Stars in My Crown (1950)
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The story is told through the observations of young John Kenyon (sensitively portrayed by Quantum Leap's Dean Stockwell, with Daktari's Marshall Thompson voicing Kenyon as an adult), who lives with Soldier-turned-Minister Josiah Dozier Grey (Joel McCrea, in one of his finest performances) and his wife, Harriet (Ellen Drew). Grey is kind, warm, and totally sincere, with a penchance for telling funny stories with a Message, rather than being 'preachy'...in short, the kind of Parson who can win hearts, as well as souls!
Grey's congregation includes some of Hollywood's finest character actors, including Lewis Stone (Judge Hardy) as a crusty old doctor, James Mitchell (Days of Our Lives) as his doubting physician son, Alan Hale (The Adventures of Robin Hood) as a Civil War buddy with a large family (including 'Matt Dillon' James Arness!), Amanda Blake (who would costar with Arness in 'Gunsmoke') as the schoolmarm, Arthur Hunnicutt (The Big Sky) as a local character nicknamed 'Chloroform'(!), Oscar-winner Ed Begley as a rich mine owner, and, in a remarkable performance, Juano Hernandez as 'Famous Uncle Prill', a Black farmer who experiences with dignity the racism of the time.
Director Jacques Tourneur, best-known for his gothic classic 'Cat People', shows patience and restraint, allowing the story to build under its own steam, which gives the climaxes (a typhoid epidemic and a Klan near-lynching) an emotional wallop. McCrea's scene with the incensed Klan members foreshadows Gregory Peck's confrontation with the lynch party in 'To Kill a Mockingbird', and is truly unforgettable.
'Stars in My Crown' is a rich, wonderful film that your family will cherish. It is on the short list of my favorite films, and is one that you can enjoy for years to come!
If anything, it needs a bit more running time to develop all the relationships. It tends to skimp. And Tourneur was maybe not so gifted working with actors. James Mitchell as the progressive, practical new doctor in town seems somewhat ill-at-ease. Joel McCrea as the take charge parson is understated as always, but never hogs the spotlight and seems to have a great respect for The Story. Acting honors go to the fabulous Juano Hernandez as Uncle Famous, a peaceful black man who refuses to give in to racial intimidation in his own easy-going way.
And that ending packs a wallop. Won't soon forget the truly haunting image of those two blank sheets of paper (thought to be Uncle Famous' Will) being swept along in the wind. It may not be Uncle Famous' after all, but as McCrea states with utter conviction, "It's God's Will."
Both plots are exceptional--particularly the one involving Hernandez because the film dared in 1950 to attack prejudice--something Hollywood was seldom willing to do at that time. Often, when Blacks were in mainstream films, they were one-dimensional and the racial divide in America was ignored. For 1950, this was a brave film--though some will no doubt notice that the film is perhaps a bit overly idealistic in how it portrayed how the White Southerners generally loved Hernandez.
The plot involving the doctor was also rather touching and had a lot to say about the supposed gap between faith and science. I particularly liked how McCrea AND the doctor struggled with this divide.
STARS IN MY CROWN reminds me of another film that is also about a small town preacher (ONE FOOT IN HEAVEN) and both have a nice gentle spirit but also aren't preachy or saccharine despite being films about the clergy. I especially like how both ministers (in this case, Joel McCrea and in the other film, Frederic March) were human beings--not dull caricatures. Some may be offended because the films AREN'T really religious movies (you get no Gospel or Bible-thumping here) but for a general audience these films are sure to please. I recommend both heartily because they were written so well and the acting was on target. See these films.
Back in those days if you wanted a virtuous hero, the most virtuous around was Joel McCrea. McCrea doesn't preach so much as lead by example. We see him in the various roles his ministry calls on him to perform, as comforter of the dying, fighting an epidemic of typhoid fever that has struck the town and standing up for the weak and the persecuted. He and Mrs. Gray live modestly in the parsonage with her nephew played by Dean Stockwell. It is the grown up Stockwell who narrates the film. The setting is in the border states post the Civil War, circa 1880.
