Thursday, January 28, 2016

Heavens Above! (1963)

 Peter Sellers was a great comic chameleon. He might be an idiot detective (The Pink Panther series), an idiot Indian movie star (The Party) or an idiot spy (Casino Royale) but he really became that idiot. He wasn't always an idiot, but he was always someone else; in Dr. Strangelove he was three someones (President, army captain, and mad scientist). In Heavens Above!, he wasn't just imitating a Vicar, he was imitating a Vicar who was trying to imitate Christ.

During the fifties and sixties there were many great little screwball comedies and satires, from The Lavender Hill Mob to The Man in the White Suit to The Ladykillers to The Mouse That Roared. But this one's a little different. It's based on an idea by Malcolm Muggeridge, one of the great Christian thinkers of the twentieth century.

Sellers plays the Reverend John Smallwood not as an idiot, but as Christ's fool. A clerical error brings him from serving in a prison (where the warden complains that he cares more about the prisoners than the people in authority who could do him some good) to the small town of Orbiston Parva. By tradition, the Vicar of Trinity Anglican Church has been at the beck and call of the Despard family because of their great wealth. Smallwood has other priorities.

The Despards are looking for very specific qualities in a pastor. He shouldn't be poor, because "a poor parson's an embarrassment." He shouldn't drink too much, of course, but a teetotaler makes people uncomfortable. He should be married even if the Apostle Paul was not ("Paul was a queer man"). The Bishop meant to send a man named Smallwood who fit these qualifications nicely, but a secretary pulls the wrong Smallwood from the card catalogue (for our younger readers, a "card catalog" is... oh, never mind).

Shortly after arriving in town, Smallwood goes door to door asking people about their faith. Most say that "religion is all right in its place, but you can't let it interfere with your ordinary life." A number of people come to hear Smallwood's first sermon, and they don't like what they hear. He began by saying, "I'm not a good Christian, but I'm trying to be. If we want to join Jesus' club, we need to do as He told us, live as He showed us. This town is full of people who call themselves Christians, but I haven't seen enough Christians to feed one decent lion." The Despards are not pleased with this sermon.

The Despards are also not pleased when he appoints a black rubbish man as his warden and invites poor people to live with him in his vicarage ("I didn't know what to do with all this space.") Lady Despard (Isabel Jeans) brings Smallwood to her home for a talking to, but Smallwood takes her to the Gospels and the story of the Rich Young Ruler. She's troubled by the difficulty of the rich entering the Kingdom of Heaven (later in the film the Bishop tries to assure her that we have "modern ways of interrupting that passage").

Lady Despard decides to give to the poor, and that's where the real trouble begins. She confers with Smallwood, and they decide to make food free to all who ask in the town. This does not please the local merchants and grocers, and people take advantage of the situation. Sadly, though they know the passage about giving to the poor, they neglect the wisdom in Paul's second letter to the Thessalonians ,  "If a man will not work, he shall not eat."

Trouble also comes in the form of Smallwood's preaching about the products of the local factory. He states that satisfaction can't come from material goods but only from God. That, along with Lady Despard selling her stock in the factory, leads to economic chaos for the town.

When people try to follow Christ, things don't always turn out swell. Sin and the Devil will still spread discontent and misery, but we must try to follow Christ's call nonetheless. Which is why I'm giving the Vicar and the church in this quite funny film Three Steeples.


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