October 11, 2017

“Out of the Past”: Celebrating 97 Years of the Garden With Robert Mitchum and Stew’s “Passing Strange”

By Stuart Mitchner

Movie actors are not always the most quotable beings. The value of their words depends not on substance or style so much as gossip potential, career-advancement, otherwise known as the publicity quotient. Then you have one-of-a-kind people like Robert Mitchum, who was born 100 years ago, August 6, 1917. Unless Mitchum has a ghostwriter named Hemingway slipping him gems, what he says fits perfectly with the big man dwarfing the screen at the Garden two summers ago in Out of the Past. Anyone who has seen Mitchum in that film or in other RKO noirs like Where Danger Lives will recognize him in these words — “Listen. I got three expressions: looking left, looking right, and looking straight ahead.” I hope Hemingway read that line before he died. 

Speaking of publicity, Mitchum once said of the stories about him in the media: “Booze, brawls, broads, all true. Make up some more if you want to.” Another line that could have been ghostwritten by Hemingway: “When I drop dead [he died in 1997] and they rush to the drawer, there’s going to be nothing in it but a note saying ‘later.’” There’s no note in the last paragraph of A Farewell to Arms, when Frederic Henry is alone with the body of Catherine, just this: “It was like saying goodbye to a statue.”

I could fill a column with Mitchum wisdom but I want to get back to the Garden, where we saw him as he’s meant to be seen, not in the confines of an 11-inch Sony or a 36-inch flat screen. It’s no surprise that a force of cinema who is so good at communicating his actorly ambiance attracts a lot of interesting commentary. As Mitchum puts it, “I never take any notice of reviews — unless a critic has thought up some new way of describing me. That old one about my lizard eyes and anteater nose and the way I sleep my way through pictures is so hackneyed now.”

Agee on Mitchum

He’s echoing James Agee, whose April 24, 1948 review of Out of the Past in The Nation notes that Mitchum “is so very sleepily self-confident with the women that when he slopes into clinches you expect him to snore in their faces.” Five months earlier in his TIME review of the same film, Agee writes: “In love scenes his curious languor, which suggests Bing Crosby supersaturated with barbiturates, becomes a brand of sexual complacency that is not endearing.”

In fact, two of Mitchum’s most memorable performances have a James Agee connection. Writing at length in The Nation about The Story of G.I. Joe (Sept. 15, 1945), the first of Mitchum’s 110 films, Agee praises the “anti-histrionic acting,” adding “It would be impossible in this connection to say enough in praise of the performance of Bob Mitchum as the Captain.” Ten years later Mitchum gave the most acclaimed performance of his career as the psychotic preacher in Charles Laughton’s Night of the Hunter. Agee’s screenplay for that film is reprinted in the Library of America’s volume of his writing on film.

David Thomson’s Biographical Dictionary of Film (1994 edition) calls Mitchum “one of the best actors in the movies.” To demonstrate “the idea of a man thinking and feeling beneath a calm exterior” Thomson quotes an exchange from Out of the Past in which a taxi driver tells Mitchum’s character “You look like you’re in trouble.” When Mitchum asks, “Why?” the cabbie says, “Because you don’t look like it.”

The Garden Is Almost 100

According to NJ.com, Princeton’s Garden Theater “is, without question, the best movie theater in New Jersey,” a decision based on “tallying thousands of votes” and visits to each of the five finalists. A March 3, 2017 statement declares that the Garden is the theater “that best serves its community, with a robust and unique programming schedule that caters to casual movie-goers, film buffs, college students, live theater aficionados and more.”

The rebirth of the Garden in 2014 under the enlightened guidance of Renew Theaters has revitalized moviegoing in Princeton. It feels special to be a member, to know that you have a stake in this unique venue. Contrary to Groucho Marx’s famous dictum, I’m proud to join this club, not only after seeing Mitchum larger than life on that Hollywood Summer Night two years ago but during recent special presentations like Ken Loach’s stunning I, Daniel Blake and Spike Lee’s film of Stew’s musical Passing Strange, with Stew himself on hand to answer questions from the audience.

