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1950's Stars in My Crown is frequently singled out as one of Jacques Tourneur's sweetest and most gentle pictures. It was reportedly the favorite of its star Joel McCrea. I think that much of the praise for this Bible-belt crowd pleaser originates from the movie's subject matter: it flattered the perceptions of churchgoing mid-century folk who felt that their America wasn't reflected on the screen. Joel McCrea was never part of the fast Hollywood crowd and successfully disassociated himself from the world of scandal and gossip. He invested his earnings in real estate and stayed in the business at his leisure before retiring to his ranch McCrea hadn't been in anything really racy since the early 1930s, but associating himself with the upright Stars in My Crown was probably an easy way to tell new neighbors, "I'm just a nice guy like you." And that's perfectly fine.
The reason one never hears a bad word about Stars in My Crown is because its solutions to American problems come straight from the bedrock of Christian manners, home town beliefs and entrenched tradition. Directed by almost anyone else, the Joe David Brown story and Margaret Fitts screenplay would be just another MGM Heimat 1 to make the passive public feel good about themselves. But Jacques Tourneur could do wonders with almost any movie with a human story. Stars in My Crown exudes integrity, sincerity and unforced wholesomeness from every pore. The tale of a natural preacher in a post- Civil War Tennessee town is not unlike a gentle sermon. It doesn't avoid sticky subjects, although it does have an unusually evasive solution to the problem of racism.
The ads for Stars in My Crown, as well as the quickie descriptions in most movie logs describe it as the story of a preacher who tames an unruly town with a six-gun and a Bible. Except for one brief shot, which is rather wildly out of character, the preacher is not a town tamer in any usual sense. Much later, MGM produced a kind of warped remake of this tale with the fairly insulting Glenn Ford vehicle Heaven with a Gun, which adds pointless dashes of violence, nudity and sex.
The voice of John Kenyon (Marshall Thompson) recalls his idyllic boyhood as the adopted child of preacher Josiah Doziah Gray (Joel McCrea), who by force of personality brought the Bible to a churchless Tennessee town. Back in 1867, Josiah and his new wife Harriet (Ellen Drew) are beloved by the locals. Young John (Dean Stockwell) fishes with the kindly black neighbor Uncle Famous Prill (Juano Hernandez of Intruder in the Dust). Josiah welcomes everyone to his church on Sunday except for one holdout, good-hearted neighbor Jed Isbell (Alan Hale), who fought alongside Josiah in the late war. Trouble comes when store owner and mine proprietor Lon Backett (Ed Begley) wants Uncle Famous's land, and uses the Klan to persuade the freedman to sell. Josiah never tells his flock what to do but instead leads by example. He comes to Uncle Famous's defense when things get out of hand. A clash of professions arises when the new doctor Daniel Harris (James Mitchell) takes over the practice of his late father (Lewis Stone). Dan resents Josiah's popularity among the locals, and only remains in town because he's smitten by the beautiful Faith Samuels (Amanda Blake), who refuses to leave. Dan wants Josiah to stay away from "his" patients. When a Typhoid epidemic takes its toll on the children of the town, Dan accuses the preacher of spreading the disease through his community visits. For the first time, Josiah's confidence is shaken -- is he doing the town harm?
You can probably guess the answer to that last question. The intriguing thing about Stars in My Crown is that Jacques Tourneur achieves so much more than the average MGM family film of the time, with so little. Filmed almost entirely on the back lot, the movie has little in common with Tourneur's visually oriented classics Cat People and Out of the Past. The byword here is serenity, not elaborate camera moves and visual flourishes. The only one that comes to mind is a nice set of angles when young John and his best friend rest atop a hay wagon, and stare upwards at moving tree branches. Tourneur chooses instead to carefully modulate the performances of his actors, all of which seem to take their cues from Joel McCrea's unostentatious dignity. William Wyler's characters in Friendly Persuasion seem theatrical in comparison to Stars in My Crown's down-home simplicity. Josiah Gray loves what he does and believes that people will do the right thing if they listen to his good words. His wife Harriet simply appreciates him, and John adores him. That much of the story is a static image of decency and righteousness; Josiah Gray is appreciated and the community supports his family.
