Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison

mr allisonI watched Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison (1957) today for the first time in years and enjoyed it so much.  I’d forgotten how good it is.  It’s just Robert Mitchum and Deborah Kerr on screen almost the entire time and they both turn in such wonderful performances.  I’m very fond of Kerr and like her in almost everything, but Mitchum I’m not that crazy about in general.  He’s just not my favorite actor.

He’s fantastic in this, though, playing Corporal Allison, a rough-around-the-edges Marine who is at heavenknowsmr-allisonheart a good and decent man.  He’s tough, brave, and takes his duties as a Marine very seriously, but he can be thoughtful and tender, as he is with Kerr’s Sister Angela, a nun who’s stranded with Allison on a Japanese-occupied island in the Pacific during WWII. The bond they form through their harrowing ordeal is sweet, funny,  and  touching.

The movie was directed by John Huston, and it’s reminiscent of another of his films, The African Queen, in its story of a sheltered, genteel religious woman being thrown together with an unsophisticated, hard-drinking, and very masculine man in a life-or-death situation. When the woman is already married to someone else, however, and when that someone else is God, any romance is bound to be bittersweet.

I’m glad I was at home today to catch Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison on TCM.  It’s one of those movies that has a little bit of everything wrapped up in a beautifully filmed  Cinemascope package — humor, action, romance, drama, and most of all two excellent performances from Robert Mitchum and an Oscar-nominated Deborah Kerr.  I highly recommend checking out the movie if you haven’t seen it yet, and revisiting it if, like me, you haven’t seen it in a while.

Husbands and Wives

For some reason the movies I watched this weekend all had a marital theme.  It wasn’t a conscious decision, I just grabbed DVDs that looked like fun, but maybe  on some level I was preparing myself for another season of watching Don and Betty Draper’s early ‘60s battle of the sexes. 

Too Many Husbands (1940)

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Too Many Husbands came out the same year as another, more popular “extra spouse” movie, My Favorite Wife, and to be honest it’s not as funny or memorable as the Cary Grant/Irene Dunne film.  The three leads, Jean Arthur, Melvyn Douglas and Fred MacMurray, are all good though, and the movie has its humorous moments.

One thing that sets Too Many Husbands apart from My Favorite Wife is its more risqué premise. Jean Arthur’s character, Vicky Lowndes, isn’t a newlywed “kissless” bride, as Cary Grant’s new wife is. Her first husband Bill Cardew (MacMurray) has been “dead” (like Dunne’s character in My Favorite Wife he was lost at sea and presumed drowned) for a year.  Vicky has been married to husband number two, Henry (Douglas), Bill’s best friend and business partner, for six months.

Once Bill returns Vicky can’t decide which man she loves more and which one she wants to stay married to. She seems quite excited by the prospect of bigamy, in fact, if only because she enjoys having two men paying attention to her and vying for her affections. She gets a wicked gleam in her eyes the night of Bill’s return, contemplating the fact that two attractive men are downstairs fighting over who has the right to join her in bed.

Her two husbands argue and tussle and show off for her. (One of the funniest parts of the movie is seeing these two grown men running around the living room like fools, hurdling armchairs to prove their manly prowess.) She spends time with each of them alone, in an attempt to make her decision, and ends up more confused.

Eventually the law has to step in and make the choice for her, but in spite of her winding up married to only one of the men, it’s clear from the movie’s ending, with Vicky dancing with both at the same time, each clinging to one of her arms, that things aren’t really settled at all.  The whole movie has a slightly perverse vibe, like maybe Vicky would be just as happy with a threesome situation, which was an interesting take for 1940, that’s for sure.

All in all a funny little screwball comedy, though not one of the greats. For me it suffers in comparison to My Favorite Wife, both in terms of humor and heart, but it’s still worth checking out for the wonderful Jean Arthur. Also for the sight of Fred MacMurray in his first scene, bearded and as wild looking as Tom Hanks in Cast Away, but considerably more happy-go-lucky about the whole desert island rescue scenario.

