Sunday, May 31, 2015

Tonight's Movie: One Foot in Heaven (1941) - A Warner Archive DVD Review

ONE FOOT IN HEAVEN (1941) is a lovely piece of Americana available on DVD from the Warner Archive.

The movie was released a few weeks ago as part of a "wave" of Fredric March titles which also included THE ADVENTURES OF MARK TWAIN (1944), which will be reviewed here at a future date. In this film, based on a memoir by Hartzell Spence, March plays Hartzell's father William, a Methodist minister.

William and his wife Hope (Martha Scott) are both gentle and sweet-natured, sometimes just barely scraping by as they raise their three children in a succession of run-down parsonages.

While the children (Carlotta Jelm, Peter Caldwell, and Casey Johnson) face a certain amount of community pressure as "preacher's kids," their father is also a reasonable man who will listen to their concerns and even change his mind. And when his oldest son (now played by Frankie Thomas) is the subject of gossip by spiteful parishioners who have lost a turf battle in the church, the minister finds a way to beat them at their own game.

I run hot and cold on Fredric March; sometimes I love him, sometimes I frankly think he's pretty bad. He was nothing less than wonderful as Dr. Spence, who's on his way to a medical career when God taps him on the shoulder and he answers the call to ministry.

He can admittedly be a bit of a tyrant in his own home, most notably playing a trick on his patient wife and giving their third child the name he prefers at the christening, but that simply serves to humanize him. Like all Christians, he's not perfect! But he tries hard.

In one of the film's best scenes, the minister discovers his son was seen by a parishioner exiting a movie theater, which at that time and place was a bit scandalous for a preacher's son. Rather than punishing the boy, who wanted to enjoy some of the same things as the other kids in the neighborhood, the minister decides he'll try to appeal to his son's own good judgment and accompanies him to a movie, intending to point out the film's poor moral examples and discuss why seeing movies is a bad idea.

Father and son attend a William S. Hart Western, and to his surprise the minister becomes as caught up in the story as the rest of the audience, cheering as the hero triumphs over evil. He rethinks his position about a blanket condemnation of movies and even preaches a sermon on it, tying it in to ideas on how to reach the next generation of young Christians. In many ways, that sermon isn't a bit dated.

A scene that did reflect how times have changed is when the druggist (Harlan Briggs) fills the minister in on various people's prescriptions and problems so that the minister can make a list of who needs him to pay a call. (For instance, when told a parishioner has been taking a lot of sleeping pills, the minister makes a note she must be worried about something.)  Can you imagine the modern privacy laws that violates?

The final scene is very moving, as a church the minister has struggled to build is completed and he plays "The Church's One Foundation" on the carillon bells, prompting people to flood to the church from all over town. (The views of the church intercut into this scene are the Methodist church at Franklin and Highland in Hollywood.) It's especially moving as, his work completed, the pastor will soon be moving on -- whether to another struggling church or to Heaven, as he has a weak heart.

As it happens, today is Trinity Sunday, one of my favorite days on the church calendar, and this movie made a particularly lovely way for me to spend the afternoon. That said, the performances, well-written script, and sincere, non-cloying human drama in this film should appeal to viewers of any faith.

ONE FOOT IN HEAVEN was directed by Irving Rapper and filmed in black and white by Charles Rosher. The screenplay of this well-paced 108-minute film was by Casey Robinson, and the musical score by Max Steiner.

The supporting cast includes Gene Lockhart, Beulah Bondi, Harry Davenport, Moroni Olsen, Jerome Cowan, Laura Hope Crews, Mary Field, and Elisabeth Fraser. Look for a young Charles Drake and Gig Young in bit roles.

The Warner Archive DVD is a very nice print. The disc includes the trailer.

Thanks to the Warner Archive for providing a review copy of this DVD. Warner Archive releases are MOD (manufactured on demand) and may be ordered from the Warner Archive Collection at the WBShop.


Blogger Jeff Flugel said...

I'm not a particularly religious person but I do love a good bit of Americana and always enjoy seeing a movie where a minister/priest/parson etc. is portrayed in a positive light (a rare thing in modern films). This sounds like one of those interesting, little-seen gems that are a perfect fit for the Warner Archive...thanks for bringing it to my attention, Laura!

5:17 AM  
Blogger KC said...

Though I loved March's unsentimental relationship with his wife in this, I wasn't sure how I felt about the movie until that final scene. It was so touching and colored everything before it.

7:30 PM  
Blogger Laura said...

Jeff, I hope you get to see this, would love to know what you think. One of those movies which leaves you feeling better for having seen it.

That's interesting you weren't quite sure about the movie at first, KC. The ending sort of gives the movie an IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE spin, doesn't it? I appreciated that up to that point the movie avoids any tearjerking or heavy-handed sentiment, but was more bracing in tone -- that made the ending all the more special.

Best wishes,

10:08 PM  

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