The story and its characters are so likeable that we overlook elements that don't add up. Josiah respects his neighbor Uncle Famous, although he never pressures him to attend church, as he does his friend Jed. We also note that nobody else associates with what seems the only black man in the whole county. It's unlikely that audiences for Stars in My Crown would have seen Juano Hernandez in the previous year's Intruder in the Dust, a much more challenging story of Southern racism. It's rather sad to see Intruder's defiant Hernandez now playing a helpless and somewhat dim old man. The movie implies that Uncle Famous's goodness is a function of his utter passivity. He simply accepts a lynching rather than leave his home. White audiences are not likely to be offended by a negro who poses no threat whatsoever, even when threatened with death; did Stars in My Crown have no problems playing in the South? I suppose that the great liberal victory of this character is that Uncle Famous is not a typical MGM darky stereotype from a few years before. If the truth be told, the new post-war awareness of race issues resulted mostly in the elimination of black faces from Hollywood movies not specifically about race.
The film shows Josiah Gray refusing to pick up his guns and relying on community pressure to win his battles. This myth of benign power is contradicted when the preacher knocks the town bully Perry Lokey (Jack Lambert) into the mud with his own whip, for tormenting the feeble-minded Chloroform Wiggins (Arthur Hunnicutt). The other town louts (and even Perry) accept Josiah's paternal "lesson" in good spirit, but Josiah hasn't really won any of them over -- they're all Klansmen. Josiah allows poor Chloroform to be subjected to quite a bit of abuse before intervening. Yet Josiah is the big hero of the moment -- because he bests a bully with decisive force, which is interpreted as moral authority. It's BS, really -- even John's voiceover memory of the town singles out Chloroform Wiggins for ridicule (his mother thought the name "Chloroform" was pretty, even though she didn't know what it meant). Preacher Gray is very selective in the injustices he chooses to oppose.
Josiah leads by example, but also by "friendly persuasion", which here means "benign harassment". Jed Isbell is a fine man and a model neighbor, but Josiah keeps after him to attend church long beyond the point that any normal man, even an ex- comrade at arms, would have told him to mind his own business. Josiah's main conflict is with the young Doctor Dan, who never says so but is clearly an atheist who would prefer that Bible-spouting hillbillies stay clear of his patients. The jealous, intolerant Dan has severe social issues, in that he thinks the locals' love for Josiah is a personal rejection, as well as a rejection of science and his superior education. Dan of course needs to be more secure in his identity and to learn to accept people as they are -- but the movie says that he needs to be humbled and subordinate his will to God's. The screenplay shows Dan improving his personal skills only when he falls in love with the aptly named Faith. The only real conflict in the movie is this interesting clash between medicine and preaching, and it's to the filmmakers' credit that they do have Josiah doubt his role in the community. He closes his church and stops making visits when he believes that he may indeed have been spreading the Typhoid epidemic.
But no. As it turns out, Doc Dan's medicine is the false idol. This being the 1870s, medicine was so primitive that it probably wasn't unusual for even rational people to turn instead to spiritual authority. Dan maliciously accuses Josiah of carrying the contagion when even Josiah knows that Typhoid is spread in drinking water, thus proving that Dan's goal is to undermine the preacher's position in the community. Then Faith falls deathly ill, and Dan almost collapses in grief. Miracle of miracles, Josiah is exonerated as a potential Typhoid Mary. His prayers appear to revive Faith from the depths of her fever. As Harry Powell would exclaim, "Love is a winnin'!" Hallelujah, the world is put back in harmony.
To the movie's credit, it's a very modest Hallelujah. Like everything else in Stars in My Crown, Josiah's Christian miracle is beautifully understated -- no crying women, no divine light from heaven and no people beaming through their tears at God's great work. Just as had little John before, Faith raises her head from her pillow and smiles, and we all feel great. Jacques Tourneur must be granted the credit for making such a beautiful movie moment out of this dead-on-arrival cliché. 2
Stars in My Crown's near-lynching scene has been likened to the beloved Gregory Peck film To Kill A Mockingbird. Both shows depict admirable characters reacting with courage and integrity to racial injustice, within narrow limits. I doubt that black audiences share the general audience approval of Josiah Gray and Atticus Finch. Both men live in racist societies where an irate mob can kill a black man with impunity. No reliable authority exists that can protect them. A preacher and a lawyer fail to put a dent in the prevailing prejudice, but prove their moral courage by standing unarmed by the side of the potential victim. In Stars in My Crown the little lesson in civic decency plays rather well. Josiah Gray pretends to recite from a paper that states the potential victim's positive relationship to his murderers, when they were children. Chastened, the lynch mob breaks up. It all seems a divine blessing until we look at it from Uncle Famous's point of view. The scene is really between Josiah and the white men ... Famous has surrendered meekly and Josiah admits that he's a goner. And what if Uncle Famous hadn't been the best pal of every white boy in the county, would Josiah have had to tell him he's out of luck? And where did Josiah get all these accurate old stories anyway? He didn't grow up in town, and we haven't seen him showing any special interest in Uncle Famous's personal history.
