Feb. 21, 2005

One Foot in Heaven
Grade: 41/100

Director: Irving Rapper
Stars: Fredric March, Martha Scott, Harry Davenport

What it's about. A strict Methodist preacher and his well-chosen wife raise their family despite poverty, and strive to increase the influence of the Church in their communities.

How others will see it. Many people avoid old black and white movies like the plague. We will pay no further attention to these foolish people. This is a movie about the sacrifices made by a family, in terms of pleasures and possessions. In return, they hope for the spiritual comfort and improvement of the community, not to disregard a place for themselves in heaven. Such noble goals are almost alien in a hedonistic and commercial society.

Some women viewers will identify with the marginal standard of living and social discomforts of the preacher's wife and children. Some male viewers may find of interest the power struggles that the preacher has with a wealthy businessman, who will donate to the chuch only if his off-key relations dominate the church choir. Many people may find this movie watchable because of its competence of writing and story construction. But it's not one that they are likely to watch all the way through, and if they do so, it will likely not leave any lasting impression.

How I felt about it. It turns out that a preacher is really a salesman, obligated to live a pious life due to the product he is pushing. Although compelled to move from one community to another when called upon to rebuild a local church in decline, the preacher is not really a travelling salesman. Instead, people mostly come to him. So, the preacher must also be a businessman, making enough of a profit to modestly support his family and upgrade the local church (both as a building and as an organization.) He has competitors, he has regular customers, he must dress formally, much like an executive. Further, he must also be a local politician, if for nothing else, to increase the influence of the church in the community.

One Foot in Heaven, then, was a serviceable insight to me about what it was like to be a small town preacher. Since I only gave the film a grade of 41, out of 100, I must not have felt much more about it. The character of the wife is too saintly, the film's 'villains' (wealthy people who stop contributing and spread malicious gossip) are converted too readily.

In the film's final scene, the $25,000 bells (in Great Depression dollars), imported from Europe, peal on a Sunday morning, and the townsfolk, like the zombies from Invasion of the Body Snatchers but with a more blissful expression, march on command to the church, where they serenade the preacher with the most perfectly sung hymn. It's enough to bring a tear to the eye of the preacher, but imagine how far that $25K could have gone to help the less fortunate.