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Film Friday: «Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison » (1957)

In honor of Deborah Kerr's 95th birthday, which is today, this week on «Film Friday» I bring you what is perhaps one of her best remembered pictures. This is one of my personal favorites of hers and also the film that made me a Robert Mitchum fan.

Theatrical release poster
Directed by John Huston, Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison (1957) begins when United States Marine Corporal Allison (Robert Mitchum) finds himself stranded on a deserted South Pacific island in 1944. He finds an abandoned settlement and a chapel with one occupant, Sister Angela (Deborah Kerr), an Irish Catholic novice nun who has not yet taken her final vows. She herself has only landed there a few days before with Father Philips, who has since died. Despite their extreme differences in backgrounds and outlooks, their are respectful of each other's vocation and soon form a close bond. For a while, Allison and Sister Angela have the bountiful island completely to themselves, but then a detachment of Japanese troops arrives to set up a weather camp and the pair is forced to hide in a cave.

When action in the Pacific Theatre makes the Japanese leave the island, Allison suspects that the Allied forces won the battle and will soon be doing their own recognition in the area. Relieved, Allison begs Sister Angela not to take her bows and proposes to her, but is embarrassed after she tells him that she is already engaged to her life to God. That night, as heavy rain pounds their shack, a frustrated Allison gets drunk on sake and smashes Father Philips' pipe, which Sister Angela had given him. Hurt, she runs into the forest, where Allison finds her the next morning, soaked and delirious. Just as he carries her back, he sees that the Japanese have returned, forcing them to the retreat to the cave again. Allison sneaks into the Japanese camp to get some blankets for her, but has to kill a soldier who discovers him in the act, which alerts the enemy to his presence. The Japanese locate the cave are about to toss in a grenade when American troops begin attacking the island in preparation for a landing. While the Japanese are still in their bunkers, Allison manages to disable the massive enemy artillery guns by removing their breechblocks, thus saving many American lives. His mission accomplished, Allison returns to the cave and, knowing that he will soon be rescued, bids goodbye to Sister Angela. In response, she promises that he will be her dear companion always.

Cpl. Allison: I never loved anything or anybody before. I never even lived before. Not really lived... inside. So that's why I want to ask you to marry me. I want to look after you. Not only while we're here, but for the rest of our lives. I couldn't keep from saying it, ma'am. So, tell me if there's a chance.

The son of a Tasmanian-born horse trainer, Charles Shaw grew up in an impoverished environment in his family's small farm in southern Australia. In the early years of the Great Depression, he held a variety of jobs in the countryside, until his interest in writing led to employment at Forbes Advocate, in 1931. As he gained practice in all kinds of newspaper work, Shaw began sending stories to Smith's Weekly and The Bulletin, most of which were based on his experiences in the Australian Outback. In 1939, he moved to Sydney to work on the Farm and Settler, but soon joined the staff of The Bulletin as its rural editor. During World War II, he put out a significant amount of writing, including two collections of short stories, two detective mysteries and a volume of verse. After publishers rejected several of his manuscripts, Shaw decided that the Outback was «too parochial to hold much interest for people outside Australia» and began developing material that was set against a different background. His efforts resulted in a novel called Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison, the story of an American marine and an Irish Catholic nun, who find themselves cast away on a Japanese-held Pacific island during World War II.

When Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison became an international best-seller in 1952, producer Eugene Frenke purchased the screen rights from Shaw, in a deal that would give the author ten percent of the film's profits. However, Shaw's generous contract caused financial difficulties, forcing Frenke to relinquish his ownership of the rights in November 1953. The following month, John Wayne and his producing partner Robert Fellows tried to acquire the property, but Frenke soon regained control. Wayne had intended to star as U.S. Marine Corporal Allison, although he was replaced by Kirk Douglas once he lost the rights. In May 1954, Frenke made an arrangement with Paramount Pictures to finance the film and hired William Wyler to direct. After church authorities stated that they would ban such a film — especially since the novel featured «the characters entertaining illicit thoughts on every page» — Wyler altered the ending of the story by revealing that the female protagonist, Sister Angela, was not a nun, but had disguised herself as one to elude the Japanese. However, Wyler quickly lost interest and the project was shelved. Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison was then acquired by Buddy Adler, the newly-appointed head of production at 20th Century Fox, who finally greenlighted the production in 1956, with John Huston at the helm.

