To-day's my sister's birthday and also Robert Mitchum's 100th birthday so happy birthday to you both. Last night I watched Mitchum in 1960's The Sundowners, a relaxing, almost slice of life story about a family of sheep drovers in early 20th century Australia. Directed by Fred Zinnemann, it has a wonderful quantity of location footage and real sheep shearing that turns out to be gently fascinating.
The Carmodys roll into frame in a covered wagon with little fanfare during the opening credits. The film does a nice job of bringing the viewer in with a fairly normal group of people who happen to have the lovely job of herding sheep. It reminds me of the obsession poets used to have with the idyllic lives of shepherds--there's something just so pleasant about even the arguments between Paddy (Mitchum), Ida (Deborah Kerr), and their son, Sean (Michael Anderson, Jr.).
The actors do a respectable job at Australian accents, refreshing after movies like Sister Kenny where no-one even bothered. I will say, as much as I love Deborah Kerr, she's definitely miscast here. When they're alone in their tent, Paddy compliments her body, telling her she's how women ought to be shaped, unlike the skinny women they'd seen in town--"Broomsticks, nothing to hang onto." She immediately replies with an amusing and lightly chiding, "Did you try?"
The only problem is Kerr is pretty slender herself. Throughout the movie the script comes back to the idea that Ida has looks that show she's worked hard and in poverty all her life but as fun as Kerr is with some of the snappy dialogue in this film she's just too naturally elegant and poised. In one scene, we see her wistfully watching a society woman in a train and in the next scene we see her in the hotel looking like this:
She has a bit of a tan but mainly she looks as crisp and graceful as any lady of refinement--really more so than most. Her and Mitchum are a really sexy couple, though.
More appropriately anachronistic is Peter Ustinov in a supporting role as Rupert Venneker, an English hired hand that takes up with the Carmodys, the strangest and most intriguing character in the film.
He won't say much about his past unless he's forced to defend his dignity and mention the time he spent as a captain on a Chinese ship or the great family he was born into in England. He seems to strike up a romance with the always charming Glynis Johns as the hotel owner but the relationship doesn't go where you might expect and it's not for entirely mercenary reasons Rupert's drawn to the Carmodys. Some might say what we're seeing is repressed homosexuality, which I think is possible, but there are other equally possible explanations for his isolation which is for the most part only incidentally referred to.
There's a conflict running through the film between Paddy and Ida over the idea of continuing as drovers, as he wants, and settling down on a farm, as she wants, but for the most part the film is episodic. We watch the Carmodys take a job shearing, Ida working in the kitchen. A coworker's wife gets pregnant, a fight breaks out in the road after two trucks of workers nearly collide, there's a brush fire the family barely escapes. Rupert convinces Paddy to enter a shearing competition--and Mitchum is clearly doing some actual shearing.
Mitchum, even in these circumstances, is, as usual, magnetic in his zenlike coolness and idle strength.
The movie ends with a nicely unresolved feeling as though the story of the Carmodys and Rupert is still going on somewhere, pretty much as it was most of the movie.