Archive for November, 2015

One Foot in Heaven (1941) by matthew c. hoffman

Posted in Uncategorized on November 22, 2015 by mchoffman

“Without waiting for an answer, he began to play ‘The Church’s one foundation Is Jesus Christ our Lord.’ He could not have chosen a more difficult tune, for it used every bell in the tower. But he played without a fault. People came to their doors up and down the street. The crowd left the veranda of the hotel a block away and stood on the sidewalk. Few of his listeners had ever before heard a chime.” ~ Hartzell Spence, One Foot in Heaven

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Transcript from 6/4/15:

I think for this final sermon of the spring I’d like to say a few words of a more personal nature in regards to tonight’s film. In One Foot in Heaven, Fredric March’s character speaks about the moral value of a movie he had just seen, and in a way, that is exactly what I’m doing tonight.

One Foot in Heaven is the film that inspired Cinema of Transcendence. I last presented it in October of 2003 at the LaSalle Bank Theatre in Chicago. It was part of my last program at the bank before I moved on from my position as programmer/projectionist. Moving on to the next challenge is certainly a theme in tonight’s film as well. In my own case, in 2003 I had finally convinced the LaSalle Bank to invest in a 35mm projector. It was what the bank series needed after many years of playing movies on Saturday nights. It was not easy building the program up, but after four years, it was time to leave and begin anew. I left the theatre with the satisfaction of knowing I was able to present some really good films to the community. One Foot in Heaven was one of the most special.

For years it was unavailable on home entertainment. Occasionally Turner Classic Movies would broadcast it, but the only copy of it you were likely to find would be a “bootleg” copy. When I decided to do a series at the Library that explored the role of faith in classic film—Cinema of Transcendence became the more loftier name for it—I knew I wanted One Foot in Heaven to be part of it. Last year I asked members of my “Fredric March Film Society” on Facebook to write Warner Archive and let them know there was a demand for it, and I personally contacted that Warner division myself. I was able to reach the head of Warner Archive. His office relayed to me some good news. They were indeed planning on releasing it once the film elements were properly restored. They believed it would be available by the spring of 2015 in time for our program. As our deadline neared, however, I had given up hope that we would get it. But in March, it was finally released and we were able to add it at the last minute. This is why it doesn’t appear in our newsletter or on our bookmarks. There was no better film to end the program with than the one that inspired it in the first place.

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Like Jacques Tourneur’s Stars in My Crown from last week, One Foot in Heaven is an episodic film about small-town America. It tells the true story of a Methodist minister named William Spence. It’s based on the best-selling book of the same name written by his son, Hartzell Spence. It’s a wonderful read and it inspired me to visit one of the parishes Spence had preached at in Dodge City, Iowa. The film is true to the spirit of the book as it details the life of a circuit preacher.

The story concerns the various problems that arise as Spence travels from one parish to another—from leaky holes in the parsonage roof to the gossiping society women who spread malicious lies. One Foot in Heaven takes an honest look at church politics and shows the hypocrisy that is as rampant today as it was back then. As Fredric March’s character says, “The real heathens are in the church.”

Throughout Cinema of Transcendence we’ve seen films that have a certain perspective in terms of religious denominations. The gangster genre with Angels with Dirty Faces had a distinctly Catholic viewpoint, whereas the quasi-Western Stars in My Crown was very much in the Protestant tradition. One Foot in Heaven examines another denomination of Protestantism. The Spence family is not like other families as so many of life’s enjoyments fall outside their Methodist Discipline, though Spence shows he is willing to listen to the younger generation. Initially motivated to point out the evils of the movie house to his son, William Spence’s trip to see a William S. Hart silent movie becomes a personal revelation as well as one of the highlights of the movie. One Foot in Heaven is composed of beautiful scenes such as this that deal honestly with the values of faith in a changing world.

And like Stars in My Crown, there is a conflict with science. Here it’s the town doctor played by Jerome Cowan who scoffs at religion during a drugstore debate. It was a major story thread through the Jacques Tourneur film, but here it is dealt with in one simple scene, although very well played.

Fredric March
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What makes the film work so well are the performances. Fredric March was, in my opinion, the most accomplished screen actor of his generation, and we’ve screened three of his films in this series alone. He conveys the convictions of a real man of God, infusing his character with humanity, humor, and a reverent strength. The beautiful prayers that he speaks in the film are some of his finest moments. Hartzell Spence, who wrote the book, said his mother wanted Fredric March for the role of her husband. March’s last emotional scene in the film– showing both his character’s commitment to his calling and his disappointment at moving on yet again–is some of his best work as an actor.

