August 21, 2009 / Filmwell
On celebrations and empty chairs at the table in three films: Still Walking, Summer Hours, and Rachel Getting Married.
August 11, 2009
“There’s no writing on here. This ain’t no will.”
“Yes it is. It’s the will of God.”
Fans of the moody supernatural thrillers Jacques Tourneur lensed for Val Lewton in the forties or his noir masterpiece Out Of The Past may find little appeal in this sunny, easy-going tale of a small town parson set just after the American Civil War. But of the twenty-nine feature films he directed between 1939 and 1965, Tourneur often cited this as his favourite. A gentle, non-assertive man by all accounts (uncommon traits in a film director!), this is the one he fought to do;
I went to see Eddie Mannix who was the boss at MGM. He said, “It’s a little B picture. We can’t pay your price.” To which I said to Eddie, “I’ll do this picture for nothing.” He said, “We’re not allowed to pay you nothing because there’s a Guild and we’ll have to pay you the minimum.” So I said, “Fine. Pay me the minimum.”
In some ways, he sacrificed his career to get this movie made: once he’d agreed to make a film “on the cheap,” studios never again paid him more than a fraction of what he’d earned on previous assignments.
Why was this project so important to Tourneur? One wonders if he may have felt an affinity with the story’s central character, the transcendently decent Reverend Josiah Gray. Chris Fujiwara paints paints the portrait of a remarkable man, “quiet, calm and humane,” in his definitive work, Jacques Tourneur: The Cinema of Nightfall;
Paul Valentine said “Tourneur was a delightful, lovely man, and he treated everybody like they were his own family members. And we enjoyed it. There was never a loud word, never an argument.” Robert Stack thought him “shy and pleasant”; Gregory Peck said he was “smiling, easygoing.” To Peter Graves, he was “a kind man and a good director…. So many Hollywood directors were gruff and abrupt. I remember him as kind and patient.” During production of The Flame and The Arrow, Tourneur walked off the set because Burt Lancaster had been terribly rude with a technician without any reason.” Tourneur explained: “I detest people who insult those who can’t defend themselves. I told him that if it happened again I would abandon the film, and he was very docile after that.”
In one memorable sequence near the beginning of Stars In My Crown, the no-longer-pistol-packin’ preacher discovers a man teasing the simple-minded “Chloroform” Wiggins with a bull-whip: the scene is agonizingly protracted as the victim tries to laugh it off, fuelling his tormentor’s compulsive cruelty, until finally the preacher – a Civil War veteran – intervenes. The scene blazes with Tourneur’s passion for justice and his compassion for the powerless and outcast, while it’s unexpectedly gracious conclusion restores a remarkable affability and harmony to the community. Esteemed critic Jonathan Rosenbaum calls it “one of the most neglected films in the history of cinema… It recalls some of John Ford’s best work in its complex perception of goodness, and I can’t think of many films that convey a particular community with more pungency.”
One also senses that Tourneur’s intense desire to direct this sweet-spirited, faith-affirming story, which seems so out of step with the darker subjects and style of the films he’s more famous for, has a great deal to do with its spiritual themes – themes which are treated with surprising seriousness in his horror pictures. We’ve sensed that this guy really takes evil seriously: now we begin to wonder if maybe he really believes all the God stuff, too.
Stars is loaded with God stuff, no mistaking, and it’s not just the general clerical do-gooding of too many minister movies. The town’s new doctor is antagonistic to the Reverend Josiah Grey and his religion – “I’m not interested in souls” – but when medical science has failed and the young doctor’s wife, Faith, is on her deathbed, he calls for the man of God, whose bedside prayers bring miraculous healing. Perhaps more significant (and certainly less melodramatic) is the healing of Doc Harris’s soul. Early in the film his antipathy toward the parson extends to condescension toward the entire town, but the minister deals graciously with his enemy and makes room for him to gain the trust of the community, until in the end the man of science sits beside Faith on a pew in the church, singing the pastor’s favourite hymn, “Stars In My Crown.”
The tension between scientific reductionism and spiritual reality may be this auteur’s most distinctive theme: interestingly, Stars is unique among Tourneur’s best-known films in finding a reconciliation between the two. The director’s “magnificent obsession” with another sort of reconciliation provides a second link between this atypical film and his other celebrated works: a fierce passion for racial equality that’s all the more remarkable given the fact that these films predate the full blossoming of the civil rights era.
While the screenplay draws little attention to it, the common perception that the Civil War was in part “the war against slavery” provides a perfect historical context for the story of a man who has set aside violence as a means but continues to fight for the same end with the weapons of peace. (Characters intent on building a new life are central to Cat People and Out Of The Past). The pioneer preacher might use his status as a Civil War hero to win the respect of school children or stand up to the town bully, but he leaves his guns at home when it comes time to face a mob of Klansmen intent on lynching a black farmer and taking his land – far and away the film’s most powerful scene. Viewers who find themselves impatient with the quiet, pastoral (heh heh heh) tone and pace of the first eighty minutes really must stick around for the powerfully filmed climax. Josiah Grey’s confrontation with his racist neighbours, their identities (and humanity) masked by white sheets, prefigures one of the best-known and most moving scenes in American film, Atticus Finch’s vigil on the jailhouse steps in To Kill A Mockingbird.
I can only wonder whether a 24-year-old Harper Lee saw Stars In My Crown when it played the local movie house in Monroeville, Alabama. Who knows, maybe her peculiar childhood friend was in town, maybe they shared popcorn. I figure Truman would have been less impressed than she with the sentiment and nostalgia for a small town much like theirs, with its obvious sense of community and shared values – but he’d surly appreciate the film’s acknowledgment of its less obvious cruelties and racism. But it seems to me this is a story that would make a particular impression on Miss Lee: a story where adult matters are seen through the eyes of a child, the story of a wise and peaceful man, a man of immense integrity and courage, who simply will not stand by and let his town be less than it might be.