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

“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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