Martha Scott, who had recently starred in Our Town with William Holden—a role for which she would be nominated for an Academy Award– was cast as March’s self-sacrificing wife, Hope. She would go on to play Charlton Heston’s mother in both The Ten Commandments and Ben-Hur. Originally Olivia de Havilland was slated to play this role, but Warner Bros. decided to move her to the Errol Flynn movie They Died With Their Boots On. In addition to the two leads, there is great support from some of Hollywood’s best character actors. Besides the aforementioned Jerome Cowan, there’s Laura Hope Crews and Harry Davenport—both of whom audiences might recall from Gone With the Wind. Gene Lockhart plays an outspoken member of the congregation with his own ideas of how the new church should be built. In the scene in which William Spence is laying out his plans to the building committee, there are some familiar faces that the die-hard classic film buffs will recognize, including Frank Reicher and Hobart Bosworth.

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The film was directed by Irving Rapper who had previously been a dialogue director on films for Michael Curtiz. In a TCM article, Frank Miller writes, “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.” Rapper’s direction gave the film a warm and gentle tone.

Max Steiner did the wonderful film score which adds considerable depth to the film. As with Stars in Crown, One Foot in Heaven relies heavily on the musical motifs of a particular song. The Church’s One Foundation, which is sung in the final scene, was a Christian hymn written in the 1860s by Samuel John Stone, inspired by the Apostles’ Creed. As an aside, I had asked the Park Ridge Community Church to play this piece today at noon on their bells. I recall hearing this hymn played before at the church. However, the songs that you hear ringing out every day at lunchtime are played on a loop and they can’t control which song will be played on what day.

As with all the films in this program, One Foot in Heaven offers a positive image of religion. It is an uplifting film that leaves one feeling good inside—a transcendence of spirit. The film presents us with a vision of community and how faith is interwoven in it. One Foot in Heaven recreates a time that seems all the more distant, a place where old-fashioned morality and family values were the high standard. It’s a film that is honest, true, and good.

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Addendum: We had 71 in attendance on 6/4/15, making One Foot in Heaven the best-attended film of the series.

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Les Miserables (1935) by matthew c. hoffman

Posted in Uncategorized on November 22, 2015 by mchoffman

“It simply gives us more of the book’s core, unfurled like a banner, draped over an intelligent 108-minute screenplay by W.P. Lipscomb that seems a small miracle of concision. Hugo’s themes and gigantic clashing antagonists emerge intact, with their inner selves revealed as well as their outer. The social protest couldn’t be more explicit, especially in its outcry for ameliorating harsh penal codes. And yet, the film makes clear that there is a moral dimension to Les Miserables and moral distinctions that most adaptations miss. It gives the actors that much more to work with and the film is richer with both actors integrating them into their characters.” ~ Jay Carr, TCM article on Les Miserables (1935)

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Adapted from the Victor Hugo novel by writer W.P. Lipscomb, the 1935 version of Les Miserables is a condensed though artfully done screen adaptation. Fredric March is Jean Valjean—a man sentenced to ten years in the galleys for stealing a loaf of bread. After his release from prison, the now hardened convict is moved by an act of compassion from a bishop. Renewed with the spirit to give rather than take, Jean sets out to change his life. Under a new name, he becomes a businessman and eventual mayor. But through three phases of his life, there is one part of his past he can’t escape—the uncompromising law administrator, Javert, as played by Charles Laughton. “Regulations, good bad or indifferent, must be carried out to the letter.”

After the Production Code reasserted itself in 1934, Hollywood studios turned to safe material for storylines. There was nothing safer than classic literature. Fox production head Darryl Zanuck wanted to rival MGM, a studio which had great success adapting the classics with films like David Copperfield and Little Women. “When Victor Hugo wrote Les Miserables,” Zanuck recalled, “he was raising a powerful cry against the inhumanities of the parole system then existing in France. Today the pendulum has swung the other way. Instead of being too drastic and oppressive, our system is said to be too lax. However, there is grave danger that the pendulum, swung by outraged public opinion, may again travel too far in the original direction.”

