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Lee Server Q & A on Robert Mitchum

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Lee Server Q & A on Robert Mitchum

Postby moira finnie » February 18th, 2008, 10:14 am

I'm delighted to welcome Lee Server to our discussion group this morning. As most of our members know, Mr. Server is well known for his well researched and highly entertaining critical biographies, Ava Gardner: Love Is Nothing, Robert Mitchum: Baby, I Don't Care and Sam Fuller: Film Is a Battleground, as well as his comprehensive examinations of pulp fiction and the noir genre, (for more detailed info about his work please click here).
Mr. Server, one of the most engaging aspects of your books about Ava Gardner, Robert Mitchum and Sam Fuller is that your prose and your examination of the facts of their lives seems to echo the rhythm of their public personas, often bringing these different individuals vividly to life on the page.

With Ava Gardner there was a lush, sometimes tentative, often ribald willfulness that came through in the book. With Mitchum you seemed to evoke that interesting blend of the hipster with the desultory, occasionally poetic man beneath the surface. In Fuller's case, you caught his blunt, staccato power as well as the thoughtful man behind the films. When approaching writing about these individuals, did you make a conscious decision to try to translate their cinematic style into prose?

Thanks very much for your answer, Lee.
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Postby Ann Harding » February 18th, 2008, 10:58 am

Hello Mr Sever!

I bought your Robert Mitchum biography when it came out in London. I want to thank you for your splendid work. I have read many actor's biographies and very few are worth reading more than once. They usually rely on a pile of gossips and very few try to assess properly the films. Your bio is typically the kind of book I go back to each time I see a new Mitchum picture. And, each time, I am stroke by the quality of your writing and your sharp analysis. You managed to brush a really complex portrait of the man as well, neither hagiography nor criticism.
There are many Mitchum pictures among my favourites ever (Pursued, The Night of the Hunter, Heaven Knows, Mr Allison, Out Of The Past). When you worked on your bio, did you have an easy access to all his films?
My other questions concern your method for researching facts. Did you have access to any personal papers or studio papers? As you wrote your book after Mitchum's death, were you able to question family and friends? Basically, what were your sources?

I haven't read yet your bio of Ava Gardner, but, it's on top of my list of must read. :wink:
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Postby inglis » February 18th, 2008, 11:40 am

Good Morning Mr Server!
I was just curious what the chemistry was like between Lillian Gish and Robert Mitchum when they were working on Night Of The Hunter. Thank you for your time and for being here today .

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Postby pilgrimsoul » February 18th, 2008, 11:54 am

Thanks for being with us this week, Mr. Server. I have two questions for you:

One of the most interesting films that you described in your biography of Ava Gardner was Bhowani Junction(1956), a film that allowed the actress to show some depth. Do you think that it's possible that George Cukor's "director's cut" is languishing in a vault somewhere and might be restored someday?

After what must be exhaustive research into your subjects' lives, do you find yourself liking or loathing them?

I appreciate your work very much and look forward to your answers to all our questions this week. Thanks again.

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Postby Ann Harding » February 18th, 2008, 12:02 pm

Perhaps, I am intruding here, but I feel compelled to give some infos I read in various books. :oops:
Regarding Bhowani Junction, also one of my favourite Ava Gardner picture, George Cukor said in many interviews that MGM had the film drastically re-cut and that none of the cut-outs were kept....(love scene between Gardner and Bill Travers or when she brushed her teeth with some whisky...) :( Perhaps Mr Server has some more recent news?

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Postby ChiO » February 18th, 2008, 12:42 pm

Welcome, Mr. Server.

Having read your books on Mitchum and Fuller, I first have a follow-up to Ann Harding's first post. In your experience, which presents greater difficulties: writing after your subject's death or while the subject is alive?

