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Stars in my Crown

Santos Zunzunegui

Tabakalera | Cinema - Screen 1

06/03/2020 - 19:00

  • Conference
  • Screening

Participants:

Santos Zunzunegui

Languages:

Spanish

Price:

3,5 €

March 6th, friday

19:00 Conference: Santos Zunzunegui

20:00 Stars in my Crown (Jacques Tourneur, USA, 1950, 86 min.)

North-American B movies have always had a surprise or two in store for those of us who, at some point, have sought out the improbable and the shocking rather than the standard, perfectly-produced fare churned out first by the large studies during the Golden Age of Hollywood, and later by the powerful interests which control the media giants of our time.

In the world of B movies (reminder: very cheap films lasting little over an hour with a cast not from the Hollywood star system, filmed within two weeks, not part of a particular genre, and conceived as second features), there have always been what are known in the professional jargon as Nervous A films. That is, a category of film that tried to break down contextual limitations. Likewise, we can apply the same idea to a series of directors whose work in many cases has great aesthetic importance.

The main candidate for this category is undoubtedly  Jacques Tourneur, an all-round film maker capable of 'effective and concise’ film and who crossed into American movies ‘on a tightrope and as though in a dream’ (in the words of Jean-Louis Comolli). By the early 1960s he had already caught the eye of the French critics (Présence du cinémaCahiers du cinéma) as well as the Spanish, who used the French as a reference (Film Ideal). By the 70s and 80s – coinciding with his retrospectives at the festivals in Edinburgh (1975) and San Sebastián (1988) and the corresponding publication of two collective books which brought him definitively to the attention of the most critics possible – he had become an exemplar of those film makers capable of transcending the limitations of a system that constrained their talent in Hollywood B cinema. 

To use the words that Martin Scorsese (along with other film makers of his standing) chose to describe Tourneur, we are talking about a ‘bootlegger’, someone capable of transforming routine materials into a form of personal expression.  We need only look to the three elegant movies (Cat PeopleI Walked with a Zombie and The Leopard Man [1]) that Tourneur brought to the now-celebrated terror film cycle that producer Val Lewton [2] concocted for RKO in the 1940s, in which Tourneur played a key role in refining a cinematographic style defined as ‘oblique’: ‘The less you see, the more you believe’. It was a style that would revolutionise fantasy film, imparting a lesson that fans of blood and gore shouldn't forget. Hence, Scorsese (an experienced film maker) reasonably maintains that a modest genre film such as Cat People ‘is as important as Citizen Kane in the development of a more mature American cinema ’.

None of the above should push us into the trap of seeking a supposed homogeneity in Tourneur’s work, beyond certain elements which reappear here and here in his best films. To avoid any temptation (see some recent assessments of his work), we’ll say that Tourneur is not an auteur in the now dated sense attributed to this notion in the film world, but something better. He is a film maker, in the sense of the old and meaningful term coined by Roland Barthes, and which helps us to distinguish between people who make films and those who are film makers. Jacques Tourneur, who as Jean-Claude Biette astutely observed ‘always moved from a place of acceptance and from its consequence, resignation’, never stopped belonging to the second category. This is the perspective we should adopt when watching the film that we’re about to discuss, and which marked a hugely significant point in his career. He made it by his own choice at a time when he was beginning to stand out. Despite the film's outstanding qualities, it would end up relegating Tourneur to the throngs of film makers forever confined to the world of low-budget films. This forced him to continue his work, sometimes with more than satisfactory artistic results. He made westerns, provocative adventure films, extravagant adaptations of Edgar Allan Poe poems and even shot sword-and-sandal movies in Europe during the final stages of his career, made for the greater glory of renowned body-builders-turned-actors.

