Stars in My Crown (1950)

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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.

4.5/5 Stars

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.

Boomerang (1947)

Boomerang!Boomerang shares some similarities to Call Northside 777 (1948) and Panic in the Streets (1950). Like the latter Elia Kazan film, this one boasts a surprising amount of real-world authenticity and a loaded cast of talent. Those are its greatest attributes as Kazan makes the bridge between the stage and the silver screen. He brings with him a sensibility for a certain amount of social realism matched with quality acting connections he had accrued in his career thus far.

The only problem is it’s not very compelling just a good, solid, well-made human drama without much fanfare. At the very least, it hits all the procedural beats it’s supposed to. Sometimes that’s alright and it is interesting the narrative goes fairly in-depth into actual events which occurred back in 1926.

In that year a beloved local preacher in Connecticut was gunned down by a fugitive who ran off in the night before he could be apprehended but not before seven witnesses caught a glimpse of his face. The rest of the film is a buildup of the frenzy churned up in the aftermath. The police frantically try and catch the man-at-large with the papers on their back and several political reappointments hanging in the balance.

It’s true Boomerang does become a more interesting exercise once we’ve entered a courtroom and a man (Arthur Kennedy) is put on trial for the murder of the aforementioned minister — a defendant who has pleaded his innocence since the beginning although the evidence is stacked up against him including a vengeful witness (Cara Williams). Except the district attorney (Dana Andrews) takes a stand to promote his innocence. In this case, it’s not quite so straightforward.

True to form and all parties involved, the acting is a great joy to watch with a mixture of untrained actors filling in as the locals of a sleepy Connecticut town and then bolstered by a formidable supporting cast.

We have Dana Andrews at the center but he is buttressed by some quality performers who would make a name for themselves in subsequent years on the stage and screen. These include Lee J. Cobb, Ed Begley, Karl Malden, and, of course, Arthur Kennedy.

Not one of them is a classically handsome or groomed Hollywood star but in the post-war years, they would be crucial to the trajectory of noteworthy films of the decade. Look no further than Death of a Salesman, A Streetcar Named Desire (1951), On the Waterfront (1954), or 12 Angry Men (1957) as living proof.

The underlining moral conundrum of this film is evident as Henry Harvey is faced with political opposition and heady threats with his doting wife (Jane Wyatt) acting as his pillar of strength. The sides begin to get drawn up as the District Attorney takes a stand to uphold real justice and not just win another conviction and approval from the local populace. It’s a risk but also a move of immense integrity.

The real-life inspiration for this man, Homer Cummings, far from becoming governor took on another position instead, as Attorney General of the United States under FDR. Not too shabby.  The same can be said of this picture. Not too shabby as far as docudrama noir go.

3.5/5 Stars

It Happens Every Spring (1949)

It_Happens_Every_Spring_VHSDoes this film glorify those who cheat and deceive taking advantage of others through the advances of modern science? Certainly not! Well, maybe a little but this is one of those ludicrous stories that never makes a pretense of being real life or a moral tale for that matter. It’s just a zany story that’s actually quite rewarding to be a part of.

At its core is a middling college researcher. He’s in love with a girl but not rich enough to offer her much of anything. What’s more intimidating is that her father is the dean of the school and Vernon’s tireless amount of research is getting him nowhere fast. Another seemingly trivial detail remains that every spring he gets obsessed with baseball and becomes distracted in his lectures, in his lab, and in life in general.

If you want to think about one of Disneys live-action classics, it’s easy to draw some similarities between this film and The Absent-Minded Professor (1961). In the latter film, flubber is used for an advantage on the basketball court. Here it’s all about baseball.

Vernon Simpson (Ray Milland) discovers the extraordinary characteristics of his new substance methylethylpropylbutyl quite by accident when he rolls a dampened baseball by a block of wood only to have the two repel. His eyes almost pop out of their sockets when it works time after time. The implications are simple. He can harness this discovery to make it in the MLB and S.T. Louis has aspirations for a pennant but needs pitching. This is his chance to realize his dreams.

The film admittedly doesn’t explain much about why Vernon is infatuated with baseball. Perhaps it was enough that most Americans still were taken with it since it was “The National Pastime.” Regardless, he hurriedly gets a leave of absence from work and provides a cryptic message to his girl not to worry about him.