Also, is there a film person, living or dead, about whom you most want to write?
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Postby klondike » February 18th, 2008, 3:21 pm

Welcome to the Oasis, Mr. Server!
Thanks for contributing some time towards our edification, especially concerning the lives & works of two of our most hallowed favorites, as Mitchum and Gardner undeniably are!
From me, what I've wondered about for many moons, is this: Kirk Douglas, in his autobio: "The Ragman's Son", made pointed reference (as I'm sure many others have) to his remembrances of RM never telling the same story twice about how he came to Hollywood, or what he did between leaving home & debuting in Hoppy Serves a Writ.
In your estimation, is that a fair assessment of RM's cajolery? If so, did he intend to mislead inquirers, or was he just mythologizing for the sake of a cavalier/hard-knocks image?
And do we currently know for sure how he did meander into his on-screen profession?
(I've always enjoyed visualizing him hopping boxcars like Lancaster in Elmer Gantry, but I feel I'm ready for the truth!)

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Postby Sue Sue Applegate » February 18th, 2008, 6:42 pm

Dear Mr. Server,

We are so pleased that you are visiting the Silver Screen Oasis. Your contributions to film literature and your willingness to seek elements of truth in many of the myths printed as fact have helped you create two of the most entertaining celebrity biographies I've ever read.

Your ability to carry on a conversation while eliciting stories for print must be one of your greatest assets as a writer, and I was wondering whom you considered to be a great conversationalist? Who was the most fun
to interview?

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Postby lserver » February 19th, 2008, 5:52 am

Many thanks for the invitation to join you all at this distinguished site. I see it is past midnight at the Oasis, my apologies for the late response. Any questions left unanswered I will get to first thing tomorrow, promise. And now on with the show.

Moira asks about matters of prose and matching style to subject matter. Thank you for the observations. Yes, there are aspects of the writing in these books which attempt, through various stylistic means, to evoke the subject’s personality and the world he or she lived in. Certainly Mitchum’s life lent itself to a hardboiled/noir style of writing. To be sure, I am very concerned with the style of each work, in the rhythm of the sentences, in mood and atmosphere and structure, all the things that have nothing to do with research and facts, which I also try to get right. With the subjects I have chosen to write about there is from the start much personal interest, admiration and some degree of identification. These are simpatico figures. I pick them because they are artists I like, people I want to write about and learn more about. I like larger than life figures, outrageous characters. I like a story that has a big canvas, roams around the world, and doesn’t get to bed before dawn.

To Ann Harding…I was familiar with the majority of Mitchum’s 100 something films for many years before I started the book, and had seen some of them many times, but there were a number I had missed or not seen in too long. This was early in this century, before many of the titles became available on dvd or shown on Turner. Copies were obtained from a variety of sources, over and under the counter. I remember my tape of Friends of Eddie Coyle came with—I think—Kazakstani subtitles.

The research sources for the Mitchum bio are contained in twenty or thirty pages at the back of the book. I interviewed around 150 people, friends, family, employees, co-stars, directors—his brother and sister, his living high school classmates from the 1920s, Edward Dmytryk, Jane Greer, Robert Wise, Jack Elam, Paul Valentine, J. Lee Thompson, so many folks no longer with us, alas. Numerous archives were visited, various personal papers consulted and many long hours spent with various studio files, including the daily production logs and memos for every film he made at RKO.

For Inglis….Mitchum and Miss Gish got along fine from all reports. It was producer Paul Gregory and the front seat of Gregory’s Cadillac that met with Mitchum’s displeasure.

Pilgrim…I made an attempt—by no means definitive—to find out about the material cut from Bhowani Junction. To my knowledge the missing footage no longer exists, but there is always hope. I interviewed Francis Matthews, who plays Ava’s Sikh lover in the film, and he described to me with despair how his own much larger part was reduced. As one of the few people to see Cukor’s original nearly three hour version of the film, Matthews’ declared it a masterpiece, and he was no fan of Cukor as a person. Matthews told me Cukor broke down in tears at what the studio was going to do to it. And for all that it is still a stunning film in so many ways, and Ava never better or more beautiful.

Like or loathe Ava and Mitchum? I like ‘em.

ChiO…Living or dead, it depends on the circumstances. There is a slightly better chance of getting an interview with a living subject, though you can’t count on it. From a publisher’s perspective, the dead are slightly less inclined to sue. For a certain vivacity a biographer hopes to include many witnesses to the events covered, but the years are passing and there will come a time when books about classic era Hollywood will no longer contain new first-hand accounts, alas.