Les Miserables was the kind of “social-problem” film that Zanuck was accustomed to making at Warner Brothers. Despite being a historical drama from the previous century, Zanuck realized Les Miserables was a story that would resonate with the modern audience. The story had already been told several times since the earliest days of motion pictures. It had most recently been adapted for a French film directed by Raymond Bernard. This 1934 version is often cited as the most faithful, but it could afford to be with a running time of nearly five hours.

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Though the American version is forced to remove incidents and cut some characters, it is nevertheless faithful to the spirit of the novel. Those who are interested in the differences between the novel and the film can find them on Wikipedia; we’re more interested in the film’s cinematic qualities—not its literary roots. The 1935 film is a remarkable work because it has all the qualities of great cinema, chiefly, great direction, cinematography, and acting.

Les Miserables was helmed by Polish director Richard Boleslawski, who had gotten his start directing films in Europe. Later, in New York, Boleslawski taught a style of acting that became a forerunner of Method acting. Hollywood came calling and offered him a contract. It was during the 1930s when he found great success within the studio system. Boleslawski worked with some of the biggest stars of the day including John Barrymore, Clark Gable, Marlene Dietrich, and Greta Garbo. He also directed the last film we showed in our 2014 series, Theodora Goes Wild, with Irene Dunne. Boleslawski died at the age of 47– only two years after Les Miserables.

“A director can spend his whole life looking for the script– a story of great enough scope and purpose to spur him on to that prodigious effort which, if successful, will later be mistaken for inspiration. When the continuity of Les Miserables was placed in my hands, I knew that at last I had the script.”

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When he was given the Les Miserables assignment, Boleslawski also got Gregg Toland for a cinematographer. Toland, an Illinois native, is universally considered one of the best—if not the best—cameramen in Hollywood noted for his many innovations in depth of field. His later credits would include such films as Wuthering Heights, Citizen Kane and The Long Voyage Home. Toland’s camerawork as well as the composition and lighting add a pictorial beauty that separates this version from those that followed. If you want a singing Jean Valjean, then watch the 2012 musical, but I’ll take the cinematography of Gregg Toland.

Les Miserables features many fine performances both in the lead roles as well as in the supporting ones. Fredric March gives one of his finest performances with a sincere and intensely felt portrayal of the long-suffering Valjean. March not only displays a wide range of emotions through many stages of this character’s life, but he also plays a secondary character in the film—the “old man” mistaken for Valjean.

On the TCM website, Jay Carr writes, “There was no more distinguished actor of the ‘30s and ‘40s than March. No other actor has won two Oscars… and two Tonys. His roles were often derived from literary sources or classics. He made decent and even heroic men come alive, never allowing them to perish under a pall of worthiness. Here, he’s often photographed in full or three-quarter profile. But he never just lets his leading man profile do the work. In scene after scene his eyes flash with sensitivity and sentience. He’s a man with a keen eye for injustice, and the will and means to fight it, as his life is more and more touched by the political turmoil of the times.”

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The other great performance is that of Charles Laughton as the policeman Javert. Laughton underplays the character to great effect, revealing more with his eyes than with loud bluster. He is a psychologically disturbed character, a procedural tyrant, and his interactions with Fredric March provide some of the most memorable and tense moments in the film. Laughton had starred opposite March previously in The Sign of the Cross and The Barretts of Wimpole Street. Nineteen thirty-five would be a stellar year for Laughton as he would appear in two other classics: Ruggles of Red Gap and Mutiny on the Bounty.

Also in the cast is Sir Cedric Hardwicke as the bishop who practices what he teaches. His character embodies the true meaning of Christianity. March’s real-life wife, Florence Eldridge, portrays the tragic Fantine. Rochelle Hudson is the grown-up Cosette. Hudson is best known to movie buffs for this film as well as for Wild Boys of the Road. She also appeared in several films with Will Rogers in the mid-1930s. Later in her career, she played Natalie Wood’s mother in Rebel Without a Cause. Finally, there’s Frances Drake as Eponine, a character re-drawn as a secretary to Marius (John Beal). Drake is best-known for her role as Yvonne Orlac in Mad Love, also from 1935.

