Thunder Road (1958) has one of the most interesting backstories of all the films Robert Mitchum made in his long career as an actor. It's not as dramatic as perhaps the one for Out of the Past (1947) which starts with a plane crash, but it's still full of juicy bits of trivia that will keep any film buff entertained.
Thunder Road is a Robert Mitchum production. For some time, Mitchum had played with the idea of writing a story about moonshiners. He wanted to create an adventure story that dealt with the illegal production and distribution of moonshine in the South and the prosecution of the moonshiners by government officials. Mitchum singled out the town of Asheville, North Carolina as the perfect place to base the story and shoot the film and he almost singlehandedly put this film together.
After doing extensive research for the story, he began collecting the people who would help him make the film. First there was screenwriter James Atlee Philips who was enthusiastic to work with Mitchum on the screenplay and also had a connection with the government tax office. Then came Mitchum targeted Arthur Ripley to be the director of the film. Ripley had a reputation for being super efficient and shooting whole films in 3-5 days. Mitchum chose Ripley because he saw one of his films a long time ago and liked it very much indeed (not that he could remember which one). Mitchum's choice seems an odd one, especially considering how Mitchum was so laid back in his work style and never much cared for deadlines or schedules.
Mitchum then set his eye on, of all people, Elvis Presley! He wanted the 22 year old to play the character of Robin Doolin, Mitchum's character's younger brother. Presley was a big fan of Mitchum and even modelled his famous pompadour hairstyle after Mitchum's wavy locks. Despite Presley's interest in the project, Presley insisted that Mitchum discuss the matter with his manage, the infamous Colonel Tom Parker. Mitchum wanted to deal with Presley directly and even invited Presley to the Mitchum house to have dinner and share stories to kind of woo him into the project. But Presley left things with his manager, who demanded the King be paid a salary that ended up being more than the film's entire budget. Mitchum, not one for dealing with managers or with Hollywood politics, decided to use his own son, James Mitchum, in the role instead.
Mitchum's next target was singer Keely Smith.He had heard one of her records and was very impressed. She had very little to no acting talent but Mitchum wasn't fazed by this. He had to have her in the movie and that's how it was going to be. Keely Smith playing the part of singer/love interest. The music part of the movie was very important to Mitchum. He cowrote two songs for the film. "The Ballad of Thunder Road" is the theme of the movie shown during the opening credits. Mitchum sang the ballad and it was so popular it even made it onto the pop charts! Another song, "The Whippoorwill" based on a poem, was sung by Keely Smith.
Once Mitchum had arranged the cast of characters that would bring his film to life, he and his crew headed to Asheville, NC for several weeks of filming. The local women were delirious with delight over the big movie star being in town. Mitchum was a notorious womanizer and he had the pick of the litter. He didn't even have to pursue, they came to him. His wife Dorothy had come to stay with him for a while during shooting. After a weekend of hardcover drinking, Mitchum woke up to see a strange woman in his bed. In a panic, he rushes out of the room and out of the house, leaving behind a beloved watch which was a gift from his wife and had been inscribed with his name and a personal message.. He knew he would be in the dog house with his wife if he didn't find that watch. That morning, Dorothy surprises him by handing him the missing watch.Turns out he had left it on their bedstand. The strange woman was really his wife!
Robert Mitchum wore many hats for this film including that of writer, researcher, sometimes director, producer, casting director, lyricist and singer. On top of all this, he also starred in the film. After years of being under the creative restraints of the eccentric Howard Hughes, Mitchum was finally free to be creatively independent. Thunder Road is a shining example of how versatile and talented Robert Mitchum could be.
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