I was looking for a movie to watch the other day. I was in a nostalgic mood and wanted to spend an evening watching an old film, preferably in black & white. I turned to the Turner Classic Movies channel and recorded three films from the 1940’s that looked promising. A few days later I previewed two of them, but they were too dark.
The third was the 1941 film One Foot in Heaven, starring Fredric March and Martha Scott. It was the story of an ordinary Methodist minister and his family in the early decades of the twentieth century. From the first few minutes of the film (which pictured his call to ministry), both my wife and I were captivated. It was authentic to life in the parsonage and on the church field.
Normally clergy and clergy families are portrayed as stereotypes, cardboard cutouts rather than real human beings. Even when the portrayal of clergy is positive, the characters are one dimensional caricatures, like the singing priest Bing Crosby. Ministers are saintly but shallow characters, or they are hypocritical self-righteous prudes. The general rule of Hollywood is to portray clergy as either fanatics or frauds.
Steve Martin in Leap of Faith, for example, is about a traveling faith healer who cons his congregants. In the 1966 film Hawaii, Max von Sydow plays a missionary to Hawaii who forces his religious beliefs and western customs upon the native people. The Apostle starring Robert Duvall was a good film, but the main character clearly has fanatical and violent tendencies.
There have been sentimental films like the 1947 classic, The Bishop's Wife, and the 1996 remake The Preacher's Wife, but they are far from realistic. Never have I seen a movie showing Protestant ministers and their families as normal human beings facing real problems in ministry.
One Foot in Heaven is different. It is about real people. I was not surprised to discover afterwards that the movie was based on an autobiographical book of the same name written by a PK (preacher’s kid) named Hartzell Spence.
He was telling the story of his own parents and family, moving from church to church, living in parsonages and struggling with low income and church problems. Even though the story was set one hundred years ago (and is therefore dated in many ways), it is a more accurate depiction of ministry than any contemporary film I have seen.
It is even insightful at times. Here is a quote from the film where the Reverend William Spence changes his mind about the evils of movie-going. The pastor says to his son, Hartzell, “He who speaks to only one generation is already dead. And he who listens to only one generation is deaf.”
This minister and his wife are people I have known. I have heard stories like theirs from my friends and colleagues. I recognize their children. I recognize the parishioners. I walk the same tightrope of spiritual and worldly concerns (which is the reference of the title). If only someone would do a remake! But that is unlikely. Who would buy a ticket to hear the truth about pastors? Who would produce it? Not even the Christian film industry today!