Fredric March and Frances Drake
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Les Miserables is one of my favorite films in the series and was one of the first to be added to the schedule. It’s a film about social injustice with themes dealing with charity and forgiveness. It reveals the challenge of keeping one’s sense of decency and doing what’s right in the face of overwhelming and enduring hardships. Given the circumstances that condemn and label Valjean, it would be easy to become bitter towards life. But Valjean rises above bitterness and finds a greater reward in the wake of his spiritual rebirth. Les Miserables reflects the purest meaning of Cinema of Transcendence by presenting the ideal model of the “love thy neighbor” tenet.

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Before 7 PM our audience saw the 1935 “Little Rascals” short Little Sinner. (This was the same short I had played when I last presented Les Miserables at the LaSalle Bank Theatre in Chicago.)

And before our presentation on Les Miserables, I played a sequence from D.W. Griffith’s The Sorrows of Satan (1926), a film not available on dvd.
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The Sign of the Cross (1932) by matthew c. hoffman

Posted in Uncategorized on November 22, 2015 by mchoffman

“Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life.” ~Revelation 2:10

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When discussed today, The Sign of the Cross (1932) is almost exclusively analyzed from the context of pre-Code cinema. It’s certainly one of the most shocking of those films made before the Production Code became enforced in 1934. Online reviewers and bloggers will either fixate on Claudette Colbert’s milk bath or the infamous “lesbian” dance or the violent arena sequence featuring everything from crocodiles to Pygmies. And of course, there’s Charles Laughton, who plays the Roman Emperor Nero as a languorous and rather fey comic figure. Even with all these flourishes, The Sign of the Cross offers something more than shock value. It emerges as a powerful film about faith.

Cecil B. DeMille’s onscreen piety was never fake. He wasn’t selling something he himself didn’t believe in. Claudette Colbert said, “He truly believed in what he was doing. When we did the scene with the Christians being eaten by the lions, he really suffered.” But how does one reconcile this with the depictions of orgies and scantily-clad women? Some commentators have misread DeMille, claiming he had a cynical embrace of religion and was more interested in depicting the sins rather than the virtues. In Empire of Dreams, however, author Scott Eyman reveals, “But a thorough examination of DeMille’s papers makes it obvious that he was sincerely, if unconventionally, religious. DeMille committed large portions of the Bible to memory, and assiduously studied primary theological texts.” Richard DeMille, Cecil’s son, said, “He strove to put God’s word on the screen and believed that God approved of his efforts. He believed that Christ had come to save sinners, and he hoped that his sins would be forgiven.”

The excesses that are remembered mostly today were understandable given the fact DeMille had a lot riding on the film. His last two films (Madam Satan, The Squaw Man) had flopped, and he found himself on shaky ground when he returned to his old studio, Paramount, to make this film. In a sense, he was starting over with a new regime and front office. DeMille partially financed The Sign of the Cross out of his own pocket. Had the film failed, he believed he would be washed up in Hollywood– another relic from the silent era like D.W. Griffith. In need of a hit, DeMille returned to the historical themes he knew best. Religious subjects had been successful for him in the silent era, and they would need to be again for his first epic of the sound era.

Elissa Landi and Fredric March in The Sign of the Cross. (From the Matthew C. Hoffman collection)
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The story is set in 64 A.D., in the days when Emperor Nero of Rome suppressed the emerging Christian faith. The film opens with the burning of Rome– a conflagration that Nero himself had started and which will be used to justify his persecution of Christians. The fire gives way to a Roman street where two Christians meet clandestinely– one of whom is an emissary of the apostle Paul. The stranger identifies himself as Titus. (In a DeMille picture, the Christians were usually stoic, wise men with beards and staffs.)

This transitional scene into the streets of Rome stands out because it conjures up what cinematographer Karl Struss called “a world remembered.” The film has a unique look that recalls the films of the silent era. “I shot the whole black-and-white picture through bright red gauze,” Struss had said. “Gauze wasn’t much used then, as it had been in the silent period.” The look of the film, as well as the compositions, make this one of DeMille’s most beautiful films to admire.

Claudette Colbert as Empress Poppaea
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Additionally, the musical score by Rudolph G. Kopp conjures up the romance of a distant time– building a strong sense of place and adding immeasurably to the mood and atmosphere of the setting. The score does not call attention to itself with blaring trumpets and such. The instruments gently play over the action of the scene like true background music. Kopp would later score DeMille’s Cleopatra (1934).

Titus and the other man, Flavius, are captured by Roman spies and become the objects of public scorn. A Christian girl, Mercia, comes to the aid of the men, but before mob action can reach a fever pitch, the Roman prefect, Marcus Superbus (Fredric March) arrives in his chariot to intercede. With an obvious admiration for Mercia, he allows the two old men to go free.