The movie means well and certainly shouldn't be made to apologize for itself. Almost all movies from its time sidestep the historical reality of out-of-control racial hatred. The only real justice would see the Klansmen stand trial and be put in jail. Blacks will continue to be lynched on a regular basis for the next 100 years, but that shouldn't keep us from feeling good about Josiah Gray's righteous victory. I guess Lon Backett will just have to wait until things quiet down and hire some out-of-town killers to shoot Famous in the back.
But Stars in My Crown finishes with a great swell of happiness for the Tennessee burg, which can stay planted and potted in its 'traditional values' knowing that the good preacher Gray is taking personal responsibility for its moral health. And I have to say that this is one extremely good movie, for that's exactly how I felt when the "The End" title comes up. Civic harmony is a much-desired American dream.
Joel McCrea once again radiates integrity, even more so than icons like Henry Fonda or John Wayne. This is perhaps because the charismatic actor did not emphasize his private life and politics, allowing us to project our own values into the gap. Ellen Drew and Dean Stockwell make a lovely family. The movie has no sex angle, not even between husband and wife, which surely came as a relief to 1950 audiences that didn't think the subject appropriate for general entertainment. McCrea and Drew seem too healthy to be "MGM Assumed Celibate". James Mitchell plays another one of his wrong-headed humorless joy killers, which unfortunately limited his career. He's usually pegged as a grouch or a wet blanket, as with his appearance as the only jerk character in Minnelli's wonderful The Band Wagon. Like most of the supporting players, Amanda Blake's Faith is briefly but skillfully sketched -- director Tourneur makes all these people seem to have lives that extend beyond their limited appearances. Besides the always-effective Ed Begley, we're given the great Charles Kemper as atypically warm and cheerful medicine show mountebank (the preacher takes pains not to give him an official endorsement). Kemper shows up in fine roles in Intruder in the Dust, Wagon Master and especially On Dangerous Ground. The actor surely would have built a larger career had he not been killed in a traffic accident the same month that Stars in My Crown was released.
The Warner Archive Collection DVD-R of Stars in My Crown is a very good Remastered Edition of this handsomely filmed B&W show. The very beginning and very end bear a few scratches but otherwise the image is virtually flawless. Note that the film's editor had to cheat once, and only once, with director Tourneur's work -- when the Klansmen invade Uncle Famous's yard, a shot of their entrance is repeated, flopped, to make the continuity flow more smoothly.
The disc comes with an original trailer, which amusingly concentrates on the movie's few bits of action and violence, giving a totally false idea of its overall impact.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Stars in My Crown rates:
1. Heimat means "homeland" or "home values" in German, and in movies it refers to stories that elevate the belief that traditional teachings and country ways are always best, and that modern, educated and progressive values need to be resisted. Today this is sometimes lumped in with the utterly misleading term "Family Values". Since most of us have a strong emotional attraction to the ways of our forebears, "Heimat" becomes a strong wedge for pundits and demagogues that want to define what "a good German" is or what "a good American" is. Heimat movies can be almost fairy tales (like Heidi) or they can be perfectly charming stories that work overtime to show that there's good in everybody, like Pollyanna. But these kinds of stories can also be very political in nature: what the righteous characters "know to be right in their hearts" outweighs the complexities of modern life, and denies the validity of "others": foreigners, strangers, people with different values or just from outside one's immediate neighborhood. The denial of a moral gradient means that characters that stand in the way of the virtuous Hero or Heroine can only be wrong-headed. They must be either turned toward the good side, or eliminated. The Christy TV movies from ten years ago are prime examples of the gentle edge of this soft message making: trust in the Lord and follow the instructions of approved authority figures. Even with its questionable issues, Stars in My Crown is not a part of this mean-spirited trend in "uplifting" entertainment.
German radical filmmakers of the '70s used propagandistic parodies of Heimat movies to make statements about oppressive aspects of society and government. But some of our own modern blatant political entertainment media now resembles vintage totalitarian propaganda. As seen in this example, plenty of cheerful info-tainment circulates to promote hateful ideas about race, class and church values -- either to raise money or to influence the political landscape in pernicious ways.
2. Of course, those of us who know TV history will realize that Faith will rebel against domestic life, ditch the drippy Dr. Dan and run off to the Wild West with Jed's eldest son Rolfe. She'll change her name to "Kitty" and he'll become Matthew Dillon, town tamer. We'll be guessing at the true nature of their personal relationship for the next twenty years. And not once will they sing Stars in My Crown or re-hash the events of their past in Tennessee.
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T'was Ever Thus.