Springtime in Italy – Summertime

I can’t believe it’s already time for the last Springtime in Italy post! I’m glad I committed to this series, since otherwise I’m not sure I’d have written here much at all in March. It’s been such a crazy, busy month.

Summertime (1955)

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Director David Lean’s Summertime is a gem, one with much more in common with his quiet, intimate 1945 film, Brief Encounter, than his sweeping sagas like Doctor Zhivago and Laurence of Arabia.  It’s a truly touching, romantic movie, and one that doesn’t seem to be as popular or well-known as it should be.  I absolutely love it.

Summertime is the story of a middle-aged spinster secretary from Akron Ohio, played by Katharine Hepburn.  She has scrimped and saved for years in order to visit Italy, and from the first moment we see her she is brimming with enthusiasm about her adventure.  She’s also clearly eager to connect with those around her, from her fellow tourists to the Italians she meets.

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Hepburn is a marvel in Summertime.  The hope and wonder her character feels at finally being in this place she’s dreamed about for so long is very affecting, as is her loneliness and longing for beauty and romance.

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She finds that romance in a handsome Venetian played by Rossano Brazzi.  One of my favorite scenes in the movie is the one in which Hepburn, alone at a sidewalk cafe, realizes that Brazzi is gazing at her.

Her discomfiture at being noticed and appreciated by a good looking man is beautifully played.  Here is a woman who isn’t used to being paid attention to in that open, sensual, Italian way.  As much as she is yearning for romance and maybe even sex, she doesn’t know how to handle flirtation. The men in Akron don’t act this way – if they notice her at all, that is. 

Seeing Hepburn’s character come out of her shell – watching her put down the camera and start living life instead of simply observing from the sidelines – is a bittersweet joy.  Bittersweet because opening yourself up to love means opening yourself up to pain, and her admirer is a married man.  This isn’t the perfect, unencumbered romance she’s been dreaming of all these years.  These complications and compromises aren’t what she’s imagined for herself.

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I think Summertime is a movie that’s easier to appreciate when you’re a little older and can see that life isn’t quite what you dreamed it would be when you were young.  Things aren’t always straightforwardly black-and-white.  Is a little bit of imperfect romance in a love-starved life better than none at all?  Are a few days of passion and excitement worth the pain you might feel later?  There aren’t any easy answers – in the movie, or in life.

Or maybe I’m just a sucker for stories of forbidden romance.

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As I mentioned in an earlier post, I really like Rossano Brazzi.  He is especially good in this, making what could have been a smarmy character – a married man seducing a naive tourist — into something more complex and difficult to judge.  He’s very attractive and has great chemistry with Katharine Hepburn.

As for Hepburn, “sexy” is not an adjective I would use for her generally, but there are moments in Summertime when she shows that side of herself, and you understand why Brazzi’s character can’t take his eyes off her.

Aside from the touching, poignant story and Hepburn’s great performance, the movie is well worth watching for the gorgeous views of Venice in 1955.

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The city looks glorious in Technicolor, but unfortunately for Katharine Hepburn, the beautiful looking canals of Venice were actually filthy and dangerously polluted.  One of the movie’s scenes called for her to fall into the water, which she gamely did.  She was left with lifelong eye problems because of a resulting infection.

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I have an extremely long list of desert island movies, admittedly, but Summertime is definitely on it, and pretty close to the top, too.  I watch it every year or so, and it always breaks my heart in the most enjoyable way.  If you only watch one of my Springtime in Italy recommendations, I hope it’s this one.  It’s such a special film.

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Summertime is available on DVD from the Criterion Collection.  There’s a good essay about the movie on the Criterion Site as well.

Springtime in Italy – Come September

Come September (1961)

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Come September is one of my very favorite movies set in Italy. It’s also one of the best of the spate of racy yet innocent “bedroom comedies” that came out in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, following in the wake of the super successful Pillow Talk in 1959.

In fact, for my money it’s the best one, with the exception of the three Doris Day and Rock Hudson did together.  It’s so much fun.  Rather than give a detailed recap of the plot, I’ll just mention some of the things I love most about Come September.

