River of No Return
Marilyn Makes A Western
In 1953, Marilyn appeared in Niagara, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and How To Marry A Millionaire. By any standard one might apply, those movies were major successes. All three were among the top grossing flicks released in 1953: 14, 6 and 7 respectively. Collectively those three moves, during their initial runs, grossed $22M for Fox, a tidy sum that has an equivalent value of approximately $215M in current dollars. Fox rewarded her with a western. Not that westerns were unworthy of Marilyn, but she commented in 1955:
I wouldn’t accept River Of No Return as an assignment today. I think I deserve a better deal than a grade-Z cowboy movie in which the acting finished second to the scenery and the CinemaScope process. The studio was backing the scenery instead of the actors and the actresses.
Obviously, Marilyn did not think too highly of her studio’s assignment or the resultant movie; obviously, she was hoping for something slightly better. She often said River Of No Return was her worst picture; and after viewing her grade-Z cowboy movie at Grumman’s Chinese Theater with Hollywood columnist and longtime friend, Sidney Skolsky, she reportedly retreated to a nearby alleyway where she vomited. A reaction difficult to comprehend, perhaps, or even to believe―but remember: Marilyn was a perfectionist.
While River Of No Return might not be a great movie, applying the normal connotation of that adjective, and it might not even be a great western, it certainly isn’t sickening. I’ve seen many westerns made by the luminaries of the genre that are much worse than River Of No Return. In fact, I find the movie entertaining and have watched it more than a few times. So, with trepidation, I take issue with Marilyn’s condemnation of it as her worst movie. After all, it was the 15th top grossing movie of 1954, earning $3.8M on a $2.0M budget. Shot in CinemaScope and Technicolor, mostly on location in the town of Jasper, Banff and Jasper National Parks, Lake Louise in Alberta, Canada, the scenery, the snow capped peaks, the straight tall pines and the raging river are gorgeous. And, as if I need to point this out, so is Marilyn.
In the 1870s in the American west, according to Wild Bill Hickok, there was no Sunday west of Junction City, no law west of Hayes City and no God west of Carson City. Even so, as lawless and Godless as the west must have been, there were three laws, perhaps unwritten laws, that men were expected to obey: never steal a man’s horse; never leave a man defenseless in the wilderness; and never shoot a man in the back, not even an enemy. Thus, the plot of Marilyn’s grade-Z cowboy movie revolves around the violation of those unwritten laws and a journey to administer western retribution.
Widower and single father, Matt Calder, with the help of his young son, Mark, rescue rafters Harry Weston and his fiancé, Kay, from the torrents of a dangerous river that passes Matt’s meager farm. Since no good deed ever goes unpunished, Harry rewards Matt by stealing his rifle, which he uses to bash the farmer in the head; Harry also steals Matt’s lone horse.
A mine claim that Harry won playing poker must be filed in Council City as soon as possible. He and Kay were headed there by raft, but Matt’s horse will make a more suitable transport. Kay decides she can’t leave the injured father and his son, so she remains behind. Not long after Harry leaves on Matt’s horse, with Matt’s only weapon, a line of hostile Indians descend a mountain slope and begin to attack the log cabin farmhouse. Those left behind have but one choice, of course, to escape the marauding Indians and certain death: pile onto the raft and flee. The unfortunate trio pass the burning log cabin and howling Indians as their log raft floats down the River of No Return.
Matt intends to kill Harry once he gets to Council City. After all, a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do. Allowing Harry to avoid retribution is not an option and Matt intends to be the hand of said retribution, assuming the river, the wilderness or the Indians don’t kill him, his son and their female companion first.
During the dangerous trip to Council City, dialogue reveals the character’s back stories. Harry and Kay have struggled all their lives with poverty and disrespect. A conversation between Matt and Kay implies that Kay may be, or was at one time, a prostitute; she fell in with Harry primarily because he treated her like a woman, not like a tramp. Kay tries to convince Matt that Harry really didn’t intend to harm them: he acted out of a desperate need to improve his life. While Kay attempts to explain Harry’s villainous behavior to Matt, the farmer is only interested in revenge: he still intends to kill Harry in Council City.
Kay unsuccessfully attempts to sabotage the trip in order to prevent that from happening; and afterwards she reveals that she knows Matt’s secret: he was sent to prison for murder, for shooting a man in the back. Unfortunately, especially for Matt, his young son happens to be listening. What Mark overhears, what Matt attempts to explain and justify, creates a moral dilemma and conflict between father and son and is the fulcrum on which the movie’s unusual penultimate scene balances.
