Monroe’s Dynamism Vies with the Majestic Canadian Rockies in River of No Return, An Odyssey of Redemption
“I’m really eager to do something else,” Monroe announced in 1953. “Squeezing yourself to ooze out the last ounce of sex allure is terribly hard. I’d like to do roles like Julie in Bury the Dead, Gretchen in Faust, and Teresa in Cradle Song. I don’t want to be a comedienne forever.” Darryl F. Zanuck at 20th Century-Fox didn’t fulfill Monroe’s aspirations by casting her in film version of plays by Irwin Shaw, Goethe, or Gregory Martinez Sierra, but he did offer her the western drama, River of No Return (1954). Displeased with the assignment, Monroe said, “I think I deserve better than a grade-Z cowboy movie in which the acting finished second to the scenery and the CinemaScope process.” Co-star Robert Mitchum disdainfully called it “the picture of no return.”
Screenwriter Frank Fenton set River of No Return during the Northwest Gold Rush of 1875. After serving a prison sentence for killing a man in self-defense, widower Matt Calder arrives in a tent city populated by prospectors and miners to collect his nine-year-old son, Mark, and return to his farm. The man paid to bring Mark to the meeting place abandoned the boy, and he was looked after by a beautiful saloon singer, Kay, and her scheming, cardsharp boyfriend, Harry Weston. Calder thanks the singer for her kindness before leaving with Mark.
Kay and Weston travel down the river on a raft and are attacked by Native Americans while passing the Calder farm. Calder rescues them, but Weston steals his horse and gun, leaving the father and son unable to protect themselves from Indian attacks. Aghast by her lover’s ingratitude, kind-hearted Kay stays behind. When Indians set fire to the farmhouse, the three escape on the raft down the river toward Council City. Kay defends her lover and confronts Calder on having shot a man in the back. Overhearing this, Mark condemns his father’s action. Calder, Mark, and Kay survive the perilous rapids, attacks by Indians and a mountain lion, and two drifters who attempt to kill Calder and rape Kay.
Along the way, Kay finds joy in caring for the boy, and Calder’s opinion of her transforms. Once reaching Council City, Kay is horrified when Weston reveals his true character. Mark is forced intervene, creating a plot twist. Now alone, Kay retreats to a saloon to support herself as an entertainer. In the finale, Calder storms into the saloon to reestablish his family. Kay’s red shoes become the last vestige to her shaded past.
The earthy role of Kay offers Monroe a departure from glamour and elegance. Kay holds her own with rugged prospectors yet has a kind heart and an attachment to the child. She maintains loyalty to a man who disappoints her, while resisting her attraction to a decent man.
Producer Stanley Rubin was challenged in convincing Monroe that the role would be a steppingstone to her goal of becoming a dramatic actress rather than a musical comedy queen. However, his secret weapon was a recording of three songs with lyrics by Ken Darby and music by Lionel Newman, slated for Monroe to perform. It worked to motivate her in accepting the role.
.Jack Cole, who worked with Monroe in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, choreographed her four musical numbers. Her most vibrant song, “I’m Gonna File My Claim,” sold 75,000 copies in three weeks. Monroe bursts into cascades of coloratura in “One Silver Dollar.” “Down in the Meadow,” the film’s recurring lullaby sung by Kay to Mark, reflects her maternal feelings toward the boy. Tennessee Ernie Ford performs the haunting ballad “River of No Return” during the main titles, and Monroe reprises it at the film’s ending.
Monroe’s costumes ranged from elaborate frontier saloon gowns to rugged western wear. In the final scene, she is stunning in a gown of gold charmeuse with bugle beading, red fringe accents, and a gold velvet train with red netting. William Travilla recycled the costume donned by Betty Grable in Coney Island (1953), adding gold silk covered in tiny gold bugle beads. Actress Debbie Reynolds sold the gown at auction for $510,000 in 2011.
From the onset, Zanuck had a clear vision of the cast. His memo dated April 1953 advised, “This picture as it is basically a character and personality story. It will come alive only if hot personalities like Mitchum andd Monroe meet head on—then you will have fireworks but otherwise it will lay an egg in spite of the suspense, excitement and scenery.”
Rugged Robert Mitchum cast a Mark Calder shared Marilyn’s heavy-lidded, sleepy eyes. In the 1940s, he worked as a machine operator at Lockheed Aircraft Corporation. Coincidently, he took lunch breaks with co-worker and friend, James Dougherty, who shared photographs of his young wife, Norma Jeane. Mitchum complimented her beauty, not knowing the Mrs. James Dougherty would become Marilyn Monroe and his co-star in less than a decade. Unlike Monroe, Mitchum took a no-nonsense approach to acting and professed no method. “Look, I have two kinds of acting,” he said later in life. “One on a horse and one off a horse.” In Beyond the Legend, an elderly Mitchum spoke of Monroe as “a very special girl with an enormous feeling for people.”
Zanuck chose Rory Calhoun as Harry Weston, the handsome but villainous gambler who steals Calder’s horse and rifle. Twelve-year-old Mark, Tommy Rettig portrayed Calder’s son. Rettig starred as Jeff Miller from 1954 to 1957 in the CBS television series Lassie about a boy and his loyal Collie.
With casting in place, filming began in late July 1953 on location in Jasper, Banff National Park, Lake Louise in British Columbia. Monroe stayed at Becker’s Bungalows, now Becker’s Chalet’s, on the Athabasca River and the Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel in Banff National Park, overlooking the Rocky Mountains where Joe DiMaggio visited her on location.