All of this is related to Stars in My Crown, a film that arose from an informal encounter between Tourneur and William Wright, his producer friend from Metro Goldwyn Mayer. Wright let him read the script by Margaret Fitts based on a book by Joe David Brown. Filming was about to commence with a small budget over just twelve days, using an in-house director on a weekly salary. Tourneur was moved by the material and convinced his friend to let him direct the film. It had immediate consequences, despite the wonderful result. From that moment on, he would see his income reduced to the level of his earnings for this film, and his professional future short-circuited.

What is Stars in My Crown? At first glance it’s a simple and modest western. The twists and turns, narrated via a voice over by the adult John Kenyon (played by the then child actor Dean Stockwell) from an undefined future, take place in a small town called Walsburg in the years following the American Civil War, which saw the Union pitted against the Confederacy. The film has all the generic hallmarks of a western but belongs to a much wider category called Americana, an expression used in the USA to refer to a set of cultural artefacts of any type which nostalgically embody a unique and bucolic ideal of the USA [3]. The images that open Stars in My Crown (to the voice of John Kenyon) immerse us unapologetically in the simple daily life of a small southern American town. One of the opening shots is of a coloured family, a theme which, though not stressed at the time, becomes important throughout the story. By way of context, the film is not worlds apart from the universe created by John Ford in his movies starring Will Rogers (Doctor Bull, 1933; Judge Priest, 1934; Steamboat Bend the River, 1935; and subsequently in the late remake of the second of these works, The Sun Shines Bright, 1953) [4].

Furthermore, the music (by and large autochthonous) plays just as important a role in Americana. Hence, we mustn't ignore the role in Tourneur's film of the gospel hymn Will There Be Any Stars in my Crown [5], the favourite of the story's central character, none other of course than Parson Josiah Doziah Gray (played by one Joel MacCrea in a state of grace, and not in a metaphorical sense, as anyone who sees the film will attest). He bursts onto the scene bent on establishing himself as the religious guide of the community of Walsburg. He gives his first sermon (‘starting at the beginning’, as he would say; again, this is not a metaphor) in the local saloon armed not only with his bible but with a couple of revolvers which, interestingly, he’ll never need. The pastor's favourite hymn accompanies the story from the opening image to the closing one (there’s no need to point out that they are one and the same, rightly returning to the place from which, in moral terms, we never left). It also creates an amicable matrimonial rift between the pastor and his wife Harriet (Ellen Drew), the adoptive mother of the pair’s son, John Kenyon, whose undoubtedly rose-tinted memory of his childhood narrates and filters the story and its meaning for the viewer. 

The small community brought to life in John Kenyon’s memories also has its share of conflicts. First, it has to confront two ways of conceiving the rules that will govern community life. The first is embodied by the pro-science sceptic Doctor Daniel K. Harris Jr. (James Mitchell), who inherited his position from his father. Despite his proven medical ability, his serious nature gets between him and his patients. The second comes in the form of the man who will guide their souls: Pastor Gray. The first major clash between them – that is, between two ways of seeing the world – happens in the midst of the typhoid fever epidemic that devastates the town. Standing over the body of a woman, the first states that ‘everything has come to an end’ . The second responds: ‘now is when everything begins’ .

The drama of the uncontrollable typhoid epidemic in Walsburg brings the conflict between these approaches to understanding life to a climax, in what is undoubtedly the most beautiful scene in the whole film. Summoned to support one of his parishioners during her dying moments, Pastor Gray attends the dying woman’s house to relieve the exhausted young doctor at her bedside. The anguished minister, on his knees with his eyes closed, prays by the deathbed of his fellow countrywoman, deemed a lost cause by medical science. In the background of the wide shot is the bedroom window. A sudden breeze flickers the candle in the foreground that softly lights the room. The breeze picks up, ruffling the curtains on the window in the background. The film cuts first to a close-up of the pastor, praying, and immediately to another showing the dying (or dead?) woman moving her hands, seeking and finding those of the pastor who is lost in his prayers. Those familiar with Tourneur’s films won’t be surprised: for the film maker, and in his best films, cinema was about making the invisible visible [6].

