The Furies (1950)

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Frenzied opening strings from a score by Franz Waxman assist in introducing a film that positions itself as another textured portrait of the West boasting a pair of grandiose performances from Walter Huston and Barbara Stanwyck. This particular ride down the well-trodden paths takes place in New Mexico where cattle barons ruled the land like feudal lords. At its core is a warring clan and this is their tale of belligerent family drama that sprawls across the plains with a vengeance.

In fact, T.C. Jeffers (Walter Huston) is a man ruling his acreage known as “The Furies” with an equally-suited ferocity. He’s a larger-than-life figure who knows how to throw around his weight; the territory is scattered with his I.O.U.s christened T.C.s.

But his daughter Vance (Stanwyck) is no less imposing, knowing precisely what she wants — his empire — and chasing after it with the full intention of sinking her claws into it someday. When she finds the right man of course. We can liken them to Rockefellers of the West, ruthless while also being fiercely loyal and even generous to their friends. But they are not squeamish about going after their own.

The ensuing melodrama is laced with arsenic braced by Anthony Mann’s usual choices that ratchet the tension. While the scale has grown, his aptitude for projecting a certain raw volatility on the western frontier is no less apparent.

When rugged Rip Darrow (Wendell Corey) ambles into the Jeffers’ home during a lively gathering, Vance immediately tries to win him. It starts with a dance and goes from there.  Far more than a mere pretty face, Wendell Corey holds a grudge that really leaves an impression. He has long felt slighted by Jeffers for ending up with the land he long thought was his own and he gladly gets back at the man through his daughter. Except Vance feels betrayed when Rip takes $50,000 in bribe money never to see her again. That’s the termination of their relationship for good.

But it turns out that T.C. also seeks out companionship of his own and his chosen mate, Flo Burnett (Judith Anderson) proves to be a golddigger who hardly hides her intentions. She receives only Vance’s ire and Ms. Jeffords is not about to let this woman finagle her way into the family business even resorting to violence if necessary.

It’s yet another riff in this power struggle that reverberates again and again. Because this is an unrestrained showcase of opportunistic human beings who glory in their own avarice and pursuit of wealth. People pushing others around and undermining them with little regard for their well-being.

It ends up reaching its absolute zenith with a bloody shootout to push the Hererra Family led by brother Juan (Gilbert Roland) off the Furies once and for all.The skirmish results with one man at the end of a rope and Vance never about to let her father forget what he has done to one of her closest childhood friends.

But it doesn’t stop there because it never can. Not with people such as this. Daughter goes out across the frontier on a vendetta that will pay heavy dividends. She even reconnects with the other man she never wanted to see again. Together they scheme T.C.’s ultimate downfall but as he gets on in years the old warhorse is faltering a bit. His glory days are setting so maybe it’s for the best. One could say that T.C. got his comeuppance but by all accounts, he died a legend. The same cannot be said for many of his adversaries.

I can’t help but juxtapose Devil’s Doorway and The Furies. An interesting reference point is that Robert Taylor and Barbara Stanwyck were still husband and wife at the time but in both pictures, they try mightily to tame the West and hold onto to be what they believe is rightfully theirs. They have varying degrees of success.

The film also exhibits a racial element much like Devil’s Doorway because though it is rarely talked about, much of the mythology of the West is tied up in the white pioneer’s story. The marginalized folks like Native Americans, Hispanics, and certainly Asians are pushed to the edges of the frame. This film showcases the Herrera family.

Further still, there are an array of strikingly powerful women who exert their control in different ways. Though Beulah Bondi has a relatively small part you quickly realize that women such as her are important figures. Because they carry such crucial sway in the business of their husbands as the voices whispering advice into their ears.

Meanwhile, Judith Anderson while a bit of a tramp nevertheless is forthright and transparent about her intentions. She’s not a complete pushover and that makes a slight tussle with Stanwyck entirely credible.

Obviously, Barbara Stanwyck is phenomenal — one of the few performers who could have pulled off this role much like the matriarch in Sam Fuller’s Forty Guns (1957). It needs someone who is that assured and strong, who carries an unmistakable presence anchored by undeniable beauty. She was blessed with both.

Walter Huston would pass away the same year in 1950 but The Furies compiled his innumerable talents in one last monumental showing that’s a worthy swan song in a veteran career. What a way to go as T.C. Jeffords.

4/5 Stars

 

The Devil’s Doorway (1950)

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Right here we see the precise genesis of Anthony Mann as a director of westerns. To consider the string of modest classics that followed is nearly staggering. But he was well-suited for the transition taking his acquired skills over the years and translating them easily to the West.

The Devil’s Doorway is shot like his most gripping noirs thanks in part to John Alton’s continued partnership. Thunder sounding off in the background, low lights, and even lower angles when working in close-ups. Visually he certainly doesn’t pull any punches.

At first, I wasn’t sure if I would care for the picture since I knew next to nothing about it. However, in the first few minutes of expositional action, we learn something that sets up a striking dissonance not only within our character’s identity but in the West itself.

Lance Poole (Robert Taylor) comes back from the Civil War as a man who proved himself on many a battlefield from Antitiem to Gettysburg achieving the Congressional Medal of Honor for his heroics. Strikingly, for someone returning from such a divisive war, Poole has a fairly positive outlook. Except he’s rudely awakened when he comes home and finds that a different type of war is still raging.

This is the time to share the film’s major point and one that is crucial to getting into this narrative from screenwriter Guy Trosper. Poole is a Native American — a Shoshone by birth — but when he fought in the army no one judged him by the color of his skin. He shared food and quarters and fought alongside his fellow Americans.

And yet when he gets back to the land he calls his own, he finds that men have hardly changed even if the times have. White folk look at “Indians” with disdain and if not disdain then probably fear. There’s no sense of wanting to get to know them. Sure, there are a few who remain true to Poole from the old days like Zeke (Edgar Buchanan) and yet even they crumble under peer pressure. That means no drinks served to Indians in the saloon and certainly no owning property.

The Homestead Act is a grand proposition made for dreamers, rallying men to head out to the vast plains out west to stake claim to the territory and settle down. No such provision exists for the ones who have lived on the land all their lives.Under the law Poole’s not classified as an American citizen and what is he, you ask? Well, that’s very much what the picture is trying to address.

