER LIVES (RKO 1950)

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I have mixed feelings about WHERE DANGER LIVES. On the plus side, it features Robert Mitchum in a solid role as a young doctor trapped in beautiful Faith Domergue’s web. John Farrow’s direction is tight, the script by Charles Bennett is full of twists and turns, and Nicholas Musuraca turns in another atmospheric job as cinematographer. But there are two major flaws that make this film noir fall just short of classic status.

Dr. Jeff Cameron (Mitchum) is about to leave work for a date with his fiancée, nurse Julie (Maureen O’Sullivan, wife of director Farrow and mother of actress Mia) when an emergency arrives. A young woman (Domergue) has attempted suicide. Jeff saves her life, but the woman, calling herself ‘Margo’, is still despondent, stating she “has nothing to live for”. The next day, Jeff gets a telegram asking him to meet ‘Margo’ at a certain address. The address turns out to be a mansion, and the woman explains her full name is Margaret Lannington, giving Jeff a vague story about being “lonely” since her mother died, and living under the thumb of her rich father (Claude Rains).

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Jeff blows off faithful Julie and begins dating Margo, falling madly in love with her in the process. Margo tells Jeff her father is sending her off to Nassau to get away from him. Jeff gets drunk and decides to confront dad at the mansion. Jeff is shocked when he finds out Mr. Lannington isn’t Margo’s father, but her husband! Dejected and disillusioned, Jeff leaves, but returns when he hears a scream from the house. Margo’s ear is bleeding, claiming hubby ripped her earring out, and Jeff gets into a fight with Lannington. The older man hits Jeff with a poker, but Jeff knocks him out. Woozy from the blow to the head, Jeff goes to the kitchen to get water for Lannington. When he comes back, Margo claims her husband is dead, and the pair take it on the lam.

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Jeff’s suffering from a concussion, and struggles to remain conscious. Jeff lets Margo take the lead, and she slowly begins to unravel. The duo head to Mexico, encountering trouble at every stop. Jeff finally finds out the truth about Margo (she suffers from mental illness), and learns through a radio broadcast that Mr. Lannington was smothered to death by a pillow. Margo gets her comeuppance in the end…and then there’s a sappy ending with Jeff getting treated for his concussion in the hospital, faithful Julie waiting patiently by his door.

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This ending just doesn’t feel right to me. It seems like it was tacked on for the sake of a happy denoument, and just doesn’t fit the dark tone of the film. Though Jeff is innocent of murder, he isn’t completely blameless in the whole matter. It was Jeff who initiated the whole sordid affair with Margo, kicking Julie to the curb along the way. Julie’s gotta be some kind of doormat to take him back after all he did to her. Then there’s Faith Domergue. One of Howard Hughes’s pet projects, Faith is a desirable woman for sure, yet leaves much to be desired as an actress. She comes off wooden, unable to project the emotions necessary as Margo, and though she tries her best, it hurts the movie as a whole. Most of WHERE DANGER LIVES is good, except those two little things….the ending and the costar. Mitchum fans will still want to see it. Too bad RKO couldn’t get Jane Greer (Out of the Past) to reunite with Mitchum on this one. I guess you’ll have to judge for yourselves, but as for me, WHERE DANGER LIVES is a minor effort in the noir canon.

Happy Birthday Robert Mitchum: OUT OF THE PAST (RKO 1947)

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One of my favorite actors, the laconic, iconic Robert Mitchum was born August 6, 1917 in Bridgeport, Connecticut. Rugged Robert had a wandering spirit, riding the rails in the days of the Depression, and even did time on a Georgia chain gang. Mitchum eventually ended up in California , and was bitten by the acting bug. After small roles in Laurel & Hardy comedies and Hopalong Cassidy oaters, Mitchum got noticed in a series of B-Westerns based on the novels of Zane Grey. His big break came as a tough sergeant in 1945’s THE STORY OF G.I. JOE, which he received an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor. But the role that made him a star was world-weary private eye Jeff Bailey in the film noir classic OUT OF THE PAST.

