The third film in my Seven Days of Marilyn Monroe series is River of No Return in which Marilyn starred with the ridiculously handsome Robert Mitchum. Filmed in the Canadian wilderness it gives some of the most beautiful landscape shots I have seen in any film.
I really enjoyed this film and hadn’t seen it before. I shy away from westerns under normal circumstances and probably avoided it for that reason. Marilyn Monroe looks and sounds fantastic in River of No Return as saloon showgirl, Kay Weston. This role is a departure from the Marilyn we are accustomed to seeing on screen. All of her characters are strong, but Kay is a different sort. She has to be tougher, no attempt at demure sweetness and no daft, silly girl to be seen here either. This character is no lady, as she tells Mark (Tommy Rettig) the youngest character in the film and son to Matt Calder (Robert Mitchum).
River of No Return follows Matt, who has just been released from prison as he returns to the rough and tumble wild west encampment where his son was taken when he was taken in. Kay has been looking out for Matt’s son Mark and scolds him for leaving his boy in such a place that is described by one man as Sodom and Gomorrah and another states that some people believe the devil is in charge of the place. Not your ideal setting to leave a child. Matt takes Mark back to his land, but this is during the gold rush and there is a battle between the men searching for gold and the Indians which Matt, Mark and Marilyn get sucked into when Harry steals Matt’s horse and leaves the three to fend for themselves. The only escape they have is the river that the Indians call the river of no return because of it’s treacherous rapids. Matt and Kay are at odds to start out but find a bond in trying to keep Mark safe and themselves alive in the face of Indians and perilous obstacles the river throws at them, not to mention the mountain lion that Matt has to wrestle along the way. Matt is dead set on getting even with Harry and their ultimate destination is to find Kay’s despicable husband. After making it through all the obstacles they have faced, the three find Harry. When he tries to shoot Matt, Mark shoots and kills him instead, finally understanding his own fathers imprisonment for killing another man and why sometimes such things are necessary. Ah, the bond of a father and son over killing another man, is there anything sweeter? Of course, in the end though it seems Kay has been relegated to singing in dingy saloons for depraved men, Matt comes back to get her and sweeps her away to his farm leaving some very pretty shoes behind.
There are some amazing moments that come out of all of this. Despite holding on to the raft for dear life, Mark somehow manages to keep a hold of Kay’s guitar, which she uses to serenade them though it has presumable been soaked. They can’t start a fire for fear of attracting the attention of the Indians lurking about, but singing and guitar playing, sure, why not? At one point Matt manages to rope a swimming dear by it’s antlers from the raft and then pulls it to shore with them so they can use it for food. And I’ve already mentioned the very impressive mountain lion wrestling scene. He wrestles a prospector as well, which is more realistic than any stylized fight scene of today, but as in a real fight, it is awkward, slow and quiet. My favorite scene ashamed me slightly, but I have to have something as I didn’t jump on the Fifty Shades of Grey bandwagon. I was very impressed by Mitchum’s efforts to warm Marilyn through a blanket by rubbing her down as her clothes dried, the man has skills and very strong looking hands.
The costumes used during Marilyn’s showgirl scenes are stunning and really grabbed my attention with the remastering and color enhancement. It seems across the board so far in the Forever Marilyn: Blue Ray Collection that the costumes and make-up are the main stars of the enhancements, due to the rich colors and materials that look so wonderful it makes you want to touch them.
I know I said I’m not big on westerns, probably from growing up with my dad watching them all the time and having to fight him for the TV, but when I like one, I really like it. And this one, I really liked. Granted, there is a little less cowboy and a little more rancher to Matt, and I can’t forget Rory Calhoun as Harry Weston, Kay’s husband who is the gambler that is the standard for any good western. Despite the Marilyn factor, there is plenty for the ladies here too. Between Robert Mitchum’s voice and rugged handsomeness and Rory Calhoun’s gorgeous eyes and pretty boy good looks, it’s a great sensory experience for the gals. This may be one of the only times that Marilyn has had my full attention in one of her films.
Tommy Rettig holds his own alongside Mitchum and proves himself to be quite the mature actor despite his age. The two work well together and are truly believable as father and son. With unabashed admiration and lines like, “you’re not afraid of anything, are you?”, I have to wonder if there wasn’t a little truth to this boy’s idolization of not only Matt, but Mitchum himself. Same goes for his character’s crush on Kay. What boy of that age wouldn’t be head over heals for Marilyn? She is always gorgeous, but it is refreshing to see her played down…a bit. I kept thinking Annie Oakley every time I saw her as the three adventurers made their way down the treacherous river and landscape. Though Kay is not quite as self possessed as Oakley would have been either. Seeing Marilyn as something other than a glamour-puss, fresh faced and jeans makes me happy. My favorite photo of Marilyn is below, where she looks so happy and free sans caked on layers of make-up.
This truly is an old fashioned western, complete with Indian’s intent on taking down the white man. Earlier in the film when Matt spots them near his home, he makes the statement to Mark that they have claimed this land, and the Indians can’t take it from them. It’s one of those lines that worked then but might not go over so well now. As Kay, Matt and Mark have to escape the “savages”, we are treated to some of those great old special effects when the Indians attack, shooting arrows that whiz through the air and just miss the trio, you can hear them whistling as they fly by. Watching the landscape jump and shake in the background as the raft bounces over white water rapids is something I just can’t keep from giggling at. We have become so spoiled with the technology we have in film these days.
I will say the scene in which Matt forces himself on Kay to her unwavering protests and very physical attempts to escape was too much for me to then be okay with her ending up with him at the end. I had to put it out of my head to watch the rest of the film objectively. If there had been a little back and forth or give in her resolve that would have been one thing, but it was pretty violent and she seemed not to be into any part of what was going on. Thankfully the appearance of the prospectors saved me from seeing how far that would have gone, but I don’t think it would have been a good thing. It’s almost as though the studio is coming right out and saying, ladies don’t you want a big strong man like this to take care of you, to manhandle you into submission just like Marilyn? And men, you must to break the will of a spirited woman if you want to get anywhere. It’s a sign of the times I suppose. Despite a strong female lead, we get the same old messages.
The score of this film is key. The original songs that Marilyn sings in the saloons as well as around the campfire or lack thereof were written by Ken Darby and Lionel Newman. For the title song, “River of No Return”, Marilyn was not the voice heard on the film, but rather Gloria Wood provided a voice-over. The score was created by Lionel Newman, Leigh Harline and Cyril J. Mockridge and is integral to the mood of the film. The emotions it evokes as the main characters are escaping from Indians or floating over treacherous rapids sets the tone for all the action that takes place in the film.
Everything in this film comes together beautifully. The acting, the effects, the score and the storytelling are all fantastic. Not being a western person, I was not looking forward to this part of the Forever Marilyn collection, but I am really glad I got to watch it and really don’t have any complaints. Marilyn and Mitchum have great chemistry, but even better than that was the chemistry between Rettig and pretty much everyone else in the cast. That kid could act. Is it one of my favorite Marilyn films? That’s a tough one. I really like the film, I don’t consider it to be a “Marilyn” film. It’s not her signature and she isn’t the main attraction, but I love her in it. Would I recommend it to a Marilyn lover? Absolutely.
Who is your favorite Marilyn Monroe leading man? Share in the comments!
Interested in more reviews from the Forever Marilyn: The Blu-Ray Collection? Click HERE for more of my series, Seven Days of Marilyn Monroe.