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"A pastor's family walks a tightrope, balancing one foot on earth and one foot already in heaven."
Fredric March as Rev. William Spence in One Foot in Heaven
Hollywood gave religion a fair shake in the 1941 family drama, One Foot in Heaven, which was made with a minimum of sentimentality. For once, the film capital captured a true sense of faith by concentrating on an exemplary life, that of Methodist minister William Spence, a specialist in turning around failing parishes. The fact that Spence acted on his faith rather than just talking about it helped dramatize the spiritual issues and kept the film from turning preachy and didactic. Also helping greatly was Fredric March's very human portrait of the reverend and Irving Rapper's eloquently simple direction, with numerous close-ups that required the large cast to work on a realistic scale and avoid theatricality.
It helped greatly that the story was true, based on Hartzell Spence's best-selling biography of his father. When reporters first asked Spence how he felt about Warner Bros.' deciding to film his family's story, he confided that he hoped Canadian-born Raymond Massey, who had just triumphed on Broadway in the title role of Abe Lincoln in Illinois, would be cast as the Rev. Spence. When the author consulted with his mother about the sale, however, she suggested March for the role. Warner's didn't consult with either, but cast March simply on the basis of his continuing popularity with film audiences and his reputation as one of America's finest actors (and with John Barrymore's growing dissolution, many critics were hailing March as the nation's top thespian).
The timing couldn't have been better for March. Not only did it offer him a challenging role with the chance to age twenty years during the course of the film (the older March at film's end looks remarkably as the actor would as he started to grow older), but also it offered him an all-American role at a time when his patriotism was under suspicion. March was one of several actors (including James Cagney and Franchot Tone) under investigation by Rep. Martin Dies' precursor of the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1940 for their support of liberal causes. Although the accused actors were all exonerated, the controversy threatened their popularity and made finding non-controversial but quality films an imperative. With the chance to star in One Foot in Heaven and a film version of Joseph Conrad's Destiny, March got the Theatre Guild to postpone the Broadway opening of Sophie Treadwell's Hope for Heaven, which he had been touring successfully with wife Florence Eldridge.
For leading lady, Warner's initially assigned Olivia de Havilland, but then decided she was better cast opposite Errol Flynn in They Died With Their Boots On (1941), a move that couldn't have pleased her as she was eager to shed her identification as his leading lady and establish herself as a dramatic actress. In her place, they cast Martha Scott, then one of the hottest young actresses in Hollywood. Scott had made her screen debut re-creating her stage role as Emily in Our Town (1940) and won an Oscar® nomination for the role. She had followed it with Cheers for Miss Bishop (1941), which gave her her first opportunity to age on screen as a dedicated schoolteacher who sacrifices her romantic happiness for her students.
Anatole Litvak was the first director assigned to One Foot in Heaven, but for some reason the studio decided to pull him from the project and entrust it to Irving Rapper, who had started his Hollywood career as dialogue director for such foreign-born directors as Litvak and Michael Curtiz. Rapper had moved into the director's chair with Shining Victory (1941), a medical drama whose surprising box-office success or inspirational message may have inspired the studio to put him in charge of One Foot in Heaven. Rapper prodded his cast to perform simply and naturalistically, using close-ups to discourage overacting. But his position as a tyro showed when he had to shoot a big action scene involving a raging fire that was shot on location in Los Angeles. He was so intrigued by the mechanics of staging the fire and the sheer spectacle of it all that when the cameras finally rolled and flames shot to the skies, he was so enthralled he temporarily forgot to call action, despite the fact that he had rehearsed the scene effectively during numerous dry runs.
To guarantee authenticity (and possibly generate additional publicity), Warner's hired the Rev. Norman Vincent Peale, already well-known from his weekly radio broadcasts and the book Faith Is the Answer: A Psychiatrist and a Pastor Discuss Your Problems (1940), to serve as a consultant. Although affiliated with the Reformed Church of America, Peale was the son of a Methodist preacher and had been raised in that branch of Protestantism. Many in the cast found his presence intimidating, as they felt compelled to clean up their language whenever he was on set. Also visiting was Rev. Spence's widow, who told the press how much March resembled her late husband and would later describe Scott as "my third daughter." After seeing One Foot in Heaven she sent March her husband's leather-bound hymnal and Scott the hymnal her husband had given her during their courtship.
In one of the film's most memorable sequences, March, who has preached heavily against the evils of the movies, discovers his son has been sneaking off to the cinema. He accompanies him to a screening of William S. Hart's silent Western The Silent Man (1917) to point out its wickedness, only to be enthralled by its simple moral lesson, which becomes the subject of his next sermon. Not only did Warner's include scenes from the Hart film in One Foot in Heaven, but they made the retired star guest of honor at the film's Hollywood premiere.
With all the intelligence Warner Bros. invested in One Foot in Heaven, the film scored well with critics, particularly the New York Times' Bosley Crowther, who praised it as "a rich experience" in his initial review, touted it in subsequent Sunday columns and included it in his ten-best list for the year. Despite his efforts, the film did not do its best business in New York. A publicity campaign aimed at small-town ministers paid off, however, with several preachers including references in their sermons and Sunday bulletins. In small-town America, where citizens were concerned about the growing unrest in Europe and the Pacific, and where the film would play extensively after the U.S. entered World War II, One Foot in Heaven did very well and would remain a favorite among more spiritual filmgoers. March would also speak highly of the picture in later years, recalling it as one of his most rewarding experiences.
Producer: Hal B. Wallis
Director: Irving Rapper
Screenplay: Casey Robinson
Based on the book by Hartzell Spence
Cinematography: Charles Rosher
Art Direction: Carl Jules Weyl
Music: Max Steiner
Principal Cast: Frederic March (William Spence), Martha Scott (Hope Morris Spence), Beulah Bondi (Mrs. Lydia Sandow), Gene Lockhart (Preston Thurston), Elisabeth Fraser (Eileen Spence), Harry Davenport (Elias Samson), Laura Hope Crews (Mrs. Preston Thurston), Grant Mitchell (Clayton Potter), Moroni Olsen (Dr. John Romer), Frankie Thomas (Hartzell Spence), Jerome Cowan (Dr. Horrigan), Ernest Cossart (Mr. John E. Morris), Nana Bryant (Mrs. Morris), Roscoe Ates (George Reynolds), Clara Blandick (Mrs. 'Sister' Watkins), Hobart Bosworth (Richard Hardy Case), Virginia Brissac (Mrs. Jellison), Sonny Bupp (Boy), Chester Conklin (Crying Man), Creighton Hale (Church Usher), Olin Howland (Train Station Master), Milton Kibbee (Alf McAfee), Audra Lindley (Mother), Gig Young (Groom).
BW-108m. Closed Captioning.
by Frank Miller