Even as desperate men surge toward Poole’s acreage of top land looking to move in, other Shoshone from a reservation, led by their chief (Chief John Big Tree) seek asylum because their current existence is a far cry from their former life of prosperity.

Poole knowing that the way of the white man worked for him during the war tries to seek out honest means of reclaiming his land. He forgoes the town’s crooked lawyer Verne Coolan (Louis Calhern) and calls upon Orrie Master (Paula Raymond); she’s a woman, not a man, which in itself is a statement.

Though reluctant, she takes his case because they need each other. She plays by the book, holding to the assertion that if something’s the law, we have to abide by it. Her faith, her religion of sorts, is the law and she treats it as sacred. But as those roads seem to lead nowhere for a man like Poole just because of the color of his skin, she tries to make him seek compromise — some amount of mutual understanding.

But when you have a bigot like Coolan doing everything in his power to push Lance off his property, such an agreement seems out of the question. Such a diabolical fellow is intent on inciting opposition and manipulating folks so that peace and compromise are no longer viable options.

People such as this are far too prevalent in this world and their philosophies poison the world for everyone. There is no understanding. There is no empathy and Lance is not about to wait around for it. He’s going to defend what he deems to be rightfully his.

Ms. Masters in near desperation sends out a distress signal to Fort Laramie calling on the Cavalry. It is her last hope for any type of peaceable resolution — even if it only stops the bleeding which has already begun between the natives and the homesteaders. We too look on powerless to stop the bloodshed because we are only an audience interfacing with a film. The question becomes what will we do with our reality if we see a parallel issue?  If and when former Union Officer Poole perishes there will be no one to play him “Taps” now will there?

Such a downbeat ending and harsh portrait was not something Hollywood was ready for and it seems that generally, Devil’s Doorway gets a bit buried. I think it’s about time that we all took our medicine and while not a perfect film it might cause one to perceive the Wild West of Hollywood lore with a very different heart.

To say it’s completely undermined by its casting is somewhat missing the point because its intentions are all but honorable and the picture lays in hard to issues that are not simply western issues but are quite easily transposed to post-war WWII, 1950s pre-civil rights America and obviously the present as well.

In fact, it hardly feels like jumping the gun to call Devil’s Doorway cutting-edge because like Broken Arrow (1950) of the same year, it actually concerned itself with the plight of Native Americans. But whereas the other picture is somewhat forgettable now, there’s still an undeniable bite to Mann’s effort. Even the black and white imagery aids in the tone (as well as practically masking a bit of Taylor’s makeup).

Here is a western that stars an “Indian” and an independent working woman who are not even romantically attached to each other. Beyond that, it straddles this line of muddied morality that hardly chooses sides but settles in the gray area that leads us to make some heady considerations.

Far be it from me to strip away visions of glorious gunfights and all-conquering heroes. But if you watch this story unfold — a grim statement of tenacity from Anthony Mann — those myths will be trampled on. You would do well to watch your step and open up your heart just a little bit, hopefully, more than when you first entered in the corale.

4/5 Stars

 

 

 

First Reformed (2017)

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“You’re always in the Garden.  Even Jesus wasn’t always in the Garden, on his knees, sweating blood. He was on the Mount. He was in the marketplace. He was in the temple. But you, you’re always in the Garden.” 

Paul Schrader and Martin Scorsese unknowingly formed a legendary partnership in making Taxi Driver (1976) that has left an indelible mark on cinema. Despite their diverging backgrounds, it seemed like they were very much kindred spirits. At least, they understood each other.

Scorsese of course, grew up in the Catholic Church even considering becoming a priest. Schrader likewise, had a deeply religious upbringing rooted in reformed theology even attending Calvin College. Aside from both being cinephiles, each man has battled through his share of demons and yet they have come out on the other side no doubt wiser.

Thus, with the release of Scorsese’s deeply spiritual passion project Silence (2016) a couple years ago, it seems fitting Schrader followed up with First Reformed soon after. I’m not sure if it’s mere coincidence or not but by this time in their lives, with space for retrospection, they have come to a crossroads to make daring, personal pictures about religious faith.

The opening shot is instantly recognizable. We have the stark symmetry of a church steeple. The religious space lacks the same type of iconography as the Catholic Church because the Calvinists came from a  tradition foregoing any amount of pomp & circumstance for a stripped-down aesthetic. All the focus was on the cultivation of the spiritual life.

There still is history, as this particular church is just about to celebrate its 250th anniversary and it was once a stop on the Underground Railroad years before. The resident reverend’s tours include touting the Dutch Colonial architecture and showing wide-eyed kids the trap doors escaped slaves used to hide in.

Now it’s ironically also a spiritual museum-piece — a creaky religious relic — attended by a few stray parishioners. The real center of religious activities is at Abundant Life a well-meaning but somewhat sanitized megachurch set up across the road. Perfectly reflected by their cafeteria wall emblazoned with the words from Acts 2.

The story actually begins with an experiment of sorts. Reverend Ernst Toller (Ethan Hawke) will keep a journal for an entire year in a notebook and then he will destroy it. There is an obvious finality to this. He’s set himself a hard timeline.

Though he mentions word documents and digital files, he might as well come out of a Bresson picture. His possessions are few and far between. A well-worn Bible sits on his bedside table accompanied by the works of Thomas Merton and G.K. Chesterton. His landscape and surroundings are just as stark and humble. Interiors are kept equally simple and straightforward.

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The unadorned yet meticulous composition use geography whether structures or a bit of symmetry to set up scenes. Inside the church with the lines of pews that might be plucked directly from Winter Light (1961). Then, along a row of houses in a neighborhood as a car pulls up to a house.

One house he pays a call on belongs to Mary (Amanda Seyfried), a young pregnant woman, who grew up in the church and is now worried about her husband Michael’s mental stability as of late. She worries it will affect their future child. The reverend might be able to help.

Upon their first dialogue together, it becomes obvious he is not a learned man. He had a stint in jail for his environmental activism in Canada and currently holds down a job at the local Home Depot.

