The Harvard Film Archive is currently doing a retrospective on the work of director Nicholas Ray. Lucky for me, one of the films they happen to be showing was The Lusty Men (1952) which stars my beloved Robert Mitchum. Knowing that I wouldn't be able to get a chance to see many of the films in the series, I made this one high priority. Kevin and Carlos came with me to the HFA to see it last week.
Robert Mitchum plays Jeff McCloud, a rodeo star who suffers an injury that hurts him more emotionally than physically. He retires to ranch life and seeks out his old childhood home. The home is sought after by a couple, Wes Merritt (Arthur Kennedy) and Leslie Merritt (Susan Hayward) who want to start a ranch. Wes gets Jeff a job but soon gets enamored by the idea of being a big rodeo star like Jeff. Wes is tired of working for someone else and decides that playing the rodeo circuit will earn him quick cash to buy and run his own ranch. Wes convinces Jeff to teach him all he knows about rodeo. Jeff becomes Wes' manager earning a percentage of Wes's earnings and off they go, much to the chagrin of Leslie whose tumultuous past has made her yearn for the stability that rodeo life doesn't have to offer. Wes gets more and more dazzled by the false glamour of rodeo life: the quick cash, the instant fame, the parties full of booze and dames. He quickly gives up the idea of going back to ranch life. Leslie fights against Jeff who got Wes into this situation in the first place but Jeff is falling in love with Leslie. This is where things get complicated.
Watching the film, I couldn't help drawing comparisons to The Misfits (1961) which is also about the rodeo scene but focuses more on various wayward characters and the dirty business of mustang hunting. The Lusty Men is a much quieter film, less focused on a message or showcasing a cast of big stars and more interested in telling a very linear story. The film is filled with lots of rodeo scenes. Calf-roping, bronc riding, steer wrestling, bull riding, etc. A good chunk of the film consists of these scenes but I don't feel like they overwhelmed the movie. Instead, I felt like a spectator watching both the stories of the people on screen and watching rodeo life circa 1950s. It added to the experience.
The programmer who introduced the film to us mentioned that Robert Mitchum was reported to have stolen the original last reel of the film and gave it to his secretary to burn. He hated the original ending so much he went to those lengths so that a new ending would have to be filmed. Many people don't realize how much Mitchum influenced movies he made. He gave a lot of input in acting, dialogue, script, directing and production whether it was wanted or not. In my opinion, a film was always better for having Robert Mitchum in it.
The Salon article which I linked to on the heckyeahrobertmitchum Tumblr (a heads up from KC of Classic Movie Blog) has the following anecdote about The Lusty Men:
On the rodeo film "The Lusty Men": "(Producers) Jerry Wald and Norman Krasna -- one or the other -- would call me at the office and ask for ideas. So I gave them one -- a modern Western. They reached into a drawer and came up with a title. They had titles to fit just about any type of movie. They were quite a team. One would walk up and down and cry while the other sat down to talk to you. Then they'd reverse. I always thought that the producer was The Producer. I didn't know I was makin' more money than they were and that if I sneak-talked to the boss (Howard Hughes), they'd be out. I didn't know that, no shit. So Howard called me one day and said, 'Bob, for God's sake tell me you don't want to do this picture so I can get this son-of-a-bitch Wald off my back.' But I told him I wanted to do the picture. He asked, 'Is the script that good?' I told him we didn't even have a script, but we'd whip one up. And I wanted Nick Ray to direct it.
"The next day Wald called me to tell me in hushed tones that 'Howard's OK'd the story and guess who we have as director? Nick Ray.' Then he hired Niven Busch and the guy who wrote 'They Shoot Horses,' Horace McCoy, to do the writing. They were at opposite ends of the lot and they kept passing each other by. Finally they passed each other and went right out the gate. Nick and I , both stoned, worked out the script.
"So we get the picture finished and Wald had insisted on this ending that was impossible. We snuck into the editing room, made off with the end sequence and burned it. The production number was still active, so we went out and shot another ending, bang-bang-bang, like that. And Jerry Wald traveled to colleges around the county lecturing on the art of filmmaking."
Unfortunately, The Lusty Men isn't available on DVD. If you get a chance to see it, please do. It's a wonderful little film. And it doesn't hurt that Mitchum looked amazing in a cowboy hat and tight jeans that hugged him in all the right places (::biting finger coyly::).
If you have TCM, it's showing on September 28th at 6:00 am!
This is me outside of the HFA and in front of some posters of Nicholas Ray movies. I love having my photo taken here.
If you are in the Boston area, make sure you check out the series. It goes on until August 9th. Or just check out the listing on the HFA site. A lot of the films are on DVD. In fact, I'm hoping to do a short Nicholas Ray series here on the blog. Stay tuned.