The grown up Stockwell is the unseen voice of Marshall Thompson who describes a Tom Sawyer like boyhood. Stars In My Crown is one of the most idyllic portrayals of small town America ever put on screen.
Of course even Tom Sawyer dealt with some bad people in his boyhood. Stockwell sees his uncle administer a whipping to a town bully played by Jack Lambert. He also watches McCrea fearlessly stand up to night riders organized by the town's leading merchant Ed Begley who is trying to force Juano Hernandez off his property with some tried and true race baiting tactics.
A good cast of veteran and young players contribute some good performances such as Ellen Drew as the parson's wife, Alan Hale as the unbelieving Civil War compatriot of McCrea's, Amanda Blake as the young school teacher and Lewis Stone as the town doctor.
James Mitchell plays Stone's son who takes over his practice and comes into conflict with McCrea as he is an unbeliever. Their conflict takes up a good deal of the film. And it's a conflict between two people both of whom passionately believe in the work they are doing. Mitchell is also courting Amanda Blake at the same time he's opposing McCrea. Mitchell strikes the right note as the earnest young doctor who if he wasn't essentially a good man, Amanda Blake wouldn't have given him a second glance.
The title of the film comes from an old Protestant hymn which is a favorite of McCrea's and there's a running joke between McCrea and Drew as to why he insists on having Stars In My Crown sung at every service.
I like Stars In My Crown because I think it shows the positive good that people who go into the ministry can do even in a small rural setting. Like It's A Wonderful Life, when you've seen Stars In My Crown, try to picture what life might have been like had Joel McCrea not come to town.
There is no plot but subplots for it is primarily the depiction of a city in the south.Around the minister,we find the "new generation" doctor who has his doubts and who doesn't believe that healing the soul is that much important;he comes into conflict with Gray .There's also a KKK side and their "methods" to do good old Uncle Famous Pril away from his valuable property.The scene which finally won me over was the reading of Pril's "last wills" .When you discover the truth,you won't believe your eyes!This scene alone raises the movie to greatness by recurrence.And what a tuneful canticle!
Not only because the life of a small rural town in the post-Civil War South has to face a typhoid epidemic and Klan racism because the 'family' nature of the film ensures these are merely obstacles to be overcome, each of them a lesson learned in Christian love and brotherhood not only for the characters but also for the audience, but mostly because of the way Tourneur shoots the major set-pieces that revolve around them. Going back to what he learnt next to Val Lewton at RKO, Tourneur gives an otherwise saccharine film a dark underbelly, Klansmen pinning threatening notes on negros in front of burning crosses et al.
Yet STARS IN MY CROWN never feels like a film whose message and theme is beneath the director. Tourneur approaches the story in earnest. The truth is that it takes a while for things to get going. That the film is a bit too episodic and scattershot to really register until the final 15 minutes when parson Joel McCrea has to face off alone with a mob of Klansmen to save the life of a negro. That the small vignettes scattered throughout the film push the two major plots (smalltown biggotry and typhoid epidemic) a bit too far apart, the result making the first half a pretty meandering anemic affair. But the denouement, for all its saccharine 'everybody gets together to sing hymns in the church' quality, feels honest and I find it hard to fault such a film. Building something as emotionally earnest and unassuming as this is harder than tearing it down with cynicism.
It's a very simple piece, a series of scenes on which there hangs the thinest thread of a plot, in feeling and in structure not dissimilar to John Ford's "The Sun Shines Bright". It's also one of the few really good 'religious' pictures yet one in which religion isn't centre stage but something that's just there infusing every scene and it's not at all sentimental yet ultimately it's very moving. It's cult status is thoroughly justified.
