Stars in My Crown (1950) by matthew c. hoffman

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Winner of the prestigious Freedom Foundation Award, this episodic Western is a supreme entertainment that is thoroughly refreshing in today’s cynical times. Set in the years after the Civil War, it’s the story of a small Southern town, Walesburg, as remembered by the narrator of the film, John Kenyon. It’s more than nostalgia for childhood but rather a longing for a special time and place. It’s a portrait of America long gone in which the traditional teachings were the best values one could have. There were problems to be sure—town bullies, typhoid fever, racial intolerance—but there was the parson who guided the community through the hardships while revealing his own self-doubt in the darkest hours.

Joel McCrea as Parson Josiah Gray is a man of integrity and inspiration. In turn, others have faith in him and in what he has to say. McCrea biographer Tony Thomas wrote, “Stars in My Crown is one of the stars in the crown of Joel McCrea. The role of the strong, likeable pastor fits him like a glove. It is quintessential McCrea, thoroughly American and straight as an arrow. This pastor is no mere Holy Joe; when he strides into a saloon and slams a pistol on the bar the patrons pay attention. And when he faces down the Klanners there is no doubt that this is the man who could do it. He knows about prejudice and greed and ignorance, and how to do something about it. Josiah Doziah Gray is Joel McCrea at his best.”

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Also in the cast is Ellen Drew as Harriet Gray, child actor Dean Stockwell as John Kenyon, James Mitchell as Dr. Harris, the practical doctor with more faith in medicine than in prayer, Amanda Blake as the schoolteacher, Alan Hale in his last film, Lewis Stone, and Juano Hernandez as Uncle Famous. Hernandez had appeared in Intruder in the Dust the previous year, which also dealt with lynch mobs. Also in the cast, though uncredited, is James Arness. He and Amanda Blake would go on to star in the long-running television series “Gunsmoke.”

Stars in My Crown was based on the book of the same name by Joe David Brown with an adaptation by Margaret Fitts. The book and film take their title from a Protestant hymn, Will There Be Any Stars in My Crown, which was originally composed in the 19th century.

Stars in My Crown was directed by Jacques Tourneur, who was best known for the film noir Out of the Past as well as the atmospheric horror films he made with Val Lewton at RKO including Cat People and I Walked With a Zombie. But the darkness of those earlier films has been replaced by hope and optimism. In a style that recalls the best of John Ford, Tourneur’s artful hand and rural compositions make this American tale one of the best films of the 1950s. Tourneur reportedly waived his normal salary demands in order to make the film his own way without any studio interference. As a result, he made a film which he believed was his best.

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There’s a wonderful introduction of the film on an online site called True Film in which the moderator writes, “Tourneur conjures the palpable aura of one era giving way to another, with an emphasis on growth, renewal and healing—both spiritual and physical. Pastor’s Gray’s fight on behalf of Famous Prell for the community’s soul is paralleled with the story of a young, idealistic atheist doctor fighting a typhoid outbreak. As we transition from one era to another, the characters learn to see themselves not as divided polarities (young and old, black and white, men of faith and men of science), but as forces of complementary balance, inextricably linked together, each with inherent worth and dignity.”

Stars in My Crown received a “Critic’s Choice” review from the Chicago Reader when I screened it at the LaSalle Bank Theatre as part of a 29 film series devoted to Our Cinema Heritage. It’s a great film that is not only one of the best examples of faith in film, but it’s one of the best films I’ve presented at the Park Ridge Public Library. In a society that is ever-changing, Stars in My Crown is a reminder of a time when religion still mattered to the majority. America at the time of this story had a deeper sense of community and a stronger spiritual identity. Stars in My Crown plays out like a glowing memory of America.

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