Wednesday, November 05, 2014

Tonight's Movie: Stars in My Crown (1950)

One of my favorite actors, Joel McCrea, was born 109 years ago today in Pasadena, California. What better way to celebrate his birthday than by watching the film he considered his favorite, STARS IN MY CROWN (1950)?

Somehow, despite my great fondness for McCrea, I'd yet to see STARS IN MY CROWN.  I made sure I'd finally see it this year by putting it on my list of 10 Classics to watch in 2014.

As expected, STARS IN MY CROWN proved to be a rich, moving piece of Americana which takes its place alongside CANYON PASSAGE (1946) as one of my favorite films from director Jacques Tourneur.

On the flip side, I wasn't expecting the film to have such sustained dark overtones, but perhaps I shouldn't have been surprised coming from the director of CAT PEOPLE (1942) and I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE (1943)! (The latter film, incidentally, starred McCrea's wife, Frances Dee.) Yet although McCrea, playing a minister, must constantly battle fear, weariness, and downright evil, goodness always prevails.

STARS IN MY CROWN is the story of life in a small town in the years after the Civil War, mostly as seen through the eyes of young John Kenyon (Dean Stockwell, perfect as always). John is being raised by his Aunt Harriet (Ellen Drew) and her husband Josiah (Joel McCrea), the town parson.

The townspeople include Josiah's wartime comrade in arms, Jed (Alan Hale Sr.), and Jed's five towheaded sons (who include James Arness). There's the pretty schoolteacher (Arness's later GUNSMOKE costar, Amanda Blake), who's sweet on the stuffy young doctor (James Mitchell) who doesn't want to remain in the same town long served by his doctor father (Lewis Stone).

Juano Hernandez, who was so good in TRIAL (1955), plays Uncle Famous, a black man the nasty storekeeper (Ed Begley Sr.) tries to force to sell his land.

The parson must face down a lynch mob who come for Uncle Famous in the film's climatic sequence. Along the way there is also a serious typhoid epidemic which tests both the parson and the doctor.

The film is a succession of memorable scenes and images, starting immediately with the parson's family getting ready for their Sunday dinner after church; while Harriet finishes cooking in the screened porch and shoos flies away from the cake she's just frosted, the parson and his nephew lick icing off the cake as the parson winks at the little boy. There's an easy familiarity among the three which draws the viewer in immediately.

John's childhood is in some ways idyllic, fishing with Uncle Famous and riding in a hay wagon with his friend Chase (Norman Ollestad), secure in the love of his aunt and uncle; but after nearly dying of typhoid, John also experiences hunger when the townspeople quit supporting the parson during a quarantine, and he's an eyewitness to the near-lynching of his beloved Uncle Famous. He also learns a tremendous life lesson when he sees how the parson disperses the mob without a shot fired.

That moment is followed by a wonderful bit when we see Alan Hale Sr. and his older sons hiding behind trees, guns at the ready should the parson have needed them. Hale is marvelous in this; it was one of his last films. His character Jed may not be a church-going man, but he and his sons are immediately there to aid Uncle Famous after his little farm is raided by night riders. The final scene in church revolves around Hale and is both funny and moving enough that my eyes watered a bit, as organist Harriet launches into her husband's favorite hymn, which is also the title of the film.

As with Hale, this was also one of the last films in which Lewis Stone appeared. He has a single scene, sharing his concerns about his son and the town with the parson, during which he comments that the next time he leaves his home, the parson will help to carry him out. That took on even more emotional resonance given that Stone would die not too many years later, in 1953.

James Mitchell, who had previously costarred with McCrea in COLORADO TERRITORY (1949), is really fine as the doctor who starts out as a huffy know-it-all, gradually revealing more layers underneath as he grows and matures while caring for the townspeople. Mitchell was a very talented man, being a fine dancer as well as an actor.

The film tends to focus on how the parson and his family relate to the town, but the sequence in which John battles typhoid is quite moving, particularly the scene in which Harriet cries that she wishes she'd always been sweeter to John and thinks of him as her own child, while her husband lovingly removes her hairpins and tries to get her to rest. It's beautifully acted and filmed. Though I've singled out this one scene, both McCrea and Drew are pitch perfect throughout.

The screenplay of this 89-minute film was by Joe David Brown, based on his novel. This was one of the last films shot by Charles Schoenbaum, who died in 1951.

STARS IN MY CROWN is available on DVD in a remastered print from the Warner Archive. The disc includes the trailer; Joel McCrea's introduction was filmed on his ranch.

This is a special film which I know will reward repeat viewings by revealing additional details and insights. Highly recommended.

Jacques Tourner films previously reviewed at Laura's Miscellaneous Musings: NICK CARTER, MASTER DETECTIVE (1939), PHANTOM RAIDERS (1940), CAT PEOPLE (1942), I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE (1943), THE LEOPARD MAN (1943), EXPERIMENT PERILOUS (1944), CANYON PASSAGE (1946), EASY LIVING (1949), CIRCLE OF DANGER (1951), STRANGER ON HORSEBACK (1955), WICHITA (1955), and NIGHTFALL (1957).

