Minnelli, Mitchum, Melodrama, and Masculinity

bloghomeopenDirector Vincente Minnelli was experiencing a career peak in 1959 when he chose the melodrama Home from the Hill as his next project. His musical Gigi had just swept the Oscars, and his previous film, the melodrama Some Came Running, had earned critical acclaim. However, Home from the Hill, which airs on TCM tomorrow, June 28, would prove to be the last Minnelli film to turn a reasonable profit, earning almost $6 million at the box office. After this film, his creativity seemed to decline as he turned to pedestrian if still enjoyable fare.

Much speculation exists regarding Minnelli’s sexual orientation, which scholars use to explain his interest in stories about male identity and masculinity. I am always leery of making simple, cause-and-effect connections between a director’s personal life and his themes, but I concede that this topic recurs in his films. Those issues are obvious in Home from the Hill, which is the story of the Hunnicutt family. Patriarch Wade Hunnicutt owns a successful business, a large home, and many acres of land in a small Texas town, but he is a failure as a husband and father. Wade is estranged from his wife Hannah, who maintains separate bedrooms because of his flagrant infidelity. She has raised their son, Theron, to be gentle, cultured, and sensitive, which is the opposite of Wade’s uber-masculine persona. Meanwhile Wade respects and admires his illegitimate son Rafe Copley, employing him for various services, but he refuses to acknowledge the young man as his offspring.

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ELEANOR PARKER, WHO PLAYED HANNAH, SHARES A SMILE WITH MITCHUM BETWEEN TAKES.

The three main male characters represent different models of masculinity. Sensitive and emotional, Theron is torn between the cultured, gentle world of his mother and the ferociously macho personality of his father. While young Libby Halstead is attracted to his sincerity and sensitivity, he is immature and confused about his identity, making him a weak model of manhood. Wade is the polar opposite of Theron. Though he is strong, fearless, and authoritarian—all admirable qualities in a man—he thrives on savagery, adultery, and power. He feels entitled to hunt on another man’s land and to take another man’s wife. His insensitive and self-centered ways have alienated his wife and his two sons, making his version of masculinity a threat to family. Protecting and sustaining the family is what the genre of melodrama is all about.

LIBBY BETWEEN RAFE AND THERON, TWO VERSIONS OF MASCULINITY.

LIBBY BETWEEN RAFE AND THERON, TWO VERSIONS OF MASCULINITY.

Between Wade and Theron is Rafe, who is a balance of characteristics from both sides of the spectrum. Rafe is traditionally masculine in that he hunts, uses tools, and takes command of situations, but his full name is Raphael, suggesting a cultured soul beneath the masculine surface. In the course of the narrative, he will step up to ensure that Libby and her unborn child have a husband and father, creating a family rather than dismantling one. Rafe’s qualities of morality and responsibility repeatedly resolve conflict and create stability, suggesting that these traits are the true hallmarks of masculinity.

Throughout Home from the Hill, the hunt is the most potent symbol of masculinity. The men hunt wild boars, which are dangerous creatures that can gore a man to death. Who hunts, who can’t hunt, who hunts badly, and who learns to hunt are important clues to a character’s masculinity. As Wade notes, “What every man hunts out there is himself.”

WADE STANDS AMONG HIS HUNTING TROPHIES IN HIS RUGGED LOOKING DEN.

WADE STANDS AMONG HIS HUNTING TROPHIES IN HIS RUGGED LOOKING DEN.

I have always preferred Minnelli’s melodramas to Douglas Sirk’s, partly because of the casting. The director worked well with movie stars who were outwardly rugged, assertive, virile, or masculine: Kirk Douglas in The Bad and Beautiful; Gene Kelly in The Pirate; Sinatra in Some Came Running. The producers originally wanted Clark Gable for the role of Wade Hunnicutt, but he was not available. Minnelli was relieved, partly because Gable was too old and tired to play Wade and partly because he wanted Robert Mitchum. Of course, he wanted Robert Mitchum! Who else could play a hard-drinking, hard-headed womanizer with such depth and experience? Who else could make this wrong-headed character not only worthy of our respect but just plain cool?

IN CONTRAST, THERON'S ROOM INCLUDES BUTTERFLIES AND MICROSCOPES.

IN CONTRAST, THERON’S ROOM INCLUDES BUTTERFLIES AND MICROSCOPES.

