SEASON OF PASSION —people forget that in his long career, as nasty bad guy, Oscar-winning lovesick bachelor, TV sitcom hero and stalwart supporting player, Ernest Borgnine also had a respectable run as an offbeat leading man, in small-scale dramas like this one, filmed and released in Australia in 1959 as Summer of the Seventeenth Doll, making its way to the US two years later with a title change.
The 1955 play “Summer Of The Seventeenth Doll” was a landmark theatrical event Down Under, laden with great historical significance for its naturalistic depiction of blue-collar life in Oz. Australian audiences and critics were distressed by the Americanizing of much of the accent and idiom, a change of setting from Melbourne to Sydney and that the four leads were three Yanks (Borgnine, Anne Baxter and Angela Lansbury) and a Brit (John Mills).
Cane cutting pals ‘Roo’ (Borgnine) and ‘Barney’ (Mills) spend five months off-season partying with their girlfriends, but after seventeen years the on-again/off-again romance is under strain. And the lads aren’t getting any younger when it comes to the job outlook. Something or someone has to give.
Backed by local actors like Vincent Ball (over-playing the virility shtick) and Janette Craig, Mills and the Americans vary in their dialect efforts, game enough to work the drama and comedy but often off-by-yards as far as accuracy. Borgnine pretty much skips out on trying hard with an accent and plays it straight ‘likable roughneck’.
Directed by Leslie Norman, with a script by John Dighton (Kind Hearts And Coronets, Roman Holiday) that softened and re-arranged Ray Lawler’s beloved play for more box-office appeal internationally. Running 93 minutes, it makes for a curious and involving slice of life from a different time and place, and interesting sallies from the actors. Despite good intentions the film did disappointing business, with the Australians carping and the eventual Stateside market indifferent (115th place), even though Robert Mitchum and Deborah Kerr had just scored a big hit about Australian working folk with the charming 1960 story The Sundowners.
*Borgnine had a swell leading man role opposite Bette Davis in The Catered Affair and headlined The Rabbit Trap, Man On A String and best of all, the tough 1960 sleeper Pay Or Die, as the legendary Little Italy policeman Joseph Petrosino, battling the Black Hand in the 1900’s.