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    Divine Deborah

    Posted by Mike Finnegan on

    The New York Film Critics Circle had a thing for Deborah Kerr playing a nun: both of her in-habited performances claimed their Best Actress Award. The first came for her work as the fallibly heedless Sister Clodagh, leading a clutch of sisters establishing a school and hospital in a remote Himalayan castle in Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger's intoxicatingly beautiful Black Narcissus (1947). The second came a decade later for taking on and surviving supremely well in the company of two of Hollywood’s manliest men, co-star Robert Mitchum and director John Huston, for the tropical adventure Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison, which premiered in theatres 59 years ago yesterday. Since her two religious portrayals are just as iconic in her filmography as her sexually charged romantic tryst on the beach with Burt Lancaster in From Here to Eternity (1953), it’s no surprise she brought hearty spirits as well as saintly spirituality to her Sister Angela, marooned on a South Pacific island with a battle-hardened Marine surrounded by encroaching Japanese forces during World War II. In The Hustons, biographer Lawrence Grobel chronicles two instances during the shoot on the West Indies island of Tobago in which she gave as good as she got. “During one scene where Mitchum and Kerr were on a boat chasing a turtle, Kerr had to row hard to keep up with the turtle. Once Mitchum grabbed its tail, he was pulled overboard, leaving Kerr calling out to him. ‘Row faster, Deborah,’ John kept shouting as her hands became blistered. When the oar broke she leaned back and shouted, ‘That’ll tell you how fucking fast I’m rowing!’ John was amused, but the local nuns who happened to have been visiting the set that day were not.” Another scene had her running through a swamp, not a fond experience for Kerr. “There were leeches all over, the stench, I was covered in alligator excrescence from head to foot. The shot was over, John said, ‘Fine, cut. We don’t need to do that again?’ And I went up to him – he was in his white pants and white shirt – and I flung my arms around his neck, pressed my body against his, and all this filth went all over his jacket, shirt and slacks.” Yet another amusing and somewhat ribald interlude involving a set visit by a censor from the Legion of Decency is also recounted in The Hustons, and it’s a pip worth your investigation. Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison, featuring stellar work from the Oscar®-nominated Kerr and the always commanding Mitchum, is always worth your critical appraisal and perennial investigation in lustrous 1080p high definition on Twilight Time Blu-ray. (Incidentally, Kerr and Mitchum’s next project together, Fred Zinnemann’s warm-hearted film of The Sundowners (1960), brought her yet another NYFCC Best Actress award – this time not religious in the slightest – and some of her luck with critics rubbed off on the always prize-worthy but rarely honored Mitchum, named that year’s Best Actor by the National Board of Review.)