Dream Wife (1953)

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 I’ve watched An Affair to Remember over and over recently,which inspired me watch the other Cary Grant/Deborah Kerr collaborations, inferior though they both are to Leo McCarey’s 1957 gem. (It may be sentimental and imperfect, but for me An Affair to Remember is the movie equivalent of comfort food. Not necessarily as nutritious as some other meals, but good for the soul nonetheless.)

Grant and Kerr first starred together in 1953′s Dream Wife, a movie I should probably hate, but don’t. For one thing it’s really not that good, objectively speaking. Sidney Sheldon wrote and directed it, and at times it feels like an episode of I Dream of Jeannie, only without the supernatural angle. It gets very slapstick silly at times.

For another, it’s so sexist.  Grant plays Clemson Reade, an American businessman engaged to a State Department employee, Priscilla “Effie” Effington (Kerr). She’s a workaholic and doesn’t spend enough time with him, so Clem gets fed up, breaks the engagement, and proposes to an Arab princess whose father is involved in a business deal with him. The princess has been raised to cater to her husband’s every whim and live only to make her man happy, something that appeals greatly to Clem after being repeatedly brushed aside by Effie.

Check out this conversation Clem has with some fellas at the office.  It’s awful!  It’s like a scene out of Mad Men!  And yet it makes me laugh anyway, because Cary Grant’s delivery is so good.  He can turn almost anything into comedy gold.

 

Ex-fiancee Effie has to be involved in Clem’s wedding preparations by virtue of her job at the State Department (there’s an impending oil crisis involving the princess’s country), and she throws a wrench in the engagement by teaching the princess all about Amelia Bloomer and Susan B. Anthony, helping her break free of all that subservient female stuff.

Dream Wife is a bit of a guilty pleasure for me, I guess.  I enjoy it in spite of its flaws.  Cary Grant plays his trademark crankiness to the hilt, and if his character is unpleasant at times, he at least makes it funny to watch. Deborah Kerr is lovely and beautifully dressed, and if her character really is focused on work to the neglect of her fiancé, she at least makes it funny to watch.

Dumb but cute is probably the best way to describe this movie. If it had starred anyone other than Grant and Kerr I probably wouldn’t have liked it much, but their charisma and chemistry go a long way.

In this movie, at least. Not so much in their final collaboration.

The Grass is Greener (1960)

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 Every few years I pop this movie in the DVD player, hoping that this will be the time I really like it, but every time I’m disappointed. You would think that with Cary Grant, Deborah Kerr, Jean Simmons and Robert Mitchum starring and Stanley Donen directing it would be fantastic, but it’s not.

Grant is an English aristocrat, Victor, Earl of Rhyall, who has opened up his stately home to tourists in order to pay for its upkeep. Kerr is his wife, Hilary, who keeps busy with their two children, gardening, and growing and selling mushrooms in the village. They’re a comfortable, loving couple, and in their first scenes together they’re quite adorable to watch.

Then Robert Mitchum’s Charles Delacro, an American tourist and (of course) oil tycoon appears, brazenly pushing his way into the family’s private quarters and making a play for Hilary. She falls for him almost immediately, and after just half an hour spent together is in love and ready to sneak off to London for a tryst with him.

Which she does, even though Victor knows what’s going on, and she knows Victor knows what’s going on. Jean Simmons is Hilary’s kooky friend Hattie, who has a designs on Victor and gets mixed up in the situation, too.  It all winds up in a silly duel between Victor and Charles and a lot of yakking about the meaning of marriage, fidelity, and love between Victor and Hilary.

It’s all supposed to be very sophisticated, but it just icks me out. There are ways to handle adultery intelligently and entertainingly in a movie, whether as a comedy (The Awful Truth) or a drama (Brief Encounter), but The Grass is Greener isn’t good at doing it either way. It’s unbelievable to me that anyone involved could’ve dealt with the situation in such a cool, collected manner as the characters in this movie. 

