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Few reference books offer much praise for the 1951 RKO release My Forbidden Past. Being a resolute fan of Robert Mitchum, I decided to give it a spin. I'd avoided another maligned RKO feature called Holiday Affair for years based on generally tepid reviews. When I eventually caught up with it, it wasn't bad at all.
I'm of course talking about star-based preferences. Nobody would confuse My Forbidden Past with a timeless classic, but plenty of viewers might be curious to see what the one-time pairing of Robert Mitchum and Ava Gardner amounts to. This is a big-budget show for RKO, with Ms. Gardner on loan from MGM. Set in New Orleans sometime in the latter part of the 19th century, Polan Banks' story is a straight soap opera about a woman with family secrets. The story's twists won't surprise anyone, but I have to confess that I liked the chemistry between Mitchum and Gardner. They may share only one kiss in the entire picture, but their respective screen personae seem made for each other.
Tulane University professor Dr. Mark Lucas (Robert Mitchum) is making a name for himself in the study of diseases. On the eve of a research trip to South America he convinces his sweetheart Barbara Beaurevel (Ava Gardner) to elope with him and marry on the ship. It seems the only way for Barbara to break free from the influence of her Aunt Eula (Lucile Watson), a social tyrant, and her cousin Paul (Melvyn Douglas), a slacker desperate to bring new money into the family. Aunt Eula disapproves of Mark because he's a relatively non-wealthy Northerner, an outsider to New Orleans' social circles. Seeing a more advantageous marriage by Barbara to be the Beaurevels' ticket out of hardship, Paul convinces Barbara to let him take a letter to Mark's ship saying she'll see him when he gets back. Paul and Eula then push Barbara at Clay Duchesne (Gordon Oliver), a wealthy man eager to marry her. Barbara holds out for Mark's return, only to see the professor return with a new wife, Corinne (Janis Carter). Paul never gave Mark the letter. Barbara feels trapped by her conniving cousin and family-conscious Aunt, both of which control where she goes and whom she sees. Aunt Eula turns away Luther Toplady, a lawyer from California, because he brings news of Barbara's inheritance from her Grandmother -- Carrie Crandall, a notorious "bad woman" that the Beaurevels have been trying to forget for two generations. Barbara finds Toplady on her own and accepts the money... but plans to use it as her Grandmother would, to get Mark Lucas back!
Who knows how RKO owner Howard Hughes' mind worked? The magnate insisted on micromanaging his studio yet had so little time to do so that many film projects lay unfinished for months (or years) while he tinkered with them. My Forbidden Past is a relatively big show for RKO, with a number of impressive sets and a couple of large party sequences in period costume. Producer Robert Sparks had been behind several of Robert Mitchum's better films, including Out of the Past and His Kind of Woman. The movie is smartly put together, evoking at least some feeling for an earlier time with little more than a handful of matte paintings. Yet it lost RKO almost $750,000 dollars, making it one of Howard Hughes' biggest and most damning flops. Interestingly, the qualities that sank it in 1951 are no longer so much of a problem.
My Forbidden Past begins right off with glamorous close-ups of its two stars, and under Robert Stevenson's direction the proceedings move at a good pace. The thematic ties between Barbara and her scandalous grandmother are nicely sketched. A street vendor is selling little skeleton puppets, just as we're becoming aware that the Beaurevel family has skeletons in its closet. Barbara visits a cemetery at night as part of a local custom, but also to determine her chances of stealing Mark away from his new wife. Before she leaves she pays her respects at Carrie Crandall's tomb, an eerie monument covered with ivy.
The characters generate plenty of intrigue and interest. When Corrine gloats over her triumph in marrying Mark, Barbara gets involved in a completely immoral scheme to get him back. Knowing that her rotten cousin Paul will do anything for money to start a business, Barbara offers to give him that sum out of her inheritance -- provided Paul breaks up the Mark-Corrine marriage. Meanwhile, the equally underhanded Clay Duquesne learns that Mark is the main obstacle between him and Barbara. He uses his influence to get Mark fired from the University.
The web of motives is clear enough. Barbara wants what she wants and is willing to pay the Devil's price to get it. The smug Paul (who has trouble keeping his hands off his own cousin) tells Barbara that they're both "thoroughly disgusting people". Clay disparages Mark as a lowly "germ doctor" when he crudely offers to get him a position at some remote Northern college, with his own kind of people.
Robert Mitchum fans probably reject My Forbidden Past because he doesn't play his standard tough guy. Mark Lucas dishes out just a couple of snappy one-liner comebacks, which is a good thing. The proto-beat patter that made Mitchum the Kerouac of film noir doesn't belong in 1893, or whenever the story is set. But Mark has good responses for Paul's slimy attitude and condescending airs -- he tells Paul to his face that he's got "a little charm, less talent and no honor."
I found the show more than satisfactory, even with an ending that seems abrupt. I don't know the history of this particular movie, but Hughes had a horrible habit of rethinking endings ad infinitum, usually to the detriment of the picture. The too-fast fadeout resolves one issue, but we're denied the satisfaction of seeing the specific fates of a couple of characters. A story like this one needs a full-circle finale.
If you ask me, Ava Gardner was used mostly as decoration in MGM pictures; to get anywhere she had to be loaned out. She isn't praised enough, and I think that she carries the role fairly well. Barbara is troubled by her own unethical decisions, but what's a girl to do when her rotten relatives have her hemmed in from all sides? It's possible that Barbara was supposed to give the impression that she's "possessed" by her notorious grandmother, but that idea isn't strongly emphasized. As I just mentioned, Robert Mitchum is more passive and noble than we're used to seeing him but I didn't mind that either. When Clay Duchesne shows up at Mark's lab for a man-to-man showdown, he finds Mark idly tossing cards into a hat. It would be nice if Lucile Watson could have been allowed to play one old lady who wasn't a domineering battleaxe; maybe she has and the contrast is so strong that I think two different actresses are involved.
Melvyn Douglas made a career playing nice guys and dirty rats like Paul Beaurevel with equal ease. In terms of good lines and situations, he probably has the best part in the show. Playing things completely one way is Janis Carter, a talented beauty who made a mark in some good noirs (Framed, Night Editor, The Woman on Pier 13) but didn't catch on. Carter's Corrine is allowed only a glimmer of sympathy, and then only when it's too late. She draws the worst fate of the entire cast.
Given an amusing turn is Will Wright's Toplady, the elderly lawyer from out West. We can tell he's not a local because he says "thank you" to a black vendor. When Barbara's chauffeur (Clarence Muse) balks at leaving her alone with Toplady, the lawyer is pleased: "I'll take that as a compliment!"
The Warner Archive Collection DVD-R of My Forbidden Past is a good looking B&W transfer with its share of small scratches, dirt and digs. For a supposedly unpopular picture, the printing element here seems to have seen a lot of use. A soft trailer is included as an extra; it leans heavily on the novel romantic casting of Gardner and Mitchum.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
My Forbidden Past rates:
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T'was Ever Thus.