Friday, September 30, 2011

The Darling Deborah Blogathon: Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison

In honor of Deborah Kerr's 90th birthday, Sophie of Waitin' On A Sunny Day is hosting the "Darling Deborah Blogathon." This is my contribution ...

John Huston's Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison is a decidedly odd entry in that seemingly endless parade of World War II movies to come out of Hollywood in the last seventy years. More Brief Encounter than Saving Private Ryan, this low-key, tender would-be romance between a marine and a nun is as talky as a Woody Allen movie, and chaste even by Production Code standards, but it's also as good as anything its stars ever did and is one of my favorite movies of the era.

The Allison of Mr. Allison is Robert Mitchum as a marine who's separated from his unit during a naval battle and washes up on the shore of a remote South Pacific island. With no means of communication or escape, and very little chance that anyone will ever find him, he may be there for years.

And then to his shock he discovers that marooned on the island with him is a nun, Sister Angela, played by the disconcertingly beautiful Deborah Kerr.

"That's my luck," he complains. "If ya gotta be a nun, why ain't ya old and ugly? Why do ya gotta have big blue eyes, and a beautiful smile—and freckles?"

Despite the fact that they are both already in committed relationships—him to the Marines, her to Jesus Christ—Allison asks Sister Angela to marry him. She turns him down, of course, but, her protestations to the contrary, it's a close run thing.

And then the Japanese army shows up.

Although the plot of Mr. Allison is simple, the material is delicate, and in the hands of different actors could easily have turned into something comical, something cynical, or something hopelessly sentimental. In fact, Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison sounds like the set-up for some kind of joke: "A marine and a nun are stranded on an island together—"

But far from turning into a romantic comedy or a traditional war movie, Mr. Allison instead becomes a meditation on the war between the spirit and the flesh, between the darkness and the light, or, if you will, between man's natural depravity and the better angels of our nature. Rather than favoring one over the other, though, the film suggests that we can only reach our true potential when we are well acquainted with and comfortable with both.

Here, Kerr's Sister Angela begins the movie wholly ignorant of what human beings are capable of—lust, fear, anger, hatred, murder—while Mitchum's Allison has known little else. Before the movie is over, both end up with an appreciation of the full range of human behavior to their immediate salvation and their lasting benefit.

This wasn't the first nun Kerr played. Her performance in Black Narcissus in 1947 is a classic and paved the way for her move to Hollywood. It also serves as a counterpoint to her performance in Mr. Allison. In Black Narcissus, her Sister Clodagh is all too acquainted with the human heart and its complications, and in fleeing from that terrible knowledge, she becomes, if not a bad nun, then a tragically ineffective one. Here, she learns to look reality straight-on, and just as Allison's acquaintance with the spiritual makes him a better Marine, so, too, I suspect will Angela's acquaintance with human frailty make her a better nun.

To get a sense of the different direction this set-up could have gone in, look at Huston's take on a similar story, The African Queen. His Oscar-winning tale of a drunken riverboat captain and a starchy New England missionary who sail down a river together is essentially the same odd couple set-up as Mr. Allison—only there, the film's stars, Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn, played the material for laughs, with the loutish Bogart bumping up against the patrician Hepburn to great effect. The result was one of the best romantic comedies of the decade.

But Bogart and Hepburn were playing over-the-top, larger-than-life characters—Hepburn said later that director Huston told her to imitate Eleanor Roosevelt—and much of the pure pleasure of watching The African Queen comes from knowing that they're never in danger, not really. War is a lark and the threat of death by drowning, disease or a hangman's noose is simply foreplay—what fun! I mean, it was either this, Kate and Bogie seem to be saying, or dinner and dancing and maybe a nightcap up in her apartment.

At least they get an A for originality.

In Mr. Allison, though, Kerr and Mitchum play their roles absolutely straight, with a sincerity and vulnerability that's actually pretty rare for a star vehicle. If you're at all familiar with Deborah Kerr's work, that should come as no surprise—she was the gentlest, most guileless actress ever to grace the big screen, and I can't imagine her ever holding any part she played at arm's length.

