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)
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 in 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.
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 and 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.
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.