Related post: Book Review: Jacques Tourneur: The Cinema of Nightfall.

9 Comments:

OpenID vienna said...

Have to admit I haven't seen this film, but your excellent review makes it one I must get.
Ellen Drew doesn't get a lot of attention but has been in a lot of good movies.

11:22 PM  
Blogger john knight said...

Wonderful review Laura,of a wonderful film.
When McCrea showed his friend Tourneur the
script the director asked who is directing
this. McCrea replied "I don't know yet,
probably some MGM contract director"
Tourneur made sure that he got to direct this
film and various reports say he did the film
for "scale" or in fact no salary at all.
The film was a box office flop but remains
Tourneur's favorite of all his films.
When in England in the early Sixties
Tourneur was interviewed by an English
critic who recalled how much he loved this
film. Tourneur was amazed the chap had
actually seen the film as by then it was
totally forgotten haven been virtually
being "thrown away" by MGM at the time of
its release.
Its reputation has grown over the years and
many thanks Laura for adding to this and
the lovely transfer from Warner Archive.

5:59 AM  
OpenID fiftieswesterns said...

Great piece, Laura. This is such a wonderful movie.

It's easy to forget how dark it is at times, since its overall tone is so warm. It handles some pretty heavy stuff with such assuredness -- I'm getting goosebumps just thinking about it.

7:46 AM  
Blogger barrylane said...

I understand that Tourneur worked for very little money in order to do Stars In My Crown, and that combined with the films poor public reception took him off the map of rising directorial stars. Now I know that several of the films to come have been re-evaluated in the last few years, but that did not do him any good in real time. It should never be forgotten that when artists claim a studio has mishandled, or thrown away a completed picture, this is not done by design, but rather by what the market will bear.

7:58 AM  
Blogger Blake Lucas said...

Of your 10 Clsssics for 2014, this was the one I would have bet you'd like this much. That's given McCrea, a subject I felt you'd be drawn to in any event, and happily falling into the hands of Tourneur, who directed it with such loving care. It surely says a lot for it that is was the personal favorite of both Tourneur and McCrea.

Nice to read such a glowing review of what you rightly observe is a special film.

12:42 PM  
Blogger KC said...

I've never understood why this excellent movie is not considered a classic. Are those dark themes you mentioned perhaps a bit too dark? I love any opportunity to see Juano Hernandez in a juicy role.

7:41 PM  
Blogger Jerry E said...

A fine piece, Laura, about an overlooked classic. Inexplicably, it is one of McCrea's films I do not have (doh!) so the Warner Archive release is a must methinks.

9:24 AM  
Blogger SimpleGifts said...

What a nice way to celebrate Joel McCrea's birthday! Grandson Wyatt said that many times Joel set up the projector in the living room and proudly showed STARS IN MY CROWN to his family. We spent Joel's birthday in El Morro, New Mexico at Inscription Rock that was featured in another McCrea film, FOUR FACES WEST. Pioneers in their covered wagons stopped to enjoy the refreshing pool of water at the foot of the rock. They carved their names on the rock on their way to following their hopes and dreams of a new life. It was very moving and humbling to be there. Best, Jane

2:20 PM  
Blogger Laura said...

Thanks to you all so much for the lovely comments over the last couple days while I was burning the midnight oil on a work project! I loved reading each one and am sure that anyone who happens across this post will be all the more interested in seeing it after reading each of your comments -- which is a great thing!

Vienna, really hope you can see it soon, I would love to know your take. I agree about Ellen Drew. She was also very good in JOHNNY O'CLOCK.

Thank you, John, and thank you for the kind mention of this post I saw over at 50 Westerns a little earlier. That is a great Tourneur anecdote. I believe I have enjoyed every single one of his films, and some of them I've loved. A greatly underrated craftsman.

Toby, thanks so much. I agree, as I mentioned I was a bit surprised that at times the film felt so dark yet it does handle these storylines very smoothly, and despite the heavy stuff the kindness which radiates from the parson and his family, as well as characters like Jed, keeps the heaviness from being too much.

Barrylane, I am so glad that movies are lasting works which can still find audiences and grow in reputation decades later!

Blake, no surprised that you guessed correctly on this one. :) McCrea was so good, again demonstrating why he's one of my couple favorite actors (he's just after Tyrone Power on my short list!).

KC, Juano Hernandez is a new face to me but he's impressed me now in two different films in completely different kinds of roles. I'm going to be looking for more of his work.

Thank you so much, Jerry! I'm glad to know you'll be adding the Archive DVD to your collection -- it dates from when the Archive was labeling its films with the red "remastered" label and is a fine print.

Jane, that is such a charming idea, I love the idea of "Grandpa Joel" screening this movie at home. I would love to ask Wyatt more about that next time I see him. I'd also love to know if Joel owned personal copies of his films and where they ended up. FOUR FACES WEST is one of my very favorite McCrea films -- how beautiful that you were at Inscription Rock on Joel's birthday. Marvelous!

Thanks again to you all!

Best wishes,
Laura

11:50 PM  

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