Monroe soon realized she had entered one of the toughest productions of her career thus far. She faced a fierce director (Otto Preminger), her own stunts on the river rapids, and a near drowning. “Preminger was terrorizing Marilyn into total immobility…” Shelley Winters wrote. “She was terrified of not knowing her lines the next day, and she was convinced that Preminger was secretly planning to do away with her while she was going over some rapids in a raft, then claiming it was an accident. These difficult stunts were usually done at the end of the picture by stunt people, but for some strange reason Preminger was doing them at the beginning and not with the stunt people.”
Preminger informed the cast that the camera would be close to the raft while it crashed down the rapids of the Athabasca River, requiring the principal actors— rather than the stunt doubles—to shoot the dangerous scenes in the violent waters.
As Monroe, Mitchum, and Rettig sailed on the raft down the river, one of the ropes broke, and the raft nearly got away from its off-camera handlers. The two boats standing by with lifeguards set off to rescue the actors, but one broke down. Monroe and Rettig clung to each other and a post on the raft, but Mitchum was thrown into the water and rescued several hundred yards downstream. Later, the actors learned that their doubles had refused to do the stunt because of its dangerousness; Preminger had fabricated needing the stars because of intended close-ups.
On August 19, Monroe fell off the raft onto the rocks and sprained her ankle. Make-up artist Allan Snyder carried her out of the river. “She went out to get the raft, stood on a rock and slipped,” he recalled. “The doctor put a cast on it. I carried her on the shoulders for the next week or two.” Photographs show Marilyn ambulating on crutches and getting piggyback rides from crewmembers. “We put [Marilyn] through a lot on that film,” recalled special effects expert Eric Wurtzel, “and there was never one complaint.”
LOOK magazine dispatched John Vachon to Alberta to photograph Marilyn for a feature in the magazine’s October issue. The pictures captured a svelte Marilyn in a black bikini and only one pump— since her left ankle was bandaged—as she teetered on crutches and conversed with children. Monroe even posed beside a taxidermized grizzly bear at the Old Indian Trading Post in Banff.
Rettig got along great with Monroe. When they filmed on the Bow River, she invited only him into her private train car. They took turns visiting each other’s cabins at night and rehearsing lines.
“Monroe’s ambition was to become a great dramatic actress,” Otto Preminger said. “She underrated her natural magic in front of the camera. As a result, she always employed a coach.” Preminger directed Monroe to use her natural speaking and not her exaggerated elocution charming in comedies but inappropriate for a western. Monroe’s on-set acting coach, Natasha Lytess, disagreed. “Natasha wanted her to enunciate every syllable distinctly,” the director recalled. “Marilyn didn’t question Natasha’s judgment. She rehearsed her lines with such grave ar-tic-yew-lay-shun that her violent lip movements and facial contortions made it impossible to photographer her.”
Zanuck scripted two additional scenes to ignite sexual chemistry between Monroe and Mitchum, which they filmed at Fox where special effects that could not be achieved on location would be created in a soundstage. Before computer generated imagery, special effects were created by talented artists instead of by computers. Monroe, Mitchum, and Rettig climbed onto a raft in a water tank with a cyclorama providing the sky as wave makers produced rough waters and spinners turned the water white. The special effects crew dropped thousands of gallons of water onto them to simulate the whitewater rapids. Mitchum stood on an oak raft in front of a process shot of the raging river while special effects experts used projectors to shoot steel-headed arrows around him and between his feet. Preminger repeated the action half a dozen times until he was satisfied with the shot.
Soaked with water and targeted with real arrowheads, Mitchum quickly lost patience with Preminger and the special effects crew, but he recalled Monroe never lost her empathy for crewmembers. She directed Mitchum’s attention to a crewmember in the water tank, who was blasting them with a fire hose. “Look at that poor man,” Monroe whimpered. “He’s freezing and turning blue.” She fretted about him during the entire scene, which resulted in the man’s lingering longer in the cold water and Monroe demanding that Preminger relieve him.
Violent whitewater rapids and attacks by Native Americans—culturally insensitive and historically misrepresented, but nonetheless a staple of the era’s Western films—were not enough for Zanuck. He believed the film lacked an edgy sexual tension and scripted an entire scene to bring his stars together in intimate physical contact while complying with the Production Code. After surviving the rapids, Monroe shivers in a cave. Mitchum lights a fire, helps her out of her boots, and massages her over a blanket. “But at least we, the audience, know that she is naked under the blanket,” Zanuck dictated in a memo, “and that they are close together…”
“CinemaScope flames to furious new heights of drama and emotion when Monroe meets Mitchum,” the trailer for River of No Return announced. “Only the screen’s most exciting stars…could bring this flaming love story to life!”
Fox ignited the flame by holding the world premiere of River of No Return in Denver, Colorado on April 29, 1954. Cinematographer Joseph LaShelle’s breathtaking footage of the Canadian Rockies garnered most of the critical acclaim.
The role of Kay offered Monroe a rare opportunity to portray an independent and assertive woman, and Monroe delivered a dynamic characterization. We believe Kay follows her own morality and will risk everything for a better life. The New York Times offered Monroe’s accolade: “It is a toss-up whether the scenery or the adornment of Marilyn Monroe is the feature of greater attraction in River of No Return….The mountainous scenery is spectacular, but so, in her own way, is Miss Monroe.”
–Gary Vitacco-Robles for Classic Movie Hub
Gary Vitacco-Robles is the author of ICON: The Life, Times and Films of Marilyn Monroe, Volumes 1 & 2, and writer/producer of the podcast series, Marilyn: Behind the Icon.