Joel McCrea is excellent here as the preacher in the town of Walesburg. It is said he spoke of this film as one of his favorites. Over time, he becomes a well-respected member of the community as he takes care of an orphan (Dean Stockwell) and the townspeople. Life passes by. After only a brief scene, the wonderful Lewis Stone, as the town's old doctor, dies, to be replaced by his on, an unreligious man who really has no intention of remaining in the town...but he is in love with the school teacher (Amanda Blake in her first film role, and 5 years before she began her stint on "Gunsmoke"...ironically, James Arness is also in the film, though uncredited!). The preacher's "son" comes down with typhoid, which tests the preacher's faith. The preacher closes his church and withdraws from the community. The "son" recovers and the young doctor begins to be more accepted by the community. Then, it appears the school teacher is dying, but prayer appears to be the answer, and the young doctor's belief in God begins to develop. Businessman Ed Begley tries to buy the land of freed slave, and when rebuffed turns to the Ku Klux Klan. Farmer Alan Hale steps in and helps the former slave. When the KKK develops a lynching party, the preacher's sermon to them saves the old man. Faith is restored.
No, this is not a true western, but it is true Americana. Performances are quite good all around, and this film was made in the last year of Alan Hale's life, although he was only 57 years old. It's actually difficult to find much wrong with this film...and, after-all, it was an MGM production at a time when MGM was still the mark of excellence.
Highly recommended for the story, and as well for the steadied performance of Joel McCrae, although this film almost has the feel of an ensemble cast. Ellen Drew's part as the preacher's wife is rather minor, though necessary. Dean Stockwell certainly was one of the best child actors of his era, and is here. Clearly, Alan Hale was getting along here, but as always, was a welcome face in any film. James Mitchell as the young doctor was good, though I was not familiar with him. Amanda Blake was suitable as the school teacher. Juano Hernandez was excellent as the former slave. And, Ed Begley was perfect as the villain of the story. Again, this seems more like an ensemble cast, rather than a star system cast.
What is revealed to us later in that magic last scene is not revealed to them and we experience it with them and see in the black old man our true Jesus.
Now, somebody who has been hounded all his life, will maybe not be strong enough to write such a will but the beauty of the film is that the black man has always been portrayed in the film with utmost dignity, so we are fooled just as everybody else.
First, I thought it was a letdown that uncle Famous did, in fact, not write that will but later I realized that it would have been too saintly bordering to unrealistic to have him write it. However, had he been less oppressed he might very well have written it and later on in history a black man did indeed write many extraordinary things - Martin Luther King.
This film has the same impact against racism as The Bicycle Thief has against market economy, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest has against psychiatry and society, The Elephant Man has against levity and Great Expectations has against fixed ideas and illusions.
A film to be proud of having seen, if such a thing is possible.
The story of a preacher in a small town in the United States, circa 1870s: his interactions with the townsfolk, ups and downs, trials and tribulations.
On the surface, a western. Even the preacher brandishes six-shooters (initially)! However it is soon obvious that it is more than that. It is a wonderful look at a small town, how its citizens bond together, how some try to take advantage of others, how they have fun and how they deal with adverse events. A study of a much more innocent and idyllic time.
Throw in some great life lessons and other inspirational morals, and you have a fantastic, emotional, heart-warming story.
One of the most beautiful and touching films I have seen in the last year or so. If "Stars in my Crown" doesn't move you, you have a heart of stone. Joel McCrea - radiating sincerity, integrity and goodness, plays Pastor Josiah Grey, a Protestant minister who was a soldier in the Civil war. He arrives in the small town of Walesville, strides into the bar, puts his six guns guns on the counter and preaches a sermon. And of course he never puts those guns on again. Josiah builds a church, marries Harriet (Ellen Drew) and adopts his nephew John (Dean Stockwell).
Trouble rears its head when Lon Bracket (Ed Begley) tries to buy the former slave, Uncle Famous Prill's (Juano Hernandez) land because he wants to mine it. Uncle Famous refuses to sell and an angry Lon sends a bunch of bullies to destroy the place. But the Swedish farmer Jed Isbell (Alan Hale) - a friend of Josiah's who doesn't attend church, and his six boys turn up to fix the farm.
Later, a typhoid epidemic strikes the town and young doctor Dr. Harris (James Mitchell) attends to the sick and dying while Josiah attends to their souls. This annoys the doctor, who persuades Josiah that he is responsible for spreading the disease. He's wrong, but Josiah, feeling guilty, closes his church and starts staying indoors. Meanwhile, Lon gathers the Klu Klux Klan and prepares to lynch Uncle Famous. Jed and his sons are ready to shoot it out with the Klan, but Josiah has another plan.