But it doesn’t stop there, for this peaceful and frugal town also harbours greed and racism. The local mica mineral deposit is part of a modest estate owned by Uncle Famous (Juano Hernandez), the elderly black man who lives in a hut by the river. Lon Beckley (Ed Begley), another local businessman, tries to buy his land for a pittance. The refusal of the old man to sell up riles the Ku Klux Klan, who destroy his crops and pull down his home. Famous finds sole solidarity in Pastor Gray and the Isbell family, comprising father Jed (Alan Hale), the mother and their five male children. There is an unbreakable friendship going back a long time between the pastor and Jed Isbell, forged (as the voice over explains) during the civil war when they fought together from ‘Fort Danelson to Missionary Ridge’. The conflict between the community and its spiritual leader (the Isbell family were resistant to all things related to the church) reveals that the aftermath of the battle has just raged across the country is still being felt. It tells us that both Pastor Gray and Jed Isbell were part of the campaigns that brought Ulysses Simpson Grant to the attention of one Abraham Lincoln who, putting aside the prejudices against the general that persisted among the Washington elite following his controversial role in the Battle of Shiloh, with a decisive ‘this man fights’ , entrusted him with overall command of the Unionist forces. It also reveals that both Gray and Isbell were loyal to the abolitionist ideals of President Lincoln, and that they moulded their characters in the war that was about to divide the ‘American house’ forever.

This enables us to fully understand the scene in which, putting down their weapons (among the nearby trees, the strapping male Isbell children wait, armed to the teeth and ready to protect the life of their friend), the pastor comes up against his own parishioners who are dressed in the sinister robes of the KKK. Mobilised by Lon Beckley, they have come to lynch Uncle Famous. Standing on the porch in a pose not so different from the one that John Ford made Henry Fonda adopt in his portrayal of Lincoln (Young Mr. Lincoln, 1939), Gray reads his fellow countrymen a moving statement by Uncle Famous, in which he bequeaths all of his meagre possessions to each and every one of them (starting with the man who freed him from slavery). As the flames from the torches blow in a wind that grows ever stronger, Gray manages to avert the murder and sends the shamed attackers away. Once out of sight, Gray throws the words that he's just read to the ground. A gust of wind blows the sheets of paper to the feet of John Kenyon, only to discover that they're blank. The wind blows wildly.

Santos Zunzunegui

 

[1] The other two were never commercially released in Spain.

[2] Its real ‘auteur’, if this word has meaning within an institution in which ‘genius was the system’, in the words of André Bazin.

[3] Typical of this type of approach is the care that the film maker takes when setting up home scenes: choral and culinary rituals or the presence of certain items, such as the feather fan that adorns the kitchen table in the Gray family home and helps create the period effect.

[4] We shouldn't ignore the ideological overlaps (the world of religious communities) and situational similarities (e.g. the child and his elderly mentor fishing in the river) between Stars in My Crown and Laughton's The Night of the Hunter. It is as though the first designed an idyllic vision (one that would ultimately reveal its cracks too) of Americana by the hands of Joe David Brown, Margaret Fitts and Jacques Tourneur, and the second painted a direct picture of its hidden and perverse side, brought to life by David Grubb, James Agee and Charles Laughton.

[5] The lyrics accompanying the music were written by Eliza E. Hewitt in 1897 (an anachronism if ever there was one – these are key to the Americana genre – given the film is set just after the American Civil War, which ended in 1865). The music itself is usually attributed (albeit unreliably) to John Robson Sweeney, composer of several popular music anthologies. In addition to the choral version in the film, there is also the classic version by The Cox Family with Alison Kraus.

[6] At this point, I don’t consider it untoward to mention a film as apparently distinct as Ordet (Carl Th. Dreyer, 1955). What is more, the pair of shots at the beginning – one from above of John Kenyon and his friend Chase Isbell, on the hay piled up in a cart during harvest, followed by another showing their perspective from the treetops – could pass for a tame version of the famous coffin scene from Vampyr (Carl Th. Dreyer, 1932).