Deborah Kerr and Robert Mitchum
Finding Shaw's novel too salacious, Huston worked with veteran screenwriter John Lee Mahin to pen what he considered a «palatable adaptation» of the material. Huston, whose previous credits included The Treasure of Sierra Madre (1948) and The African Queen (1950), felt that the solution Wyler had come up with to receive the Church's endorsement was «a bogus one.» He insisted not only that Sister Angela turn out to be a real nun — just like in the original — but that she remain true to her calling by rejecting the marine in favor of her higher commitment to God.

Although Frenke objected to Huston and Mahin more celibate script and less lascivious nun, Adler promptly approved their version. They also decided to advance Shaw's original story two years to 1944; in the book, Allison has escaped from the Battle of Corregidor in May 1942, at the same  time that the Allies were still on the defensive in the Pacific.

Adler bought Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison especially for Deborah Kerr, who had campaigned to play Sister Angela for over three years. The daughter of a World War I veteran, the Scottish-born Kerr originally trained as a ballet dancer, debuting at the Sadler's Wells Theatre in London in 1938 as part of the ensemble in Prometheus. However, she felt more attuned to the theatre than the dance and soon began to act on the stage in small parts. At the same time, Kerr gained her first film role in the British production Contraband (1940), but her scenes were ultimately not included in the final cut. Her actual film debut was made in Major Barbara (1941), based on the George Bernard Shaw play of the same name, which was both a financial and critical success. After opening at the West End with a revival of Shaw's Heartbreak House, she attracted international attention for playing triple roles in The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943), a Technicolor war drama directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. On the basis of her work in Black Narcissus (1947), MGM signed her to a film contract and brought her to Hollywood to star with Clark Gable in The Hucksters (1947). Kerr's reputation was soon established with Academy Award-nominated performances in Edward, My Son (1949), From Here to Eternity (1953) and The King and I (1956), the latter directed by Walter Lang for Fox.

Robert Mitchum on the set
Huston initially wanted Oscar winner Marlon Brando for the role of Corporal Allison, but the actor turned down the offer, to the director's great disappointment. Fox then insisted to Huston that he cast instead Robert Mitchum, who had just signed a two-picture deal with the studio. Although Huston was uncertain in hiring Mitchum, put off by stories of his being difficult to work with, he eventually decided to give the actor a chance.

Mitchum, who had become a major star on account of his roles in film noir — most notably Crossfire (1947) and Out of the Past (1947) — was apparently not pleased to be second choice to Brando. Also, when he learned that Huston planned to shoot Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison entirely on location on the Caribbean island of Tobago, then a British colony, he flatly refused to take the part. After spending nearly four months there filming Fire Down Below (1957), «the sand was still coming out of his ears.» However, when his agent reminded him of his currently unstable financial situation, Mitchum reconsidered Huston's offer and accepted the role.

In August 1956, an advance team landed in Tobago, which was a «dead ringer» for the South Sea island where the story was set. Every room in four of the eight existing hotels on the island were rented for the 80 English crew members (Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison was what was then called a «British quota picture,» utilizing Fox's blocked pounds sterling). A fleet of taxis and trucks was requested to take the filmmakers from the hotels to the beach where the film was shot. In addition, native laborers were hired to build a small village with a church, which was later destroyed for a scene. The cave where Allison and Sister Angela hide from the Japanese was actually a local community center converted into a sound stage, with doors and windows tightly sealed and no air conditioning. To play Japanese-speaking bit parts, the casting scout secured the services of eight émigrés in a Japanese farm colony in Brazil, while the non-speaking Japanese roles were given to 50 Chinese employees from the restaurants and hand laundries of Trinidad. The film's American invaders were 100 actual Marines.