His baseball career as chronicled by the film is a meteoric rise that totally revels in its completely ludicrous nature. He walks into the clubhouse talks with the manager (Ted De Corsia) and the teams head executive (Ed Begley) who doubt this adamant thick-headed nobody who brags he can win 30 games. Boy, does he shut them up and they’re glad he did.

Most everything is textbook as far as a film about a science researcher playing major league baseball and using a miracle substance to win ballgames can be. His girlfriend thinks he’s involved with the mob. He tries to keep his true identity a secret under the pseudonym King Kelly, and he begins to form a bond with his veteran bunkmate and backstop Monk Lanigan (Paul Douglas). I’ve always been a fan of Paul Douglas as an actor because he plays his characters straight with a gruff yet palpable sincerity. It’s little different here. Milland though hardly an American bred on stickball nevertheless is a charmingly scatterbrained lead.

I didn’t realize it until now but I’m rather fond of science fiction baseball comedies. It breaks every rule of baseball. It’s absurd. There’s so much to call into question and yet I don’t want to. But just for the fun of it all, let’s look at a few obvious inaccuracies from It Happens Every Spring.

King Kelly would never get a win if he came into a game that his team was already winning and yet he asks for $1,000 in compensation for such an appearance. Furthermore, it looks like he’s committing a balk about everytime he winds up. And if he’s not then baserunners would be stealing on him all day because he never pitches from the stretch. He’d be an easy target.

Believe it or not, Kelly actually doctoring the baseball, secret formula aside, definitely is not all that ludicrous. Pitches such as the spitball and scuffball were famously used in the games early days. Pitchers like Burleigh Grimes, a personal favorite of mine, made a living off the pitch and though the spitball, in particular, was outlawed in 1920, pitchers like Grimes were grandfathered in. He continued throwing it until 1934.

Still, that didn’t completely deter later pitchers from using it like another Dodger great Preacher Roe and then Gaylord Perry in the modern era. As long as you didn’t get caught there was no recompense and the same can be said of Kelly. Again, we’re not glorifying cheating. Don’t get any ideas.

3.5/5 Stars

Patterns (1956)

Patterns_FilmPosterPatterns has little right to be any good. It takes place almost exclusively in interiors. Boardrooms, offices, hallways, at desks, and in elevators. But thanks to a fantastic teleplay from Twilight Zone mastermind Rod Serling, this little picture exceeds the meager expectations placed on it. In fact, it was a major hit when it came out as a live television drama, so successful that it was performed a second time and subsequently developed into this film version.

The plot on its own is ridiculously simple. Ramsey and Co. is a major business corporation housed in a 40 story highrise in New York City with bellboys, secretaries, intercoms, and every convenience imaginable. Really the whole nine yards.

The company’s head is the ruthless Mr. Ramsey (Everett Sloane) who inherited the empire from his late father and has subsequently looked to increase the companies fortunes in the very growing and competitive market at hand. Impressed with the acumen of a small town but nevertheless, shrewd businessman named Staples, Ramsey has the up and comer brought in to bring fresh ideas to the table. Immediately he confirms his previous assumptions that Staples is intelligent, assertive, and a genuine asset.

However, after an initially warm welcome to the company with all the pleasantries exchanged and the like, Staples gets his taste of the companies board meetings. It’s a place where wars are waged and Ramsey looks to continually exert his dominance on the company in an effort towards ever increasing progress. But there’s one man who is constantly at odds with Ramsey or at the very least disillusioned. After all, he’s worked with Ramsey long enough. He knows what the man is capable of and what he will not allow.

Year after year he has brought suggestions and compromises before Ramsey on behalf of the welfare of their workers only to be quashed by Ramsey’s own ruthless initiative and unfeeling business practices that idolize a dollar over anything else. Although Briggs (Ed Begley) is still around and he’s aided by his faithful secretary Ms. Fleming, his health is failing and his home life with his young son has suffered greatly due to years of chronic workaholism.

There’s also an impending sense of doom that hangs over the plot. It’s hard to put a finger on just what it is exactly but there’s no doubting that something insidious is going on in the background. It’s that precise wrinkle that most overtly suggests that this is a story from Serling’s ever innovative mind. It’s far more than it’s simple face value.