That Robert Mitchum also leads with his chin comes as a surprise only if you've bought into the laconic, insolent facade he presented on screen and in interviews. The fact is, under those heavy, drooping eyelids and that weary, disinterested demeanor, there beat the heart of an artist, and in his best work—Out of the Past, The Night of the Hunter, The Friends of Eddie Coyle and this one—Mitchum was exposed, vulnerable and completely authentic.

Of all his great performances, Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison was Mitchum's personal favorite.

Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison was the first of four movies Mitchum and Kerr made together. In 1960, they made both The Sundowners (for which Kerr received her final Oscar nomination) and The Grass Is Greener (co-starring Cary Grant and Jean Simmons). In 1985, they starred in Reunion at Fairborough, a made-for-television movie about a veteran who returns to England and rekindles a wartime romance.

Of his co-star, Mitchum said, "The best, my favorite—life would be kind if I could live it with Deborah around."

For her performance in Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison, Kerr was nominated for an Oscar, but she lost, of course, this time to Joanne Woodward in The Three Faces of Eve. It was the story of Kerr's life. In all, she was nominated for six Oscars and lost every time, still a record in the best actress category. I think more than anything, she was a victim of bad timing. A list of those she lost to is a veritable Mount Rushmore of actresses from the post-war era: Olivia de Havilland, Audrey Hepburn, Ingrid Bergman, Joanne Woodward, Susan Hayward and Elizabeth Taylor.

And maybe also she was too unassuming and what she did on screen looked too effortless. The Academy has always tended to reserve its top prizes for those who remind us what a terribly difficult and lonely job acting is—even when it isn't.

In fact, maybe that's Mr. Allison in a nutshell: you expect fireworks and instead get something as quiet as a whisper. Don't make the same mistake the Academy did and fail to listen closely.


Sophie said...

Thanks so much for this wonderful contribution to the blogathon! HK,MA is one of my favourite Deborah films so I really enjoyed reading this! And I'm always glad to find that other people appreciate Deborah's gentle, understated performances. I never thought of it in relation to "The African Queen" before -- very interesting point!

I always find the stories about how Deborah and Bob larked during filming when the Catholic League of Decency man was there absolutely hilarious. I don't think people realise that Deborah had a side to her other than her 'prim and proper' one. :D

Mythical Monkey said...

Thanks, Sophie! There were a couple of great anecdotes about filming Mr. Allison I didn't fit into the post -- one was early in filming. Mitchum was a little wary of working with Kerr, figuring she might be a little too goody-two-shoes to get along with him. But they were out in the ocean filming a scene where Mitchum is swimming, trying to catch a turtle, and Huston is really pushing them and finally Deborah turns to the director and swears at him. Mitchum laughed so hard he almost drowned.

Then later, as you mentioned, the Catholic League of Decency showed up, quite fussy about whether the production was showing a nun in anything other than a favorable light, so Mitchum and Kerr faked a passionate, rolling around the surf scene just to freak them out.

She and Mitchum wound up working together four times, and as I mentioned he called her his favorite acting partner.

Yvette said...

M.M. She sounds like a lady I would like to know. :)

HEAVEN KNOWS MR. ALLISON is one of my favorites. Thanks for writing about it. I also love BLACK NARCISSUS.

Come to think of it, I also love THE AFRICAN QUEEN.

So all in all, a great post.

Lisa said...

Tremendous post about one of my favorite movies, one that I watched countless times during my childhood when it would run on our local Million $$ Movie which played 7 times in one week. Saw it again recently and it holds up as lovely as I remembered. I have a thing about nuns and Deborah is one of the most winning of them in this movie. A tough movie with a tender heart!

Chris F. said...

I loved your article and shared it on my old blog. I also linked to your page on my current blog at

Here is my complimentary piece on Deborah: