Crown Jewel

Stars in My Crown is a lovely, unpretentious movie and that rare Hollywood product: a religious film that’s genuine in its religious feeling. It doesn’t embarrass, cheapen, or cheat on that impulse. The story’s about a parson (Joel McCrae) and his impact on the lives in a small Southern town after the Civil War. He shows how decency and gentleness can prevail, setting an example of a calm, enlightened life. The beginning scene is amusing: McCrae strolls into a saloon and draws his six-shooters to get everyone’s attention (he succeeds). Afterwards, however, he relies not on his guns but on his example of rectitude. The film has no overarching plot but is composed of narrative strands that thread, like underlying harmonies, throughout the story; the main ones are the KKK threatening to rob an elderly free black man of first his property, then his life; and the town’s atheist doctor (James Mitchell) clashing with the parson during a typhoid epidemic. In each case the parson’s simplicity and faith encounters and triumphs.

Released in 1950, the film was directed by Jacques Tourneur with, for him, an unusually sunny palette. The cinematography is by Charles Schoenbaum, whose career reached back to the silent era. Maybe that explains the film’s radiance, the sense of always being outdoors, in wind and sun, as in the earliest silent films. Light is emphasized, the light of a summer’s day, of the sun shining on the church’s white façade, of its beams on water and hay and fields. Tourneur was from France, and there’s a sense of French painting in the light, suggestive of Corot’s scenes of landscapes and fields. His film builds on such a sense, of the rhythm of a small town and the remembered moments of people’s lives. We see the townspeople’s faces, how they move, smile, frown, weep, and laugh. Tourneur lets his actors go with a scene’s rhythm, playing on its flow and context; he often ends a scene by pulling his camera back, letting us see the town, its environs, as whole, living, entwined. And always—the light that comes through, the light that seems eternal in every scene presented, as in memories of childhood, when the sun always seemed to shine.

Darkness is reserved for the more dramatic passages, particularly in the attempted lynching of Uncle Famous (the great Juano Hernandez), whose small property abuts the town’s richest man’s mica mine. The scene is nightmarish and fiery, lit up with a burning cross and flickering shadows. The preacher, startlingly, allows the would-be lynchers to seize Uncle Famous, only stopping them by reading them the old man’s ‘will’—its simple bequests reminding each one present of the kindness the old man has shown towards them. Tourneur uses close-ups here, cutting to each hooded lyncher as the parson reads, their emotions conveyed through shadowed eyes. The scene emphasizes not only the villainy being done but the humanity common to all present, the men realizing how all their lives are linked to this dignified old man. Finally they walk off, one by one, each in shame, self-disgust, and humility. The parson’s young nephew, who’s been watching, then sees there’s nothing written on the paper from which the parson has read. “There is no will,” he exclaims, puzzled. “It’s the will of God,” the parson softly replies.

Tourneur brings this humanity, this very humanness to the whole film, binding its scenes with an overarching sense of how lives are bound to both nature and the divine. During a scene of haymaking, the parson’s nephew (a young Dean Stockwell, very good) and his friend ride the hay wagon, their bodies thrown back onto the cushiony fodder as the wagon jerks to a start. The scene continues from an overhead shot as they discuss what they would do if they were God (no school plays a big part in the discussion). The scene is shot beautifully, lit idyllically; sunlight glints off the hay, creating a halo of haze around the men working and the boys in the wagon. As the boys lie back and talk, the moment seems timeless—two children living in an eternal summer, gazing up at the sky, with God Himself looking down to watch.

Tourneur often holds his takes (such as the overhead one on the two boys), the stretch of time it gives a scene lending it a sense of time itself on hold, of life moving in a changeless, unbroken line. When a cut does come, the moment is like a plucked chord; you feel as well as see the emphasis. The scene in which the minister prays at the bedside of the doctor’s fiancée, dying from typhoid, begins also as a long take, with a long shot of McCrae in a room lit by one lamp, and long curtains hanging by an open window. Then a breeze starts up and the curtains move, their motion filling space as if, as The New Yorker film critic Richard Brody hints, the breath of God were entering the room. Cut to an overhead shot of the girl’s hand moving on the coverlet towards McCrae; then to a close-up of McCrae as he realizes something is happening; then to another close-up of the girl’s awakening face. It’s clear, quick, simple, yet momentous. With just a few swift shots, we realize we’ve witnessed nothing more or less than a miracle.

Such deceptively simple direction by Tourneur, without flourishes, fills his movie with that feeling of life being lived before you. Depending on the scene, on what it conveys, Tourneur will vary his style, yet what he does always feels right. When Ellen Drew, as the parson’s wife, speaks about her love for her typhoid-stricken nephew (she regrets having scolded him just a day ago), Tourneur lets her play it quietly, in a long, undramatic take; and we sense how her bone-deep weariness, from watching over a sickbed, has cut deep to the core of feeling. In contrast, the death of the town’s elderly doctor (Lewis Stone) is done in a quick scenic succession, without dialogue, as if grief has snapped even time’s flow. We see the old doctor’s son, the younger doctor, arriving home to a crowd milling outside his house; we cut to his running inside and upstairs (passing the parson midway); we then cut to the funeral, a layered shot in which the son stands in the foreground while mourners stream around and behind his still figure. Tourneur doesn’t pour on sentiment or go for teary-eyed close-ups in the scene. Instead, he uses the simplest means, the contrast of motion within his frame, to get at its essence: the tide of life against the ebb of sorrow.

In its very simplicity the film is a bit of a miracle. You’re aware of the interiors of houses, how people stroll in the streets, how the light hits the stream where Stockwell and Hernandez fish, how Ellen Drew smiles as she combs her nephew’s hair. Little, deft details of life. The film’s last scene takes place in church on the Sunday that Alan Hale, as the town’s church-avoiding agnostic, and his (very) large family finally come to worship. First comes Connie Gilchrist as Hale’s wife, bustling through the door, followed by her vast brood of strapping boys, their noisy entrance halting the service. Then comes Hale; slowly the door opens and his huge, shaggy head peers round the frame, abashed. The moment is echt Hale: funny, lovable, eternally boyish. It gets to the heart of why we love this actor. Stars in my Crown was Hale’s last film. It’s a nice send-off; Hale’s just being himself here—just being, as always, our great, big, wonderful Alan Hale. Lovely.

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