Rock Hudson

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With his entrée into comedy in Pillow Talk, Hudson proved he could carry a movie not just as a handsome leading man, but as a very funny one, too. Here he plays a wealthy American industrialist who visits his Italian villa once a year, in September. That’s also when he visits his Italian girlfriend, to whom he won’t commit. When he decides to visit earlier in the year than usual, little does he know that his girl’s on the verge of marrying someone else and his major domo is running his home as a hotel – and pocketing the profits.

His response to all the craziness he encounters is fantastic. He’s especially good in his scenes with Bobby Darin, Sandra Dee and the other youngsters in the cast, amusingly illustrating the “generation gap” that was beginning to appear in the early ‘60s and would grow so wide by the end of the decade. Hudson was a great, subtle reactor and comedy straight man. Plus, he was soooo good looking!

Gina Lollobrigida

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No wonder she was one of the stars most associated with 1950s va-va-voom! What a gorgeous lady. She was also a very funny one in this movie, driving Rock Hudson crazy with her fiery temper, incredible curves, and sympathy for the teenagers suddenly overrunning his home. Call me crazy, but if forced to choose which Italian bombshell I like the most, I’d pick Gina over Sophia, based entirely on my love for her in Come September.

Sandra Dee

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Oh, how I love sweet, spunky Sandra! I have such a soft spot for her movies, especially the romantic comedies. She’s cute as a button, with great comic timing. I hate that she’s mostly associated with the song from Grease, because there was a lot more to her than the virginal teenager she sometimes played. (See her as an adorably mischievous French-American minx in If a Man Answers, for instance.) I love the scene in which she uses her Psych 101 knowledge to play therapist to Rock Hudson, thinking he’s a shell-shocked former soldier. Hilarious!

Bobby Darin

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What a multi-talented guy. In addition to starring in Come September, Darin also wrote the movie’s catchy theme song, which plays over the opening credits, and sings another song he wrote, “Multiplication.” Darin and Dee met and fell in love while filming in Italy and were married soon thereafter. They have great onscreen chemistry, which you can see more of in their other movies – the aforementioned If a Man Answers, as well as That Funny Feeling, both of which have a certain Junior-Rock-and-Doris feel to them.

A great supporting cast

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The supporting cast includes Walter Slezak as Hudson’s sneaky major domo, Brenda De Banzie (best known to me as one of the kidnappers in Hitchcock’s 1956 The Man Who Knew Too Much) as the chaperone of Sandra Dee’s tour group, and a young Joel Grey as one of Bobby Darin’s troublemaking pals.

Pretty, pretty dresses

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Everyone in Come September looks lovely! Sandra Dee and the other girls wear sweet sundresses, pretty formals, and kicky Capri pants. Gina Lollobrigida wears a series of gorgeous dresses and negligees that emphasize her every curve. The men look pretty nice too! I love that clean-cut, early-‘60s look so much. The clothes in classic films are a huge part of their appeal for me, and this is one of my favorite movies when it comes to fashion.

Pretty, pretty scenery

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More than pretty, in fact. Shot on location in Rome, Milan and Portofino, Come September is a joy to look at. I swear, there must’ve been some special magic in Italy in the 1950s and ‘60s, because it looks absolutely enchanting in movies of that time. Maybe it’s the combination of gorgeous scenery with the (to me) more aesthetically pleasing clothes, hairdos and cars of the era. Maybe it’s the Technicolor.  Whatever the case, it’s delightful to see!

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Come September is the perfect lighthearted comedy to get you in the mood for Spring.  It’s available on DVD and of course you should check it out.  After all, any  movie that features a scene like this one just has to be good!

Springtime in Italy – It Started in Naples

It Started in Naples (1960)

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Of all the movies I plan to write about during this month’s Springtime in Italy series, It Started in Naples is the only one that’s new to me.  I watched it for the first time this week, and while I really wanted to love it, I didn’t.

I liked it well enough, but it’s a pretty routine story and for me the chemistry between the movie’s stars, Clark Gable and Sophia Loren, just wasn’t there.  Mostly I was thrown off by the huge age difference between Gable, who was in his early 60s when the movie was made, and Loren, who was in her mid 20s.

Still, the movie has its good points, the main one being the breathtakingly beautiful island of Capri, near Naples, where most of the story takes place.  There’s not a lot to say about this movie, but there’s a lot to look at, so get ready for an overload of screencaps!

