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Thunder Road: Asheville's Silver Screen Fiend: Part II

Last week when we left off, Robert Mitchum was discovering his co-start, Keely Smith. Her voice was wafting through his car radio, singing the songs of her new album. Mitchum was enchanted and knew that she had to star in his movie!

The publicized story recalled Mitchum stuck in heavy LA Freeway traffic, where his mind had drifted off to the thoughts of salmon fighting their way upstream in one of his favorite fishing holes. All of a sudden, Louis Prima’s new recorded version of Autumn Leaves featuring Prima and Keely Smith came over the radio. He loved her phrasing, which reminded him of his good pal, Frank Sinatra. His theory was that anyone that could phrase that well would be a great actor. He went out and bought a copy of the record the next day and arranged a meeting with Keely Smith in San Francisco. Smith had been between shows and without adequate time to change, arrived at the meeting in canvas sneakers and ordinary clothes. Mitchum recalled being “absolutely knocked out by her."

This would be Keely’s acting debut and one of only several acting parts in movies. Smith would play his girlfriend, nightclub singer Francie Wymore, who he would visit when he was in Memphis and he cast Sandra Knight to play his girlfriend in Rillow Valley, “Roxanna.” This would be 19 year old Sandra Knight’s acting debut. Her father had been a security guard at MGM for many years, so she was familiar with Hollywood. Just like in real life, Mitchum couldn’t have just one woman by his side. He decided that he would cast many Asheville locals for extra and smaller parts when he descended on the town with his large crew in tow.

Before departing for filming, Mitchum wanted to get the music in order for the film. He was a big jazz aficionado and had a couple of ideas himself of songs that he wanted to write. He co-wrote two songs for the film, “The Whippoorwill” (which was the original working title of the movie before Thunder Road) and the title theme, “The Ballad of Thunder Road.” While he was writing “The Ballad of Thunder Road,” he struggled to find a melody he could match the lyrics to, until his mother tried the words against an old Norwegian dancing tune of that she knew, that was sort of a polka in nature. Mitchum himself recorded a version of “The Ballad'' for Capitol records, which in September 1957 rose to number 62 on the pop-rock charts.

It is an interesting song that combines rockabilly tones, but also alternates between minor and major keys. Robert’s version has more of an outlaw rockabilly sound to it than the version that was used for the movie, which was recorded by Randy Sparks. Mitchum had co-written the song with noted guitar player, composer and jazz musician, Jack Marshall. Robert’s version of “The Ballad” emphasizes his sonorous, basso-baritone voice. He later would go on to record “The Ballad of Thunder Road” on his own album, “Calypso is like so…” that featured Mitchum singing traditional Caribbean calypso music. The Ballad of Thunder Road also appeared on another Capitol record called “Shut Down” that was a 1963 compilation of Hot Rod songs with artists like Jan and Dean, as well as the Beach Boys. The song was later said to influence Bruce Springsteen in his song “Thunder Road.” The lyrics that Mitchum wrote and most notably remembered are:

“Let me tell the story, I can tell it all

About the mountain boy who ran illegal alcohol

His daddy made the whiskey, son, he drove the load

When his engine roared, they called the highway Thunder Road.

Sometimes into Asheville, sometimes Memphis town

The revenoors chased him but they couldn’t run him down

Each time they thought they had him, his engine would explode

He’d go by like they were standin’ still on that Thunder Road…”

— “The Ballad of Thunder Road,” words & music by Robert Mitchum, Don Ray & Jack Marshall

In autumn of 1957, Mitchum and his band of merrymakers stormed the little mountain town of Asheville, North Carolina. Just like when the U.S. Military took hold of the town during WWII, Mitchum and his team rented the entire Battery Park Hotel, as well as several other motels close by. Interestingly enough, Mitchum had arrived on the same plane as TV stars George “Superman” Reeves and Noel “Lois Lane” Neill, who were in town to do a personal appearance at City Auditorium. Bob knew he would need to cast many locals as extras, assemble a fleet of authentic moonshine hotrods and scout filming locations. First, Mitchum would start with assembling Asheville locals, outlaws, revenuers and moonshine men. According to a November 1957 issue of the Asheville Citizen Times, close to 500 people were hired for temporary employment in the movie, according to the local Employment Security Commission office.

One of these actors was Charles Elledge, principal of Marion High School and a veteran actor of the drama based around Daniel Boone, in Boone, North Carolina titled “Horn in the West.” Local ABC agent, Charles Giglia also played a bit part as one of the henchmen that worked for the villain, Carl Kogan. Giglia set the all time record for most moonshine stills captured in North Carolina: 1,297 backwoods stills. Giglia could have given Mitchum a run for his money with the times that he was shot and the thrilling chases he went on after moonshiners. He was known for having specially constructed boots that contained a holster for a small pistol. Giglia ended up having an incredible 26 year career working for the Alcohol Beverage Control Law Enforcement Team, which started in 1947, as soon as the state referendum was passed, allowing ABC stores in the city and county. For the role of Mitchum’s mother in Thunder Road, he chose Fairview local, Francis Koon. This was her only acting role and she went on to be a bookkeeper and accountant for Groce Funeral Home. She also was a long time member and director of music at East Asheville United Methodist Church. She was discovered by Mitchum, as she was a founding member of Asheville Community Theater. One of the other well known extras was local celebrity Farmer Russ, a popular radio disc jockey who would play the loud mouthed bozo in the nightclub sequence of the movie, while Keely Smith’s character is trying to just make it through her set.

