Turner Classic Movies has published a book of “Leading Couples” highlighting romantic duos like Bogart and Bacall, Tracy and Hepburn, Flynn and de Havilland, and Astaire and Rogers. I’m not here to dispute the inclusion of those greats, but I’d like to put a deserving spotlight on a screen team that didn’t make the TCM list – Robert Mitchum and Deborah Kerr.
The thing about Robert Mitchum was that he wasn’t boyishly handsome like Gregory Peck. Mitchum’s eyes were baggy, there was a funny dimple in his chin, and his speech and movements were so relaxed as to be nearly lethargic. Still, he epitomized the figure of a strapping man with sexual magnetism. The breadth of his chest made a difference in how he walked. For such a he-man specimen, he was surprisingly articulate and also a gifted actor. You never saw any actor pretensions and preciousness about him. He was a natural for sultry films like Out of the Past (1947) and His Kind of Woman (1951) or service-related films like The Story of G.I. Joe (1945) and Crossfire (1947). People expected him to be a man of action to justify his physical bulk. It was a surprise, then, to find he had inner depths.
Deborah Kerr was ever the classy lady even when playing a nymphomaniac (in 1953’s From Here to Eternity) or adulterers (making love up in a tree with Stewart Granger in King Soloman’s Mines or offering Tea And Sympathy to a young student). She wasn’t a snarling presence like Elizabeth Taylor or gamine like Audrey Hepburn. Kerr was more like the teacher who launched a thousand boy-crushes with her red hair, elegant voice, and the humorous twinkle in her eye. She was womanly without exaggerations. She could’ve been merely genteel and decorative, but she gave nuanced performances that always imbued quality to the films and those around her.
Robert Mitchum and Deborah Kerr made three feature films together – Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison (1957), The Sundowners (1960), and The Grass Is Greener (1960) – plus a television film Reunion at Fairborough (1985). Reunion was about a WW2 vet who returns to Scotland and rekindles a romance with the girl (now woman) he left behind. I only have a fuzzy recollection of the TV movie. Let’s stick with the features Mitchum and Kerr did together since they’re readily available on DVD.
In Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison, Mitchum and Kerr never kiss in the entire picture. They do fall in love, but in a way that is inconceivable to modern audiences today. Mitchum plays a Marine who washes ashore on a South Pacific island during the Second World War. He finds the island abandoned except for a one woman, a nun, played by Kerr. After determining that there are no enemy Japanese around, Mitchum collapses with exhaustion in front of her. Before he sleeps, however, he asks her, “You, ma’am, you okay?” She replies, “I’m in no danger of any kind…I have no fear.” This establishes straight from the beginning that Sister Angela (Kerr) is not in jeopardy because of Allison’s presence. He’s not going to molest her, and that was a big deal back in 1957. The Church and the censors would’ve been outraged at any physical relationship between a man and a nun whether or not it was consensual. Censors aside, it’s a comfort to know, in the little world that is the film, that Allison shows her such courtesy. He will be her constant protector and a gallant one at that.
Allison and Sister Angela devise a plan to get off the island by building up the raft Allison floated to the island on. But they’re thwarted when the Japanese bomb the island and then land to occupy it as a weather outpost. Allison and Sister Angela retreat to a cave. When Kerr suggests that she ought to surrender to the Japanese to make it easier for him to survive alone, he argues that it would be terrible for his morale and to let the U.S. Marines (himself) worry about how to take care of her. Thus we see him night fishing despite the danger of Japanese patrols, stealing from the enemy pantries, and risking daylight to get a blanket for Sister Angela when she becomes feverishly sick.
Kerr is adorably interested in understanding the “big handsome fellow”, orphaned as an infant and raised to manhood in the Marine Corps. They swap stories about their respective “D.I.’s” (drill instructors). Kerr’s was Sister Brigetta, the Sister of Novices and nicknamed “The Holy Terror”. Allison is charmed by her humor and her freckled beauty. He saves the cross from the bombed-out church for her, carves her a comb from wood, and eventually comes to the big decision to propose marriage. It’s a sweetheart of a moment. Mitchum says, “When you go back home, don’t do it -- please don’t take them [final] vows. I never loved anything or anybody before. I never even lived before. Not really lived before, inside. So that’s why I want to ask you to marry me. I wanna look after you. Not only while we’re here, but for the rest of our lives.” Can there possibly be a more achingly tender proposal heard anywhere in cinema? Even more so because you know he has to be shot down. Kerr has to say there isn’t a chance for them because she’s already given her heart to Christ. Mitchum finally realizes, “You mean like you was engaged or something?...I didn’t know it was set up like that. I guess I didn’t have no right to speak.”