Deborah Kerr and Robert Mitchum between takes
In September, Kerr and Mitchum arrived in Tobago to start work on Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison. Both were uncertain of their compatibility as co-stars. «I wondered about what it would really be like to work with Bob, and if I was really going to be able to cope with, as I called him then, a weed-smoking character. He was the first of the hippies, really and truly,» Kerr revealed years later. «When I arrived on that beautiful island, Bob was already there. I remember we met for the first time that evening. And the two of us just sat on the edge of the sea with our toes in the water, generally talking about life. I realized immediately that, far from being like his image of a lazy kind of a character who didn't seem to care about anything, he was in fact extremely intelligent, and cared about so many things. He was such a surprise.»

According to his own account, Mitchum was expecting Kerr to be a prim English lady, just like the rather stiff women she often played on screen, but he was pleasantly surprised to discover that her personality did not correspond to that image. «I was impressed by her chaste and genteel demeanor, and attitude eminently suited to the saintly character she portrayed, made touchingly mortal by a few freckles,» Mitchum later said. «She is warmly human and sympathetic, and possessed of a humor that ranges from the subtle to the downright wicked.» Indeed, Mitchum truly appreciated Kerr's sense of humor. One particular occasion is frequently recounted. While rowing a raft in open water during the tortoise-chasing scene, Huston kept shouting to the actress, «Row faster, Deborah,» as her hands became increasingly blistered. When the wooden oar broke in half in her hands, she leaned back and shouted to the director, «That'll tell you how fucking fast I'm rowing!» Mitchum, who was swimming nearby, was so amused by Kerr's unladylike response that he «swallowed a gallon of saltwater laughing.»

Robert Mitchum and Deborah on a break from filming
During the four months they spent in Tobago, Mitchum and Kerr formed a close friendship that would last for the rest of their lives. Laura Nightingale, a wardrobe girl on the film, recalled one day when Kerr told Mitchum that she had hurt her feet on the rocky ground: «He just kneeled down, unlaced her white sneakers, removed them and massaged her feet. It was lovely and compassionate the way he did it. No show, no affection, just all feeling. Then he put her sneakers back on and said kind of brusquely to hide his tenderness, 'Gotta keep you alive for my next scene.' Then he walked away. Deborah was so touched she cried.» Kerr and Mitchum would make another three films together: The Grass Is Greener (1960), The Sundowners (1960) and Reunion at Fairborough (1985), the latter a television production. Mitchum later confessed that Kerr was the «only leading lady I didn't go to bed with.»

Although Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison was a fairly happy experience for Kerr, it also turned out to be one of the most physically challenging films of her career. Tobago's tropical climate, which averaged 90-degree temperatures at that time of the year, was one of the main problems. «Talk about mad dogs and Englishmen going out in the midday sun,» Kerr gasped. «I go out in it with a scratchy nun's habit on. All Bob is wearing is that underbrush on his chin and a pair of trousers.» Mitchum claimed that Huston had to hire two members of the crew for the purpose of holding her heavy nun's habit up between takes and «cooling her ass with a fan.» In one particularly unpleasant scene, Kerr had to run through a mangrove swamp full of leeches, slime and alligator excrement. «Deborah had to lie down in this mess and she did it without a word of complaint,» Huston remembered. «It was only years later that I discovered this had been such an ordeal for her that it almost unnerved her totally. She had said nothing when we shot the scene, but she had dreams of this swamp for weeks afterward.»

