By David D. Robbins Jr. | The Fade Out
Heaven Knows Mr. Allison (1957)
John Huston thought “Heaven Knows Mr. Allison” (1957) was one of his best pictures. Well, I think that would be overstating it a bit. It’s a trifle, but an entertaining and charming one. Deborah Kerr and Robert Mitchum look good in CinemaScope, doing a good job of portraying the story of two people stranded on an island in the Pacific Ocean during World War II. (Heck, Kerr was nominated for an Oscar for her part.) But this isn’t the masterpiece “The African Queen”, the noir classic “The Asphalt Jungle”, or the intriguing oddities, “Under the Volcano” and “Wise Blood”, and I’m not sure its meant to be. One of my favorite scenes in the film is actually within the initial sequences. Mitchum is U.S. Marine Corporal Allison who gets washed up on the beach after his submarine was sunk. He’s deathly exhausted, crawling out of the ocean, and finds what looks to be a little temporary village. But the only person there is a nun, Sister Angela (Kerr). He’s near passing out, climbs atop the porch of a make-shift shelter, and looks up to see her. In a way, it’s the meet-cute of the film. The first bit of dialogue actually begins with an implied innuendo. We assume Allison has struggled for days out in the ocean, and as a rough and tumble “aw-shucks-mam” kinda marine, he’s also feeling a little light in the head. He’s worn out and hungry, and is desirous for more than a plate of warm beans.
He asks Sister Angela if anyone else lives on the island. Granted, we know this is going to become a kind of love story, but for the uninitiated there’s a slight pause as to Allison’s intentions. She tells him that it’s just her and the good lord. Despite being dressed in a habit, Allison asks if she is indeed a nun. Sister Angela says, “Yes.” What’s wonderful about it is the next thing Allison says: “Well, that’s just my luck.” It’s a great line, pulled off by Mitchum with a classic cheeky smile. The screenplay touches on those lines again, later in the film: “That’s my luck. 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?” What’s most interesting to think is how much the film must have been poured over by censors at the time. In 1957, I can only imagine the Roman Catholic crusaders hearing about a picture featuring prime lusty-man Mitchum alone on island with a stunning redhead like Kerr playing a nun. In part, the insistence on keeping the characters All-American (a chaste nun, and a war hero) is what makes the film fine, but relatively light viewing. It’s a film that’s pretty tame even by Production Code standards, but more than likely because it included a nun character. It’s a smart script, written by screenwriter John Lee Mahin, who also was a writer in the Clark Gable/Jean Harlow films, “Mogambo”, “Red Dust” and “Wife vs. Secretary” — and “Bombshell”.