At times, this lovely, heartwarming film reminded me of "To Kill a Mockingbird" and I was surprised, considering when it was made, at how strongly it stands against racism and supports Civil Rights. I also enjoyed the fact that Josiah Grey never talks about the supernatural. If only there were more preachers like him in the world. He is a good man through and through.
Jacques Tourneur is a terrific director and I have enjoyed many of his films, but this is the best one I have seen yet. Now wonder he wanted to make it so badly that he was prepared to accept a minimal salary. It's a gentle, yet powerful classic. The final stand off between Josiah Grey and the Klan, BTW, is unforgettable.
There are multiple narrative threads. The town's old doctor dies and his stern, somewhat atheistic son takes over. A little friction there. Then there's the typhoid epidemic which lays much of the town low. One glimpse of chubby, perky little Dean Stockwell and you know he's going to be one of the patients. Then there's the conflict between old Famous, played by Juano Hernandez, Hollywood's Negro, and blowhard, greedy Ed Begley who wants Hernandez's land because Begley's mica vein runs through it. This leads to the final confrontation in which the Ku Kux Klan comes to lynch old Famous and take his land. They're talked down by the patient, honest, true-blue Joel McRea. Everybody winds up singing the hymn, "Stars in My Crown," in church and they all live happily ever after. Well, Ol' Famous isn't seen singing in the white church. We don't want the fantasy to turn clotted.
There are a couple of notably above average elements in the film. One is Jacques Tourneur's direction. It can't be reproached. Like his mentor, Val Lewton, he's seen to period detail. Watch the fly scarers swirl over the freshly baked chocolate cake. Watch the mechanical apple peeler at work. He overplays nothing, nor do the actors. (Interesting to see James Arness and Amanda Blake working together before "Gunsmoke.") The director and the performers don't overplay anything, and they deserve thanks, because the script overplays everything for them.
It's really a rural wonderland we see, and a slightly anti-modernistic one, a little sour beneath all the treacle. Any movie in which a disabled ex-Confederate soldier and his half-dozen sons break out their guns and ride to save an old Darkie from losing his pitiful plot of farm land represents something other than a naturalistic view of humanity.
The town's new doctor is described by his dying father, the town's old doctor, as "long on learning and short on experience." (Something like that.) The experience he must learn is to give up his claim to Aesculapian authority and become just one of the folks, not hoisty-toity, not an elitist, singing in church, smiling happily, settling in.
This is John Ford territory but I doubt that Ford would have been so committedly earnest. The narration wouldn't have to spell out for us how essential it is that we all hang together, that we don't feel innately superior to anyone else, that we treat each other fairly, that we think of the community before we think of ourselves. Ford would have shown it. There would be dances, humor, drinking, a comic fist fight, a miscreant boy being spanked lovingly.
If you liked the TV series, "The Waltons," you'll probably kvell over this one. If you liked "To Kill a Mockingbird," you'll like this too, although "Mockingbird" is in many ways a more demanding tale.
I was trying to think about audience responses to this. It was released in 1950. There were people in the rural audiences for whom this represented a kind of glowing memory, blended with a certain dreaminess; there were people who could easily recall their youth from forty years earlier, in 1910, when many of the characteristics of small-town Southern life would have been living reminiscences. The horses, the drinking out of wells, everybody deferring to the Parson, the reassuring doc making house calls with his black bag, the town meanies who are good at heart. That traditional life style was no farther back in time for them than Vietnam is for us.
The movie is like one of those Twilight Zone episodes in which a harassed modern man is transported back to his innocent, happy childhood. It's satisfying in its own way.
This during a through-narration by an off-screen adult version of child actor Dean Stockwell, who plays the orphan son, John. And about fifteen minutes in, the town's old, dying doctor asks Josiah if he remembers what he and the audience could never forget... That should have been repeated a few times - his thing, as it were, in acquiring a captive audience at gun point...
