It speaks not only to the man but to this film, that Joel McCrea rated Stars in My Crown among his personal favorites. (Hint: It’s not because of the imminent reunion of two cast members in Gunsmoke). The story is framed by the nostalgic recollections of an old man and it’s a singular story in the way that one life is a story. There are constant offshoots, revelations, and daily interactions with other human narratives.
John’s life (Dean Stockwell) could have been very different; it could have been drama because he was orphaned at a young age. Except he had Parson Gray (McCrea) and Mrs. Gray (Ellen Drew). Much like this film, his life was generally a joyous affair growing up as a young lad. Certainly, it was not without its roadblocks, disagreements, or minor quarrels but what remains is generally uplifting and good.
Stars in My Crown for much of its run is a vignette-driven tale but that proves to be the utmost blessing for this particular film. That inevitably brings us to Joel McCrea and why he must have relished this part. He’s a man of faith and no shame-faced Christian. There’s no denying his spiritual leanings. Still, while he’s not a spineless pushover, there’s not a condemning word that leaves his mouth either.
What keeps him upright and a pillar of the community is a quiet boldness and a genuine care for his parishioners. But that means not simply calling on the people who enter into his church on Sundays. I’ve heard it said before that it’s easy for anyone to love people who are just like them or who they like already.
What’s truly a test of someone’s heart is whether or not they are willing to reach out to those who seem alien and contrary to their station in life. The Parson is such a man. Not only does he care for the physically sick or the self-proclaimed churchgoers who are sick in the soul, he is there for those on the fringes too.
He faithfully calls on his boisterous war buddy (Alan Hale Sr. in his final role) who is larger-than-life with a strapping clan of sons (including James Arness) and a penchant for joking about religion. He’s waiting for the Parson to get God to plow his fields for him.
The good-natured Gray gently ribs him about his coming to church. But what strikes me is the worth he sees in his friend. In one resounding instance, when the local gamekeeper Famous (Juano Hernandez) has his land trampled by local bigots, it’s not the Christian folk but Jed who immediately comes to his aid. His beneficiary rightfully proclaims with all candor, “You’re a real Christian.”
Parson Gray’s rounds never seem to cease though in one instance they meet with opposition. Dr. Harris (Lewis Stone) has long been the town’s apothecary but with his ailing health, his intelligent yet rather brusque son (James Mitchell) is taking over the family business. Though more than capable, what the younger fellow is lacking is a genial bedside manner, at least upon first glance.
He does show a certain sensitivity to the local school teacher (Amanda Blake) and the certain tightness in Mitchell’s voice is stellar for articulating the feelings of a man who is hardly unfeeling — he just has trouble opening up. In fact, he’s adamant that the religious leader stays out of his way because he sees no place for such ritualism when he has practical science to help people.
The days roll ever onward with young boys lazily kicked back in a hay wagon surmising what they’d do if they were God. Namely, have it always be summer. Even Christmas would be in summer. Another time a Medicine Man (Charles Kemper) and his Carnival Show pay a visit and bring the town out of the woodwork for an evening of magic tricks and showmanship.
Then come the bad times when the typhoid hits and people are dropping like flies. First, John is sick then a whole host of others. The Doctor criticizes Gray for potentially infecting the entire population of school children and for the first time in a long time we see the normally even-tempered man angered.
However, the Parson is man enough to consider that he’s wrong because he very well could have been. He’s also humble enough to give the doctor room to work. For the sake of the people, he becomes isolated and as a result poor, bereft of his usual resources. Because all he had was out of charity and the tangible blessings of those around him.
He even goes so far as closing the church for the first Sunday service as far back as anyone can remember. It soon becomes evident how very humble and meager his portion is without the bulwark of community around him.
But it’s one of those things, out of the Parson’s seemingly selfless act comes a reciprocal act from the young doctor — the man who shed his rough exterior and became one with the people knowing full well all their suffering as well as their joys. It was this chance in the trenches with the lack of the sleep and onslaught of the slow fever where he realized there was a need for something else that he never thought was lacking before. If Ordet (1955) has the most striking resurrection scene that I can recall perhaps Stars in My Crown has the most gorgeously understated.
The final stand that the Parson is compelled to take is also weighty with significance. The townsfolk have repeatedly threatened Famous and now they’ve reached the end of the road. Stringing him up and taking his property is all that’s left to do.
When they leave that burning cross and the note, cloaked in white like cowards, it somehow brought the same realization that floods over me far too often. In some ways, this film is meant to be so archaic, reminiscent of a bygone era far removed from our present. And yet as much as we might try and move away, it sadly remains relevant.
So the Parson goes to Famous’s home alone knowing what is coming for them. He forgoes the guns of his good buddy Jed. That’s not his way now. Instead, he speaks to them resolutely as they get ready to take Famous away. He confronts them with the man’s own words and in the most piercingly moving moment of the entire picture we see how one man can be so selfless in the face of so much hatred. He can boast so many riches even if his worldly possessions seem totally inconsequential. His character speaks for itself.
Years later Atticus Finch would have a confrontation akin to this one and yet it came to an impasse. Here the Parson is able to speak the truth into each of these men’s lives and make them human again. All thanks to Famous.
So while the picture might fall too easily back into place (Klansman aren’t rooted out forthwith for instance) there’s no begrudging such a gentle and virtuous film its closure. Because these are as much the fond memories of a young boy grown old as they are the tale of one man who left an indelible impact on a life and on a community. I’m reminded that perhaps a church is not so much a building as it is a people. Though the picture is capped by the proud moment where the Parson sees his old war buddy welcomed into the fold, I would like to think he doesn’t see that as the ultimate victory.
If anything his life reflects the outpouring of an existence lived outside of the Sunday framework. He does not have compartmentalized faith — the kind of religiosity that makes people hypocritical and prideful. I can respect a man like that even if he doesn’t pack a gun.
I am thinking today of that beautiful land
I shall reach when the sun goeth down;
When through wonderful grace by my Savior I stand,
Will there be any stars in my crown?
Will there be any stars, any stars in my crown
When at evening the sun goeth down?
When I wake with the blest in the mansions of rest
Will there be any stars in my crown?
In the strength of the Lord let me labor and pray,
Let me watch as a winner of souls,
That bright stars may be mine in the glorious day,
When His praise like the sea billow rolls.
O what joy it will be when His face I behold,
Living gems at his feet to lay down!
It would sweeten my bliss in the city of gold,
Should there be any stars in my crown.
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