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Wednesday, March 15, 2017

My Week with Marilyn: River of No Return (1954)


Director: Otto Preminger
Starring: Robert Mitchum, Marilyn Monroe

And now for something completely different. From the frothy, female-centered comedy of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and How to Marry a Millionaire, to the rugged western/adventure of River of No Return, a movie brimming with testosterone. How manly is River of No Return? It opens with Robert Mitchum chopping down a tree so that he can build a log cabin all by himself, and then proceeds to have him get into three hand-to-hand combat fights, prove himself an expert marksman, captain a rickety raft down the eponymous river whose rapids are supposed to be unconquerable, capture and kill a deer while rafting down that river, wrestle a cougar, and single-handedly fight off a war party. If River of No Return was a person instead of a movie, you'd think it was overcompensating for something.

Mitchum is Matt Calder, a man with a past who ventures from his recently built homestead to the nearby tent city where people from far and wide have come to prospect for gold and where Matt's son, Mark (Tommy Rettig) has been delivered at Matt's request. For reasons Mark doesn't understand, Matt has been away since he was little and Mark doesn't believe him at first when he claims to be his father, until Matt shows him a picture of his now deceased mother. After bidding goodbye to Kay (Marilyn Monroe), the dance hall singer who has been looking after him, Mark returns to the homestead with Matt, where they intend to make their living by farming. Meanwhile, Kay's fiancee Harry (Rory Calhoun) has finally hit it big by winning the deed to a gold mine in a card game and they make plans to head to Council City so that he can file his claim. Their first attempt to get there, by rafting down the river, fails as they're passing the Calder homestead and Matt has to rescue them. Afterwards Harry decides to travel by land, stealing Matt's horse and riffle and heading off on his own. Shortly after his departure, Matt, Mark, and Kay are forced to flee on the raft when a Native American war party attacks the farm.

From there, the story is structured to move back and forth between two types of scenes: those which take place on the raft as the party navigates the treacherous waters, and those which take place on land when they've had to pause in their journey for one reason or another. It's during the pauses that the film develops the relationship between Matt and Kay, which is fraught with tension because of her devotion to Harry and her determination to stop Matt from hurting Harry once they get to Council City, and which turns violent when Matt attempts to rape Kay. The film being made in 1953, the rape attempt does nothing to prevent the story from wrapping up by having the characters end up together, even though the scene actually is quite violent (though it does end with her vehement "no" suddenly turning into a conquered "yes"). That said, the film's depiction of women (well, "woman," since Monroe is the only one here) is at least slightly more palatable than its depiction of Native Americans, who factor into the story as a vague menace on the margins of the story, popping up now and again to attack for no reason except that they can, and at one point one serves to advance the story by ripping off Monroe's shirt, leaving her in nothing but a flimsy white camisole right as the raft is about to go into particularly choppy waters, getting her drenched.

There are definitely things about River of No Return that are pretty... gross from a modern perspective, but as adventure yarns go it's not a bad film. The experience of making it was apparently so bad that director Otto Preminger paid Fox $100,000 to cancel his contract, and Monroe derided it as the worst film she'd ever made, but those feelings seem to be less a result of the quality of the film than of the stresses and frustrations of working in the studio system and being assigned to films rather than choosing them. Nevertheless this is an interesting film in terms of how it uses Monroe and shows that she did, in fact, have range, as her character here is as different as it gets from those in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and How to Marry a Millionaire. Kay isn't a dingbat, but a hearty frontier woman who meets the physical challenges thrown up in front of her and there's a toughness, an emotional hardness, to her that's nowhere to be found in Monroe's characters from lighter fare. Even Monroe's manner of carrying herself and her voice are different here, with the signature breathy cadence replaced with something that probably more resembled Monroe's actual everyday speaking voice. It's a departure from what one might think of as the "Marilyn Monroe character" and Monroe holds her own as she goes toe to toe with Mitchum while having buckets of water thrown at her from off screen.

Though probably considered more of a Mitchum movie that happens to co-star Monroe than a Monroe movie, Monroe still manages to stand out, a diamond in the rough and tumble world depicted in the film. That may be because the western elements of the story are sort of perfunctory, with Matt emerging as nothing more than a standard western hero: strong and silent, capable at any task, unafraid to stand up to anyone, even the guy holding a gun, and hiding a dark past. It's not a great western, but its adventure elements are stronger, throwing every peril imaginable at the central trio, even if the effects work looks primitive from a 2017 perspective. But it's Monroe who emerges as the film's special element. It's a different kind of role for her and she equips herself well, proving (if such proof is necessary) that she was more than just a sex symbol and capable of playing a varied range of characters.


Up Next: There's No Business Like Show Business

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