And really the underlying tension of the film–the ensuing drama that leads to be verbal, interpersonal, and psychological torment, all falls on the film’s three main leads and they shoulder the weight capably. Everett Sloane, best remembered for Citizen Kane now has ice flooding his veins giving a near maniacal performance which he somehow still tempers with passing moments of goodwill and personability. Ed Begley could always be counted on in supporting roles and this is perhaps his most stirring and tragic performance as we watch him falter. Fielder Cook is an adequate if not remarkable director but in his most interesting shot, he chooses to allow the audience to see the world as Bill Briggs does in his most vulnerable moment.

Van Heflin,  also delivers another solid performance opposite his compatriots as our ambitious every man who nevertheless gets caught up in politics. Looking to keep his wife happy and especially Mr. Ramsey while still not losing grasp of his ideals. In many ways, he’s acting as the fulcrum with Ramsey and Briggs on either end seesawing back and forth on this corporate battlefield. It’s up to the audience to gather which way he’ll go. Still, by the end of the film, the verdict is still out on where he stands on this moral plane.

But it all goes back to Serling’s rousing dialogue because despite the stagnant nature of most every scene they still manage to be vibrant and impassioned. The closest approximation in recent memory is a script like Aaron Sorkin’s The Social Network. Patterns likewise showcases how quality screenwriting can bolster a film to great heights.

3.5/5 Stars

 

On Dangerous Ground (1951)

on-dangerous-ground-1Father hear my prayer. Forgive him as you have forgiven all your children who have sinned. Don’t turn your face from him. Bring him, at last, to rest in your peace which he could never have found here. ~ Ida Lupino as Mary Malden

On Dangerous Ground is essentially a throwaway plot about nothing but Nicholas Ray turns it into to something — something about everything that is universal and even transcendent about film. Bernard Herrmann’s score draws the audience in with a killer hook as he did for many of Hitchcock’s most iconic films later in the decade.

There are cop killers on the loose and the force is on high alert. The particular cops that we have the benefit of following get the honor of scrounging around every dive bar and crummy joint in town where the scum of the earth dwell at all hours.

It’s in these opening vignettes that we are introduced to the seedy underbelly of the urban wasteland. It’s no good but there are innumerable interesting characters and they’re not all bad. There’s Doc at the drugstore ready to fix ailments while also being handy for a sundae. Streetcorner newsmen are ready with a tip in a pinch almost on cue.

Still, Jim Wilson (R0bert Ryan) is all out of sorts — restless and prone to aggressive outbreaks. He’s not sparing the rod when it comes to apprehending criminals and questioning riff raff. And the very fact that Robert Ryan almost always has a nondescript expression on his face make his more heated outbursts unnerving. It’s enough of an issue that the police chief (Ed Begley) has to get on him. His partners warn him too, namely, the veteran Pop who has his share of ailments while still finding some time to wax philosophical about life.

Soon, enough is enough and Wilson is transferred to a case out in the country tracking down the culprit in the murder of a young girl. And in these moments On Dangerous Ground becomes all too real. He’s actually on thin ice if you want to get really technical, in both the figurative and literal sense. The vengeful patriarch (Ward Bond) is out for blood, waving around his shotgun just waiting to fill someone full of lead. And as it happens, the story becomes a snowcapped manhunt out in the country with Nicholas Ray developing a second distinct world in stark juxtaposition with the first.

If you wait for Ida Lupino’s entrance you will not be disappointed because it is a fabulous one indeed. She and Robert Ryan do make a heady combination as the film devolves into an extraordinary sensitive picture. Ray’s use of closeups near the end is remarkable in creating an immense intimacy between his protagonists. It leads to the question, can a film about police brutality also be about a policeman’s loneliness? In this case, the answer is yes. Because it seems like a great deal of the people within this story are in a similar state. There are frightened youths as well as alienated and isolated individuals who do not know how exactly to deal with other humans. But thankfully we can all learn.

On Dangerous Ground isn’t so much a cynical film as it is melancholy and so, far from seeing its ending as a cop-out, it actually feels like an extension of what Ray was doing all along. It’s this passionate almost spiritual escape from the world at large as reflected in the setting and ultimate outcome. The cop starts to untangle the mess of his life and begins to settle on a firmer foundation. His story need not end in the bowels of darkness. A holiday in the country is still attainable for him.

