"My career is mostly a result of successfully showing up on time and not bumping into the camera." Robert Mitchum
One of Mitchum's first role was in the Laurel and Hardy comedy, The Dancing Masters.
In interviews Mitchum always joked about his career, insisting that it was just a fluke. One of the complaints about him was that he didn't take things seriously enough. If that's so, then why is his onscreen comic flair the most undervalued aspect of an already underrated career? Compared to today's action heroes who bark out mandatory "witticisms" between punches, Mitchum's humor was a natural extension of the man himself. The moniker "comedian" isn't the first one you'd attach to Mitchum but even in non-comedic roles, his comic timing and subtle delivery are undeniable.
Think of his drunken sheriff in El Dorado (essentially a reprise of the Dean Martin role in Rio Bravo.) The bath scene is a classic, and the way he and John Wayne play off each other, both cracking wise about their respective injuries and shortcomings, is a comic delight. And what an ending: the two "old timers" walking off into the sunset on crutches!
Some of Mitchum's lightest work is, appropriately enough, in romantic comedies. He sizes up his romantic rival in Holiday Affair with an eloquently raised eyebrow and a few deftly delivered zingers. Part of his devilish charm, in this, and nearly all his films, is his wicked sense of humor.
In the little-seen White Witch Doctor, Mitchum is a hunter in the Congo. When he finally grabs missionary Susan Hayward and kisses her, trying to make her forget her dead husband, he's short on the sweet talk. "He was the best," he says forcefully, "but he's dead." Earlier in the film, he forces her to pare down her luggage and choose between Bibles translated into Swahili and her many trunks of clothing. "What's it gonna be: Onward Christian Soldier or the best-dressed woman in Africa?" She, good woman that she is, chooses the Bibles.
Mitchum held his own against a trio of Brits in The Grass is Greener. The film is mostly notable for its cast: Deborah Kerr, Cary Grant, and Jean Simmons in a love quadrangle. As the romantic interloper intruding on Kerr's and Grant's marriage, Mitchum is sexy as ever, although somewhat detached from the proceedings.
He has less to do in the daffy but harmless What a Way to Go! as Shirley MacLaine's Husband Number 3, tycoon Rod Anderson, Jr. Still, it's a fun to see how the film plays with his womanizing image: Shirley imagines his private plane as the site of continuous orgies. Instead, Mitchum flies his own plane and is so staid he only drinks milk!
One of the worst Mitchum films has to be She Couldn't Say No, one of his three pairings with Jean Simmons. He's a country doctor(!) and she's a wacky heiress recklessly spreading her wealth around a small town. They're both just marking time until the picture ends.
Mitchum's later roles also played against his intimidating image: in Scrooged he's a nutball TV exec who wants to create programming for pets, such as a detective who plays with string instead of a lollipop; in Dead Man, he's another possibly insane tycoon who, along with his stuffed grizzly, scares Johnny Deep speechless.
Mitchum's wry delivery, ironic humor, and subtle timing enhanced every role he played: western, noir, romance, and yes, the rare comedy.