My Forbidden Past (1951)
Picture this. New Orleans, Ava Gardner and Robert Mitchum. Sounds like a sure fire Noir thriller with Mitch and Ava flirting in the jazz clubs on Bourbon Street dodging bullets and gangsters in contemporary New Orleans of 1949. Not quite. What we do get is a rather bizarre turn of the century tale with Ava and Mitch as lovers who are divided by class with a murder and Melvyn Douglas shoehorned into the proceedings.
First things first. This black and white affair doesn’t do Ava justice. Her looks combined with the dresses and outfits she graces are begging to be photographed in color from the moment the film starts with Ava in close up laughing and in love with her man Mitchum while stealing forbidden moments with him along a river bank. They’re a class apart. She’s living in a home with a name and stature alongside her Aunt, Lucille Watson and cousin, Melvyn Douglas. Mitch on the other hand is a lowly Doctor working at the University on contract.
In a matter of two on screen minutes Mitch let’s Ava know he’s off to South America on some sort of University trip and wants her to run off with him (and who wouldn’t?). She agrees but when the ship leaves, Ava’s a no show due to pressure from the self centered Melvyn who knows of her secret romance with the lowly doctor. Yes Melvyn’s an ass and clearly the slimy villain of the story. He’d like nothing better than to claim his cousin for himself and gets touchy feely at every opportune moment with the desirable Ava.
Things are about to take a major turn for Ava when a lawyer (Will Wright) turns up at her mansion home to hand her nearly one million dollars as she is the sole heir of her Mother’s estate. That’s the forbidden past of the title. The embarrassing side of the family full of charlatans and loose women. They’re not to be discussed and her Aunt forbids her to take the cash as it will hurt the family’s good name to be associated with the past. Ava isn’t having any of that and sees the money as an opportunity for power and to claim Mitch as her own. Class be damned!
Sounds fine till Mitch returns from the South with a wife on his arms played by blonde haired Janice Carter who contrasts wonderfully with the dark haired Ava. Ava’s crushed and a woman scorned. Mitch never got the letter Ava sent him on the night of his leaving thanks to it’s interception by the dastardly Melvyn. Throw a top hat on him and twirl the tips of that pencil thin moustache and the next thing you know he’d be tying Ava to the nearest railroad track.
Ava’s a woman scorned and Mitch seems at ease with life’s choice till Ava starts coming on strong. She wants her man and knows she can get him back. It’s just going to take a little plotting. Mitch’s new wife is clearly on the hunt to move up the ladder of high society where arrogance, wealth and privilege rule. While Mitch has got her to New Orleans, it’s Melvyn who can introduce her to the higher class families in town. Ava and Melvyn enter into a business arrangement where Melvyn will seduce her leaving Mitch to come back to Ava’s waiting open arms.
Yeah things go a bit wrong when an accidental murder twists the plot to cover ups and court theatrics.
Mitch + Ava should have been dynamite and while it’s still a pleasure to see them on screen together, it’s clearly the wrong vehicle. They look perfectly suited to each other but the pair needed something that put Mitch in a more modern setting or an outright western. His role here reminds me of some of those played by John Wayne in period pieces like The Flame of The Barbary Coast or Lady For a Night where Duke is slightly out of place like Mitch is here. Our sleepy eyed hero doesn’t even get an action sequence?
At a running time of just 79 minutes I think it’s all too apparent that some footage shot by director Robert Stevenson has been left on the cutting room floor. Forbidden Past would be the only film to pair Mitch and Ava and while it’s unfortunate they didn’t team up in a better overall film, the fact remains that they did appear in a movie together and that in itself is important when looking back at movie icons from yesteryear. I’ve pointed out in the past how far too many screen icons didn’t make a movie together leaving us wishing they had. Gary Cooper and John Wayne always come to mind when thinking this over.
One thing that never fails to entertain looking back are the movie trailers and the one liners that splash across the screen. In this case…..
A wife on his hands BUT Ava on his mind! What a spot for Mitchum!
For a better look at the photogenic Ava of 1951 check out Pandora and the Flying Dutchman where her beauty melts the camera. As for Mitchum in 1951, His Kind of Woman puts him in the right company and story line. It’s not be missed. Director Stevenson would leave RKO under which company this was released and eventually become a favorite of Uncle Walt directing a number of memorable Disney live action features including Old Yeller and Mary Poppins.
For those like me who have to collect everything Mitchum and Gardner, My Forbidden Past is available through the Warner Archive Collection should you not wish to wait out it’s next airing on TCM.