The film follows Marcus’ courting of Mercia with the planning of a secret meeting by the Christians. Wary of Marcus’ motivations and jealous of his standing with Emperor Nero, Tigellinus (wonderfully played by Ian Keith) intercedes and has the Christians massacred at the meeting place. Those who survive are sent to prison and later to the arena. Marcus takes Mercia to live with him in his home, but her heart is with those imprisoned. Marcus attempts to kill her soul and later, in desperation, to get her to recant her religion.

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Though it is Poppaea (Claudette Colbert) with the role everyone remembers, what stands out for me is the strength of the Elissa Landi character. Though less showy than Colbert’s part, Landi is the soul of the movie. One of the highlights in the film is the “Dance of the Naked Moon” performed by “the wickeest woman in all of Rome”: Ancaria (played by the exaggerated Joyzelle Joyner). Known as the “lesbian dance,” Ancaria tries to seduce Mercia with her gyrations and suggestiveness. Mercia does not break because she is inspired by the prisoners who sing outside. But this strength is perceived as coldness. Without saying a word, Mercia is able to rattle the nerves of the wanton dancer.

Likewise, it is Mercia’s strength that buoys the spirits of the oppressed. When the Christians are in the arena dungeon awaiting execution, she gives them the confidence to face death. Once isolated from them, he cry out to God is heart-breaking.

Though Charles Laughton is well-remembered for his outrageous Nero interpretation, it is Fredric March who gives the better performance. March could adapt to any film genre, be it historical or contemporary. His best scene is also the final scene in the film when he tries to save Mercia by getting her to renounce her God. The earnestness that March brought to a role was rarely matched in Hollywood.

DeMille’s depictions of Christian martydom may have been inspired by such paintings as Faithful Unto Death (1888) by Herbert Gustave Schmalz.
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The Sign of the Cross is a powerful film about keeping the faith in one’s final hours. The film is a tragedy based on historical episodes. The persecution of Christians lasted for 300 years until Emperor Constantine’s Edict of Milan legalized Christianity. Though the particulars may be off– i.e., the Colosseum was built under Emperor Vespasian, not Nero– DeMille was not making a documentary. He was a superb storyteller who brought the past to life in a way no other filmmaker could.

Though Christians are no longer fed to lions, they are still persecuted throughout the world, either physically (by Islamic states and other fanatics abroad) or intellectually here at home. With the rise of secularism in America, Christian belief and thought is marginalized and labelled as outmoded and out of sync with new definitions of how society should act.

The Sign of the Cross had a relevance in 1932 when it was released, as well as in 1944 when it was reissued. Today, all these years later, its themes of sacrifice and of keeping the faith still resonate.

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Since I didn’t rely on the “pre-Code” aspects to sell it, only 50 people came out last Thursday night. But this isn’t a pre-Code film series; it’s a program that explores how faith is depicted on screen. More important than attendance is how the film affects the viewer– and the emotional connection he or she has to it. That night it was rewarding to see one of our patrons, Joe Paolelli, attend because I knew he was a theology student. We both share an interest in how early Christianity developed and how it was depicted in movies like The Sign of the Cross, Quo Vadis, and others. The Christians were figures who gave their lives for a belief. DeMille brings that story to life with great feeling, especially in Titus’ scene with the boy Stephan. Here, Titus speaks of having seen Jesus. As Joe elaborated,

“It reminded me of the fact that a subset of the early martyrs actually walked and talked with Christ, and were willing to die for their belief that “Jesus Christ is Lord.” To me, that will always be the most convincing apologetic argument for Christianity. Why would an eclectic group like the Apostles be willing to die for their faith in this man, if he were anything other than who He claimed to be? I found that early scene with Titus and Stephan very moving.”

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For more about the making of The Sign of the Cross, here is a link to a terrific entry from www.brightlightsfilm.com. The blog post was adapted from a chapter on DeMille from the new release, Cecil B. DeMille: The Art of the Hollywood Epic (2014).

For a scholarly examination of Cecil B. DeMille (and a better understanding of the type of filmmaker he was– and wasn’t), I highly recommend visiting the KINEMA feature: Scripture Filmmaker Cecil B. DeMille: Biblical, Religious or Spiritual?

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