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Charles Laughton stars in MGM's tribute to our Australian allies in The Man From Down Under where he and no one else from the cast remotely sounds Australian. It could be excused however because Australia was still taking immigrants from all over the British Commonwealth and Laughton's cockney speech would have been among many different accents heard throughout the continent.
The story takes place with Sergeant Laughton in World War I obtaining custody of a couple of Belgian war orphans in Richard Carlson and Donna Reed or at least that's who they grew up to be down under. Purportedly they're brother and sister, but Carlson and Reed are feeling some unsettling attractions.
The film really does belong to Laughton as a lovable old braggart who runs a pub, parlays that into a hotel and loses it to the shrewd entertainer Binnie Barnes. Barnes is playing a part that normally Elsa Lanchester would have played opposite Laughton. There scenes together especially when she takes him at dice and cards are really the highlight of the film.
By the time things are done, Australia is in World War II and the film is good if for no other reason than to show contemporary audiences, especially American ones, just how close Australia came to invasion. The port of Darwin on the north coast was bombed as was the surrounding area from Japanese bases on New Guinea. It's a rather contrived plot that brings all the principal characters together to fight off a Japanese bomber crew that has crashed near the Laughton/Barnes hotel.
Hobart Cavanaugh and Arthur Shields have good roles as Laughton's sidekick and the local priest respectively. Cavanaugh and Laughton keep trying to steal scenes from each other and it's a hoot.
The Man From Down Under joins a pantheon of films like Under Capricorn and Green Dolphin Street and Sister Kenny which give the American view of Australia, from folks who've never been in the Southern Hemisphere. There are some establishing newsreel shots of the place, but the sets themselves? As the Aussies would say it, 'not even a bloody roo'.
Of course the film suffers from comparison with a film like The Fighting Rats Of Tobruk and Bush Christmas, two of the very few Australian productions that actually were released in America. Of course MGM certainly had better production facilities than Australia did at the time. But after you've seen some of their stuff, primitive though it might be, the American films just don't ring true.
Still The Man From Down Under is a sincere tribute to the fighting folks of Australia, civilian and military, and any chance to see Charles Laughton in any film should never be passed up.
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