Surprisingly moving television drama, with the iconic leads bringing along a heavyweight, nostalgic buzz. Columbia/Sony's own M.O.D. (manufactured on demand) service of hard-to-find library and cult titles (which used to be called Columbia Classics but which now appears to be Sony Pictures Choice Collection), has released Reunion at Fairborough, the 1985 made-for-cable movie from HBO starring Robert Mitchum, Deborah Kerr, Red Buttons, and Barry Morse. A well-written story of lost love and lost dreams, Reunion at Fairborough can be clunky at times (whenever Judi Trott's anti-nuke subplot intrudes), but when Mitchum and Kerr look at each other the way real movies stars are supposed to gaze, it's magic. No extras for this good-looking transfer.
Chicago, 1985. Newly redundant, newly divorced high-level executive Carl Hostrup (Robert Mitchum) is ready to commit suicide when a phone call interrupts his shaky resolve: old WWII crew mate Nathan Barsky (Barry Morse) spotted his old captain on the street and tracked him down. Barsky, a college professor now, has organized a reunion for the 8th Air Force, 323rd Bombardment Squadron at their old base in Fairborough, England, and he wants Carl to attend...along with malcontent Jiggs Quealy (Red Buttons), if Carl can find him at his last known address in Chicago. Carl is hesitant to go, and when he first tracks down alcoholic Jiggs at a decrepit boarding room, he thinks he's made a big mistake. But Jiggs' Silver Star brings Carl back, and after Jiggs' complete overhaul, they're off to England. Once at Fairborough, Carl tracks down an old love, shopkeeper Sally Wells Grant (Deborah Kerr), who's stunned to see him...but not pleasantly so. Carl not only has to come to grips with Jiggs falling off the wagon, and Sally's reticence, but also his new relationship with prickly anti-nuke kook Sheila (Judi Trott), Sally's granddaughter.
To be honest, I wasn't expecting much from Reunion at Fairborough because I thought it might be one of those gimmicky "reunion" pictures that gathers together Hollywood co-stars from better days (Kerr and Mitchum most memorably starred together in John Huston's lovely, Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison), only to show us how "cute" they are together again after all those years (a perfect example is the horrible Tough Guys, with Lancaster and Douglas). It's usually a humiliating experience for the performers, and embarrassing for fans who want to see veteran stars reunited in a vehicle worthy of their talents. However, Reunion at Fairborough had a quiet, measured dignity to it, along with a thoughtful, contemplative (and oftentimes morose) honesty that I found refreshing, with Mitchum and Kerr playing it cool and easy with each other, showing how old pros really get it done.
Written by Albert Ruben (The Seven-Ups, some terrific TV movies like Foster and Laurie and several excellent Kojak specials), and directed by Herbert Wise (quite a bit of television: Skokie, The Christmas Tree, Pope John Paul II), Reunion at Fairborough admirably doesn't go all soft and squishy when former flyboy Mitchum goes back to England ostensibly to track down his former lover, Deborah Kerr. It mostly stays away from cheap theatrics or easy sentimentality in the exploration of its believably flawed, complex characters. I'm not sure the script (or perhaps Mitchum) does a good enough job of reconciling Mitchum's near-suicidal mental state at the very beginning of the movie with his later world-weary-but-still-breezy air when he finally does get to England, but in-between, we get a nicely rounded look at his intriguing character. I particularly liked the uneasy back-and-forth between Mitchum and Buttons (quite good when he's not overdoing his drunk bit). Mitchum takes on Buttons like a project, but Buttons isn't always buying it or even understanding Mitchum's kindness (he cries in frustration/fear on the train when he realizes Mitchum and he weren't really even buddies during the war). Ruben doesn't just hand us an answer to why Mitchum decides to help out Buttons; we have to figure out their rocky relationship for ourselves. When the reunion kicks in, and the former crew members begin to reveal their own, often times unremarkable post-war lives, Ruben and Wise go for quiet truth: there's a lot of unspoken unhappiness alluded to...but the filmmakers don't hit us over the head with big, showy scenes or phony "dramatic" moments during these revelations.
The same applies to the Mitchum/Kerr romance. We're programmed to expect a shot or a scene that shows Kerr instantly thinking about getting back together with Mitchum, but not here. She's not exactly happy to see him there at first; he's stirring up memories that she dealt with (and dismissed) many, many years ago. His coming back can only unsettle her agreed-upon life, and she resists his open interest, even after they go to bed together (handled beautifully by the actors). That subplot feels quite real, quite honest, with Kerr's off-hand, sensible dismissal in the face of Mitchum's subdued but obvious intentions a nice change of pace from how we expect her to act (it helps, obviously, that Kerr is still such a brilliant actress, effortlessly conveying these conflicting, churning emotions). I found the whole Judi Trott subplot, where SPOILERS! Mitchum finds out Trott is his granddaughter, more problematic, because it seems to want to drag in a contemporary anti-nuke message where it's really not necessary or needed. The pull of the Mitchum/Kerr rekindled romance is more than enough to hold our interest. Still, Ruben manages to treat this tangent with an even-handed honesty that's surprising: Mitchum doesn't agree with American-hating Trott anymore than she buys his WWII nostalgia, but both eventually come to genuinely respect if not each other's different viewpoints, than at least each other's honesty and courage in expressing them.
The cast is excellent. Barry Morse of The Fugitive fame, has a nicely moving scene toasting the men at the reunion, when he reveals how meaningful it's been for him to honor the fallen by organizing this reunion for the living. Familiar faces like Shane Rimmer and Don Fellows and Ed Devereaux have solid moments as old crew members who give Mitchum a peak into their post-war lives. Red Buttons, whenever he tones down the "cutes," is an excellent actor, giving a nicely nuanced turn here as a down-on-his-luck malcontent (who was also a genuine hero under combat conditions), who marvels at being saved by a virtual stranger. As for Kerr and Mitchum...what more can you say about them? When Kerr playfully/seriously asks Mitchum, "Are you really that beautiful young man?" from her past, in that achingly musical voice of hers, with deadpan Mitchum instantly replying, "Not at all!" cracking Kerr up, you're watching two pros with iconic heft that only adds to the impact of their performances. Kerr had by this point in 1985 only come back a few years prior after essentially quitting the movie business in 1969. She'd only do two more movies after Reunion at Fairborough before permanently retiring, but it's impossible to see any rustiness, any hesitation in her effortless turn here. As for Mitchum, he was busier than ever in '85, having revived himself out of the 1970s doldrums of his career with the lead in ABC's blockbuster mini, The Winds of War in 1983, after which Mitchum never stopped, working right up until his death in 1997. The rap with Mitchum (probably started by him) was that he never cared too much about his acting, but here, he's entirely in tune with his character, perfectly matching the former flyboy's disillusionment with a growing awareness that he can feel hopeful again about his life, now that he's come back to England, to face up to his past. It's a calm, assured turn, showing Mitchum completely in charge of the character.
Paul Mavis is an internationally published film and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.