Thursday, July 7, 2022

A Crime of Conscience, Perhaps?

One Foot in Heaven

I’ll admit few would consider this film as an entry for Crime Month, but in it, I believe a pastor very clearly commits a crime. I promise to get to that crime…eventually.

One Foot in Heaven opens in Stratford, Ontario, in 1904. Fredric March plays William Spence, a man anticipating becoming a medical doctor who is, unexpectedly, called to the ministry, “I was walking past a church," he says. "There was a revival service in a Methodist church, and I had, what you might say, I got the call.” This comes as quite a shock to his prospective in-laws, who had anticipated that their daughter's husband would bear the title Doctor rather than Reverend. 

His disappointed mother-in-law-to-be says, “I would have preferred you became an Episcopalian” 

His fiancee, Hope (Martha Scott) on the other hand, happily goes through with the marriage in spite of the change in career.

There are no parishes available in Will’s native Canada, so the Methodist Church sends the newly ordained minister and his wife to a church in a small town in Iowa. Hope is obviously quite disappointed with the parsonage, especially with the shabby furnishing provided by the local ladies' auxiliary. She's particularly dismayed by the mounted hog’s head decorating the wall. She doesn’t complain out loud, but Will clearly understands her disappointment, and this is a running theme throughout the film as the couple goes from one parish to another. Hope is always disappointed with the home the church provides.

Movie Churches doesn’t have a great deal of sympathy for Hope in this. I’ve had missionary friends who served in Mexico and Papua New Guinea in remote settings. Jesus said, “Foxes have dens and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.”

Hope makes another sacrifice as Will tells her not to wear her new, stylish clothes for a while, so as not to show up the women in the church. This does seem like a sensible move -- in any workplace, one needs to adapt to the surroundings, and the clothes that are appropriate in rural Iowa are different than those worn by well-to-do women outside Toronto.

Will and Hope eventually have children, and they raise them to follow the legalisms they follow: no smoking, card-playing, or moviegoing. When their son, Frazer (Casey Johnson), objects to these rules, Will explains to them they have to act like they have “one foot in heaven” (title drop), but Frazer eventually persuades his father to accompany him to see a Western, The Silent Man starring William Hart. The minister is won over by the stark presentation of good vs. evil and even admits in a sermon that movies aren’t so bad and maybe the older generation can learn from their kids.

Like the preaching of Dr. Norman Vincent Peale (who is credited as an advisor for the film),  Reverend Spence's sermons seem to be rather simple, along the lines of “Be Nice.” A congregant tells the pastor his sermons should include more about sin, advice the pastor ignores.

A major conflict in the film occurs later in Rev. Spence’s ministry when he wants to build a large sanctuary. His board thinks he should be happy with the current structure, so they get into an escalating political game over the building funds.

A rich member of his congregation, Mrs. Sandow (Beulah Bondi), is deeply offended when she learns that the pastor has spent considerable time visiting with her chauffeur (Harry Davenport), so she goes off to the Baptist church. One would think Rev. Spence would preach a sermon or two from James 2 about not showing favoritism to the rich, but no Scripture seems to come to his mind.

Another conflict comes with the banker on the board, Preston Thurston (Gene Lockhart). His wife (Laura Hope Crews) directs the choir, badly. When the Reverend announces that the choir will be replaced by a children’s choir for the summer, the Thurstons are quite upset. Not coincidentally, a gossip campaign begins, accusing the Spences' son, Hartzell (Frankie Thomas) of making a girl pregnant.

Rev. Spence investigates the rumors and confirms they are false. He confronts the gossips of the church by saying, “A preacher stops being a preacher and becomes a father when his son is dragged in.” (Actually, he should be a follower of Christ before he is either of those things, but that doesn't seem to occur to anybody.) He tells them, “You don’t deserve to live. The only reason you won’t die is because the Lord wouldn’t know what to do with you.” 

The Reverend isn’t exactly encouraging them from the Word of God there.

Spence then threatens to expose the slander in future sermons if they don’t give heavily to the building fund for his dream sanctuary. They comply, and the Reverend keeps their gossip campaign secret. So he gets his dream church.

What would you call the method the Reverend Spence used for fundraising? I believe his actions could be classified as blackmail and extortion, which are, in fact, criminal acts. But what does he care? He gets pretty stained-glass windows out of the deal.

Apparently, it never occurred to the filmmakers that the Reverend committed a criminal act. They seemed to view this as a harmless prank. Apparently, it didn’t bother the Motion Picture Academy either -- they nominated the film for Best Picture. It didn’t even bother all the ministers and pastors and bishops who formed an Advisory Committee of Clergymen organized by the Christian Herald (the long list of advising clergymen are seen in the open credits),

But it bothers us here at Movie Churches, so we’re giving the Reverend Spence our lowest rating of One Steeple.

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