Saturday 12 September 2009

The Man from Down Under (1943)

Director: Robert Z Leonard
Star: Charles Laughton

The First World War is over and the Aussies are going home. We first meet them at a French port of embarkation getting drunk and singing Mademoiselle from Armentiers, Jocko Wilson lead among them. He's very much the American vision of what Aussies are, full of character and trouble, with fast fists and a quick mouth, and no end of colourful and exotic slang. In the hands of Charles Laughton, he even sounds like an Aussie, at least to Americans. To anyone who's actually heard real Australians, he doesn't do that great a job. Anyway, he's a character, that's for sure, and while Elsa Lanchester isn't here to play opposite him, there's a decent substitute in Binnie Barnes.

She plays Aggie Dawlins, a singer and dancer, who Jocko has already left behind a few times before he does it again when he gets on the boat back home. Unfortunately for him he's left his last 300 francs with her to buy a wedding dress so they can get married before he leaves, only to get himself right in trouble and gets driven straight past her on the way to the boat by the authorities. So that's it for Aggie, at least for a while. She'll be back, because she's too good a character to leave entirely behind. Instead we have the kids to focus on. They're Mary and Albert Benoit, a couple of young Belgian orphans, who Jocko befriends because of Albert's ability to fight. He calls him Nipper and smuggles the pair of them onto the boat in his kit bag.

We whistle through the years watching the kids quickly grow up and they do pretty well too, turning into Richard Carlson and Donna Reed. Jocko has his own tavern that does pretty well for itself and he trains up Nipper to become the champion of the Empire. Just in time to see it, Mary comes back from boarding school where she's been sequestered for years because, after all, Jocko really doesn't have the faintest clue about women and he knows it. The three of them move up to a posh country hotel in Queensland on the proceeds he makes from taking bets on Nipper's fights, but there's always Aggie to wait for.

There are a bunch of stories going on here, not least the fact that Mary and Nipper fall in love, not having a clue that they aren't even related. We find that out from Ian Wolfe in a bit part early on before we even leave France, but Jocko and the kids don't, which causes no end of heartache and some strangely disturbing scenes in front of the local priest, Father Polycarp. There's Nipper's shoulder, which is severely damaged when he wins the championship, threatening his career and the promised next bout for the world title.

There's even the fact that the film is bookended by war, beginning at the end of the first great one and ending at the beginning of the second, which Jocko can't get into after failing his medical, not least because of the jaw he broke at Gallipoli. This was 1943 so it's a little late to be a propaganda movie and it forgets about the war for the longest time. When it arrives it feels a little out of place, the rambling but congenial mess of subplots turning into an unfortunate war story that is little more than a desperate excuse for every plot thread to get conveniently wrapped up in five minutes flat.

The real success of the film is in the way Laughton and Barnes play off each other, Barnes being a pretty able substitute for Laughton's wife Elsa Lanchester. She knew him well, having made her stage debut opposite him in 1929 in Silver Tassie and then playing one of his six wives in The Private Life of Henry VIII. In fact she took over as wife number five after Lanchester as number four. I'd have watched for double the time just to see the two of them bounce characters off each other, even if it isn't a patch on Laughton's previous film, This Land is Mine.

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