Mitchum, who had worked with Minnelli on the crime drama Undercurrent in 1946, liked to claim he took the role because it was shot in Oxford, Mississippi, where the fishing was so good. But, it is likely he realized how well the role fit his star image as an ultra-masculine figure who thrived on breaking the rules. Mitchum’s Wade Hunnicutt was the center of the film, and Minnelli designed the rest of the narrative around him. George Hamilton, who played Theron, recalled in his autobiography: “He loved the force of Mitchum. It was a power for which other things could vibrate. You can’t create that. . . Mitchum was Mitchum. And Minnelli loved that about him.”

AT FIRST, THERON IS HIS MOTHER'S SON--SENSITIVE AND CLAD LIKE AN INNOCENT SCHOOLBOY.

AT FIRST, THERON IS HIS MOTHER’S SON. HE’S NAIVE AND SENSITIVE AND CLAD LIKE A SCHOOLBOY.

Hamilton and George Peppard, who played Rafe, were in awe of Mitchum, but at the same time, they tiptoed around the legendary malcontent, because he could be prickly. According to Hamilton, when he wasn’t on set, he was drinking, smoking pot, or sleeping with some townie. Peppard, who had just completed training at the Actors Studio with Lee Strasberg, actually asked Mitchum if he had ever studied the Stanislavsky Method! Mitchum replied, “No, but I’ve studied the Smirnoff method.”

LATER, WHEN THERON DOES "MAN UP," HIS COSTUME STYLE CHANGES.

LATER, WHEN THERON DECIDES TO “MAN UP,” HIS COSTUME STYLE CHANGES.

Peppard’s Method training resulted with several clashes with Minnelli over the interpretation of his character. Minnelli wanted Peppard to play the character as written, but the actor wanted to talk mood and motivation. He went to Mitchum, telling the star he planned to walk out if Minnelli didn’t see things his way. He expected Mitchum—the ultimate Hollywood rebel—to be on his side. But, the veteran star gave Peppard a dose of reality, predicting if he did walk, it would likely be his last film. He added that he should do it Minnelli’s way, even if he thinks it’s wrong.

THE TITLE IS FROM ROBERT LOUIS STEVENSON'S “REQUIEM": “HERE HE LIES WHERE HE LONGED TO BE; HOME IS THE SAILOR, HOME FROM THE SEA, AND THE HUNTER HOME FROM THE HILL."

THE TITLE IS FROM ROBERT LOUIS STEVENSON’S “REQUIEM”: “HERE HE LIES WHERE HE LONGED TO BE; HOME IS THE SAILOR, HOME FROM THE SEA, AND THE HUNTER HOME FROM THE HILL.”

All three actors were less than sympathetic regarding Minnelli’s fussiness over mise-en-scene. Mitchum would crack jokes about it, while Hamilton simply didn’t understand the director’s insistence on controlling set design, lighting, and other visual details. He recalled that Minnelli once pointed to a patch of leafy underbrush and asked a production assistant to find more of it to dress the set. The p.a. informed him that it was poison ivy, but Minnelli made him get more anyway.

AN AD FOR THE FILM WHEN IT RAIN ON TELEVISION POKES A BIT OF FUN AT MITCHUM AS WADE HUNNICUTT.

AN AD FOR THE FILM WHEN IT RAN ON TELEVISION POKES A BIT OF FUN AT MITCHUM AS WADE HUNNICUTT.

However, it’s hard to believe that Hamilton would not make the connection between setting and character. Wade’s den is filled with the heads, skins, and trophies of ferocious animals, equating the patriarch with the brutality of beasts. In one scene, Theron is framed by these animals while visiting his father’s den, suggesting he is his father’s prey. In contrast, Theron’s room features butterflies on the wall and a microscope on his desk—suggesting his gentle refinement and formal education.

Minnelli’s place in cinema history books rests with his musicals, which have overshadowed his melodramas: Some Came Running, Tea and Sympathy, Home from the Hill, Two Weeks in Another Town, and The Sandpiper. Much has been made of Sirk’s films as the epitome of the larger-than-life, Technicolor, Cinemascope melodramas of the 1950s, but I have always preferred Minnelli’s. In his autobiography, he talked about his affinity for the genre: “There’s no denying there’s a lot of melodrama in my life, it’s heightened drama, taking things to histrionic extreme. Audiences can relate to it because, at one time or another in their lives, they experienced extreme crises and emotions.”

