Monday, July 31, 2017

On the Making of River of No Return (1954)

Tommy Rettig and Robert Mitchum in River of No Return (1954)

River of No Return (1954) was supposed to be a small picture; a simple B Western shot on the cheap in Idaho with a small cast and a skeleton crew. Writer Louis Lantz had the idea of taking Vittorio De Sica's The Bicycle Thief and turning it into a Western. Producer Stanley Rubin worked with Lantz and writer Frank Fenton on developing the story for Darryl F. Zanuck at 20th Century Fox. Production was moving forward until Zanuck decided to up the ante and add Fox's biggest star Marilyn Monroe to the mix. Everything had to be brought up a notch. Robert Mitchum and Rory Calhoun were added to the cast as was child actor Tommy Rettig. It would be shot in color with Cinemascope, a new technology Fox had invested a lot of money in. And Otto Preminger, who was under contract to the studio, would be directing the film whether he liked it or not.

Preminger was an interesting choice for the film. He had enjoyed some artistic freedom and independence with previous projects. In this case the script was ready to go when Preminger got on board. Producer Stanley Rubin didn't like Zanuck's choice of director. According to Preminger biography Chris Fujiwara, Stanley Rubin said "I thought of River of No Return as a piece of Americana, and I thought it needed a director who had worked in that area, which Preminger had not done... I was thinking of somebody like Raoul Walsh."

The production moved from Idaho up into Canada. The film got an upgrade with on-location shooting in Jasper and Banff, Alberta. There were the Banff Springs, Bow River, Lake Louise and the Rocky Mountains. This region of the world is simply stunning as anyone who's ever been there, myself included, will tell you.

The setting was perfect for visuals but treacherous for filming. Monroe, Mitchum and Rettig had stunt doubles and stand-ins. Three of the stunt actors almost lost their lives on the Bow River during the shooting of the escape scene on a raft. Monroe injured her leg on set and had to take it easy at the Banff Springs Hotel. Her publicist made a big spectacle of the event. Monroe was photographed around Banff limping around with a wrapped ankle. Her soon-to-be husband Joe DiMaggio came to visit. (Check out this collection of photos from the shoot.) Monroe's good friend Shelley Winters claims Monroe faked the whole thing. Producer Stanley Rubin claims the injury was real but that it might have been exaggerated.

Stanley Rubin, Marilyn Monroe, Otto Preminger and the crew on the set of River of No Return (1954)


The cast of characters Zanuck threw together proved to be a volatile mix. Otto Preminger and Robert Mitchum butted heads on their previous film together Angel Face (1952). Mitchum joked that he thought Preminger was a funny guy and a great producer but "not a very good director". According to producer Stanley Rubin, Mitchum played it cool but behind-the-scenes did a lot of digging into the production and was invested in making the film turn out well. Preminger and Monroe clashed almost instantly. He was an overbearing director and Monroe was sensitive to this sort of treatment. Her acting coach Natasha Lytess proved to be a thorn in the side of the cast and crew. Her coaching style included teaching Monroe how to over-enunciate her words. When Monroe put this into practice it drove Preminger mad. Lytess convinced Tommy Rettig that he'd reached the age when child actors lose their natural talents. The otherwise self-assured and prepared Rettig was now a blubbering mess and couldn't remember his lines. Preminger had enough and barred Lytess. Zanuck had to step in because without Lytess there was no Monroe and with no Monroe there would be no big box office draw. Everyone would just have to put up with each other.

Marilyn Monroe and Robert Mitchum on the set of River of No Return (1954)
Marilyn Monroe and Robert Mitchum on the set of River of No Return (1954)


Let's quickly dispel the myth that Mitchum and Monroe did not get along while making this film. This couldn't be further from the truth. Mitchum took pity on Monroe and tried to help her on more than one occasion. Mitchum biographer Lee Server says, "Monroe's peccadilloes seemed never to bother Mitchum. He thought she was an essentially sweet and funny but often sad and confused person." He enjoyed her "sly humor". After filming Monroe said to the press, "Mitch is one of the most interesting, fascinating men I have ever known."

The cast was quite a draw for locals. Lee Server says, "a special train brought the cast and Preminger the eighty miles were from Calgary to Banff, a publicized event that brought out curious ogling Canadians all along the route." Due to the province's liquor laws, the only place for the actors to drink was the Banff Springs Hotel. Mitchum especially spent most of his free time there.

Marilyn Monroe, Tommy Rettig and Robert Mitchum get hosed in preparation for their studio scenes. River of No Return (1954)

The crew returned to Los Angeles to film the remaining scenes at the studio. According to Lee Server, this is "where Mitchum and Monroe would do their white-water rafting indoors on a hydraulic platform in front of a giant process screen, while men stood to the sides and splashed them with buckets of water and shot steel-headed arrows into the solid oak logs at their feet." At one point Otto Preminger abandoned the project and left for Europe. Director Jean Negulescu was recruited to pick up where Preminger left off. He did not receive a credit for his work.

River of No Return was a box office hit and earned Fox $2 million in profits. Zanuck was right. Marilyn Monroe was the film's biggest draw and the reason for it's success. The reason why River of No Return has enjoyed decades worth of screenings, home video releases, interviews, discussions and even Tumblr fandom is mostly because of Marilyn Monroe. If another actress had starred in the film it might have been another Western relegated to the vaults.

August 6th is the 100th anniversary of Robert Mitchum's birth. River of No Return is available on DVD and Blu-Ray. TCM will be screening this movie as part of the Marilyn Monroe day for their Summer Under the Stars series starting tomorrow.

Sources:
Robert Mitchum: Baby I Don't Care by Lee Server
Robert Mitchum: In His Own Words edited by Jerry Roberts
The World and Its Double: The Life and Work of Otto Preminger by Chris Fujiwara
Leonard Maltin's interview with Stanley Rubin, TCM Classic Film Festival 2013

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