But he gives a cogent account of why he does not want to bring a child into the world. By 2050 all scientific analysis seems to suggest dire straits are ahead if we do not make radical changes on an international level. Because climate, water levels, and everything else will not leave man unimpeded.

His question is simple. How do you sanction bringing a girl into the world who is full of hope and naivete? Then, she grows up and as a woman, she looks you square in the eyes and says, “You knew it all along, didn’t you?” And yet you brought her into this world of death. Most of what the reverend does is listen to his grief. The only response possible is that the blackness is not a new phenomenon. Man, woman, and child are born to trouble. It seems small comfort.

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As the themes begin to interweave there are continuous nods to Ingmar Bergman’s Winter Light (1961) from the snow motif to a deeply troubled husband and even a female associate who takes a deep concern in the well-being of our protagonist. You can sense Schrader acknowledging his deep abiding affections for Robert Bresson — an obvious reference point being Diary of a Country Priest (1951) — with a man of faith suffering from a mysterious ailment. It only serves to exasperate his human relationships and give a physical manifestation to his existential crisis.

In maintaining the transcendental spirituality of the film, Tarkovsky levitations and Dreyer-like “resurrections” are also evoked and the list goes on and on. In fact, it amazes me how obvious and plentiful the allusions are. Schrader barely tries to hide his affinities for certain pictures. They are most assuredly there being represented and it’s generally satisfying.

But it is a film that is also born out of the mind who brought us Taxi Driver and the ties are closer than we might expect. Because it becomes more akin to the desolate alienation of Travis Bickle as the story plods on. After experiencing a tragic death and witnessing the ways the modern world functions, Toller seems to see the need for a martyr in an unjust world. He becomes increasingly alienated.

His life involves helping out with the homeless food line, sitting in on the youth small group, and of course, his tours and Sunday duties. But it’s the old conundrum. He feels confined to the walls of his church. It doesn’t seem like he’s necessary for anything aside from spiritual comfort. He has no true impact on people lives and he himself is struggling to keep in communication with God. Solitary prayer seems empty. Hence a nightly journal.

Something happens when he gets in a spat with a local big whig over negative publicity from a funeral for Michael Masana. It was held at a toxic waste dump with a choir singing an environmentally conscious Neil Young tune. Toller gets lambasted for his “political behavior,” though he was admittedly only upholding the man’s wishes. And yet he is beginning to question how people who proclaim to follow God cannot take a greater stake in preserving his creation.

In documenting Martin Luther King Jr.’s efforts, Ava DuVernay’s Selma (2015) was a call-to-action in the realm of social justice. For all those people who claim or at least strive to be good, morally upright people, it is clear this is a universal fight. Likewise, First Reformed is a call or at least a meditation on environmental justice because humans are meant to be stewards. It is not completely about extremism (though Toller begins to inch that way) but in some ways, we are meant to live radical lives. Full of radical love and a radical conception of justice for the earth and other human beings.

But one could say this is not the true punchline. For that we must revert back to some of the deep-set themes of Schrader’s career, returning once again to his first collaboration back with Martin Scorsese back in 1976.

Because First Reformed has one of the most abrupt endings in recent memory. It catches us off guard on numerous fronts. We must start with the ambiguity which is nothing new. Travis Bickle entered the pantheon of cinema characters partially due to the enigma that clouds his fate in Taxi Driver.

Most people who have ever been ambushed by the film will recall the ending. Travis goes on his crusade to clean up the filth and it’s a violent rampage in the eyes of the world but for him, it’s an act of triumphant heroism.

In the final moments, he’s back in his cab again — his personal cathedral — driving the streets and there’s his untouchable girl, Cybil Sheppard, who appears in the back seat. He sees her through his rearview window and rides off. It seems almost impossible to read it in the literal sense. How could this be? Is this his own personal delusion? Could this actually be real? I know my own inclinations but I don’t know what to believe.

First Reformed is much the same. Here we have the Reverend about to take his poison — looking to end his life — in the face of such a dreadful world. Then a door opens and there stands the one person who might save him, Mary, appearing in the doorway like an angel.

They embrace and then beginning kissing and we spiral around and around them in one of the most violently uninhibited camera setups in the film. We have broken out of the harsh asceticism of the entire movie thus far.

Is it about this salvation coming through the physical union between two people? This could be the Ordet-like resurrection or maybe like Taxi Driver it’s all part of the ultimate delusion. The bottom line is we don’t know and Schrader doesn’t tip us. Much like Silence, what’s paramount is what we fall back on in response.

Can we read this as a story of despair or hope? The words of Toller echo through my mind, “Wisdom is holding two contradictory truths in our minds simultaneously.” This is First Reformed at its finest, ever oscillating between the two defining poles of any life.

4/5 Stars

 

“There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry, Mine!” – Dutch Prime Minister and Theologian Abraham Kuyper

Unfaithfully Yours (1948)

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Though Preston Sturges would never eclipse the heights of the early 40s again and his stellar run was slowly spiraling down, we do have Unfaithfully Yours and for my money, that’s recompense enough.

It documents the life of a prestigious conductor, Sir Alfred De Carter (Rex Harrison), happily married to a gorgeous woman (a stunning Linda Darnell) with ample help from a staff including an efficient personal secretary (Kurt Kreuger) and a crotchety Russian played by Lionel Stander. The entourage includes his wife’s wisecracking little sister (Barbara Lawrence) and the sister’s husband, an insufferable bore of the bourgeoisie named August (“He’s got $100 million don’t also be expecting Mickey Mouse”).

The whole issue arises when said brother-in-law, played by Rudy Vallee, takes Alfred’s passing entreaty quite literally to “watch over his wife” while he’s away. As August was also away paying a visit to mother, he has a private detective check in on his sister-in-law. The P.I. collected a comprehensive dossier on her activities while he was gone, which Sir Alfred promptly rips up.  It doesn’t help that the hotel house detective (Al Bridge) is very thorough in his job, driving the conductor to burn the documents decisively, followed by a valiant effort to put out the subsequent conflagration in his dressing room.

However, all his attempts are to no avail and the conductor starts getting ideas; the rumors that were in the back of his mind now start moving to the front, making him irritable.

