FILM REVIEW: Forgotten Movie Classic: “Stars in my Crown” (Jacques Tourneur, 1950)
by David Shasha
Give me a heart to hang onto
Give me a soul that’s tailored new
Pete Townshend, “Heart to Hang Onto” (1977)
The general climate of today’s cinema reflects the cruelty and the primal ignorance pervasive in our society. So many of our movies are concerned with things blowing up, with people killing each other and with a series of fake and stereotypical attempts at showing life as it is lived that the quaintly sentimental nature of the classic Hollywood cinema is increasingly seen by young people to be a romantic illusion. The dream-like qualities of the old Hollywood, the Hollywood of the 1940s and 50s, frequently had ensconced within it some very important themes and values that are often forgotten today amid the vulgarity of the Blockbusters that choose effect over sensitivity, cliche over humanity, instinct over intelligence.
The old studios churned out their fair share of garbage it is true, but amid the tripe and the well-worn cliches - cliches that were still centered on the stories of human beings and the prosaic events in people’s lives - a truly humanist art was developed.
Whether it was the drama, the musical, the Western, the Screwball Comedy, the crime drama, the horror movie, or what have you, Hollywood sought to tell stories of people that at their best served to illuminate the human condition and in rare cases provide viewers with an ennobling sense of moral grandeur in a world that was oppressive and cruel.
Directors like John Ford, William Wyler and Howard Hawks in films like “How Green was my Valley,” “The Best Years of our Lives” and “Sergeant York” presented deeply personal visions that articulate the values of what can best be called Religious Humanism; that critical conceptual formation which marries the human condition, its tribulations and the challenges of life as we live it, with the traditions of religious belief. These films showed a deft and subtle touch as they investigated the ordinary lives of real people facing difficult circumstances. Such films are gently but resolutely determined to show the ways in which people express their own humanity as they face sorrow, tragedy and pain. Their struggles became the struggles of the audience, creating an uncanny and emotionally-laden symbiosis which sought to uplift and transform the viewer sitting in a darkened movie theater.
The great director Jacques Tourneur, best known for his low-budget horror films with the producer Val Lewton at RKO - the most celebrated being “Cat People” and “I Walked with a Zombie”; films that embedded a truly subversive message in what might ordinarily be thought of as a cliched supernaturalism - also created one of the most powerful Film Noirs in his “Out of the Past.” “Out of the Past” had all the hallmarks of the genre, a desperate man in dire straits fighting forces that seemed beyond his control; the protagonist usually getting caught up in some criminal circumstances involving a dangerous syndicate and an equally toxic love interest which set his internal world into a chaotic spin that he would struggle to emerge from unscathed. These films were hard-bitten and presented cynical and imposing visions that spoke to the seedy and unsavory side of what we are as people dredging up nightmares of fear and hate that tapped into our collective unconscious to frighten and unsettle.
A unique and inspirational film that Tourneur directed in 1950 has not attracted as much attention as his better-known thrillers and horror-fests.
“Stars in my Crown” is a film that is almost totally forgotten today, which stands not only with the best work of its director, but is of a piece with the great Hollywood morality tales like Ford’s well-known epic “The Grapes of Wrath” and Jean Renoir’s equally-feted “The Southerner.”
The story of “Stars in my Crown” is drawn from the literary writings of Joe David Brown based in small-town 19th century Southern life. The film presents a number of intertwined stories that revolve around the ministry of a parson played by the great Joel McCrea. McCrea is best known today for his epic performance in Preston Sturges’ landmark “Sullivan’s Travels,” a paean to the classical Hollywood aesthetic, as well as his solid work in masterworks like Alfred Hitchcock’s “Foreign Correspondent,” Raoul Walsh’s “Colorado Territory” and his mature triumph in Sam Peckinpah’s magisterial “Ride the High Country.” He was an actor in the mold of Gary Cooper who brought his own unique mixture of gentleness and heroism to the roles he played. Like Cooper, McCrea was a rugged and compassionate figure who in his film roles combined toughness with a deeply human sensitivity. I cannot think of a more nuanced and graceful performance from his distinguished body of work than the one he presents in “Stars in my Crown.”
In a small Southern town after the end of the Civil War, the parson faces two difficult events; the outbreak of a typhoid epidemic and the racial unrest caused by the refusal of a humble black man, a released slave living on his own parcel of land, affectionately known to all as Uncle Famous, to sell his land which has been found to contain under it traces of a precious metal which is being mined by workers in the town. McCrea’s parson is the unifying factor in a film that tells its stories in an episodic manner. There is the character of the town’s young doctor whose modern ideas estrange him from the traditional superstitions and religiosity of the townspeople, as there is the gentle portrayal of the paternal role that Uncle Famous plays with the town’s children.
As is known, Hollywood took quite a long time to deal with the problem of race in this country and it was only in a rare film like “Show Boat,” the famous musical that was filmed a number of times, but in its now-acknowledged definitive version, the James Whale production of 1936, displayed the complexity of the racial issue in a way that very few movies did during Hollywood’s golden age.
