On the same day that we lost Jean Simmons, another screen performer died, someone who was much less of a household name than Simmons. James Mitchell passed away at 89, and his name might not be familiar even to those who watched him for decades on the daytime serial All My Children. To soap fans, he was simply Palmer Cortlandt, beginning in 1979. But Mitchell was a “name” to those of us who follow dance and Broadway and the movies. He had danced with American Ballet Theatre and was the first Harry Beaton in the original Broadway production of Brigadoon in 1947.
Mitchell was in Hollywood for the tail-end of the movie musical’s golden age, and he did manage to appear in two films that most musical lovers have seen countless times. In the fabulous Fred Astaire classic The Band Wagon (1953), Mitchell plays a snooty choreographer, the mentor to ballerina Cyd Charisse. Unfortunately, he doesn’t really get to dance here, merely rehearse with the two stars. In Oklahoma! Mitchell is Dream Curly, dancing Agnes DeMille’s iconic choreography in her beautiful dream ballet. But Mitchell’s finest musical moment on film comes in Deep in My Heart (1954), actually one of the worst of the MGM musicals, a biopic about Sigmund Romberg with a horrifying performance by Jose Ferrer (as Romberg). But the movie features a dance duet performed by Mitchell and Cyd Charisse, to the tune “One Alone” from The Desert Song. Probably Charisse’s best romantic dance without either Astaire or Gene Kelly, it is a sexy, hypnotic, and physically demanding number and a real showcase for Mitchell’s talent, presence, and dark handsomesness. The sequence should be a classic (and probably would be if not marooned in that awful movie).
When I finished writing my book Screen Savers, which covers forty underrated movies of the 20th century, I noticed that Mitchell just happened to be in three of the films, not one of them a musical. Odder still was the fact that he didn’t make many non-musical pictures. Mitchell plays disparate supporting roles in this trio, all from MGM. In Border Incident (1949), Anthony Mann’s terrific docudrama noir, Mitchell is a Mexican farm worker (with a good Mexican accent), sharing a strong rapport with the film’s star, Ricardo Montalban, who plays a Mexican undercover agent. Even better is Mann’s western Devil’s Doorway (1950), a deeply moving film containing the best performance Robert Taylor ever gave. Taylor plays an Indian, as does Mitchell, in a no-win situation with westward-moving homesteaders and anti-Indian land laws. The movie packs quite a punch and will someday, finally, be recognized as a classic.
The third Mitchell movie in Screen Savers is Jacques Tourneur’s beautiful Stars in My Crown (1950), an honest heartwarmer about small-town American life in the latter part of the 19th century. The star is wonderful Joel McCrea at his best, simple and effortless and unerringly believable. He plays the plain-speaking parson, and Mitchell, in his best role, is the new doctor in town (son of the old doctor, who is soon to be deceased). For a while, Mitchell’s character, a citified gentleman, doesn’t want to be stuck in this nowhere burg. Good things happen (he finds love with schoolteacher Amanda Blake) and bad things happen (an outbreak of typhoid fever). At odds with McCrea’s character for much of the film, Mitchell gives a remarkably fine performance. His conversion from stuck-up outsider to committed community member is vividly drawn and plausibly timed.
So, if you think of Mitchell only as that fellow lifting Dream Laurey, or sharing the small screen with Susan Lucci, then it’s time to check out his black-and-white trio of outstanding dramas and give him his due as a solid big-screen actor.