There are touching scenes between father and son, particularly one during which the precocious Mark questions Matt about his feelings for Kay. The youngster obviously wants her to replace his deceased mother. He doesn’t realize, of course, that Kay has a dubious past that would discourage an upstanding man, even one imprisoned for murder, from staking any connubial claim. The scenes involving Matt and Kay are generally tense, except when Matt gives an exhausted and naked Kay a massage while she is wrapped in just a blanket. It’s a lovely, romantic scene and Marilyn is particularly ravishing therein. Any male viewer will admire Matt’s restraint and control. But there are two scenes that mystify me:
1. The rolling-on-the-ground, rape-like struggle between Matt and Kay; and
2. The ending scene in which Matt forcibly removes Kay from the saloon in Council City.
Frankly, both scenes are nonsensical. The action and the dialogue between Matt and Kay that leads directly to their ugly struggle does not justify Matt’s behavior nor explain Kay’s reaction to it. Since there is absolutely no interaction between them suggesting a romantic interest one in the other, prior to their struggle anyway, it all seems strained and contrived. Perhaps the producers believed they needed to give the audience some romance and passion: River of No Return was advertised as a great love story. At any rate, the scenes the audience receives are neither romantic nor passionate and certainly do not suggest any sort of love. It is merely violent and troubling.
Similarly, the final scene, in which Matt enters the Council City saloon, grabs Kay, lays her across his shoulder and then carts her to his wagon is inherently violent, a kidnapping of sorts. Admittedly, the violence inherent in Matt’s behavior is slightly mitigated once we see Mark is waiting in the wagon, and once we realize that Kay actually wants to go home with father and son. And yet, it comes off as an odd way for a man to express his love for a woman. Now, I recognize that 19th century men with their machismo, along with fifties men, were considerably less sensitive to the romantic needs of women than we enlightened men of the 21st century: we have been trained to contact and invoke our femininity, the female lurking within us. And I proffer, with my femininity fully contacted and invoked, those two scenes were particularly ill-conceived and ill-handled.
I’m frequently amazed at the performances delivered by children in what appear to be demanding and difficult roles. Often, a child actor is more natural and at ease than his or her adult counterparts, perhaps due to their ability to pretend. Child star Tommy Rettig appears to be at ease most of the time as Mark Calder and delivers what I would call an atavistic performance, a teenager of thirteen years trying to act like a cute, precocious boy of seven or eight. He’s not completely unsuccessful just stiff occasionally.
With very little screen time, Rory Calhoun manages to create a believable but nonetheless commonplace two dimensional villain. Even though Harry is a handsome dude, Rory delivers a constant grin that is more of a smirk than anything else. The smirk suggests Harry’s villainy; he is fundamentally an untrustworthy fellow who is actually only interested in himself.
Robert Mitchum once commented to an interviewer that he had only two styles of acting: One on a horse and one off a horse. He could have added that his fundamental on-screen demeanor was phlegmatic, cool and often menacing. In River of No Return, Bob employs his on a horse acting style and renders his usual solid if stolid portrayal of the pragmatic Matt Calder, a no nonsense, slightly menacing but protective father. He is sensitive enough to perceive that Mark has feelings for Kay and that she has maternal feelings for the motherless child; but Matt seems to consider her unfit. Father advises son that Kay’s beauty is only skin deep, meaning what’s inside doesn’t match the covering; and while he implies he could never forget that she’s a tramp, his negative opinion of her appears to soften after he gives her a romantic massage by a romantic fire, thereby making the violent struggle between them later in the movie even more nonsensical.
We know Marilyn’s opinion of the movie; but among critics and reviewers, there doesn’t appear to be any real consensus regarding the movie’s worth or quality. Likewise, the opinions regarding Marilyn’s performance are varied: some like how she rendered Kay and some do not. Fairly typical for a Marilyn performance. But there is one thing on which critics and reviewers agree: Marilyn’s emphasis on diction throughout the movie is a real distraction. This method of dialogue reading resulted from the influence of drama coach Natasha Lytess. In his Marilyn biography, Carl Rollyson expressed his opinion this way: It is a poorly conceived movie, as Monroe knew, but that does not excuse her stilted, mannered speech, which is completely out of character, and which Preminger blamed on Natasha Lytesses (sic) emphasis on enunciation (Rollyson 69).
Fair enough. I do not agree, however, that her mannered speech is completely out of character. That judgment depends on the type of character the actor wants to create. I confess that I initially found Kay’s way of speaking discomforting, but I realized that I only found it discomforting because her diction is not only unusual, it’s also unexpected. Let’s face it: Kay is just another variation on the many saloon singer vamp tramp trollop roles Marilyn was forced to play. And in her desire to make each woman unique, she gave them something that would identify them, set them apart, distinguish one from the other. In the case of Kay, Marilyn gave her stilted, mannered speech. And, too, the Kay I see on screen is a slightly angry, stern woman who is fundamentally fed up with her destitution. Like many of Marilyn’s women, she wants and needs to be respected. So, instead of speaking like a tramp, she speaks like a woman of high society might, with a certain air of superiority and with exaggerated diction. Once one realizes the exaggerated diction is simply a part of the character Marilyn creates, it actually becomes interesting. Am I contending, then, that Natasha Lytess had nothing to do with Marilyn’s emphasis on enunciation, that Marilyn chose to do it as a means of creating or dressing the character? Not exactly. I believe it’s a combination of both. As Robert Mitchum observed: Marilyn thought there was magic in Natasha.
This question must be asked: why did Marilyn dislike River of No Return so much that it made her ill? I can suggest several reasons.