With the ominous specter of D.W. Griffith’s “Birth of a Nation” hanging over the Hollywood bubble by reason of its tremendous commercial success, and the continued use of Hattie MacDaniel, Eddie Anderson and Stepin Fetchit in roles that we would today consider to be racist and vulgar, Tourneur and Brown’s attempt in “Stars in my Crown” to lay out a condemnation of the Ku Klux Klan in the context of an imposing Christian Humanism is something that is a wonder to behold. At a time prior to the Civil Rights movement when Jim Crow continued to rule the South, “Stars in my Crown” boldly shows Joel McCrea the Hollywood icon questioning and attacking those accepted values.
As the town struggles with an outbreak of typhus, Uncle Famous is visited by local members of the Klan who try to intimidate him to sell his land to them so that their mine can be reopened. As he breaks down over his own perceived guilt for the typhoid outbreak, McCrea is faced with the lethal combination of death and hate, and in true Hollywood fashion must rise to the occasion in order to bring God’s word and its sacred human values back to his town which has lamentably started to degenerate into primordial violence and destruction of an almost-Biblical proportion.
And in true Hollywood fashion the parson stands up before the townspeople, Klan and all, and restores the holiness and the sense of justice that have been trampled on because of human weakness and pretense. He shows us that there are indeed values that come from God which we must fight for with all our might and which can brook no compromise whatsoever. He accomplishes his task not by subverting the inherited tradition, but by providing a living, breathing example to the townspeople of the compassion and greatness of that tradition; a tradition that has been perverted by the actions of those whose values have destroyed human dignity and the compassion that ties us to one another.
The scene in which McCrea stares down the men in their white sheets is one of the most memorable in the film and is a milestone in the history of the American cinema. Standing before the Klan rabble with their militant hatred projected by the burning flames of a Cross on Uncle Famous’ lawn, the parson reads off a last will and testament that Uncle Famous has dictated to him in the eventuality of his lynching by the mob. The reading of the will is a moment that unnerves the mob as it lists the potential beneficiaries of the estate – one by one – as the individuals arrayed there ready to kill the black man!
Such is the genius of the Christian Humanism, turning the other cheek, that “Stars in my Crown” presents. Indeed, the symbolism of the “stars” in the “crown” are those good deeds known in the Bible as misvot, God’s sacred commands, that are the very basis upon which God’s revelation, Torah, is presented to mankind. In this we see the emergence of the Biblical concept of Hesed, an untranslatable Hebrew word whose closest semantic approximation would be loving-kindness.
But as we see in this brilliant movie, Hesed is so much more than that.
Hesed is our commitment not only to God and His revelation, but to God’s creatures as well. Acts of Hesed are performed not only by the parson, but also by the doctor, even as the two men run up against one another. Their acts of Hesed go beyond what would be considered charity and compassion; these acts restore the very equilibrium of the Divine-Human encounter and enrich our society by translating the essence of the Divine into the moral justice and ethical integrity that anchors life in a decent world.
“Stars in my Crown” is not simply replete with the hymns and values of the American Church; it is completely attuned to the concerns of modernity and the role that science and medicine must rightly play in our lives. Religious Humanism is today seen as an oxymoron that attempts to fuse two opposing value-systems which cannot in good conscience ever be yoked together. And yet the old Hollywood system continually presented its audience with the spiritual and moral values of Religious Humanism in a heroic and epic context.
The classic Hollywood films that we are looking at daringly demanded moral justice in a world that often affirmed the specter of the weak, the villainous and the cruel in a Darwinian Survival-of-the-Fittest moral context.
Today, when the corrosive specter of Social Darwinism has re-emerged to haunt our culture, a culture that as we see each and every day rewards the wicked and the cruel, Hollywood movies like “Stars in my Crown” come to restore for us the neglected and often forgotten values of Religious Humanism that provide us with a rare opportunity to affirm the dignity of mankind, but do so in a way that never ignores the complex realities around us.
Jacques Tourneur has rightly been celebrated for his cutting-edge work in “Cat People” and “Out of the Past,” classics that continue to impress us with their depth and complexity, but it is time that we rediscover the equally brilliant but now-forgotten “Stars in my Crown,” a film that does not share the same thematic as those other darkly haunting classics, but is a work in the tradition of the gentle yet forceful examinations of the human condition which Hollywood once produced in abundance and which remain timeless markers of a culture that we are desperately in need of in our own day.
The old Hollywood provides us with the example of a time that was perhaps more innocent than the age in which we now live. But such an age points to us as an example of the continued importance of Religious Humanism for our culture.
These wonderful films examine and articulate the value system of a Religious Humanism that was raised to an ideal that we can still feed off of as we contend with the debased values of the contemporary arts which seem to value the nihilistic, barren spectacle of mindlessness over the compassionate and steely integrity of the old Hollywood.