What other film, featuring a tailor just trying to eat his lunch in peace, winds up leaving an impression because the man is given enough to say? It’s quintessential Sturges and he doesn’t disappoint many of his faithful players either. Each gets a spot of their own. The private detective (Edgar Kennedy) gets a contentious visit from De Carney and turns out to be a patron of the arts. He’s a keen follower of De Carney’s oeuvre even. Sturges gives him the perfect summation of his opinions, “For me, there’s no one who handles Handel like you handle Handel.”

There are also a few choice Sturges lines that I couldn’t help but recall being recycled from other pictures such as being “left to hang on a meat hook” and the age-old favorite “nuttier than a fruitcake.”

As the director slices through the material, De Carney thrusts and waves his way through Rossini, Wagner, and Tchaikovsky. He’s so attuned to his craft, in fact, that he daydreams through each, the music setting the perfect melody to each of his mental confrontations with his wife.

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The first arrangement of events is calculated yet diabolical, played to a piece booming with sweeping, all-encompassing, passionate rage. Using a voice recorder, he stages the perfect murder to entrap the other man. He ends up cackling in the courtroom with relish as he watches Tony get his sentence. It’s all too easy. Hitchcock might have been proud.

His middle piece captures the pure melancholy of the entire scenario. Both maudlin and chivalrous, as he decides the greatest act of love he can perform is to let her go to her true love while writing her a check that she might never have to work her pretty hands ever again. The final coda picks up the tempo again in a ragingly melodramatic fashion that culminates in the proposition of Russian roulette between a gentleman and his rival.

What actually happens is like so: It entails an inexplicable trashing of his apartment after dipping out of his finest hour prematurely. Lamps and wicker chairs are systematically demolished, not to mention the knocking of the telephone off the line and unwittingly pranking the operator again and again. Glass shatters, pratfalls, miscues, clunking about like a witless neanderthal. It is all present.

There is a Georges Rouault painting up on a wall that I distinctly remember from an Art History textbook I once read. So, obviously, this makes this picture the height of culture and it might as well be. Juxtapose that with Rex Harrison, always so refined and erudite, seen stomping about and making a shambles of his apartment and you have one of the film’s high points. And the picture has much to offer us even amid its bleak and admittedly dark deviations.

What’s striking is not simply that this is a physical comedy (typical Sturges) but that it wholly relies on Rex Harrison’s abilities and is nearly a wordless sequence. For a man who was so renowned for his pen, Mr. Sturges shows an apt restraint. This long extended scene says in visual terms that the very way we envision things never hold a candle to actual reality, where things get complicated and muddled by this or that. Nothing is left where we remember it or sudden onslaughts of sneezing come out of nowhere.

Recording machines, that despite being “so simple they operate themselves,” never seem to behave properly, foiling us at every possible interval. In fact, each of his nefarious ploys that he dreams up get thwarted.

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His wife comes home and they have a normal, healthy, human misunderstanding. Husbands get accidentally cut by razors, spill ink pots all over the desk, and wives innocently confuse the marginally different games of Russian Roulette and Russian Bank, worrying about the moods of said husbands.

The only flaw in Unfaithfully Yours, if we can call it that, is the fact that the husband has no open line of communication with his wife. Of course, not having it allows the film to cycle through each of its subsequent movements, thanks to our protagonist’s mercurial nature.

What I find most troubling about it is how he jumps too quickly to accusatory behavior in taking the higher moral ground. His better half is given the lower position as the doting wife, though her sincerity is never in question like his. I suppose it’s precisely why we must see Harrison acting like such a numbskull lunatic; we have a counterweight.

It’s true that the picture could have featured the pairings of Ronald Colman and Francis Ramden then James Mason and Gene Tierney at different intervals. Rex Harrison was brought on with Carole Landis to play his wife, only to have the actress replaced due to difficulties between her and Harrison. Landis is remembered today namely for her romantic ties to Harrison, her figure, and a terribly unfortunate, premature death.

It seems nearly impossible to separate the two as the picture’s release date was pushed back in part to the actresses death and her close romantic ties to Harrison (married to Lilli Palmer at the time). He was the last person to see her alive as well as one of the first people who discovered her body. While the parallels to this film aren’t altogether obvious, there’s nevertheless still some controversy swirling around both.

What we are left with is that Unfaithfully Yours is funny and then sad and then sadly funny again. We can’t laugh but we must just as life must be full of laughter. For it is one of the grandest antidotes for poison. The acerbic poison that crops up in people due to jealousy and distrust. The picture might be truer to life than we would care to admit. I’d generally be interested in hearing Rex Harrison’s thoughts. I guess we’ll never know. The viewing public in 1940s America certainly wasn’t ready for such a perversely pitch-black picture. It was probably too far ahead of its time. Even today it still maintains that sting of biting wit.

4/5 Stars

Hail The Conquering Hero (1944)

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I have long sought out this picture and all I can say is all hail the conquering hero! It’s everything that could have been hoped for in a Preston Sturges wartime comedy. But in order for the laughs to come along with a great deal more, there must be a setup — a watering hole for our main players to familiarize themselves.

Sure enough, we are introduced to a fairly somber nightclub scene or maybe it’s simply the face of the one man the camera chooses to focus on, sitting dejectedly at the bar. There slumps Eddie Bracken, slightly pudgy and round-faced. By no means classically handsome but he and Preston Sturges had quite a thing going for a couple years.

He got sent home from the Marines for chronic hayfever. I’m extremely empathetic to his condition as I’m sure innumerable others are as well. Anyway, he’s too embarrassed to go home and it’s been a year now and he’s still not returned. However, he has nothing except the highest regard for the Marines as his father gave his life serving his country. In fact, it was the very day our boy was born.

He pays it forward to a group of Marines on leave with no dough, thanks to the gambling habits of one of their pack. The act of charity isn’t lost on them and they get acquainted. Soon they find out the name of their benefactor. It has the be the most patriotic names ever invented: Woodrow Lafayette Pershing Truesmith (sans the Truesmith).

Soon they are regaled with his story and stunned by his encyclopedic knowledge of the exploits of the Marines out on the battlefields. Their leader Sergeant (William Demarest) even finds out they have a lot more in common as he knew the elder Truesmith — Winky Dinky for short — before he perished.