More shallowly, what I really find implausible about the movie is the notion that anyone would risk losing Cary Grant’s sweet if stodgy Victor because of an infatuation with Robert Mitchum’s not too attractive and dull as toast Charles.  I know that’s my biased inner fangirl talking,  but honestly.  It’s Cary Grant!  Even at age 56, wearing comfy cardigans and thick black-framed glasses, he’s more charming and attractive than anyone has ever been.  I mean, would you throw over a husband who looked at you like this while you were in the bath?  For Robert Mitchum?

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No, I didn’t think so.

Cary Grant’s favorite leading ladies

Irene Dunne

Co-star in “The Awful Truth”, “Penny Serenade”, and “My Favorite Wife”

“I loved working with Cary – every minute of it.  Between takes he was so amusing with his cockney stories.  I was his best audience.  I laughed and laughed and laughed.  The more I laughed, the more he went on.”

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Katharine Hepburn

Co-star in “Sylvia Scarlett”, “Bringing Up Baby”, “Holiday”, and “The Philadelphia Story”

“We got on well, Cary and I.  It was fun to play with him, and I think he had a good time, too.  People liked us together, so we enjoyed it.”

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Ingrid Bergman

Co-star in “Notorious” and “Indiscreet”

When Hollywood shunned Ingrid Bergman for leaving her husband to marry Italian director Roberto Rossellini, Cary was one of the only stars who stayed in touch with her, stood by her side, and remained a friend.  When she returned to movies in the mid-1950s, he co-starred with her for the second time in “Indiscreet”.  “I was very fond of Ingrid,” Cary said.  “She was an amazing woman.  She was one of the world’s most talented women, completely secure and happy.”

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Rosalind Russell

Co-star in “His Girl Friday”.

  Cary introduced Russell to her husband, his friend Frederick Brisson, during the filming of “His Girl Friday” in 1941.  “Cary, you will never know the great joy you have helped bring us both and how much we shall always love you for it,” Rosalind wrote Cary.  “You must know, too, that the wedding would not be complete without you.  You who brought us together.  All love to you, Cary, darling.”  Cary was best man at their wedding.  Russell and Brisson were happily married until her death in 1976.

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Here are Cary and Rosalind at the 1942 Academy Awards.  Wartime, so no tuxedos and evening gowns here.  Looks like they had a fine time anyway.

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Grace Kelly

Co-star in “To Catch a Thief”

Cary absolutely adored Grace Kelly and was a devoted friend for the rest of her life.  “Grace had a kind of serenity, a calmness, that I hadn’t arrived at at that point in my life – and perhaps never will, for all I know.  She was so relaxed in front of the camera that she made it look simple.”  Cary admired women who were elegant, ladylike and refined.  Leslie Caron once said “Cary liked women who had a distinction and a certain education about them.  That’s what he liked about Grace Kelly.”

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 Deborah Kerr

Co-star in “Dream Wife”, “An Affair to Remember”, and “The Grass is Greener”

“His elegance, his wit, his true professionalism were outstanding, and I learned so much from just watching him work,” Kerr said.  “As a person, apart from his talent, he was warm and affectionate and a joy to have as a friend.  He lived simply and was not tremendously social – a very private person.  He was also a keen and shrewd businessman; in fact there was no end to his talents.  I treasure my memories of him.”

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Audrey Hepburn

Co-star in “Charade”

“I think he understood me better than I did myself,” said Audrey.  “He was observant and had a penetrating knowledge of people.  He would talk often about relaxing and getting rid of one’s fears, which I think he found a way to do.  But he never preached.  If he helped me, he did it without my knowing, and with a gentleness which made me lose my sense of being intimidated.  I had this great affection for him because I knew he understood me.  It was an unspoken friendship, which was wonderful.  He would open up his arms wide when he saw you, and hug you, and smile, and let you know how he felt about you.”

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