Next on Mitchum’s list was lining up his fleet of Moonshine Hot Rods. The lead car in the movie, a 1951 Ford is one of the most memorable cars from the movie. The car has the body of a 1951 Ford, with a 1949 hood, grill and fenders on it. It had a high performance racing engine in it that was built by Canton native, Pender Fox - an accomplished racer in his own right. Fox was known for dominating the Smoky Mountain Speedway in Waynesville. The engine seen in the movie is the actual engine in the car - a 312 cubic inch Ford Y block V8 engine with 3 two barrel Holley carburetors on it. What is interesting about the lead car in the script is how detailed Mitchum is in describing the engine in this scene. He describes it as an “Offenhauser racing motor, with three carburetors, twin exhaust pipes, a supercharger, gear ratio change, an auxiliary fuel pump and aluminum pistons.” When he wrote the script, he was thinking the car would be a 1953 Mercury, which evolved when he arrived in Asheville and found actual bootlegger cars. Mitchum’s script calls for a wrenching session on the 1957 Ford that is purchased later, as well as the installation of two four barrel carburetors, but this never seemed to make it to the movie. Mitchum and his production crew had a hard time purchasing bootlegger cars because they changed hands so frequently as bootleggers with a little extra cash in their pockets frequently upgraded their cars.

At the beginning of the movie in the opening garage scene, Robert and Jim Mitchum (Lucas and Robin Doolin) review all the maintenance and special features of the car that included a special dump valve to lose all of the moonshine and oil sprayers to slick the road, as well as a rear bumper that could be rigged to fall off if a revenuer clamped onto it with a special attachment on their car. The scene is almost reminiscent of a scene at Q Branch in a James Bond movie. Local native Bill Parris was quoted as saying “I remember the producers coming to buy some of their cars from my dad and uncle. I also remember both my dad and uncle having to go to Sandy Bottoms to teach them how to spin the cars without running them in the river. A federal agent came to our house a few times looking for moonshine, as my family were moonshine runners after World War II.” Sandy Bottoms is an area off of road 191, on lower Brevard road, leading to highway 280 west that runs along the French Broad River and is very scenic.

The 1951 Ford and the 1957 Fords used in the movie were serviced during the evening at the Sawyer Motor Building, which was the home of Matthews Ford at 100 Coxe avenue in downtown Asheville. Although it only made a cameo appearance, there is a beautiful 1936 Ford Coupe Hot Rod that is one of the special cars belonging to Carl Kogan and his henchmen working in his garage. This car later came to be owned by long-time Asheville native John Bell, who turned the car into more of a modern day street rod, powered by a small block Chevy. The car in the movie featured a supercharged Ford Flathead V8.

While Mitchum’s movie cars were being serviced at the Sawyer Motor Building, Mitchum found himself across the street at Deppe Motors speaking to Mr. John Deppe, Asheville’s Edsel dealer where he bought two 1958 Edsel Citation, 4 door sedans, according to film records. Some locals remember seeing him riding around in an Edsel convertible as well. In early press releases, it was said that these would be used in the movie, but it seems that they served more of a support vehicle role than a “star car.” There is an Edsel pictured on one of the early movie posters, but there are no Edsels actually in the film.

Mitchum was said to make contact with some of Asheville’s other racing community members, including Banjo Matthews, aka “Mr. X” where Mitchum was said to have bought a race prepped Ford Flathead V8 engine to take back to California with him. Although the two most memorable cars in the movie are the 1951 Ford and the 1957 Fords driven by Mitchum, there are many other standard issue bootlegger cars like the 1940 Ford coupe scattered throughout the movie. Asheville Police officers are seen driving 1957 Chevrolet 210 post sedans throughout.

Robert and Jim Mitchum seemed to soak up as much of the Asheville automotive culture as they could during their stay. Locals remember seeing them attend the NASCAR races and late model sportsman auto races at McCormick Field. One local Asheville resident, whose father was the flagman at McCormick Field, remembered seeing them at several races while they were in town. On September 22nd 1957, The Sports Car Club of America’s Central Carolina chapter in collaboration with the Asheville Optimist Club hosted a car show and Gymkhana time trial driving event at McCormick Field that drew over 100 sports cars of all makes and models. Robert Mitchum was asked to be the honorary field marshal, which was heavily publicized in the Asheville Citizen Times paper. Another local tall tale is that Jim Mitchum entered the 1951 modified Ford sedan from Thunder Road in the gymkhana event and caused mischief and mayhem with his driving.

