2 of the lowest lows of 1997: losing Stewart and Mitchum

January 03, 1998|By GREGORY KANE

There were several low points to 1997. The death of Princess Diana was probably the lowest, but for movie fans the summer was especially rough. Within two days two film giants were lost: Robert Mitchum and James Stewart.

Mitchum died July 1 at the age of 79, Stewart on July 2 at age 89. They may well have been the last two actors who reminded us of the era when movie-going was fun.

If you're old enough, you remember those days. Most movie theaters weren't in malls. They were within walking distance, right in your own neighborhood. In my day, admission was 75 cents. That was for a double feature and a cartoon. Some movie houses let you stay as long as you wanted. Today you get one movie for $7.50, and then owners kick your butts out on the streets after one viewing. You can forget about the cartoon.

So it was in this idyllic environment of low admission prices, cartoons and double features that I was introduced to James Stewart and Robert Mitchum. The first Stewart movie I remember seeing - in one of the movie houses along Pennsylvania Avenue in West Baltimore - was "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance." Everybody has a favorite Jimmy Stewart movie. For most folks it's probably "It's a Wonderful Life." But not me. "It's a Wonderful Life" doesn't even have a horse in it, for heaven's sake.

Stewart co-starred in "Liberty Valance" with John Wayne - the man who, more than any other, got me hooked on horse operas. With "Liberty Valance" I was in oater heaven. There was Wayne, playing the tough Tom Donofan, who faced down tough guys with Woody Strode's character, Pompey, as his backup. There was Lee Marvin in perhaps his most sadistic role as Liberty Valance. But what really made the film click was Stewart as the mild-mannered Ransom Stoddard, a lawyer from the East who tries to bring some sense of law and civility to the West, where the Tom Donofans and Liberty Valances settle their disputes with guns.

Stewart's performance was so powerful that he made "Liberty Valance" a James Stewart film, not a John Wayne film or even a John Ford - who directed - film. This was at a time when Wayne was a Hollywood superstar and Ford still a major director. That western remains my favorite Stewart movie, especially the scene where Stewart's character rises to his feet and, that Stewart voice crackling in its highest pitch, shouts to Wayne's character: "I'm a lawyer!"

It was probably in one of those eight to 10 movie houses that dotted Pennsylvania Avenue that I saw what I remember as my first Robert Mitchum movie: "Thunder Road." Mitchum played a bootlegger somewhere in the hills of Arkansas or Tennessee, trying to outwit federal agents and mob guys out to take over his operation. That wouldn't be my last Mitchum film. It only took viewing a few more to convince me that Mitchum was probably the coolest white guy to ever walk the planet.

The knock against Mitchum was that he couldn't act. I felt it was an odd charge to make about a guy who could play good guys and heavies with equal skill. It was a trait that gave Mitchum an edge over every actor in Hollywood. Can you imagine John Wayne playing the menacing Mitchum character in "Night of the Hunter"? Could even Jimmy Stewart have played Mitchum's slimy Max Cady in "Cape Fear" with such cool? Of course they couldn't. That's what defined Mitchum: his cool. In later years I didn't even refer to him as Mitchum. I shortened it to "The Mitch."

The Mitch's cool really became evident in the early 1990s, when director Martin Scorsese - in a rare artistic lapse - decided to remake "Cape Fear." Totally ignoring the adage "If it ain't broke, don't fix it," Scorsese cast Robert De Niro in The Mitch's old role of Max Cady. Most critics would agree that De Niro is a much better actor than Mitchum. But for me De Niro wasn't nearly as menacing as Mitchum in the role. It had nothing to do with acting ability. De Niro was, in essence, trying to outcool The Mitch. It just wasn't done.

Fans of both Stewart and The Mitch have only home videos to keep their memories alive now. The era that was the heyday of both has long since passed. When they passed it was a somber reminder that the lamentation "They don't make movies the way they used to" rings truer than ever.

Pub Date: 1/03/98

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.