Mike Hamilton, a straightlaced, all-business lawyer from Philadelphia, arrives in Naples.  His ne’er-do-well brother ran off to Italy years before and was recently killed in a boating accident.  Mike is there to sort out his affairs.  He’s informed that his brother had a wife (well,  “wife,” since they weren’t legally married) who was also killed in the accident, and they left behind a young son named Nando.

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Mike’s Italian lawyer drives him through the bustling streets of Naples, so he can meet his sister-in-not-law, Lucia Curcio, who is now raising Nando.  Lucia is queen of a festa taking place in Naples.  There are festas taking place much of the time there and on Capri.  Mike is skeptical of Italians and their ways.  He won’t drink the water and keeps a cynical eye out for pickpockets and others who prey on American tourists.

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Mike ventures to Capri, where Lucia and Nando live, so he can sort things out and get back to America as quickly as possible.  By chance he meets his nephew on the docks, where he is selling flowers to tourists.  He looks like a dirty little urchin, and he’s very precocious and street smart.  Nando is played by a boy billed only as Marietto.  He’s really adorable in this movie – naughty, sweet and mischievous, with the cutest accent.

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When Mike sees where and how Lucia lives, he is not impressed. The fact that she’s sleeping in the middle of the day doesn’t help his impression of her, either.  He’s an American after all, and siesta is for sissies!

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In spite of his concerns, Mike is a busy man with a snooty fiancee waiting for him back in Philadelphia and he wants to get home.  He learns that his brother wasted his fortune swanning around Italy, so he gives Lucia some money, says goodbye to Nando, and leaves.

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Unfortunately schedules in Italy aren’t what they are in the States, so he misses his boat and has to stay an extra night.  There’s an amusing bit in his hotel room when, realizing he doesn’t have any bottled water, Mike brushes his teeth with whiskey.

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That evening Mike sees Nando wandering around alone in the square, handing out flyers and sneaking cigarettes and cups of coffee off people’s tables.  He’s appalled, especially when he finds out his nephew can stay up so late because he doesn’t attend school.  The flyers he’s handing out are ads for a nightclub where Lucia is the scantily clad main attraction.

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Mike goes to the nightclub and gets an eyeful.  He jumps to all kind of conclusions about Lucia, including the incorrect assumption that she’s a prostitute.  One of the movie’s most memorable scenes is the one in which Sophia Loren sings a sexy, cheeky version of “Tu Vuo Fa L’Americano.”  Mama Mia!  Lucia has her own prejudices against stuffy Americans, just as Mike has his against “dolce far niente” Italians.

Mike is so upset by the life Nando is living with Lucia that he decides to stay and fight for custody of the boy.  Gable and Marietto are great in their scenes together, showing the growing affection between uncle and nephew.

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Mike’s lawyer separately advises both his client and Lucia that the way to solve their dispute over Nando is not by going to court, but by using their respective sex appeals to get the other person on their side.  So they do just that, starting with another scene in Lucia’s nightclub.  This time she’s doing a sexy schoolgirl act, singing “Carina.”

In spite of their initial ulterior motives, the two are soon falling for each other.  We see them together in scenes highlighting the beauty of Capri, including a ride on the funicular railway, a swim in the Blue Grotto, and a visit to a vineyard.

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For all the fun and romance they’re having, however, Mike doesn’t see himself marrying Lucia.  When she hears this from him she’s hurt and tempers flare.

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Soon the pair are in court.  Lucia wins custody, for obvious reasons.  Even Mike’s lawyer can’t keep his eyes off her and seems to be on her side, not his client’s.

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Lucia, having learned about responsibility from straightlaced Mike, starts to have doubts about keeping Nando.  She thinks he might be better off with Mike in America, where he can get an education and make something of himself.  Heartbroken for herself but thinking she’s doing the right thing for him, she tricks the boy into running away to Mike.

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Mike finds out what Lucia did and realizes how much she loves Nando.  He tells Nando he belongs with his aunt and sends him back to Capri.  But before Mike’s train departs, he meets a group of obnoxious, Italy-mocking American businessmen in his compartment and realizes he doesn’t want to be like them anymore.

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He rushes off the train, finds Nando, and heads back to Capri for the expected happy ending with Lucia.  He even drinks some Italian water.

