THE WESTERN FILMS OF ROBERT MITCHUM
Author: Gene Freese
Publication date: November 2019
244 pages in softcover, $39.95
McfarlandBooks.com – 800-253-2187
Most biographies of Hollywood film stars are from the “print the legend” department. Collections of studio publicity releases, agents’ fact free notes and war stories from old Hollywood friends and foes. They’ve been repeated so many times by media outlets and film “historians.” it’s hard to separate fact from fiction.
It’s not the case in “The Western Films of Robert Mitchum” by Gene Freese. This book is one of the rare times when you get more than what the title suggests.
Author Gene Freese has done his work the old-fashioned way. Lots of grunt work and untold hours digging through library archives, multiple screenings of films and videos, myriad interviews — in person, on line, by telephone, and through letters from a cross-section of people who’ve given insight to the complex puzzle of the man who was Robert Mitchum.
If you’re expecting a glossy account of the rebellious Mitchum who earned his Hollywood spurs as a hero, villain and contrary old-timer of the west, Gene Freese gives you far more that you expect from a book about a film star. In this book, you get to know the man who inhabited Robert Mitchum’s body, soul, and screen persona.
Practically every would-be Hollywood trivia buff knows about Mitchum’s much-ballyhooed marijuana arrest in the ’40s. It’s an incident that’s gained legs, often overshadowing the actor’s impressive body of work.
It took Mitchum a while to come to terms with his infamous marijuana legacy while striving to become a diverse and accomplished actor. As Gene Freese explains, Robert Mitchum was so fond of playing the maverick on and off screen, he was perhaps guilty of printing his own legend, an irony not lost on the man who told friends to call him “Mitch.”.
Gene Freese traces Mitchum’s rough and tumble beginnings, separating fact from fiction. They are no less fascinating without the Hollywood public relations excesses. In fact, they are more interesting given Freese’s matter-of-fact detail of “Mitch’s” harrowing years as a young man, bumming his way cross country with real life hobos during the great depression.There was nothing glamorous or romantic about sharing a railroad box car with grimy men who had little to live for and were quick with a shiv to quiet upstart youngsters like Mitchum.
As author Freese explains, Robert Mitchum’s tough guy persona was born during his formative years. Hollywood was far from Mitch’s mind when he decided to see the country on his own terms. It was Woody Guthrie wanderlust.
Gene Freese’s anecdotes are rich with detail as the youthful Mitch is schooled by real-life hardliners who brooked no fools. Mitchum would use the behavior of those tough guys in his actor’s toolbox. Freese describes how Robert Mitchum closely studied the people around him, grew to understand them and ultimately allowed them to inhabit his screen persona.
Many of Gene Freese’s accounts of Robert Mitchum’s life hit home. I had the opportunity to spend a long social afternoon with Mitchum in the early ’70s when he was filming “The Friends of Eddie Coyle” in Boston. I was a television news reporter and the lunch followed the interview I’d done with Mitchum. Our time was spent in a seedy bar where Mitch could relax without having to deal with gawking fans. Mitch was relaxed and I got to see many sides of his personality, so well described by Gene Freese.
The Western Films of Robert Mitchum” reads like a friendly chat by a fire in the evening. It’s conversational and comfortable. Gene gives you film details much like your favorite sports writer breaks down a game. I found myself slowing down to get all the details, my fingers tracing the information from title, producer, director, stars, right down to the extras and wranglers. If you ever wondered who played the henchman, the bully or the bartender, Freese has the names and terrific back-stories to go with character actors like Ward Bond, Paul Fix, and Morgan Woodward — names you might recognize if you are a western movie fan.
Freese gives you a fresh and honest look at Robert Mitchum’s family life. Robert Mitchum was married to one woman for his entire life, something the tabloid people rarely mention. Mitchum’s father role, as Gene Freese tells us, was far more accomplished than most of his peers.There are plenty of family stories that I’m sure will surprise and delight you.
Robert Mitchum’s “noir” westerns finally get some long overdue attention. Films like “Blood On The Moon,” “Pursued,” and “Track Of The Cat” played in theaters and television and never got proper critical appreciation. “Just another western,” many folks thought. Gene Freese conducts Film 101 and you’ll be surprised, I think, at how good those movies are.
Robert Mitchum’s non-westerns are not overlooked. Think about “Night of the Hunter” and “Cape Fear” to mention two of Mitch’s scariest villains. Gene Freese gives you a lot to chew on about Mitchum’s approach and work on those two classics.
As a western fan, you’ll want to know more about Mitchum’s work with John Wayne. Their relationship, on and off screen, is fascinating and funny. Drinking prowess was just a small part of it. If you recall “El Dorado,” Wayne and Mitch (aka “The big two”), is exhibit A and the book has all the details.
In his later years, Robert Mitchum made some questionable professional choices. Some mediocre films were made and other excellent roles were turned down. He worked a lot and Gene Freese pulls no punches as he explains how it happened.
“Tombstone” was Robert Mitchum’s last important movie job. He was the narrator. He could’ve been in the movie but chose instead to be “the voice.” Gene Freese, again, gives information which is unknown, even to many “movie mavens.”.
As a huge fan of old Hollywood, I loved the book. My heroes have really always been cowboys. Gene Freese’s “The Western Films of Robert Mitchum” not only left me better informed, it also left me smiling. We need more smiles.