The only place for the film to go from here is back to Woodrow’s roots and so without his consent, his mother gets called up and it’s announced that he’s getting sent home. Woodrow’s against it from the beginning but his new pals say there’s nothing to it. He’ll wear a uniform for a day, give his mother a hug, and take off the uniform soon after, completely forgotten. Of course, as they ride the train into town, they have no idea what’s been stirred up in preparation.

A homecoming like you’ve never witnessed has been hurriedly assembled by the local committee chairman (the frantically hilarious Franklin Pangborn) and it’s the true essence of cacophony with unrehearsed dueling brass bands; the mayor and any number of folks milling about in expectant anticipation. The show is just beginning to warm up now.

What many will find astounding is just how perfectly Hail the Conquering Hero has been constructed by Sturges, at least in the way it skirts its topics with simultaneous delicacy and verve. Here is a film striking an impeccable course between that very same comedy and then admiration for the armed forces because no one can forget WWII was still blasting away across the world.

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Likewise, the church service far from belittling the faith is a lingering visual gag as we watch the dueling reactions of the two sides of the pews. First through the hymns and then a very sincere homily from the preacher culminating in yet another rousing display of goodwill. By now Woodrow has little hope to derail any of the fanfare with the erection of a commemorative statue christened “Like Father, Like Son” soon in the works. All his newfound Marine buddies are good for is stoking the fires and applauding the sentiment.

The next great sequence is cued by the music and Mother answers the door and mentions that the Judge (Jimmy Conlin) and some other civic leaders want to see Woodrow. Immediately his mind leaps to the worst possible scenario. The game must be up and all his Marine buddies inconspicuously grab household items in case of a tustle that might take place in the drawing room. Of course, their intentions are nothing of the sort. Far from it. The lead up makes the outcome into yet another outrageous reveal.

Just around this juncture, it becomes increasingly apparent that all the characters appear to move in packs and Sturges crams the frame gladly with bodies and faces and more appendages. Woodrow does his best to avoid the spotlight, flubbing his speech to the masses, and trying to downplay the bid for mayor thrust upon him only to be thwarted at every turn by a cheering crowd of well-wishers. One man even proclaims his was the greatest speech since William Jennings Bryan’s “Crown of Thorns!” Already we have the swellest giggle-fit inducer I’ve encountered in some time.

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I wracked my brain only to realize I’d never seen Ella Raines in a comedy before and for much of this picture she’s in the periphery, her comely smiling features on the screen with a whole host of others. But there are a few moments that, far from playing merely humorously, prove deeply moving as she is split between the man she is betrothed to marry and the one she truly loves.

The family she’s caught up in includes a quibbling father and son. The incumbent mayor (Raymond Walburn), who ponificates incessantly, attempts to dictate his speech in his latest bid for reelection only to get annoyed by his dim-witted boy (Bill Edwards) who nevertheless corrects his grammatical blunders. She’d do well to get out of there. Nevertheless, they are a bounty for humorous dialogue.

The stakes are set for a reversal of fortune with a number of parties having a chance to oust our hero. One man who’s buddy-buddy with the Mayor, the cool and collected Jake (Al Bridge) is mighty curious about Woodrow’s service record and he sends a wire to the Marine Base in San Diego. He gets the incriminating news shortly.

But ultimately it comes down to Woodrow himself and Sturges puts the perfect words in his mouth that Eddie Bracken then utters with an assured conviction. Riffing off the Biblical epithet he notes, “My cup runneth over with gall” and proceeds to pour out with veracious intent all the lies and masquerades he’s been too scared to admit to his own town. His guts are laid out right in front of him. Yes, his mother cries. The townspeople look on somberly and his Marine buddies can do nothing to dispel any of it. Even the words of the Mayor and his pal mean nothing now.

With such a showing you would think it was all over for Woodrow and he tells his mama that he’s going to leave again. He cannot stay. Not like this at least. But his girl comes back to him because she at least loves him unconditionally.

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At the train station the parlor games look like they might commence again but this time the whole town is involved, a lynching all but imminent. The Marines this time wrap up their belts inconspicuously to prepare for combat once more. Of course, the mob is there for a very different reason altogether.

The film has the foresight to see what so many of its contemporary war movies were, only made plainly obvious with the luxury hindsight: Light-hearted and good-intentioned yet still mawkish propaganda pieces. So Sturges took up his pen and tackled such hero worship and smalltime jingoism and yet settles on a resolution proving to be as venerating as it is satisfying.

Hail The Conquering Hero is a miracle assemblage of poignancy and humor; I don’t know how it comes away still intact and with my heartfelt laughter and deepest respect no less. It’s not an easy road to traverse by any means. Only a few have managed it. Chaplain in The Great Dictator (1940) distinctly comes to mind and Preston Sturges here.

4.5/5 Stars

Christmas in July (1940)

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“If you can’t sleep at night, it isn’t the coffee – it’s the bunk” – Maxford Coffee House Slogan

Christmas in July is one of Preston Sturgeses earliest efforts where he both scripted and directed the material. He was fed up with how others had handled his handiwork. Obviously they must not have directed it in the zany scattershot way they should have. He would all but rectify that oversight in the early 1940s with his string of successes.

We are privy to a rooftop romance between Jimmy MacDonald (Dick Powell) and his best gal Betty Casey (Ellen Drew) as they take up a light squabble over modern living and radio sweepstakes. The man is intent on winning the grand prize of $25,000 for the Maxford House Slogan Competition. He hangs attentively around the radio to get the verdict. He, his girlfriend, and millions of other Americans.

But a snafu arises when the jury is hung in their decision-making process by an obdurate Mr. Bildocker (William Demarest). The radio announcer has no choice but postpone the annoucment. Not only does it annoy the public by leaving them hanging on a meat hook, it leaves space for a practical joke to go horribly awry.

You see, Jimmy is adamant that his slogan will be the kicker and he’s not shy about telling everyone about it. First, his girlfriend, then his mother, and finally any coworker who will listen. Three wiseguys in the office overhear his spouting and pull the gag to end all gags. All it takes are a few slips of paper, some paste, and an unused telegram slip. It’s a pretty horrible joke. You can probably envision it already.