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It Started in Naples is a fairly cute movie, but it’s nothing special.  The story is completely predictable, but that wouldn’t be a problem if it were funnier or if the stars were more appealing together.  Instead the humor is hit-or-miss and Clark Gable and Sophia Loren seem mismatched.

It’s a beautiful looking movie, though, with colorful views of what must be one of the most magical, appealing spots in Italy – or maybe in the world.  I can only imagine how many people took trips to Capri in the 1960s after seeing this movie.  It certainly makes me want to go!

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I can’t express how utterly thrilled I am that TCM will be airing the 1964 movie Dear Heart, starring Glenn Ford and Geraldine Page, on March 27! It’s one of those movies that’s been difficult to track down in recent years, since it’s not on DVD and has never, to my knowledge, aired on TCM before this.

AMC showed it many years ago, back in the good old days when it was American Movie Classics. I absolutely loved it then, but I haven’t seen it in at least 15 years, probably more.

Still, as excited as I am to finally get a chance to re-watch Dear Heart, part of me is almost wary of doing so! I have such fond memories of Geraldine Page’s heartbreaking performance and the movie’s sophistication and romance, but will it stand up as well now that I’m a jaded (well, slightly jaded) thirtysomething, not an impressionable kid?

After all, some other movies I loved in my youthful AMC-watching days and saw again as an adult didn’t live up to my rosy memories of them.  April in Paris, with Doris Day and Ray Bolger, was one of my favorite girlhood movies.  When it was released on DVD a few years ago and I watched it, I was less than impressed. It was a bit of a let down after pining to get my hands on it for ages.

I hope Dear Heart won’t disappoint me.  And I hope that one day I’m able to see another  much-loved movie AMC used to  show – Margie, starring Jeanne Crain.  It and Dear Heart have been on the top of my wish list for so long.

Here’s the trailer.  Oh, that beautiful Mancini tune. At least I know that part is as good as I remember. Stay tuned for thoughts on Dear Heart later this month.

Springtime in Italy – Three Coins in the Fountain

I got the idea for doing weekly Springtime in Italy posts this month from a silly annual ritual I’ve had for the past several years.  Once the weather starts getting warm and springy, I throw open the windows so I can hear the birds singing, make some Italian food, and spend a day watching my favorite movies set in Italy.

Sometimes I’ll watch more recent films like Only You or Under the Tuscan Sun, but usually it’s the classics I turn to for my Italian pseudo-vacation – Come September, Summertime, Rome Adventure, Light in the Piazza, Roman Holiday.  I’d rather visit Europe in the ‘50s and ‘60s anyway.  The clothes were so much nicer then.  All those lovely sundresses!

Today’s movie is one of the quintessential Americans-in-Italy movies from the 1950s.

Three Coins in the Fountain (1954)

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Three Coins in the Fountain is the cinematic equivalent of candy– a  sugary, low-nutrition confection that tastes good in the moment but might leave you feeling a little queasy afterward.  Still, I can’t help popping it in the DVD player every now and then because even though it’s fluff, it’s very pretty fluff.

The movie was Fox’s first big Cinemascope production, and director Jean Negulesco fills the wide screen with the most sumptuous, romantic views of Rome and the country surrounding it.  The costumes by Dorothy Jeakins are mid-50s perfect, and the Academy Award winning theme song, sung by Frank Sinatra, is beautiful and memorable.

Maybe too memorable.  After listening to it a couple of times, I always go around like a broken record, singing “Which one will the fountain bless?  Which oooone wiiiiiiiiiill the fountain bless?” for hours.  Here, listen and see if it doesn’t happen to you, too.

The story revolves around three American secretaries working in Rome.  Dorothy Maguire is the (supposedly) old one, Miss Frances.  She’s been working in Rome for fifteen years and is secretary to expatriate writer John Shadwell, played by Clifton Webb.  She’s in love with him, though she hides it behind her spinsterish professionalism.

Webb is hilarious as the sharp-tongued, dandyish Shadwell, who is basically a non-murderous version of Waldo Lydecker from Laura.  Poor Miss Frances doesn’t have any gaydar, and thus doesn’t think it odd that her beloved wears floppy bow ties, white gloves  and is a “confirmed bachelor.”