Filming Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison
Filming Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison also proved a challenge for Mitchum. During a scene that required him to crawl across the razorlike coral reef, he scraped his flesh open in several places. Huston and his assistants immediately ran down to look at the streams of blood that covered his body, but Mitchum shrugged, «You work, you suffer.» While shooting the tortoise-chasing scene, the 300-pound creature towed him for longer than expected and «almost dashed me against the coral reef.» He caught his foot on a tree root and nearly twisted it in a full circle. En route to a nearby doctor, he was heard moaning, «The bastard Huston's going to kill me.» On top of all of this, Mitchum — as well as several others in the company, Kerr included — fell ill with dengue fever, which caused him intense joint and muscle pain. Mitchum quickly recovered, but his leading lady had to be hospitalized for a few days.

Because of the picture's delicate subject matter, Fox decided to have an advisor from the Motion Picture Production Code Administration, as well as representatives from the Catholic Legion of Decency, observe the filming in Tobago, just to make sure that the depiction of Kerr's character was entirely respectable. The censor was Jack Vizard, whom the crew often called Blizzard, Buzzard or Grizzard, while the Legion of Decency's man was Monsignor Devlin. One day, they arrived on the set as Huston was preparing a scene between Mitchum and Kerr. The actor recalled, «Mr. Huston planned a little suprise. We contrived a scene wherein Sister Angela overcomes the suppression of her base animal urges and, panting and clutching, throws herself on Mr. Allison in a lustful frenzy. With no film in the camera, we 'shot' the scene for our guest, who stood agape and immobilized in shock as John quietly said, 'Cut.' Huston then turned to the stunned Mr. Grizzard and said, 'You should have seen it before we cleaned it up!'»

Robert Mitchum and Deborah Kerr
Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison was completed in early December 1956, at a budget of over $2.9 million. After the Catholic Church endorsed it with its highest audience rating, A-1 classification, the film had its gala opening at the Roxy Theatre in New York on March 14, 1956. Critical reviews were generally positive. Bosley Crowther of The New York Times called it «stirring and entertaining,» adding, «In the hands of a writer and director less skilled than Mr. Huston [...] this obviously delicated story might have been pretty badly abused. [...] But Mr. Huston has kept it free of nonsense.» Although Films and Filming considered that «CinemaScope and censorship effectively destroyed its chances for distinction,» the British magazine still described the picture as «good entertainment, technically competent, and perceptive in the characterizations of Mitchum and Deborah Kerr.» Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison also became one of the biggest hits of Huston's career, grossing $4.2 million in domestic rentals alone. The director too ranked it high on his list, remarking, «Allison is seldom referred to, but I think it was one of the best things I ever made»

At the 30th Academy Awards held at the RKO Pantages Theatre in Hollywood in March 1958, Huston and Mahin received a nomination for Best Screenplay, but lost to Pierre Boulle (fronting for blacklisted screenwriters Michael Wilson and Carl Foreman) for The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957). Kerr was likewise nominated for Best Actress, eleven years after playing another nun in Black Narcissus, although she lost to Joanne Woodward for her performances in The Three Faces of Eve (1957). She won, however, her second New York Film Critics Circle Award for Best Actress; the first had been presented to her for both I See a Dark Stranger (1946) and Black Narcissus. Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison, together with Leo McCarey's An Affair to Remember (1957), made Kerr one of the most in-demand and admired actress in Hollywood. Indeed, she was awarded a Gold Medal by Photoplay as the most famous actress of 1957 based on a poll by readers of several popular movie magazines.

Deborah Kerr: A Biography by Michelangelo Capua (McFarland & Company Inc., 2010)
Robert Mitchum: «Baby I Don't Care» by Lee Server (St. Martin's Press, 2001)
The Stuff That Dreams Are Made Of: The Cinema of John Huston by John McCarty (Crossroad Press, 2016) 
Charles Shaw biography by Martha Rutledge, Australian Dictionary of Biography 
TCM's notes on Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison 
The New York Times review by Bosley Crowther (March 15, 1957)


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