In fact, I could just see it unfolding like the emperor’s new clothes and yet it’s more good-natured and innocent. He sees the note, reads it, and proceeds to stand on top of his desk to share his good fortune and tell his colleagues to gather around. It’s a sequence full of canned laughter as the floor manager comes by to see what the ruckus is about.

Jimmy and Betty are glowing and positively floating down the corridors together. They must be dreaming. He quite innocently wanders into the Maxford offices inquiring about his winnings and walks out again as nice as you please with a check for $25, 000. Next, comes the department store jewelry case and every other department they have.

Seeing the astonishing check in his possession, the store all of a sudden gets very generous and soon he’s being given everything on credit. Buying new fangled whizzbang contraptions like the all-in-one Davenola. Diamond rings and fur coats for his girl follow, and gifts for everyone else in his family and the adjoining neighbors. The street in his old neighborhood is pure bedlam with the passing out of toys to all the kiddies and free caraousel rides and confections. They’ve never had it so good. There has never been such a respite before.

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As an audience we are in on quite a big secret. We know the bubble must burst some time. Our greatest fear is that it will completely devastate MacDonald. He’s the kind of man who requires the approbation of others to believe that his ideas are any good and that can be dangerous.

For all the madness, there is a very sincere consideration of the American Dream in this picture, not to mention what people deem to be truly important in their lives. His Manager, far from being a mere boob, has some suprisingly sagacious knowledge to dispel:

“Mr. MacDonald. I’m not a failure. I’m a success. You see, ambition is all right if it works. But no system could be right where only half of 1% were successes and all the rest were failures – that wouldn’t be right. I’m not a failure. I’m a success. And so are you, if you earn your own living and pay your bills and look the world in the eye. I hope you win your $25,000, Mr. MacDonald. But if you shouldn’t happen to, don’t worry about it. Now get the heck back to your desk and try to improve your arithmetic.”

Thankfully, the picture is loaded end to end with character parts. It’s positively swimming in them. Though he never worked with Dick Powell and Ellen Drew again, who coincidentally have a fine genial chemistry, many of the smaller bit players became mainstays of Sturgeses stock company. Aside from William Demarest (who gets the final comic punchline as per usual), you will see many other familiar faces if you’re acquainted with the director’s canon. In other words, Sullivan’s Travels (1941) Et Al.

There’s this innate sense that he’s stuffed this particular script with any number of inside jokes and he mastered the art of humorous character naming, only adding to this swirling cauldron of mayhem born out of one simple gimmick.

Hanging his hat on a slogan like, “If you can’t sleep at night, it isn’t the coffee – it’s the bunk” is seemingly a foolhardy task and yet he all but pulls it off. I must confess that I couldn’t get my head around the statement for a while because it seems that “bunk” used in its informal and archaic etymology as “nonsense” isn’t as common today But it reflects Sturges perfectly.

If there is a modern heir apparent to Preston Sturges I am still in the dark. The closest might be the Coen Brothers and yet their work has never undone me in the same ways. Maybe I’m looking in the wrong places. You also had a contemporary in Frank Capra who was well-versed in populous fare but though he had close collaborators, he rarely wrote his material or had the same unorthodox pizazz of Sturges.

Billy Wilder proved capable of much the same as Sturges, both as writer and director, but even he worked often with writing partners. His work was injected with a cynicism even foreign to Sturges in all of his idiosyncratic, zinging panache. Each is worthy of an examination due in part to their differences. However, Preston Sturges  was really one of the first high profile screenwriters, preceding so many modern success stories. He gave the formerly uninspired and restricted post a newfound respect at a time when that was all but unheard of.

One part of me speculates whether his humor is dated and another part asks why we don’t have films quite like this anymore? Part of the answer might be because of television. The kind of hijinks and episodes that Sturges seemed to showcase often got translated into I Love Lucy episodes and numerous other sitcom tropes that would gain traction over the years.

Still, there’s little doubt that something deeply satisfying is afoot — a film that zips along at an hour and seven minutes yet leaves us feeling like a whole boatload has happened in that same amount of time. Because it’s true. There are dour notes. Moments of wistfulness even, but paired with all that is frenetic and wonkers, you find Preston Sturges coming out on the other side with a comedic trifle that speaks to a great many things about American life, however superficially. Because remember, the punchlines are just as important as the lessons.

3.5/5 Stars

Hearts Beat Loud (2018)

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“When life hands you conundrums you turn it into art” – Nick Offerman as Frank Fisher

The opening introduction of our character is nothing short of fantastic. He lights up a cigarette absent-mindedly, headphones plugged in to Tweedy only for his reverie to be broken by a patron telling him he can’t smoke inside. He responds bluntly, “I’ll put it out if you buy something.”

We know him instantly to be a man who doesn’t play popularity contests even when it would benefit him and his record shop. This is what the following piece of superfluous dialogue is implying as this offended customer says he just bought an album on Amazon instead.

Without hardly knowing anything about him, somehow we like this man behind the counter and simultaneously feel sorry for him. Surely, he can see the writing on the wall. The record shop, the trendy bastion of a bygone era, even in a neighborhood like Red Hook in Brooklyn, is probably on the way out. It is an endangered species and we as the populous have killed it.

This is not High Fidelity (2002). The record shop is no longer a place for buddy comedy with your ragtag band of musical connoisseurs quibbling over personal tastes and nonexistent romance. The niche begins to feel smaller and smaller. It has become even moreso a thing of the past. I recently watched the documentary on the rapid decline of Tower Records, fittingly entitled All Things Must Pass. There is a certain wistulness in acknowledging this irrefutible reality.

Like most indies of this day and age, Heart Beats Loud uses the same formula with quirky supporting characters who have their charms. The mother is a ditsy kleptomaniac who once had a career as a songstress. It feels like a blink and you miss it turn for the Blythe Danner.

There’s Toni Collette, the local landlord who rents Frank his space. They have a relationship that’s hard to pinpoint. Their kids are grown. They’re friends and they can talk to one another. Still, there’s something unspoken between them; it supplies some unnecessary romantic tension.