Although Robert Mitchum and some of his fellow actors were decent stunt drivers for blazing around the streets of Asheville, they needed someone more accomplished for the difficult and dangerous stunts. They hired veteran stunt driver Carey Loftin to pilot these muscular Fords to their demise and doom. Mitchum knew there would be many dangerous scenes in the movie that involved high speed turn-arounds, crash-throughs and flip-overs - as well as driving on dark and dangerous mountain roads.

A 1958 Motor Trend article on the movie mentioned that “The toughest stunt of the picture came when Robert Mitchum speeds along a deserted mountain road at night, wheels around a gradual curve and suddenly comes upon a barricade made of two cars set face to face in the middle of the road. In a split second, he has to decide whether to stop and face the hi-jackers’ guns or attempt to get through. Spotting daylight between the two cars he bends low over the wheel, presses the accelerator to the floor and heads for the opening.” To pull off this scene, Loftin hired out a garage and had a roll cage installed in the interior of the 1957 Ford, as well as a larger, wider and thicker front bumper made so that he could crash through both cars. The reinforced front bumper was said to be made out of a piece of railroad track. Loftin also had an emergency grab bar installed on the back of the passenger seat, right where his hand would be to stabilize himself during the roll and installed double seatbelts. To help stabilize the car, 300 pounds of extra weights were strapped down in the trunk of the car and the hood was wired shut, so as to not fly up if the factory latch broke. The car only was filled with a gallon of gas, so as to reduce fire risk if the gas tank should become punctured.

Loftin and Mitchum came up a month before filming began and scouted the area for some of the best roads. Loftin prepared for all of his driving in a very methodical way, mapping out roads, preparing the cars and thoroughly inspecting them carefully, leaving nothing to chance. He also required at least 24 hours notice to give him time to lie in bed the night before, mentally solving any potential hazards. Just like Mitchum, Loftin also liked to party hard. One night when he was out drinking, a group of actors bought 6 dozen baby chicks from a farmers convention being held in the lobby of the Battery Park Hotel and put them into Carey’s hotel room. Then, everyone waited for Carey to stumble home after having a good deal of liquor. Loftin came and the chicks were all over his room and so were their droppings with Loftin flopping and floundering in the dark through the middle of all of this. This remained a recurring joke on the set for weeks.

Carey Loftin was the stuff legends are made of and many people in Hollywood remembered him as such. Carey had been doing automotive stunts in Hollywood for decades and would continue to do so for another 40 years. Loftin had grown up on a farm in Hattiesburg, Mississippi and earned his living as a touring motorcycle daredevil crashing into brick walls, before becoming a Hollywood stuntman in 1936. Many said that he had superhuman abilities at the wheel and extraordinary eyesight. His wife remembered that he could see through the fog and things that would be just a blur to you or me. Loftin’s widow remembered that “It was like everything moved slower for him and gave him more time to adjust to it. His reactions were so fast that he could catch a flying bug between two fingers just putting his hand up - just two fingers.” Prior to arriving in Asheville, he had doubled in a motorcycle stunt for Marlon Brando in The Young Lions. He had to bleach his hair blonde for that movie and Mitchum made a big production out of having him dye it into a darker color to mimic his hair at a local beauty parlor, with the locals watching.

Many of the crew remembered Loftin as a dashing and exuberant fellow who liked to impress people with his driving skills. Thunder Road’s final, climactic scene involved Mitchum’s character Lucas Doolin sliding off the road to his demise after his car hits a revenuer’s “wampus trap” or as we know it today a “spike strip” and rolls his car into an electrical transformer. Loftin approached the cameraman and asked him for his “mark.” The camera man responded with a confused look. Loftin again asked “where do you want the car to come to a stop?” The 1957 Ford was supposed to roll over out of control and spin until it got to the jerry rigged electrical transformer.

The cameraman and crew hadn’t really thought about the precision involved in the stunt. When Carey asked him where the car should land, the cameraman shrugged his shoulders and just pointed to a spot on the ground close by. Carey had been smoking a cigarette under a tree while waiting for them to set up the shot. He took one last puff on his cigarette and placed the smoldering butt on the ground, where the cameraman had pointed to. He then got in the car, drove down the road and spun around, waiting for the signal before moving out. Loftin raced the engine up to a roar, screeching in a control slide, skidded, flipped into a barrel roll and came to an abrupt stop into the transformer. Carey, unhurt, climbed out of the car, to the applause of the cast and crew. As they moved towards the front of the car, they saw Carey’s cigarette butt lying dead center below the front of the fender. Although Loftin wasn’t hurt, Mitchum was hurt during the scene. In his excitement to congratulate Carey, Robert tripped in a hole in the ground near the car and broke a small bone in his ankle. Loftin would later go on to work on other legendary automotive movies like The French Connection, Grand Prix, Bullitt, Vanishing Point, Duel and Days of Thunder.

Tune in next week for part 3 of our 4 part series on the history of Thunder Road while it was filmed in Asheville!

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