Robert Mitchum and Jimmy Stewart died last week, and with them went some of the magic of films.
I fell in love with Jimmy Stewart as a child watching Carbine Williams over and over on TV, so you can imagine how I felt when I encountered the good stuff: Destry Rides Again, It's a Wonderful Life, Winchester '73... The Spirit of St. Louis was one of the first films I saw in a movie theatre, and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington was one of the first films that confused me ideologically. What did it mean? Years later, I would realize this was just because of the incredible political confusion at the center of most Frank Capra films, but at the time, I was stunned. John Ford's The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, Alfred Hitchcock's Rear Window and Vertigo also got to me, but in different ways (imagine being a relatively young kid and seeing Rear Window and Vertigo on TV).
Stewart was always right on character (and if someone is foolish enough to say it was always the same character -- as they always do with the great John Wayne -- they should watch Winchester '73 and any other Stewart film of their choosing. Then shut up). Even in his relatively awful movies (although he made surprisingly few of those -- Fool's Parade, Bandelero!), Jimmy Stewart shone. The number of classics with great Stewart performances (how about Harvey?) is breathtaking and it's too foolish even to begin a list with a filmography as stellar as his.
Robert Mitchum was more inconsistent. He hated some of the movies he was in and never hid it while he sleep-walked through others (since that was usually all they wanted, to have a Robert Mitchum type ride down the middle of their film). But when he was great, he was unforgettable (watch Mitchum as Max Cady in Cape Fear, and then watch De Niro in the remake). Oddly, the current film obits for Mitchum reflect how deeply film schools have affected all film-writing. The auteur-theory branches run high, with almost every bio citing films that would have been regarded as relatively obscure two decades ago, particularly Jacques Tourneur's Out of the Past, only recently accepted as one of the great noirs, and Nicholas Ray's The Lusty Men. Few mention the great Thunder Road, which Mitchum co-produced and wrote the story for, as well as having a hit record with the theme song. A better song and idea than a movie, it is still inspired. Even in his late period, they neglect his beautifully nuanced performances in Peter Yates' The Friends of Eddie Coyle and Sydney Pollack's Yakuza. Often cited is Mitchum's performance in River of No Return, where he more than holds his own with Marilyn Monroe (who more than holds her own), as well as Charles Laughton's Night of the Hunter and Howard Hawks' El Dorado. When Mitchum respected the movie he was making, there was no one better to have in the cast.
I could go on here about how these two made meaning in my life, but that would be bullshit. True, but bullshit. Instead, I just wanted to talk about them, list some titles, remember some movies, speak up for Thunder Road, and maybe urge you to go rent a video.
We began the Chronicle because we were writers who wanted to write seriously on music, art, movies, and politics and we thought there was no outlet in this town for that kind of writing. We didn't position ourselves as an alternative to the Austin American-Statesman because we took neither ourselves nor the daily that seriously. Over the years, as we started to take ourselves more seriously, we began to take the Statesman more seriously as well. Always a better paper than its detractors claim, the Statesman was nonetheless not the daily this town deserved. Since assuming his position there, Editor Rich Oppel has begun to give us that kind of paper.
In this issue, Lee Nichols takes a look at Oppel's reign. There are legitimate complaints about the paper, that its local political coverage still isn't what it could be and the business section is weak. State coverage has improved, but often leaves something to be desired. Still, the Statesman has become a consistently interesting publication with a terrific arts and sports section. Often, I have deep differences with the opinions expressed on the editorial page but I respect and appreciate the Statesman's editorial board: Different opinions fuel good government. It will be very interesting to see how Austin's daily newspaper continues to grow under Oppel's tenure.