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You can browse the literature on Charles Laughton for quite some time without finding many words about The Man from Down Under, a 1943 release that Laughton biographer Simon Callow calls "a film which has all but vanished." Commentators on Donna Reed's career haven't had much to say about it either; although she was excited about the prospect of working with the legendary Laughton, who promptly invited her and her new husband over for dinner, the results of their labors earned little critical praise. The review in the New York Times said that "even Mr. Laughton's outrageously ebullient spirit seems tamed and listless," and that while Reed is "a capable and attractive actress," she and opposite number Richard Carlson are "quite helpless against a foolish situation." With notices like these, it's likely that everyone breathed a sigh of relief when The Man from Down Under turned into a largely forgotten film.
And yet, and yet. No movie with the services of Laughton, Reed, Carlson, Binnie Barnes, and Arthur Shields can be entirely without charm, and this amiable comedy-drama about war, boxing, romance, orphans, and the hotel business holds up reasonably well. The principals put considerable zest into their performances, and producer-director Robert Z. Leonard keeps the action moving at a steady pace, if not exactly a galloping one. There's added interest if you bear in mind the film's 1943 production date and read it as one of MGM's contributions to the morale-boosting effort during World War II, in which many Australians patriotically served.
The story begins near the end of World War I at a French embarkation point, where Sergeant Jocko Wilson is about to head home for Australia, partly to regain a normal life and partly to get away from Aggie Dawlins, a fiance he doesn't want to marry. Just before boarding his ship he meets two orphaned Belgian kids; his heartstrings stretch to the breaking point, and he impulsively decides to adopt them. Flourishing in their new Australian home, little Mary and "Nipper" happily grow up. Mary, played by Reed, becomes a lovely young woman with a finishing-school education, and Nipper, played by Carlson, becomes such a skilled boxer coached by Jocko, once a pugilist himself that he wins the Australian lightweight title. Nipper gets sidelined when he injures a shoulder in a fight, but Jocko has already made a pile by betting on the championship match, and he uses the money to open a hotel, guaranteeing a secure future for all concerned.
Or so it seems, until Aggie turns up again. Determined to get even with Jocko for leaving her in the lurch twenty years ago, she inveigles him into a gambling spree, winning all his money and even his beloved hotel. In addition to this crisis, Nipper and Mary have been experiencing romantic attraction toward each other an awkward turn of events, since they are brother and sister. Could things get any worse? Yes indeed: World War II breaks out, and a few plot twists later the characters are in imminent danger of a Japanese attack. This gives Jocko a chance for some unexpected heroics, after which the couples of the story are properly paired off, including Nipper and Mary, who (surprise!) aren't related to each other after all.
Laughton used to say that his face resembled an elephant's backside or a pudding, and biographer Callow has called it "the face of someone who simply shouldn't be an actor at all." He became a remarkable actor all the same, despite (or because of) his unlikely looks, and if he seems too pudgy and ungainly for Jocko's wartime heroics to seem credible, it's interesting to recall that Laughton himself did front-line combat in World War I, suffering permanent damage from a gas attack less than a week before the conflict ended. In my view, the two chief factors behind Laughton's great success were his commanding presence, made all the more imposing by his somewhat oversized body, and the total control he exercised over his expressive face, which could leap through a gamut of subtle emotions with a minimum of noticeable effort. Even his talents weren't enough to make Jocko a memorable character, however. Writing that "for once in his life Mr. Laughton is giving a performance that is simply ordinary," New York Times reviewer Theodore Strauss diplomatically suggested that Laughton might be doing a lackluster job on purpose, hoping to signal his dim view of the "navets" of the story he was stuck in. But the respected British critic Caroline Lejeune was less gentle: "One of the most painful screen phenomena of latter years," she wrote, "has been the decline and fall of Charles Laughton from the splendid actor of The Private Life of Henry VIII , Mutiny on the Bounty  and Rembrandt , to the mopping and mowing mug in The Man from Down Under."
According to Reed biographer Brenda Scott Royce, a film archivist once used "the last name of the coproducer, Orville O. Dull," to describe the overall effect of The Man from Down Under. But responsibility for the dullness must lie with director Leonard, who evidently wasn't paying full attention to the project allowing the actors to slip in and out of Australian accents any time they chose, for instance, and not noticing (or not caring) when they gave up the effort altogether. Still, when viewed in the proper frame of mind a forgiving frame of mind the movie is more fun than 1940s reviews indicate. Laughton hams it up for Leonard the way he did for, say, Alfred Hitchcock in Jamaica Inn , and the fun he's having is infectious in a corny kind of way. Reed looks so relaxed and graceful that you'd never guess she turned out four pictures in 1943, and Carlson, who turned out five, is thoroughly likable, if too unmuscular to pass for the lightweight champion of Australia, or of anywhere. Barnes wrestles valiantly with the role of Aggie, whose personality changes so much during her twenty-year absence that I had trouble recognizing her when she reappeared, but Shields is just right as Father Polycarp, a priest who helps pave the way for the happy ending. One of the film's most favorable reviews was in Variety, which commended it for "verve and unusual dramatic angles" as well as "skillful direction...deft writing, and excellent performances." I don't think many viewers would praise the picture so highly now, but you'll have a good time if you enjoy watching first-rate actors in a minor entertainment that makes up in high spirits what it lacks in common sense.
Producers: Robert Z. Leonard and Orville O. Dull
Director: Robert Z. Leonard
Screenplay: Wells Root and Tom Seller, based on the story by Bogart Rogers and Mark Kelly
Cinematographer: Sidney Wagner
Film Editing: George White
Art Direction: Cedric Gibbons
Music: David Snell
With: Charles Laughton (Jocko Wilson), Binnie Barnes (Aggie Dawlins), Richard Carlson ("Nipper" Wilson), Donna Reed (Mary Wilson), Christopher Severn ("Nipper," as a child), Clyde Cook (Ginger Gaffney), Horace McNally ("Dusty" Rhodes), Arthur Shields (Father Polycarp), Evelyn Falke (Mary, as a child), Hobert Cavanaugh ("Boots"), Andre Charlot (Father Antoine).
by David Sterritt