The Japanese pull out of the island abruptly one day and the marine and nun have the island to themselves again. Allison over-indulges in some sake, left behind by the Japanese. He drunkenly reasons that it doesn’t make sense for him to be a marine and for Sister Angela to be a nun on a deserted island, without hope of rescue. By the oblique standards of the 1950s, he’s spelling it out. They’re a man and woman alone, attractive to one another, and free to have sex. The truth is upsetting to Angela and she runs away. Mortified by his behavior, Allison sobers up and searches for her frantically. She stays out in the rain overnight and Allison has to nurse her back to health. Later, Angela tells him that she wasn’t running from any physical danger she felt from him (again, he’s not going to rape her). She acknowledges that there was some compelling truth in his argument. But the ultimate impediment is represented by the film’s title. God is with them – Heaven knows. Their own personal integrity should inform their behavior as well. They are answerable to themselves. At the film’s end, they part as dear companions, wishing each other every happiness. We know that they’ve fallen in love with one another, though it must only be platonic. This is ridiculously high-minded by modern-day standards. The subtleties of spiritual and emotional sacrifice are not found in the blunt force trauma or puerile sexuality of screen romances today.
In their next film together, The Sundowners, Mitchum and Kerr don’t have to be physically careful of one another. They play an earthy married couple in Australia, living out of a tent. They travel by wagon and horse with their 14-year-old son from job to job. Admiring his wife’s body at the end of the day, Mitchum says she’s the way a woman ought to be, not like skinny women with nothing to hold onto. Rather than melting like a schoolgirl, Kerr’s matter-of-fact reaction is along the lines of, “Oh, just noticing that?” Without fuss, she turns out the lights to join him in bed so he can “appreciate her” more.
Though the characters have been married for more than a decade and she has to put up with living on the road without a home of their own, their marriage is still remarkably loving and vital. They’ve learned to roll with the punches together and to recognize their weaknesses without making them grounds for separation. The film’s plot hinges on Kerr and her son’s need to make enough money so they can finally buy a farm and settle down. Mitchum, however, is a wandering soul and not eager to be fenced in. He argues with Kerr that she knew that when they got married and said it was okay by her. She shoots back, “I never promised I wouldn’t change. I never promised I wouldn’t get older…and scared.” It’s a wonderfully mature portrait of a marriage, of two people who love each other absolutely and are in it for the long haul. Later, when Kerr has to explain Mitchum’s opposition to settling to her son: “Sean, you’ve got your whole life to live. We’re halfway through ours, your dad and me. There are other people waiting for you, but there’s no one waiting for us except each other. Don’t ever ask me to choose between you and your dad because I choose him every time.”
Mitchum and Kerr’s chemistry has a lot to do with how little they actually have to say to one another to convey admiration and attraction and that special look reserved for that one person who makes life sublimely fun. Their eyes meet and an unspoken truth is mutually acknowledged. This is especially helpful in The Grass Is Greener where Robert Mitchum literally walks through a door as a stranger and has to click with Kerr within a matter of minutes. The movie also co-stars Kerr’s other great screen partner from An Affair to Remember (1956), Cary Grant. Kerr and Grant are married British aristocrats who have to resort to opening their sprawling estate to tourists in order to keep up the cost of living there. Straying from the guided tour, Mitchum intrudes upon Kerr’s private quarters, and charms his way through the initial awkwardness. Although Kerr is happily married to Grant, she’s smitten by the American oil millionaire (Mitchum). Kerr and Mitchum do a lot of verbal flirting at their first meeting, but it’s the glances they give one another that override any exterior politeness or glib humor. The dye is cast and an affair is born. Unfortunately, the rest of the film doesn’t play up their chemistry as effectively. But we can still appreciate how effortlessly engaged and sexy Mitchum and Kerr are together from these first moments.
Of the three films, Heaven Knows is the most satisfying. It’s a near-perfect movie. The only flaw I’ve ever been able to detect is the inconsistency of Mitchum’s haircut. As a two-person character play, however, it’s superlative. Directed by John Huston, it’s not as celebrated as African Queen (1951), another Huston film about a couple (Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn) roughing it, but it’s more than deserving.