Home From the Hill: Minnelli Directs Mitchum and Peppard

In 1959, Vincente Minnelli was at an all-time peek of his directing career.  The Oscar sweep of Gigi, including his directing award, and the critical and commercial success of Some Came Running solidified his position within MGM and the industry.

The hidden secrets and anxieties of small-town America was a popular theme in melodramas of the 1950s, like the smash hit, Oscar-nominated Peyton Place, in 1957. They were all based on popular novels that unveiled corruption and decadence. Home from the Hill was MGMs latest foray into the then popular Southern family melodrama.

Though based on different source materials, The Long Hot Summer, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, The Sound and the Fury, Written on the Wind all share similar locales and characters: Old plantation houses, randy or cranky patriarchs, neurotic sons, and nymphomaniac daughters. Their stories disclose nasty skeletons in the families closets, such as adultery, drunkenness, police arrests, and insanity.

In most of these melodramas, be they set in New England towns, Texas hamlets, and California suburbs, the stories are about insensitive and boozy fathers, sexually frustrated or repressed wives, and misunderstood or rebellious boys.

Along with Some Came Running, Home from the Hills represents the finest of Minnelli’s lurid melodramas, a flamboyant yet deeply emotional and incisive exploration of family life at its most dysfunctional, a far cry from Father of the Bride.

Though in its basic setting and plot, Some Came Running deploys some of the genres basic elements, it was Home from the Hills that assembled all of the genres thematic and visual conventions. One of Minnellis very best; overall, its a more accomplished melodrama than Some Came Running.

William Humphreys Home from the Hill, his first novel, was set in East Texas, where he was born. Having adapted Faulkner’s stories into The Long Hot Summer, husband and wife team Irving Ravetch and Harriet Frank Jr. wrote a script that updated the period from the 1930s to the present, and inserted a more reconciliatory conclusion. As with Some Came Running, Minnelli thought that the writers have actually improved on the novel. They soon became Hollywood experts on the South, with future films like Hud, The Reivers, Conrack, Norma Rae, most of which were directed by Martin Ritt and were reasonable successful.

Mitchum plays Captain Wade Hunnicutt, the ferociously macho head of a wealthy Texan family, whos married to an embittered, sexually withdrawn wife (Eleanor Parker) and is the biological father of a Mamma’s boy (George Hamilton) and unacknowledged father of an older, illegitimate son (George Peppard).

The movie is the chronicle of the destructive legacy of one divided family. Wade and his disdainful wife Hannah play out their marital conflicts and power games over their son Theron. In the book, Wade had spawned many offsprings, but in the movie, the scripters combined them into one composite character, Rafe. A resilient figure, Rafe serves as a dramatic contrast to Theron, the legit but pallid Hunnicutt heir.

The studio first thought of Clark Gable for the role of the patriarch, but Gable was unavailable. Minnelli was relieved, because in the 1950s Gable had become too lazy and lethargic as an actor. Besides, Gable, two decades older than Mitchum and gentler in his screen persona, would not be capable of Wades violent temper and strong physical activities such as hunting.

Minnelli had first worked with Mitchum in Undercurrent, in which he was terribly miscast as Robert Taylor’s sensitive brother. Though only 41, Mitchum was to portray a paterfamilias with two grown sons. “Gray up my hair and let me play granpas, Mitchum quipped, maybe they’ll stop plaguing me with work.” Mitchum took the part, when Minnelli promised there would be lots of time off. Additionally, he had heard that the location, Mississippi, was excellent for fishing, which was one of his cherished hobbies.

For a month, the troupe filmed in Oxford, William Faulkner’s hometown. However, despite Minnelli’s promise, Mitchum found himself again working long days without a break. At first, the shooting went smoothly, and Minnelli work was inspired. The director and his star revealed surprising enthusiasm for their seemingly different styles. Mitchum favored the just-do-it, outwardly, anti-fussy acting style. Minnelli, in contrast, was an aesthete, a stylist who could spend a whole day jut getting a leaf in a gutter before filming it.

The philandering, violent captain was close to Mitchums own personality as a young man. Mitchum told Minnelli that he would base his interpretation on his own past; as well on the many men he had met who were like Hunnicutt. Over the years, Mitchum had developed a legendary reputation as the coolest actor in Hollywood, and the two newcomers, the two Georges, were tiptoeing and trembling when around him. “They were impressed because I was very impressive!” Mitchum later boasted.

“I don’t know why Bob puts on his act,” Minnelli later recalled, “Few actors I’ve worked with bring so much of themselves to a picture, and none do it with such total lack of affectation as Bob does.” Minnelli admired Mitchum’s powerful performance as the fierce Hunnicutt. He was distressed, however, when the critics got more excited by the promising newcomer George Peppard. For tabloid journalists, Mitchum was yesterday’s news; Peppard was today’s.

Peppard arrived on the set with a lot of extra baggage. A graduate of the Lee Strasberg’s Actor’s Studio, he was full of ideas of how to conduct his career and, though he has not done much, he already showed contempt for Hollywood. “Have you studied the Stanislavsky Method” Peppard asked Mitchum. “No,” said Mitchum, but I’ve studied the Smirnoff Method. At which point, Peppard just walked away.

That Minnelli and Peppard did not get along is an understatement. Peppard refused to do his more challenging scenes until he could be, or feel, in the right mood to enact them persuasively. Minnelli told Peppard that his approach was fine for a small Greenwich Village theater, but not for a big-budget Hollywood movie. You start to ‘feel’ the scene when you got off the bus at the location,” said Minnelli.

Stubborn and hot-tempered, Peppard decided not to compromise his principles, which meant giving his director hard time. Peppard hoped that a rebellious actor like Mitchum would share his feelings and support him. To Peppard’s surprise, Mitchum advised caution: “It’s a very expensive hike. I’m sure the studio can sue you. I’m certain it will be your last job. Even though you think Minnelli is wrong, you have to do it his way.”

After three weeks in Mississippi, the company moved back to the Metro lot in Culver City for a month, then off to a second trip to Paris, Texas. Minnelli shoots all his pictures in Paris,” Mitchum cracked, alluding to the two vastly different Parises. The two-weeks in Texas were spent on a wild boar hunt that was to be the film’s big showpiece. Minnelli staged it with the flourishes and attention to detail of a great musical production number.

Minnelli began shooting in a wooded, sulfurous swamp filled with copperhead snakes and quicksand, though the final battle between the wild boar and the hunting dogs was shot on MGM’s back lot. Unfortunately, the big boar, imported for the movie from Louisiana died during the trip. Instead, they had to use a pig with tusks glued to its face. A large dosage of tranquilizers made sure that the pig would stagger and fall over.

The first assemblage, upon the films completion in August 1958, had a running time of two and a half hours. Home from the Hill was a rugged film for Minnelli: “He mounted the film well, Mitchum recalled. He got a lot of fan letters for the interior of the house. At one point, the production manager informed Minnelli they were shutting the picture down on location and summoning the company back to Hollywood. “Vincente was in tears, very upset. He thought he was going to get a gold watch or medal or something for 30 years of diligent service to MGM. It was to get a pink slip instead.”