Directed by Jacques Tourneur
Written by Margaret Fitts
I spoke in my last review of a Joel McCrea film, Colorado Territory about my growing lack of excitement for McCrea as an actor, at the very least in the Western setting as that is what I have been focusing on so intently as of late. McCrea is not a star on the same plane as actors such as John Wayne, Henry Fonda or James Stewart, who will finally make his way on this trail soon. But Stars in My Crown is a different type of role for McCrea, the type that turns the tables somewhat on my appreciation for him as a leading man. However, I must make that old argument once again: Stars in My Crown is not a western. That doesn’t make it any less of a good movie, or any less of a showcase for what McCrea can be as an actor, but I had to say it, even while some would argue I’m wrong in that assessment.
McCrea plays the town Parson in a southern town called Walesburg. He comes to town, evidently with some kind of a past, slapping his bible down in the town saloon and brandishing dual pistols as he engrosses his audience. But while the parson may have an unknown past, he makes good in Walesburg, marrying Harriet (Ellen Drew), who is the aunt and guardian of her nephew John (Dean Stockwell). John scurries about town fishing with Uncle Famous (Juano Hernandez) and playing with his friends. But when he comes down with typhoid fever, the town comes at odds with each other. Dr. Harris (James Mitchell), who is in love with the schoolteacher (Amanda Blake) does all he can to care for those inflicted, while the parson does the same. But unless the source is found, the whole town might suffer.
Everything I had read about this film, which wasn’t much past basic synopses, indicates the parson is some gun-toting savior to the horrible town of Walesburg. That’s not this movie at all, as the gun-toting is only shown in his first appearance in the town, and Walesburg seems a perfectly respectable town otherwise. In the very least, director Jacques Tourneur skips over the taming of the city sequence to get to the more social and amicable aspects of the town. Mostly for that reason, and the fact that this is an otherwise civilized southern town, I didn’t get a sense of the more common and famous western themes and tropes I’ve grown accustomed to thus far in the marathon. But as I said in my opening, as well as for similar non-westerns films reviewed for this marathon like Ruggles of Red Gap and The Cowboy and the Lady, this a good film regardless, and that’s all that matters.
Stars in My Crown is a mostly pleasant film because the characters are likable and the sense of community is strong, but the film does feature two rather starling and traumatic storylines. The first is the breakout of typhoid fever and the mystery of its origin, which brings tension between the man of god (McCrea) and the man of science (Mitchell), but Tourneur is able to resolve this as peaceably as he could, having both men see the utility of the other. The final bit of tension is what really carried the film for me and turned it from enjoyable drama to great social commentary. Throughout the film, a miner is deadset on getting Uncle Famous, a kind, unassuming black farmer, to sell his land to him. Uncle Famous would rather not, since its his land, and he enjoys living there.
For 1950, this feels way ahead of its time in its treatment of Famous, with whom the film sympathizes. The tension crescendos into a dramatic scene near the end, which fully engrossed and moved me. The scene brings out the best in McCrea, who is much more animated and relatable in this movie overall, as he argues for Uncle Famous as an important and central member of the community, one who should be valued as an equal to everybody else. Perhaps its the naivety in me, but I really found this film to be powerful, especially given its era. Wagon Master, which came just before this, goes a long way in telling that tale of inclusion, and may be a slightly better movie as well, but this marks the first time I was able to view a person of color as a central and important character in a story being told in this marathon.