MY FORBIDDEN PAST is a florid melodrama set in New Orleans of the late 1800s. It's over the top yet a completely enjoyable movie wallow, thanks to its gorgeous stars, Ava Gardner and Robert Mitchum.
Gardner plays Barbara Beaurevel, who lives in New Orleans with her aunt (Lucile Watson) and oily ne'er-do-well cousin Paul (Melvyn Douglas). Barbara inherits a large sum of money from her grandmother, a notorious woman whose relationship to Barbara has been a secret. If the truth about Barbara's ancestry were known, the Beaurevels would no longer be received in polite society.
Barbara's fortune improves her family's lifestyle but she's still unhappy, because Mark (Robert Mitchum), the only man she ever loved, has recently returned to New Orleans with a brand-new wife, Corinne (Janis Carter). Barbara is determined to find a way to get him back, and Cousin Paul will help...for a price.
Gardner was lovingly photographed by Harry J. Wild. The wordless opening sequence, which begins with a lengthy shot of Gardner's face and then pulls back to include Robert Mitchum, shows two stars at the height of their attractiveness.
Unfortunately Mitchum is so completely low-key in this that his character doesn't create much of an impression other than as the object of Gardner's desire. It's Gardner's film all the way; she's on screen the vast majority of the time. Barbara progresses from young innocent in love to a rejected, scheming woman to a new self-aware maturity, and she's interesting throughout.
Melvyn Douglas is almost creepy as Barbara's sardonic, weak cousin Paul, who has been too lazy to do anything other than live a life of genteel near-poverty and hope his pretty cousin improves the family fortune through either marriage or inheritance. Paul at times seems to be attracted to Barbara himself, despite their close familial relationship.
Although the film is almost entirely stagebound, it nonetheless manages to convey a good sense of New Orleans atmosphere, particularly in a scene where a caped Barbara visits her grandmother's tomb. The movie is a mix of historical melodrama and film noir, with dark, shadowy streets and an accidental death figuring prominently in the story.
Janis Carter, who plays Corinne, starred in NIGHT EDITOR (1946), which will be featured in the upcoming Bad Girls of Film Noir, Vol. 2 DVD collection. Carter began in films in 1941, and her acting career was largely over the year following the release of MY FORBIDDEN PAST. Her films included ONE MYSTERIOUS NIGHT (1944) and THE MISSING JUROR (1944), both for director Budd Boetticher. 1951 was a good year for Carter, as besides MY FORBIDDEN PAST she starred in SANTA FE with Randolph Scott and FLYING LEATHERNECKS with John Wayne.
The cast also includes Gordon Oliver, who is unfortunately rather wooden as the man who aspires to marry Barbara, and Will Wright as a wily lawyer who delivers the news of Barbara's inheritance. Clarence Muse plays Pompey, Barbara's loyal servant.
Basil Ruysdael, who plays the university dean who is Mitchum's boss, may not be a familiar name, but he's a familiar face. He played the bishop in COME TO THE STABLE (1949). He also appeared in PINKY (1949), BROKEN ARROW (1950), HALF ANGEL (1951), and PEOPLE WILL TALK (1951).
MY FORBIDDEN PAST was directed by Robert Stevenson. Stevenson directed the Orson Welles-Joan Fontaine version of JANE EYRE (1944) and later spent a couple of decades directing Disney films, most notably OLD YELLER (1957) and MARY POPPINS (1964).
The print shown on Turner Classic Movies runs 70 minutes. According to IMDb, the UK print is 81 minutes. There did seem to be a couple scenes, including a conversation referenced between Mitchum and Douglas, which were probably excised from the print I viewed. The film could have stood being a bit longer; it would be interesting to have the chance to see the uncut version.
MY FORBIDDEN PAST is available on VHS. The trailer can be seen here.
November 2012 Update: MY FORBIDDEN PAST is now available from the Warner Archive.