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Jean Peters is Anita.  She works for a US government office, where fraternizing with the local employees is strictly forbidden.  That’s too bad for her, because she’s attracted to Giorgio, a translator and law student portrayed by that staple of ‘50s/’60s movies set in Europe, the sexy Rossano Brazzi.  The feeling is mutual – he’s smitten with her, too.  Unfortunately the office’s ridiculous rules get in the way of their romance.  So does the lie Anita has told everyone as an excuse to quit her job and go home – that she’s engaged to a man in the States.

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A gushing sidenote on Rossano Brazzi, who will doubtless show up in at least one more Springtime in Italy post this month – I love him!  He’s so handsome and suave and Italian. He tended to play the same kind of character, at least in all the movies I’ve seen him in: the worldly Continental lover, forever kissing hands.

He was good at those roles, though, and when he had strong material to work with, as he did in my favorite of his films, Summertime, he showed a lot of sensitivity.  He was a dreamboat!  Here he is in Summertime, when he first lays eyes on Katharine Hepburn.  SWOON.

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Okay, back to the ladies of Three Coins.  Maggie McNamara is Maria, the new girl who arrives in Rome and moves in with roommates Frances and Anita.  Roommates seems the wrong word, though; palace-mates might be more appropriate.  The US dollar was really strong in Italy in the post-war years, I suppose, since even secretaries could afford huge houses and servants!   One of the characters even says something along those lines.  Whether it was really true or simply a justification for the girls’ glamorous digs I don’t know.

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Maria meets jet-setting, womanizing Prince Dino di Cessi, played by French actor Louis Jourdan, and despite being warned about his reputation as a lothario she sets out to catch him.  She does this by finding out about his tastes and opinions and pretending to share them.  He ends up in love with her, thinking they’re soulmates.  The audience ends up believing the conniving girl may not even have a soul.  I think Maria is supposed to be the cute if amusingly flawed heroine of the piece, but I find her insufferable.

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The ladies have romantic ups and downs with their men.  Frances feels doomed to old maidenhood, even accepting her housekeeper’s pity gift of a kitten to keep her company in her tragic spinsterhood.  She decides to give up and go home so she won’t grow old alone in a foreign land.

This finally inspires Shadwell to propose to her, offering her a marriage of convenience and companionship.  (Yay?  Personally, I think she’d be better off with the cat.)  But things don’t go smoothly even then, since he’s soon diagnosed with a terminal illness and breaks their engagement in order to spare her.

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Maria finally admits to Prince Dino that she’s been lying to and manipulating him, driving him away from her, albeit all too briefly.  Seriously, their storyline is just plain awful.  Their whole romance is based on her pretending to be someone she’s not, which is obviously the best way to start a relationship – especially with someone known for his inability to be faithful to a woman.

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In the movies’s only believable and compelling romance, Anita falls for the passionate Giorgio and admits to him that she isn’t really engaged.  But just when it seems they’ve found happiness, their boss sees them together outside the office.  He assumes Anita is not a “nice girl” anymore, since she broke the office rules and was out gallivanting with an Italian.  Giorgio loses his job and perhaps his chance to become a lawyer.

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Of course things finally work themselves out for our characters,  however unrealistically, and in the end all is well.  The three couples meet up at the Trevi fountain as the theme song reprises and we all wish we could jet off to Rome, preferably Rome circa 1954.

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As snippy as I can be about Three Coins in the Fountain, it’s a snippiness born out of grudging affection.  The movie is travelogue escapism – a way to see attractive people in a gorgeous setting and have an Italian vacation without ever leaving home.  On that level it’s quite enjoyable and worth watching.

Also, Rossano Brazzi is as delizioso as a dish of gelato on a warm day!  For me, that’s reason enough to see it.  Siiiigh.

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Tweet, Tweet! Plus, Stars in My Crown (1950)

Before I get into discussing today’s movie, I wanted to mention that I’ve started a Twitter account for my miscellaneous thoughts on classic movie and stars. You can follow me (@HTD_Classics) by clicking the Twitter widget on the right. I envision lots of random, silly fangirl gushing there, so be forewarned!

Stars in My Crown (1950)

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I know there isn’t really an endless supply of good classic movies, but lately it feels like it. Even though I’ve watched hundreds of movies over the years, there’s still so much out there to discover and enjoy. It’s fantastic! In the past week alone I’ve seen two completely wonderful films I’d never even heard of a month ago – One Way Passage, which I wrote about the other day, and director Jacques Tourneur’s heartwarming drama Stars in My Crown.