Surprise, suprise, there’s Ted Danson who (wink, wink) runs the local bar and plays the ever-present available listening ear for our hero to commiserate with. We all need that friend.  Frank’s daughter Sam has such a confidante too even as she tries to figure out her life and love in the context of adolescence. Fortuitously, while I like these folks, they hold nothing compared to the people at the center. Seeing as we spend the most time with the two Fishers it’s probably for the best.

The age-old inversion is also present. The adult seems to be acting out like a child even as his kid makes up the difference by acting mature beyond her years. In one particularly indicative scene, Frank bugs his daughter in her attempts to study so they can have a father-daughter jam sesh together. Because this is the summer before she will head across the country to UCLA. They are on the cusp of a new period of life. He hasn’t accepted it yet.

The story beats are nothing strange or sensational just as the music is catchy but not altogether supernal pop. However, the familiarity is actually quite nice and because we like these people and the places feel warm and welcoming, we want to spend time there. There need not be more.

Together their jam sessions bleed into the synthesis of songs from the heart. It’s how they bond and find a way to communicate when there is no other available wavelength open.  Movies like these allow those of us who adore music and cannot play or sing a lick, live vicariously through some else’s experience. It’s the best way I can describe it. The last film to carry me away on the sound waves with this much relish was Sing Street (2016).

It won’t win any awards and it will be dismissed by so many more and yet there will be a niche market for it — just like vinyl itself. I am thankful we still have actors like Nick Offerman, willing to make unassuming, passionate projects like this one.

In the end, a seemingly inconsequential decision winds up stirring up some notice as the song they cut together actually has some mild success under their moniker We Are Not a Band. There’s the giddy delight registering on Frank’s face upon hearing the song he made in his living room with his daughter playing in a local coffee shop. He’s as proud and as flabbergasted as can be even though no one else seems to understand his elation.

This is purely That Thing You Do! or The Commitments grade musicianship. It’s good but not virtuoso or magnified enough to get a large following. Nevertheless, it’s tantalizing. What could have been? Because even as the shop is having its final day and Sam gets ready to head out west, they get another opportunity.

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Someone is interested to monetize their band and tour it into something with legs. There is a moment where Frank genuinely wants this until he realizes it’s indicative of another issue. He needs a catharsis — a healthy, meaningful way to say goodbye to not only his shop but his daughter — and he gets it.

What more fitting way than a Last Waltz in the record store, except they’ve never even performed before. Still, they do it for the first and last time (maybe) and give it all they have for an audience of record hunters. The accolades and circulation were never important anyway.

They are in the pantheon surrounded by a hall of heroes. Some forgotten. Some not. I see Peter Frampton. Marvin Gaye. Lana Del Ray. The Beach Boys. Aretha. Bob Marley. Tom Waits. They’re all smiling down on these two people who love music. The personified joy is what it’s all about.

The message is succinct and we’ve heard it so many times before. Hearing it in the context of these people’s lives somehow gives it renewed resonance. Because it’s the message they need to hear and who knows, maybe some of us do as well.

Contentment is key. All change is not bad just as things of the past should not necessarily be ditched entirely for the new. Somewhere in between them all, between the record albums and the Spotify playlists, we should be able to find a happy medium. At the end of the day, the point of the music doesn’t change. It’s meant to bring us together.

3.5/5 Stars

 

Wichita (1955)

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The more and more I get to know Jacques Tourneur the more it seems that he was content in making films on his terms no matter the budget or restrictions. His ambitions were not to win awards or garner acclaim yet he was a master craftsman painting in shadows, intrigue, and vibrant strokes.

Known in his early days for his lucrative partnership with producer Val Lewton on low budget horror movies that still stand the test of time as inspired works, the high watermark of his career is indubitably the noir masterpiece Out of the Past (1947). By the 1950s he had settled into making westerns, swashbucklers, crime pictures, and pretty much anything else handed him.

The striking realization is that he never really moved up the Hollywood totem pole which makes me suspect it was partially by choice. He was content with a certain stratosphere of production and when you watch a picture like Wichita you can understand why.

It takes many of the mythical staples of The West and insets them within the contemporary Hollywood framework that generated a lore of its own.The lineage that gave us a plethora of television classics like Gunsmoke, Bonanza, Rawhide, The Rifleman, Cheyenne, Bat Masterson, Wanted Dead or Alive, The Big Valley, Wagon Train, Sugarfoot, Have Gun Will Travel, and countless others that I either failed to mention or don’t know.

The tradition runs rich and deep. Where people address a hero like Wyatt Earp by his full name and there’s some sort of knowing comprehension. Where good and evil are unquestionable entities that we recognize outright. Where a final showdown is all but inevitable as is the town’s prettiest girl falling for our hero.

Wichita is such a picture and yet by some method of ingenuity and delight in his craft Tourneur makes it into something worth remembering. Part of that must be attributed to a script by Daniel B. Ullman which manages to have time for a big reversal and some social commentary in what otherwise could have been droll entertainment.

Meanwhile, though Joel McCrea might look a little decrepit and over the hill for such a role especially opposite a beaming Vera Miles, there’s still that same amiability and honesty that he was good for. James Stewart would look much the same opposite Miles in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962). But like that picture, the themes add a depth of character to the western making it a transcendent medium since it’s as American a genre as they come and it provides the perfect breeding grounds for allegorical tales.

Because before we meet our hero we meet a group of cowboys who are driving their cattle toward the rapidly growing destination of Wichita, Kansas. With the railroad turning it into a pitstop, the city shows no signs of slowing down and turning into a ghost town. Instead it aspires to be the next big Mecca in the Midwest bringing all sorts of people — the Babylon on the Arkansas River without the hanging gardens.

One such traveler rides as a solitary figure toward the cattlemen in one of the film’s most canonical shots and they oblige by offering him a meal. However, two of their band are mighty eager to swipe their visitor’s saddlebags when he beds down for the night.

What follows is a preview of coming attractions and even as Earp (McCrea) goes on ahead to Wichita we know intuitively that there will be another confrontation. In the meantime, he rides into town under the banner reading: “Anything Goes in Wichita” and local floozies waving giddily as they pass in covered wagons.

As best as I can describe it the town is alive. Positively bustling with activity and it makes everything in the frame more interesting with this ever dynamic ambiance playing out in the background. I’d like to think that is what Tourneur is able to offer the material.

