Noirvember Day Four: Out of the Past Discoveries, or “How I Got My Big Break”
Out of the Past (1947) is one of film noir’s best-known offerings – some even call it the quintessential noir. With its typically complex noir plot, OOTP offers everything a noir fan could want, including flashbacks, voiceover narration, a painterly use of light and shadow, an oh-so-fatal femme, and an anti-hero whose good sense flies out the window when this gorgeous dame walks through the door. Robert Mitchum stars as said anti-hero, an ex-private dick whose attempt to live life on the straight and narrow is shattered for good and all when his past catches up with his present and knocks him for a loop. The fatal femme is perfectly rendered by Jane Greer, and other principals in the cast are Kirk Douglas as a refined but ruthless gangster; Virginia Huston as Mitchum’s sweet-as-sugar-water girlfriend; Steve Brodie as Mitchum’s ethics-deprived former partner; and Rhonda Fleming as just one of many players who exists to throw a monkey wrench in Mitchum’s way. In today’s celebration of Noirvember, I take a look at the early years of each of these stars, before they stepped into the shadowy depths of Out of the Past.
Robert Mitchum: Jeff Markham/Bailey
After deciding at the age of 14 that “there wasn’t much to hang around home for,” Robert Mitchum left high school and his family in New York’s Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood and hit the open road. For the next several years, he hitchhiked and rode freight trains from one end of the country to the other, making ends meet by such short-term occupations as dishwashing, fruit-picking, or ditch-digging. He spent six days on a chain gang after being picked up for vagrancy in Savannah, Georgia, and in the years that followed, worked at a number of widely varying jobs, from stevedoring and truck-loading to working as a shaper operator at the Lockheed aircraft plant in Burbank, California. At the suggestion of his mother, he set his sights on a movie career in the early 1940s; he hired an agent and first appeared as a model in the 1942 documentary The Magic of Makeup. His acting debut came the following year, when he was cast as an outlaw in Border Patrol, starring William Boyd as Hopalong Cassidy.
Jane Greer: Kathie Moffat
A native of Washington, D.C., Jane Greer began cultivating her acting career at an early age, participating in talent contests, beauty pageants, and professional modeling. Her budding interest in the arts appeared to be forever thwarted at the age of 15 when she was diagnosed with Bell’s palsy, a neurological disorder that paralyzed the left side of her face. She overcame the disorder through strenuous physical therapy and resumed her modeling activities the following year. She left high school in her senior year to take a job with the Ralph Hawkins band, and later took an assignment modeling uniforms for the Women’s Auxiliary Corps. After appearing in a Life magazine photo layout and a Paramount newsreel, she landed screen tests for Paramount and David O. Selznick Her test was also seen by Howard Hughes, who signed her to a contract. A year passed without Greer appearing in a single picture for Hughes, so she bought out her contract and signed with RKO, where she appeared in her first film, Two O’Clock Courage (1945), starring Tom Conway and Ann Rutherford.
Kirk Douglas: Whit Sterling
Born in New Amsterdam, New York, Kirk Douglas was one of seven children of Russian-Jewish immigrants. He was bitten by the acting bug at an early age, with his recitation of a poem during a first grade production, and he frequently involved his siblings in putting on family plays and musicals. Douglas honed his budding talent in high schools through participating in a series of oratorical contests and school plays, and following his graduation, he continued to exercise his love for the theater at St. Lawrence University in Canton, New York. After college, he won a scholarship to New York’s American Academy of Dramatic Arts, where his classmates included Lauren Bacall. Douglas made his Broadway debut in 1941, portraying a singing Western Union messenger in Spring Again, and appeared in several other plays before serving in the Navy for two years. He resumed his Broadway career after an injury earned him an honorable discharge, but the silver screen beckoned when his old friend Bacall recommended him to producer Hal Wallis for a role in his upcoming film. Douglas made his screen debut – and his noir debut – in Wallis’ film, The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946), opposite Barbara Stanwyck and Van Helflin.
Virginia Huston: Ann Miller
Virginia Huston, a native of Omaha, Nebraska, was determined to become an actress from an early age – when she was five, she starred in the title role of a school production of Helen of Troy. Several years later, she began her professional career on the radio, and gained stage experience by appearing in several productions at the Omaha Community Playhouse. In 1945, at the age of 20, Huston moved to California, determined to take the film capital by storm. She didn’t have to wait for long. Once in L.A., Huston hired an agent, who arranged for a screen test with RKO. The test led to a contract offer from the studio and the following year, she was seen in her screen debut in the studio’s From This Day Forward, starring Joan Fontaine.
Steve Brodie: Jack Fisher
One of six siblings, Steve Brodie was born John Stephens in Eldorado, Kansas, and moved as a child to Wichita, Kansas, where he initially had dreams of becoming a lawyer. He later decided to try a career in acting “since lawyers and actors both have to render colorful performances.” Two stories exist regarding the young man’s entry into the film business – in one, he played for several years with stock companies in Kansas and Michigan, then worked for a while in the oil fields of Texas and California, worked as a welder at the Swallow Aircraft Plant in Wichita, and then returned to California in 1942, where he landed a part in a stage show and was spotted by MGM talent scouts who signed him to a contract. In the other version, the would-be actor headed straight for New York, where, still using his given name, he spent a year in a series of mostly unsuccessful auditions. He then got the idea to adopt the name of Steve Brodie, a real-life New York saloon keeper who claimed to have survived a 1886 leap from the Brooklyn Bridge. At his next audition, Brodie claimed to be the nephew of the famous jumper, and was contacted for a job the next day. “One thing led to another, until one night a talent scout from MGM saw me in a play and brought me to Hollywood,” Brodie said. He made his film debut in 1944 in Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo.
Rhonda Fleming: Meta Carson
The red-haired, green-eyed Rhonda Fleming was born in Hollywood, California. Indifferent to a career in the movies, she took 10 years of lessons in preparation for a career in light opera, but she received her first brush with the big screen while a high school student, placing as a semi-finalist (along with future star Linda Darnell) in Jesse Lasky’s “Gateway to Hollywood” contest. A short time later, she was spotted on the street by David O. Selznick’s talent scout Henry Willson, who offered her a screen test, but she declined and instead, after graduation, performed as a showgirl in a local musical comedy show. In 1943, she finally decided to give movies a try and signed a six-month contract with 20th Century Fox. She made her screen debut as a dance-hall girl in a John Wayne-starrer, In Old Oklahoma.
Join me tomorrow for Day Five of Noirvember!