20 Responses Minnelli, Mitchum, Melodrama, and Masculinity
Posted By Bill : June 27, 2016 3:00 pm

Only Minnelli would make The Cobweb, whose central crisis revolves around which drapes to get, with a “Tea and Sympathy” subplot.

Sometime in the late ’70′s Peppard was on a televised awards show. Seeing Mitchum in the audience, he outed him with his cast nickname – “Mother Mitchum”.

Posted By Flora : June 27, 2016 4:33 pm

I love Minelli as a director and the range of genres he did. He was the man who directed the all black cast film Cabin in The Sky at a time when there were no all black casts yet on a regular basis.

He did explore sexuality in his films. As a fan of his daughter and of course Judy, I’m familiar with his personal life.

But I tend to lose myself in his films because he was such an excellent director.

When I find myself unable to get past the personal life of an artist – and it could be any aspect of the person’s personal life -it is generally when the script is thin or the acting is wooden etc.

If it is a well made film, I don’t notice as much.

Regarding Home From the Hill- I love this movie.

It id n interesting contrast for me between the two sons – both played by men named George who saw their careers as very different in goals and the type of image they were comfortable having on the screen – and Bob Mitchum.

RE: Peppard:

Sadly; He eventually got to the point where he hated himself and said: I am not a George Peppard fan.

George Hamilton has a sense of humour about his image.

Posted By Autist : June 27, 2016 4:54 pm

I hope by the time of the “A-Team” Peppard had given up method acting. “What’s my motivation in this scene?” “You want to blow something up!”

Posted By Flora : June 27, 2016 5:01 pm

Autist – even by the time he made Breakfast at Tiffany’s Peppard was no longer the actor that Patricia O’Neal loved to work with at The Actor’s studio. His hatred of himself seemed to do with the number of marriages he had and the alcohol problems etc. that he had had.

But too be sure, A Team did not require the method.

I do remember seeing him on a memorial tribute to Raymond Burr after Burr died – y favourite Canadian born actor, by the way -and Peppard was included as he had worked with Burr.

Peppard looked ill and to be sure he did not survive very long after this.

I tend to avoid watching his later works for this reason. It’s too sad. But I love Breakfast at Tiffany’s and Home From the Hill.

Posted By Jonathan Barnett : June 27, 2016 5:19 pm

Its been years since I have seen this. I need to do so again. My parents are from Paris, Texas. Therefore this movie was discussed.
I’m pretty sure that is the Paris, Texas cemetery. I’ll have to watch it again.

While different from each other, this always struck me as more natural variation of the THE RED HOUSE. Both movie have a Father that harbors a secret related to the family. Of course, RED HOUSE is a bit more noir.

As for Minnelli, I love MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS and SOME CAME RUNNING.

Posted By Bill : June 27, 2016 5:27 pm

Peppard early on seemed to exhibit a natural arrogance that prob kept him from the stardom he no doubt felt was his. That aspect was best displayed in The Blue Max, The Carpetbaggers, and BANACEK. That last one he quit early cuz his divorce had become final, and he didn’t want his ex to get part of his salary.

Posted By kingrat : June 27, 2016 5:58 pm

George Hamilton is surprisingly good in HOME FROM THE HILL, and Peppard in this film and THE STRANGE ONE looks like he’s going to become a major actor and movie star.

Did you ever notice that Eleanor Parker plays her big scene toward the end of the film very much like Lillian Gish’s death scene in DUEL IN THE SUN?

Posted By Flora : June 27, 2016 6:18 pm

George Hamilton was also good in the biopic about Hank Williams. He was not the actor originally, but I totally bought him in the role. I thought that he did a first rate job.

Posted By swac44 : June 27, 2016 6:50 pm

I keep meaning to see Your Cheatin’ Heart. I hear Williams’ widow had a lot of say in its production, so of course it’s a complete whitewash. The newer biopic with Tom Hiddleston felt closer to the truth, but still couldn’t get a handle on what made Williams a legend in the first place.