While we bide our time we watch Earp looking around for something to invest his talents in. He befriends the towns newsmakers a stodgy old veteran (Wallace Ford) and his ambitious understudy Bat Masterson (Keith Larsen).

Earp also ends up thwarting a bank raid raising the eyebrows of the local big whigs for his prowess with a six-shooter. Sam McCoy (Walter Coy) the man responsible for bringing the railroad to Wichita offers him the job of Marshall which Earp gently refuses on multiple occasions.

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Twice already we have seen him use his gun but he embodies the archetype, an agile marksman who is hesitant to use his firearms and only under extreme provocation. But the final trigger comes when the cowboys from before roll into town with a hearty welcome. However, when their merrymaking devolves into belligerent hooliganism that leaves a young boy as collateral damage, Earp is finally ready to pick up the badge.

It ends up being a battle between the business-minded community members with political clout and a man whose number one priority is public safety. Others like Doc Black (a wily Edgar Buchannan) and even McCoy are willing to make concessions for what is termed progress but Earp once he’s taken his post is a hardliner.

He won’t budge an inch which is an admirable trait even as it doesn’t buy him many supporters. But sometimes that’s what the great men do and it is what few men seem willing to do now. Conceding their popularity for the greater good. However, I can hardly criticize any man for such a stance unless I convict myself too. As McCrea asserts it’s, “Not a question of who’s right but what’s right.” That’s the bottom line and he sticks to it.

In the final shot of Wichita as husband and wife ride off in their carriage together the image is all too familiar evoking for me High Noon (1952) one of the first westerns that truly moved me on a human level. This picture did much of the same though on a lesser more inconsequential scale. It caused me to place a magnifying glass to issues that we still see the U.S. confronted with right at this very moment.

“If men aren’t carrying guns they cannot shoot each other.” This common sense comes straight from the film and yet you can easily see how it becomes clouded with personal ambitions and polarizing politics. There’s no denying that. Sometimes it takes a personal tragedy to shock us into some form of action. The question remains what is the greater good? I feel like it comes into clearer focus when you get hit where you’re the most vulnerable.

4/5 Stars

“Serving God and serving the law are two different things.” ~ Bat Masterson

“To do either one, takes a dedicated man.” ~ Arthur Whiteside

 

 

 

 

Ramrod (1947)

 

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Right away, in the very first moments, we know something’s amiss when the driver of a passing wagon notes to the woman at his side that they just passed her father…and they proceed to keep going without even a word of greeting.

It’s true that Ramrod is a riff on the age-old family feud but it involves several other men who are tied up in it too. Frank Ivey (Preston Foster) plays god where nothing and no one sees the light of day without his say so. Because remember these are the days when whoever had the most firepower and the ability to lean on others was king.

True, the sheriff (Donald Crisp) has a duty to uphold the peace but his jurisdiction and authority can only reach so far. One man against an entire posse doesn’t amount to much. Important to this story is that the old man from the opening scene, Ben Dickason (Charles Ruggles), has long sided in all of his affairs with Ivey. He’s even told his daughter to marry him and he does it again when the bully runs her latest beau out of town.

But Connie Dickason (Veronica Lake) is resolute and not about to let anyone push her around and so she decides to take the land bequeathed to her and try and make a go of it as a cattle rancher. She knows its an uphill battle in opposition to Ivey but one key to the enterprise is Dave Nash (Joel McCrea) who finds himself all of the sudden on the wrong side of Ivey as well. Now he has a reason to take up an offer from Connie becoming the ramrod of her outfit.

Soon he assembles a workforce including his pal Bill Schell (Don DeFore) to see the game through by legal means playing by the rules because the local sheriff is a buddy and Dave is not about to put his friend in a compromising position. He respects him too much. Others are not so valiant. For all intent and purposes, total war has begun.

First Connie’s homestead is razed to the ground, a cowhand is given a going over, and another man is gunned down in retaliation. Both sides have blood on their hands’ thanks to this eye for an eye mentality that continues to escalate matters. A herd of cattle is stampeded. The sheriff gets it for attempting to enact justice. Dominoes continue to tumble with each subsequent shotgun blast of malice.

Dave winds up as a fugitive for avenging his friend’s death by gunning down his purported killer. He finds himself wounded and trying to sneak past the searching eyes of Ivey. They manage to get him away to a secluded cave but even their his safety is put in jeopardy by — you guessed it — Connie Dickason. She has her meddling hands in many things.

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The one person who won’t let him down, despite a myriad of faults, is Bill and he devises a plan to draw the enemy away from his friend by acting as a decoy. The posse winds into the mountain crags to gun Dave down for good; they fail to comprehend who they are actually dealing with.

With her then-husband directing, it makes sense that the film provided a prominent berth for Lake. It’s a juicy role full of a mixture of innocent intentions and conniving. There’s absolutely no question about it; it’s another femme fatale role as she plays a “man’s game” by pitting all the men in her life against each other to get her way so she can pick up the pieces. In totality, it’s a nifty bit of maneuvering to get the desired results, successfully pouting her way to the top. But a curious counterpoint is Rose (Arlene Whelan) who is without question the guardian angel of the picture tugging at Daves heartstrings while Connie continually entangles him.

Retroactively it’s seamlessly easy to label this a noir-western sharing company with such hybrids as Pursued (1947) and Yellow Sky (1948). This breed of western is dark and brooding, concerned with psychological warfare as much as it is rough and tumble enforcement of justice. We half expect Ramrod to cram itself down our throats and it might as well with all that goes down.

The cast is steady with a plethora of recognizable character actors including Charles Ruggles and the diplomatic hand of Donald Crisp. Don DeFore as the bright-eyed ranch hand nevertheless knows how to hold a grudge with the best of them. You’ve never seen him so grungy. Lloyd Bridges fills a near bit part as a hot-headed heavy as usual while the scapegoat Virg is portrayed by Wally Cassell (Cassell lived to the ripe, old age of 103). With the reteaming of Lake and McCrea we had a reunion of Sullivan’s Travels (1941) and yet the reason it didn’t happen earlier was McCrea was not all that fond of his leading lady. By no means does that detract from this minor western success.

3.5/5 Stars

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 castmembers 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 someones 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.