What’s ultimately more impressive than the Garden’s number one ranking statewide is its longevity. Think of it: films have been shown on this site more or less continuously for almost 100 years. If you can relate to the idea that movie theaters are peopled by phantoms, then the Garden has to be among the most venerable haunted houses on the planet. Films have been lurking in the building, whatever its shape or size, from September 20, 1920, when the ghostly parade began with a live orchestra and a stage decked out in palms and ferns for a picture called Civilian Clothes starring Thomas Meighan (1879-1936). So it’s been, the shades of the silents, the Chaplins and Keatons, Garbos and Valentinos making way for the talkies, singers and dancers, gangsters and cowboys leading the way into the wartime 40s of spies and soldiers, film noir femme fatales and fortune hunters in a realm where the shades have shadows, until the threat of television forced the screen to stretch wider and wider beyond the digital millennium to a venue large enough for all the arts, from first-run films, filmed theatre, to the phantom reunions of the Garden’s Hollywood Summer Nights.

Although Thomas Meighan was no Valentino, he soared to stardom (as the fan mags would say) the previous year as the leader of a gang of con artists in The Miracle Man, which is now best known for Lon Chaney’s performance as the gang member called The Frog, a contortionist who poses as a cripple. Meighan also attracted notice in Cecil B. DeMille’s box office sensations Male and Female, (1919), opposite Gloria Swanson, and Manslaughter (1922), notorious for flashing back to a Roman orgy while Meighan is watching some flappers innocently gamboling on pogo sticks.

Louise Brooks Reborn

One film of Meighan’s I would give a lot to see is James Cruze’s The City Gone Wild (1927), whose main claim to fame is the lively and luminous presence of Louise Brooks as a character called Snuggles Joy. Since this film, like Civilian Clothes, was distributed by Paramount, as were most of Brooks’s pictures, it’s safe to say that Louise lit up the screen at the Garden on more than one occasion. Hers is my favorite Hollywood ghost story: beautiful Kansas teenager goes to the big city, becomes a Ziegfield girl, hangs out with Chaplin, brightens every picture she appears in, stands up to the studios, is blackballed, spotted by German director G.W. Pabst who stars her in two films that make an impression in Europe, meanwhile she lands in Manhattan, a sales girl at Saks, drinking too much in Third Avenue dives, and is over 50 when Pabst’s Pandora’s Box brings her back from the dead, a revival she takes advantage of by writing brilliantly on her life in the film business.

Stew’s In the House

Coincidentally, Stew’s in-person presentation of Passing Strange took place on September 20, 97 years to the day the Garden opened. One of the most moving moments in the film comes from a three-part work called “The Drug Suite” on Stew’s acclaimed solo album, The Naked Dutch Painter (2002). Add to that the pleasure of listening to lines like “Sitting on the balcony watching the rail rust/slipping through my fingers like angel dust” when the composer himself is sitting only a few seats away from you in the same theater. It gets better after the show when he’s perched on a stool listening as you tell him how much his music has meant to you and your family. Holden Caulfield imagines phoning Scott Fitzgerald to thank him for The Great Gatsby. How great to be able to say thanks to Stew, face to face, for extraordinary works like “Cold Parade,” where he sings about a “collection of the lost.” At first you think you’re hearing a tale told by a stalker of women out of some film noir with a creepy score; but then the stalker becomes as vulnerable as his victim (“She sees me and assumes I’m up to no good and it’s true,/but the only ‘no good’ I’m up to is not knowing what to do”). After clarifying the nature of “the night’s cold parade” (“Don’t expect a float or a band/A broken majorette may bum a cigarette and offer you her hand”), the song builds and builds until by the end something like a passion of compassion seizes the singer, the words becoming desperately bitter and bleak (“I only walk these streets because I cannot be left alone”): “The crossword puzzles and playoff games and porno sites galore cannot contain or ease the pain, they don’t work any more.” It’s a wildly ambitious song: cabaret, folk, rock and roll, jazz, and great acting, all in one.

The parade goes on in the Garden, where a few days later the streets of Newcastle are on the screen for the passing of Ken Loach’s cold parade, another collection of the lost.

My thoughts about Stew’s “Cold Parade” are taken from my column on “Passing Strange” in the July 30, 2008 issue of Town Topics Newspaper.