4/5 Stars

 

 

Review: 12 Angry Men (1957)

ebd81-12angrymen1With a title like 12 Angry Men you might come away with the false idea that all the characters in this film are the same, emotionally and otherwise. That is far from the truth. The reason a film like this stands up even today is because the fellows who sit down around that table are everymen that each and every one of us can relate to in some way. Yes, they are all male and all white, but they reflect little bits of us and our own humanity.

But getting down to the specifics, what is 12 Angry Men really and truly about? If you want to break it down, all it boils down to is 12 men gathering in a room to talk out a murder case. It sounds pretty dull and it had the potential to be so. In fact, calling it a courtroom drama is partially a misnomer because we hardly spend five minutes there before the jury is deliberating. We see the members of the jury, hear the final statement of the judge, and get a last look at the young defendant.

What comes next is the beginning of the decision-making process and seeing as it looks like an open and shut case, an initial vote is called for. If everyone agrees, this boy will be sent to the electric chair for killing his father. The vote is taken and it is 11 to 1 with one man holding out. Juror Number 8 (Henry Fonda), an architect, cannot bring himself to send the boy off without talking some more and so, begrudgingly, they do talk.

That is where the true heart of this film comes out, through the discussion and back and forth of the characters. They get around to evidence like the switchblade which the boy supposedly dropped. There were two witnesses: One being an old man living downstairs and the other a middle-aged woman who lived across the train tracks. Then, there is the business about the boy’s flimsy alibi about going to the movies. All are hotly debated and quarreled over.

It just happens to be the hottest day of the year and about an hour in it starts pouring cats and dogs. Tempers reach their apex, feelings are hurt, and major prejudices are revealed. The beauty of this film is not simply the sentiment that the jury switches its decision. The beauty truly comes from this wonderfully colorful ensemble of actors under the direction of Sidney Lumet in a confined space. But before mentioning the direction it is important to acknowledge the players because they are the heart and soul of this story.

Juror # 1: (Martin Balsam) He is the foreman who moderates, and he tries to keep the discussion civil with a relatively calm demeanor. All we know about him is that he is an assistant coach for a high school football team.

Juror # 2: (John Fielder) He is one of the younger members of the jury and a quiet individual with a timid voice. He is a banker.

Juror # 3 (Lee J. Cobb) The main driving force of conflict, he holds out when everyone else switches their vote. He is a businessman who also has familial issues with his son that come into play.

Juror # 4 (E.G. Marshall) A rational and measured broker, he holds that the boy is guilty until some facts are laid out that make him think otherwise.

Juror # 5 (Jack Klugman) A meek man and Baltimore baseball fan who also has a fiery side as well. It comes out that he grew up in the slums when he was a kid.

Juror # 6 (Edward Binns) A straightforward and kindly painter who is respectful in his conduct.

Juror # 7 (Jack Warner) The jokester of the group who makes his living selling Marmalade. He is looking forward to a Yankees baseball game and tries to push the proceedings forward as fast as possible.

Juror # 9 (Joseph Sweeney) The eldest member of the jury and the first to side with Juror # 8. He has a fighting spirit and also some thoughtful observations on the case.

Juror # 10 (Ed Begley) A loud-mouthed older man with a penchant for insults and unsavory remarks about foreigners.

Juror # 11 (George Voskovec) He is a watchmaker and the foreigner in the group. However, he is obviously quite intelligent and passionate about American democracy. He takes seriously the duty that comes with being a juror.

Juror # 12 (Robert Webber) Lastly comes the wisecracking man in advertising who tries to lighten up the conversation. He is the major flip flopper in the group.

A mention now must be made of Sidney Lumet’s direction, because for his first film he was extremely bold to film it essentially in one room. He does it so wonderfully, however, because the confined space only heightens the drama thanks to his progressive change in camera angles. They start above eye level and slowly get lower as the drama increases. He is very rarely stagnant either, having the camera on the move or cutting to different characters. A great example of this is the tracking shot as the jurors enter the room. We are introduced to almost every character in such a fluid, natural way that sets up the story nicely.

There is so much else that could be said about Fonda’s performance and individual actors who I admire, but I will leave this discussion by saying that this is one of the greatest ensembles I have ever seen brought together. The intensity they created makes me want to get up right now and serve on a jury. Too bad I already served my jury duty this year!

5/5 Stars