Posted By Autist : June 27, 2016 7:02 pm

I haven’t seen this movie in ages so I’m not sure what I’d think of it now, but when I was a kid I loved Act One, the Moss Hart biopic with George Hamilton as Hart–and Jason Robards as George S. Kaufman!

Posted By Flora : June 27, 2016 7:20 pm

Re: your Cheatin Heart – see it before you call it a total whitewash as you must also remember when the movie was made and what people were allowed to do in movies. They do look at his character and his wife as real, three dimensional people.

I have not seen the newer biopic, but I have it on my to-see list.

Posted By Thufir Hawat : June 27, 2016 10:27 pm

I want to see the new biopic myself, but I also urge others here to see Hank Williams: The Show He Never Gave, which is probably just as good as the new biopic.

Posted By Doug : June 27, 2016 11:32 pm

Susan, thank you for explaining that the title comes from a R.L. Stevenson poem-there’s a similar line in Edgar Lee Master’s “Spoonriver Anthology”.
Question-if a Robert Mitchum signs on to play a Robert Mitchum ‘type’…is it acting?

Posted By Philip Yates : June 28, 2016 1:59 am

Let’s not forget that there was a screenwriter attached to Minnelli’s films. I, too, am always hesitant to connect directors films with their personalities or ideologies. Perhaps it’s more logical to say that Minnelli’s films were shaped by his attraction to scripts that held similar views to his. After all, Minnelli did not write the films, he merely shaped them. When we talk about a film containing elements of a directors belief system why are we not including the screenwriter as well? Though we all agree that films are first and foremost a directors world, the writers never get the credit they deserve for providing the blueprint for that world. When we talk about how amazing a scene in a film seemed to exemplify the directors vision let’s not exclude the writer’s vision as well. Let’s give credit where credit is due—to the author. We all agree that Hitchcock’s films all have a similar style of suspense but that style would not exist without an Ernest Lehmann or Joseph Stefano and the worlds they painted on the page that inspired Hitch to make PSYCHO or northwest. If there are cause and effect moments in a directors movies it starts on the written page and then leaps to the imagination of the director who embraces the words and adapts them as his own.

Posted By Flora : June 28, 2016 5:57 am

Thanks for the link to the Hank Williams biopic.

I love Hank Williams music and have sung it, so I am always keen to see anything about him.

Phiilip Yates:

Indeed the screenwriter is essential. That is why even if Kirk Douglas did not make a single movie after the film Spartacus, he would have eared his place in history because he is the one that ended the blacklist by putting Dalton Trumbo’s name in the credits. No, it was still hard for everyone else. But it was an important first step.

I am a big fan of Trumbo and am looking forward to seeing the new biopic on him from last year.

Posted By Arthur : June 28, 2016 11:35 am

Technicolor, by its very nature is unreal, though beautiful. Sirk took things all the way, going far over the line into fantasy while Minelli, though painting with garish colors, still kept things within bounds. . . As to his sexuality, viva la indeterminateness, if it gave him such striking insights into human nature and inner conflict. . . As for Hamilton and Peppard, I remember they were in THE VICTORS. That was the first time I saw either of them, but I cannot remember if they played polar opposites there too.

Posted By George : June 30, 2016 8:23 pm

“Question-if a Robert Mitchum signs on to play a Robert Mitchum ‘type’…is it acting?”

Yes, it’s acting. Mitchum played Mitchum better than anyone on Earth, just like nobody could match Gable at playing Gable, or Grant at playing Grant.

The Mitchum, Gable and Grant we saw on screen were fictional constructs. They weren’t the real men. It took acting (and help from some good writers and directors) to create these characters.

Posted By Susan Doll : July 2, 2016 10:42 am

Thanks for all the terrific comments, esp. regarding the actors.I hope everyone got a chance to catch this film.

Posted By Flora : July 2, 2016 3:23 pm

Yes I did and I wrote a review of it on leterboxd afterwards.

Posted By Ben Martin : July 5, 2016 8:20 pm

Philip Yates says: “If there are cause and effect moments in a directors movies it starts on the written page and then leaps to the imagination of the director who embraces the words and adapts them as his own.”
hear hear. I love movie writing and I love Movie Morlocks but wow do we all give directors just a tad too much credit over and over and over again. As Mr. Yates reminds us, lets not forget that there was a writer attached to Minelli’s films. And Hitchcock’s and Capra’s and Curtiz’s and…

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