Although as blunt as Reverend Josiah is, there's a passive, non-violent streak despite having fought through the Civil War (side-by-side with rowdy atheist Alan Hale, whose giant eldest son is future GUNSMOKE star James Arness), which gives McCrea half a dozen stories to tell within pockets of rural lakeside scenery that director Jacques Tourneur serves throughout a creative camera that enters and exits locations, along with the townspeople who, themselves, are the sole plot, or intentional lack of...
Anyone looking for shades of the action-packed WICHITA, the actor and director's third, final and greatest Western collaboration, will be disappointed (STRANGE ON HORSEBACK lies in-between). This small town's viewed with an optimistic revere of lost youth, but not without deep shades of Tourneur's signature dark and Gothic undertones...
As the darkest character is the new young doctor (son of the inevitably dead one) played by James Mitchell, who doesn't think much of McCrea's "medicine of Prayer," and has an eye for soon-to-be GUNSMOKE saloon owner Amanda "Miss Kitty" Blake as Faith (but Kitty and Marshall Dillon never share a scene)...
Eventually, in a somber and dragged-out third act, as she lies near-death from a town epidemic, STARS IN MY CROWN has some difficulty keeping the residents as interesting as the location itself...
One sequence has a traveling magician snake-oil type doing an almost ten minute show, taking far more time than any of the earlier conversations between the kid and a wise old former slave, who's being threatened to sell his small piece of land: Making this time-period drama more of a voyeuristic passage back in time than an idyllic entry into the Western genre. McCrea has sincere strength within the usual deadpan yet dependable persona. But most credit goes to Tourneur's gift of creating a melodic enchantment to what might've been a passable feature otherwise.
I didn't see the script as being particularly realistic. Maybe a preacher could talk a clan mob out extreme violence? This would not have happened in a film like "To Kill a Mockingbird" which came along about ten years later, also involving a child narrating the film as an adult like "Stars in my Crown."
But I liked the film's dealing with their health crises and the conflict between medicine --such as it was in that time period-- and the idea that prayer had a factor in the healing process.
A period drama, though and through. The time is the end of the 1800s in rural America. The small town has all the expected types, especially the kindly preacher (who leads the story through his adopted nephew, a charming and energetic boy). There is the the greedy capitalist, the skeptical doctor, the hardy Swedish family, the pretty wife and the pretty girlfriend, and the old black farmer. The acting is sincere, and the writing honest and filled with homespun wisdom.
So this should be a good movie and it is. It's also very "old-fashioned" (that's the first word that came to mind. I have figured out what that means—not that it's filled with good people striving to do well and be happy in simple times, though that is true. It's more that it feels simple. This makes for a lack of complication, and surprise, and tension.
The worst part of this is that everyone is who they appear to be, without development or complication. Even when the final huge crisis sweeps the town and people are forced to step outside their usual roles, they do so predicatably. It's all very sweet but a bit of a bore—or to be nicer about it, a bit less exciting than the movie had the potential to be.
One last final note—leading man (pastor) Joel McCrea has a mixed role as leading man. Here he is cast perfectly, and he fits the part and holds it up, and holds up his end of the movie. Nice to see him at his best.
He also has to deal with a typhoid epidemic, conflict with the local doctor (JAMES MITCHELL), defending a dignified black man (JUANO HERNANDEZ), and caring for his adopted son (DEAN STOCKWELL). But director Jacques Tourneur takes his time in telling the tale, narrated in lazy fashion by MARSHALL THOMPSON who is supposed to be the grown-up version of Dean Stockwell's character.
It spins dangerously close to cloying sentiment but never oversteps the bounds and is especially compelling when it shows how McCrea manages to dissuade a mob bent on violence with a clever way of defending Juano Hernandez from a lynching. It's this episode that makes the last portion of the story crackle with genuine suspense--although, in some respects, it's rather hard to believe how easily the mob is persuaded to drop the whole idea.
Summing up: Earnest and heartwarming, it's a likable treat.
Trivia note: Catch JAMES ARNESS and AMANDA BLAKE in the same film, before they became famous on "Gunsmoke."