Firstly and to begin with, she was contractually obligated and thereby essentially forced to make the movie. Originally Fox intended the western to be a low budget production, not a vehicle for Marilyn Monroe; but because of her rising fame and popularity, Darryl Zanuck increased the budget, decided to film the movie in CinemaScope and cast Marilyn as Kay. While Zanuck had very little if any respect for Marilyn, both as a person and an actress, he had plenty of respect and desire for the income her movies generated.
Secondly, by 1954, Marilyn had grown weary with her type-casting as sexy showgirls or sirens. She was ready for some dramatic roles; but she suspected that Zanuck had little if any interest at all in her as a real actress. Zanuck confirmed her suspicions when he cast her as Kay, a role she neither liked nor wanted but could not refuse.
Sadly and thirdly, Marilyn had a poor relationship with her director, the German tyrant, Otto Preminger, who, like Zanuck, disrespected Marilyn; and by all accounts, Preminger treated his female lead with shabby disregard, primarily because Preminger did not want Natasha Lytess directing Marilyn. Preminger banned Natasha from the sets; but Marilyn telephoned Zanuck directly: she could not continue, she told the studio head, unless Natasha returned. Of course, Zanuck capitulated, which incensed her tyrannical director.
Additionally, Marilyn was not the only cast member who had problems with Preminger: Robert Mitchum along with his female co-star, Jean Simmons, had experienced Preminger’s tyrannical and cruel behavior in 1952. Both had starred in the film noir Angel Face for RKO and that studio’s eccentric and devious owner, Howard Hughes. Evidently, Hughes had obtained Jean’s contract without her knowledge, which angered her. The world’s wealthiest man had romantic ideations involving the English actress; but since she was married to Stewart Granger at the time, the striking brunette rebuffed Hughes. Her rejection incensed the studio boss, who borrowed Preminger from 20th Century-Fox. With a vengeful heart and intent, Hughes instructed Preminger to torment his female lead. Otto willingly complied since Hughes surrendered complete control of Angel Face to the directorial tyrant. One scene in the movie required Frank Jessup, Mitchum’s character, to slap Diane Tremayne, Simmons’ character, across her face. Preminger demanded take after take, so many takes, in fact, that after Simmons began to cry, Mitchum approached the director and administered a slap and then asked: Is that how you want it, Otto? After storming angrily off the set, Preminger demanded that Hughes terminate Mitchum immediately; but Hughes declined to terminate one of RKO’s biggest stars. Eventually, Mitchum threatened to give Otto an good old-fashioned beating if the director did not stop torturing Jean Simmons. Fortunately, the film noir was Simmons’ last movie for RKO and Hughes: her contract expired immediately after filming ended. Most certainly, considering Robert Mitchum’s adversarial history with Otto Preminger, the sets of Marilyn’s only western must have been rather tense and less than convivial. As an aside, Jean Simmons humorously admitted, or rather confessed, that she fell in love with her laconic but chivalrous co-star.
Over the years following Marilyn’s tragic death, Preminger often spoke unkindly about Marilyn and criticized what he considered to be her lack of acting talent or ability. River of No Return was his one and only western; and while his use of CinemaScope and his scenic compositions are majestic, near the end of filming, not surprisingly, he bought his way out of his Fox contract: he paid $150K for his freedom. An uncredited Jean Negulesco finished the movie and re-shot some of the scenes. Perhaps the one high point for Marilyn, other than her musical numbers, was working with her friend, Robert Mitchum. Bob and Marilyn became friends during her 1942 marriage to Jimmie Dougherty, her first husband. Jimmie and Bob worked together at Lockheed Aircraft and they socialized on occasion.
Finally, I have to comment on the penultimate scene involving Mark, his father and Harry Weston and then the final few moments following Matt’s appropriation of Kay. So, if you have not seen River of No Return, accept this as a SPOILER WARNING.
At a time in Hollywood when censorship was normal and words like virgin, whore and even prostitute could not be spoken on-film, when kisses in excess of a few seconds were not allowed and when married couples could not be shown sleeping in the same bed, the scene in which Mark kills Harry with a rifle shot in the back, seems more than anachronistic and certainly more than bold. The Production Code Review Board made concessions, one assumes, because Mark acted to save his father’s life; and too, the scene resolves a moral dilemma and the conflict between father and son. The scene also crystallizes the movie’s overarching theme: never judge another’s behavior until you have faced the same circumstances as they. Otherwise, you are being a hypocrite. Kay tried to explain that to Matt regarding Harry’s actions. Matt tried to explain that to Mark regarding his actions to save his friend but, unfortunately, neither Matt nor Mark were listening.
But in the end, Matt comes to his senses, so to speak; and we can conclude that he forgives Kay her dubious past. After he snatches her from the stage where she is performing, the metaphor for her prior unsavory life, he carries her, showgirl dress and all, to the family buckboard, where Mark awaits and where Matt covers her with a blanket, a metaphor for warmth and love and home. Where are you taking me? she asks. Matt replies: Home. As they head that way, leaving Council City, Kay removes her high heels, her red shoes, and tosses them into the unpaved street. Whatever she was in the past, prostitute or just a good-hearted-whore, she will be no more. And thus, all’s well that ends well.