I have a superstition about discussing current or future subjects too soon. Let me say instead that in the world of film there are certain figures who have fascinated and meant much to me since I was a lad, a list that would include John Huston, Mitchum, Fuller, Orson Welles, Errol Flynn, George Sanders, Carole Lombard, Ben Hecht, Preston Sturges…among others

Dear Klondike….First, Mitchum made cracks about Kirk Douglas in public for fifty years, so Kirk is bound to want to get a few digs in return. Mitchum was a champion storyteller and b.s.’er, and may have embellished a tale or two through the years, if only to heighten the delight of his audience, and depending on how inebriated he might have been on a given occasion. Several people I interviewed about Bob would tell me about his outrageous and unbelievable stories. They would then, with no sense of contradiction, proceed to tell me a far more outlandish Mitchum incident they had seen with their own eyes. About Mitchum’s peripatetic youth, for instance, there is his brother John’s recollections and published account of those same years. My many conversations with their sister Julie touched on many of the same episodes, with the same course of events. I suppose all three siblings could have entered into a conspiracy to bolster Bob’s stories told over sixty years, but it isn’t very likely. Some of the tallest of Bob’s tall tales, like the one about the brawl on the set of Not as a Stranger and Brod Crawford eating Frank Sinatra’s toupee, which sounds like pure barroom b.s., were confirmed to me by separate sources including the great Ed Anhalt, the screenwriter, an unimpeachable source, at least I never impeached him. No, if you’re hoping to find out that Mitchum in real life was a mild-mannered Walter Mitty you’ll be disappointed.

Christy….some of the most rewarding interviews/conversations can be agonizing not fun…a struggle to get what you need from sometimes reluctant subjects…But yes, there have been many delightful discussions through the years. If I had to pick the best conversationalists off the top of my head I would probably think back to some of the early Hollywood screenwriters I met for my first book, Screenwriter: Words Become Pictures. People like Charles Bennett, John Bright, Curt Siodmak. They were tough, funny, knowing, and great storytellers.

cheers for now,

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Postby mongoII » February 19th, 2008, 12:16 pm

Mr. Server, a hearty welcome to the SSO site. It's a pleasure having you visit with us.

I have a few questions. Since he made it appear that it was only about the money, was Robert Mitchum really that nonchalant about his film roles?
Did he have a favorite role and co-star?
Considering he was married for many years, was he a womanizer?

I'll get to Ava later.


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Postby Ollie » February 19th, 2008, 3:09 pm

Thanks for being here and for the considered replies above.

My question can apply to any or all of your 3 subjects: did your research show they changed their opinions about a film or its filming experience over time?

That is, did Mitchum come away from HEAVEN KNOWS with one opinion, but later, change it?

Did Ava regret doing a film only to later appreciate it?

Fuller's views may have been particularly tainted since he had such a bigger role to play and more battles to fight, but I wonder if he considered a project bad or good, and then years later, gave the film the opposite appreciation?

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Postby movieman1957 » February 19th, 2008, 3:13 pm

Along Ollie's line - Did you come away with a different attitude toward your subjects after your research?

"Time flies like an arrow, fruit flies like a banana."

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Postby Ollie » February 19th, 2008, 4:37 pm

(That was definitely going to be a follow-up question, MM - I suspect this is a case where the old adage, "Like minds are twisted together"... oh wait - is that the old adage? Hmmm...

No... I think it was something like, "You can't teach dead dogs new tricks", yes?

Hmmm... or was it, "It only gets darkest before it gets completely black"?

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Postby Sue Sue Applegate » February 19th, 2008, 6:08 pm

Dear Mr. Server,

Thank you for your responses!

I was wondering where Ava Gardner: Love is Nothing... has been published. Has the Spanish-speaking world also fallen in love with this book?

Considering Ava had been a resident of Madrid for some years, were you able to visit with some of her contemporaries in some of the places where she had lived?

And did you have any favorite stories that had to be excluded from the book that you might be able to share with us now?

Thank you!
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Postby sandykaypax » February 19th, 2008, 8:21 pm

Hi Mr. Server! So excited that you're here. I'm currently reading your book, Ava Gardner Love Is Nothing. It's wonderful.

What did you think about the way that Ava Gardner's relationship with Howard Hughes was portrayed in Martin Scorsese's film, The Aviator?


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