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The return of a person believed to be dead was not new to the cinema. The story of Enoch Arden, who had been shipwrecked and returned to find his wife remarried, had been told in various ways, most memorably as the comedy My Favorite Wife (1940) with Irene Dunne playing the shipwrecked Ellen Arden and Cary Grant as her husband, Nick. Desire Me (1947) keeps to the theme, but adds a modern twist. Based on the successful novel by Leonhard Frank (the rights to which MGM purchased for $40,000), Robert Mitchum plays former French soldier Paul Aubert, believed killed in a German POW camp during World War II, who returns home to find that his wife has fallen in love with one of his fellow former prisoners.
With a team that included legendary director George Cukor and veteran producer Arthur Hornblow, who had a megahit with Gaslight in 1944, MGM's top leading lady, Greer Garson and headline-grabbing bad-boy actor Robert Mitchum, along with screenwriter Casey Robinson, Desire Me should have been a sure-fire hit. Instead, it was a nightmare for all concerned.
The trouble started even before production began in March of 1946. The Breen Office, the official censor of Hollywood films, made numerous complaints about what they deemed, "a story of illicit sex and adultery, treated without the full compensating moral values required by the [Production] Code. In fact, it amounts practically to a condonation of adultery." Many script changes had to be made to appease the bluenoses, yet they wreaked havoc upon the storyline.
Hornblow had originally wanted Walter Pidgeon to play Paul, as he and Garson had such a big hit with Mrs. Miniver (1942), but that was nixed when the filmmakers realized how strongly those actors had been associated with their noble roles. The thought of public reaction to Garson being unfaithful to Pidgeon in a film was enough to make them change their minds and Robert Montgomery, who had been with MGM for decades, was chosen to play Paul. Robert Mitchum, under contract to David Selznick, was given the role of Paul's POW buddy, Jean. Shooting began on March 19, 1946 and was halted after only a week. Cukor hated Mitchum and the script so badly, he shut down production and hired three new writers, Zo Akins, Sonya Levien and Marguerite Roberts to do emergency rewrites. The delays did not result in a better script, but did result in Robert Montgomery having to leave the picture due to contractual obligations to start acting and directing Lady in the Lake (1947). Mitchum was then ordered to play Paul and Richard Hart, only making his second film appearance, played Jean.
The change of roles angered an already unhappy Mitchum, who believed, correctly, that Hart's part was more interesting. He also despised having to work overtime for Cukor, and took no pains to conceal it, as he was exhausted from filming two movies at once. "I was working on a picture with Laraine Day, and we were working nights out on the 40 acres. I'd finish at dawn, go into makeup at Metro at 7 A.M. and at noon, they shipped me to Monterey and I worked all afternoon with Greer Garson. I worked something like 21 days and nights. Never got a chance to sleep. Completely lost my mind." Garson literally suffered the most. First, she had to endure Mitchum's post-lunch breath, which he later described as being so bad, "Her eyes would spin around and she'd offer me a Chiclet. I'd refuse. Gum? No thanks. It didn't occur to me my breath was spinning her out." Then, Mitchum began to play pranks, like stealing props and wigs and writing the word "Red" (referring to her hair) on the stage floor where Garson's camera marks had been. The worst came when Garson nearly drowned when the company moved three hundred miles north to Victorine Ranch in Monterey, California.
On April 19th, Garson and Richard Hart were working on a sequence that required her to step onto a beach and take up a shrimp net. As she did so, an eight-foot wave crashed down on the two actors before anyone could reach them. Garson and Hart were swept out to sea thirty feet and tossed against the rocks. Plagued with a heart condition that eventually killed him at the age of 35 in 1951, Richard Hart couldn't get Garson, so a local fisherman, Vincent Sollecito, who was acting as an advisor, jumped in and saved her. Garson was found to have injured her back and was badly cut. Those injuries left her shaken and deeply depressed, barely able to work and requiring surgery. It would be several years before she was completely healed. MGM thanked Sollecito with a $1000 check and Garson likewise presented him with a handsome gift. Greer Garson's condition nearly stopped production, which moved along at a crawl.
With the budget now an out of control $4 million and a cast and crew well aware that they were making a flop, producer Arthur Hornblow fired George Cukor and, in desperation, replaced him with a series of top directors like Victor Fleming, then Jack Conway, Victor Saville and finally, Mervyn LeRoy. Although they had an impressive track record in Hollywood, none of these directors, not even LeRoy could make it work by the time filming ended on August 1st. LeRoy later admitted "They had a good cast, but a rotten script, a script that made absolutely no sense. I tried my best to make something out of it, but I failed, just as Cukor had failed."
The finished product was a disaster and Hornblow called for emergency meetings with studio brass to try to find a solution, short of throwing more money at Desire Me or throwing it in the garbage can. The agreement was that the film was held back for just over a year and George Cukor got the official blame. However, Cukor's friend Elliott Morgan believed that the problem stemmed from Cukor's inability to get along with Mitchum.
It was said that the total failure of Desire Me marked the beginning of the end for MGM studio chief Louis B. Mayer, who had ruled the production end of the company for three decades. Nicholas Schenck, chairman of MGM's parent company, Loew's Inc., began to groom producer Dore Schary as Mayer's successor. Desire Me did win one honor, however dubious. Life wrote in its March 8, 1948 edition that the film "beat out heavy competition to become 1947's most undesirable picture. It dealt with a morose love affair which made a bigamist out of Greer Garson. Two top-tier directors (George Cukor and Mervyn LeRoy) worked on Desire Me but the final result was so bad that neither one would permit his name to be put on it."
Producer: Arthur Hornblow, Jr.
Director: George Cukor
Screenplay: Casey Robinson, Marguerite Roberts, based on the play Karl and Anna by Zoe Akins and Leonhard Frank
Cinematography: Joseph Ruttenberg
Film Editing: Joseph Dervin
Art Direction: Cedric Gibbons, Urie McCleary
Music: Herbert Stothart
Cast: Greer Garson (Marise Aubert), Robert Mitchum (Paul Aubert), Richard Hart (Jean Renaud), Morris Ankrum (Hector Martin), George Zucco (Father Donnard), Cecil Humphreys (Dr. Leclair).
BW-92m. Closed captioning.
by Lorraine LoBianco
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Life 8 March 48
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Troyan, Michael A Rose for Mrs. Miniver: The Life of Greer Garson