We meet Bailey running a gas station in the small town of Bridgeport, California (an homage to Mitchum’s hometown, perhaps?) He has a mute boy only known as The Kid (Dickie Moore) working for him, and a pretty girlfriend Ann (Virginia Huston). Life is good until old acquaintance Joe Stefano (Paul Valentine) drops by and tells Jeff his ex-employer Whit Sterling (Kirk Douglas) wants to see him. Jeff has Ann drive him to Whit’s estate in Lake Tahoe and relates the story of his past in flashback: His real name is Markham. a former private eye once hired by Whit to find errant girlfriend Kathy Moffat (Jane Greer). Kathy put two slugs in Whit’s gut and absconded with forty grand. But Whit says he doesn’t care about the money, he just wants Kathy back. Jeff tracks her down to Acapulco, and immediately becomes infatuated with her. She plays along, but knows why he’s there. She confesses she did shoot Whit, but didn’t take any money. The two begin their doomed affair (Kathy: “Won’t you believe me?” Jeff: “Baby, I don’t care” as they embrace). Whit and Joe show up and Jeff throws them off the trail.

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Jeff and Kathy wind up in San Francisco, where they’re spotted by Jeff’s former partner Fisher (Steve Brodie), now working for Whit. The couple gets a cabin deep in the woods, but Fisher trails them. The two men duke it out, when Kathy shoots Fisher. She takes off in the car and leaves Jeff  to bury the body…

Flashback over, Ann drops Jeff off at Whit’s. There he discovers Kathy’s “back in the fold”, as Whit puts it. Whit wants to hire Jeff for a new job, obtaining some incriminating tax papers from Whit’s blackmailing attorney Leonard Eels (Ken Niles). Kathy goes to Jeff alone and tries to explain things, but he bitterly tells her to get lost. Jeff’s sent back to San Francisco to meet Eels’ secretary Meta (Rhonda Fleming), and put the plan in play. Sensing a frame-up going on, he tries to warn Eels. When Jeff goes back to Eels apartment later, sure enough, the lawyer’s been killed. Jeff hides the body in the basement. Jeff sneaks over to Kathy’s, and discovers her calling the building manager about Eels. The scheme has failed, and Kathy tells Jeff she was forced to sign an affidavit stating Jeff murdered Fisher, and had to go along with the plan. Jeff obtains the papers from Whit’s club, and Joe and Kathy call Whit, who puts the word out, and Jeff’s now wanted for two murders. Joe is sent by Kathy to follow the Kid to lead him to Jeff. He’s about to shoot Jeff when the Kid snags him with a fishing hook, and Joe falls to a watery grave. Jeff confronts Kathy and Whit, and tells Whit the truth. Returning briefly to Ann, Jeff goes back to Whit’s and finds him shot dead on the floor. Kathy’s running the show now, and is ready to split with Jeff (Kathy: “I think we deserve a break”  Jeff: “We deserve each other”). As she gathers some clothes, Jeff discretely calls the cops. They drive down the highway when Kathy sees a roadblock. Realizing Jeff’s betrayed her, she shoots him. The car careens down the highway as the cops shoot at it, and both Jeff and Kathy wind up dead.

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Pretty bleak stuff. OUT OF THE PAST can get confusing at times, but Mitchum’s the glue that holds it all together. His Jeff Bailey/Markham is tough but vulnerable, smarter than his adversaries, always with a wisecrack on his lips. Robert Mitchum in that trenchcoat and slouch hat became the symbol of a film noir anti-hero. The sleepy-eyed star’s career almost ended in 1948 after a pot bust, but he returned to the screen for almost another half-century. Some of his best (in my opinion) were HIS KIND OF WOMAN (1951), RIVER OF NO RETURN (with Marilyn Monroe, 1954), NIGHT OF THE HUNTER (1955), HEAVEN KNOWS, MR. ALLISON (1957), THUNDER ROAD (1958, where Mitchum even sings the title song!), THE SUNDOWNERS (1960), the original CAPE FEAR (1962), EL DORADO (with John Wayne, 1966), RYAN’S DAUGHTER (1970), and FAREWELL, MY LOVELY (as Phillip Marlowe, 1975). He also starred in the popular 1983 TV-miniseries THE WINDS OF WAR. Robert Mitchum had a long and diverse career as a true Hollywood star, and though he died on July 7, 1997, we still have that tremendous body of work to look back on. OUT OF THE PAST isn’t just one of Mitchum’s best films, it’s a film noir masterpiece that has influenced generations, and will continue to do so as long as there are movies to be made. Happy Birthday, Robert!

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