I’ve read quite a few excited mentions of the movie in various blogs since Warner Archive announced its DVD release last month, and after watching it I completely understand what all the fuss was about. Stars in My Crown is one of the most uplifting movies I’ve watched in a long while.

The story is narrated by the character John Kenyon, an adult reminiscing about his childhood growing up indean stockwell  a small town in the years after the Civil War. The young John is played by Dean Stockwell. I haven’t seen very many of Stockwell’s childhood roles, but I’ve been truly impressed by the ones I have seen. He’s completely natural and real in Stars in My Crown – cute without being cutesy, and with a delivery of his lines that makes you believe he just is this kid. He has an especially good rapport with Joel McCrea, which they demonstrated again a few years later in an enjoyable Western called Cattle Drive.

John is an orphan being raised by his mother’s sister Harriet (Ellen Drew) and her husband Josiah, the town parson (McCrea). Parson Gray loves his town and the people living there, and is an integral part of their lives. He’s the moral center of the place – a truly decent man who leads by his example. He’s tough when he needs to be (the way he strides into the newly formed town and starts preaching to the drunks in the bar is very amusing) and has a great sense of humor and fun.

stars-in-my-crown-joel-mccrea-1950 To me, nobody could’ve played this part and embodied it quite as well as Joel McCrea. McCrea radiated decency in a way few other actors ever did. Even among the others who often played similar “good guy” parts – Jimmy Stewart, Gregory Peck, Henry Fonda or even Gary Cooper – McCrea stands out in my mind as the one who most naturally represents a simple, straightforward goodness on the screen.

The movie moves along at a gentle but brisk pace, introducing us to a young doctor who takes over his late father’s practice and clashes with the parson on matters of science versus faith, the sweet schoolteacher the doctor falls in love with,  a black farmer named Uncle Famous whose land contains a vein of mica coveted by a businessman determined to acquire it from him, and the parson’s non-churchgoing best friend and former Union army comrade.

The two main plots in the film revolve around the doctor and the farmer. The doctor juano_hernandezand the parson face an outbreak of typhoid that puts them at odds with one another, causing  each of them to question their own beliefs and look at each other’s with new respect. The farmer encounters cruelty and violence from the Ku Klux Klan when he refuses to sell his land to the businessman. The scene in which the parson peacefully – perhaps even miraculously – intervenes to stop the Klan from hanging Famous is incredibly moving.

The poster for this movie features a picture of Joel McCrea brandishing two guns, along with the line “Take your choice…either I speak…or my pistols do!”  It’s a horribly misleading poster, because other than the humorous moment when Parson Gray pulls out his guns to keep the bar patrons listening to his first sermon in town, Gray is never seen holding a gun again.  In fact, a message of peace is very strong in the movie.  Parson Gray meets the Klansmen armed not with a gun, but with his faith.

Stockwell and McCrea give the two standout performances of the movie, but all the actors are great – Ellen Drew as the parson’s spunky wife, James Mitchell as the dedicated young doctor, Juano Hernandez as wise old Famous, pretty Amanda Blake in her pre-Gunsmoke days as the schoolteacher, Alan Hale, Sr. as the parson’s best friend, and Ed Begley as the greedy mine owner.

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Stars in My Crown is charming, funny, kindhearted and entertaining. It’s sentimental without being cloying, and contains a message of faith without being nauseatingly preachy. It’s a sweet, simple tale of small-town family life of the sort you don’t see often anymore, in movies or on TV. Where are the Charles Ingalls and John Walton type of TV fathers these days, after all? Parson Gray reminded me of both of them, and of Atticus Finch from To Kill a Mockingbird, which in my view is a very good thing.

Joel McCrea said that Stars in My Crown was his favorite of all the many movies he’d been in, and considering how many truly excellent films he was part of – Sullivan’s Travels, The More the Merrier, Foreign Correspondent, The Palm Beach Story, Ride the High Country – that’s really saying something, both about the quality of the movie itself, and about the kind of man McCrea was.

For more on the admirably modest, down-to-earth Mr. McCrea and his lovely wife Frances Dee, I recommend this essay by Moira at Skeins of Thought.