OF HUMAN HEARTS (Clarence Brown, 1938)

One might refer to the basis of Clarence Brown’s deeply moving Of Human Hearts as anecdotal national mythology. Perhaps the most famous instance of this sort of thing, where the United States is concerned, is the legend of young George Washington’s coming forth voluntarily with the truth that he is the one who chopped down the cherry tree. The father of their country, generations of American schoolchildren were taught, was dutifully honest even as a young boy, ready to incur a paternal whipping rather than compromise his nobility. A subsidiary legend, that the adult Washington had wooden teeth, was an attempt to suggest Washington’s ongoing truthfulness; those teeth of his, the tale implies, were cherry wooden teeth. His mouth of wood also links Washington to the crucified Jesus, while the title “father of his country” also suggests God the Father, linking Washington’s refusal to bear the mantle of King with God’s sacrifice of his only son in order to provide humanity with salvation. Washington was redeeming the political struggles of early Americans by allowing their republic to come into being and by representing its promise as its first elected president. None of this legendary stuff is the least bit current for two reasons: the divestiture of national mythology triggered by revelations of presidential untruthfulness pertaining to the Vietnam War and Watergate; closely connected to this, the deepening secularization of the folk idea of America that has been pursued by those who feel most keenly betrayed by instances of national deceit.

Nothing can quite match the Washington “I cannot tell a lie, Father” myth in the annals of American mythology, but a number of similar anecdotes have tried to compete with it, spurred by similar motives. One of these involves President Abraham Lincoln during the American Civil War. The legend goes that Lincoln called from the battlefield a young soldier in order to give him a good tongue-lashing for failing to write home to his mother. Apparently this story has a toehold in truth, but its embellished form was meant to show how minutely human Lincoln remained while presiding over America’s at-home bloody war. This legendary anecdote prompted Brown’s film, which Brown co-produced as well as directed. If we watch the film today (as we should, for its fine Americana and wonderful acting), we literally see it through eyes for which it was never intended. America has moved on, so Of Human Hearts helps one to reconnect imaginatively and sentimentally with America’s past, purpose and mythmaking tendencies. If one is determined to uphold a critical stance, the film also provides interesting and worthwhile matter to take aim at.

The saga begins in rural Ohio. The Wilkins family arrives by steamboat from Maryland. Reverend Ethan Wilkins, accompanied by his wife, Mary, and their young son, Jason, is set to take up his ministerial duties. Ethan is a restrained, soft-spoken and uncompromising individual committed to serving God and the human community. He epitomizes piety, humility and charity. His is a “muscular Christianity,” as we learn when he decks and kicks out a community smart-aleck who disrespects the House of God by interrupting his remarks from the pulpit. Ethan and his wife are deeply in love. Their rebellious son is a source of heartache for them both. One of Jason’s difficulties is that he is unable to adapt easily to the family’s downward turn in circumstance. Preachers and their families rely on the generosity of their congregations and communities. They have moved to a place of meager means.

Nor are some inhabitants generous even with their own. Mary remarks to George Ames, the general store-owner heading the welcoming committee, that she did not notice a schoolhouse in the village, to which Ames responds, “We ain’t got one. Last one got burned down, so we didn’t see much sense in building it up again. We figured too much book-learnin’ was bad for children.” It is worth noting that skinflint Ames is not a poor man. Ames is among those who manipulate Ethan into accepting a subsistence salary for the position he is filling. Ethan concludes the meeting at which this is done with a prayer that indicates his awareness of what has occurred and of his own resistance to any resistance to this outcome. He thanks God for God’s “infinite wisdom in giving me just one child to feed and just one wife to clothe.” The good script is by Bradbury Foote from the story “Benefits Forgot” by Honore Morrow.

Young Jason’s rebelliousness prompts his attachment to a surrogate father, Dr. Charles Shingle, of whom Ethan disapproves, forbidding his son’s contact with this disreputable man who drinks and gambles. Ethan especially disapproves of the worldly reading material access to which he provides Jason. Ethan expects obedience from his son, who not only disobeys but treats his father impudently on the issue. It is somewhat difficult to see why in this particular family Jason should be so blind as to the impact of his incorrigible attitude; on the other hand, it is exceptionally easy to see why Jason should gravitate toward Shingle, who is as amiable and relaxed as his father is taut and demanding, and who is, in fact, likely the one other male member of the community with as substantial a claim to goodness as his father. Ethan himself comes to appreciate Shingle’s virtue.

Clarence Brown’s direction of this film is decent and humane. Although there can be no question of Ethan’s moral superiority to that of his son, we see Jason’s point of view and, if we are the least bit selfish or self-centered as he is in spades, we may honestly confess finding Ethan’s humility and unselfishness a character mark too daunting for us also to match. A grown Jason accompanies his father throughout the hilly environs of the village, visiting the poorest of the poor. One of these is an elderly woman, living alone, the light of whose day, and possibly one of the most brilliant occasions of her life, is this visit. She pours her heart and soul into the soup she prepares for Reverend Wilkins and his boy. Unfortunately, a frog has found its way into Jason’s portion and he absents himself rather than swallowing it. His father feels that the boy should have eaten it and not made a fuss; he ought not to have done anything to risk shaming and mortifying their hostess. I absolutely agree, but I damn well know had I found myself in that position I also would not have done the right thing. It is very unusual for a Hollywood film of that day or even of this day to present such a human situation this fully and fairly. Partly this is strategic. We admire and like Ethan a good deal, and we don’t like Jason much at all; but Ethan is going to die, and we will be spending a good deal more time with his creepily unlikeable son. Yet another surrogate father, President Abraham Lincoln, will pressure Jason to confront the deficiencies in his character and his thoughtless, selfish treatment of the one person who sacrifices everything for him: his mother.

While being trained as a surgeon in Baltimore (a realization of Jason’s dream to return to Maryland—and, please, keep his mother’s name in mind), Jason repeatedly writes home for money, even going so far as to suggest to his mother which keepsakes she should sell. Otherwise he ignores his mother, whose abject poverty has left her nearly an outcast in her community except for the kindness of the person whom she has replaced as the principal object of derision: Charles Shingle. Jason has his mother sell the cupboard that is her daily material connection to her own mother, silverware, all sorts of things. When she can come up with nothing else, she sells her wedding band, her principal material connection to her late husband. For his spiffy military outfit, Jason suggests that she sell Pilgrim, the sweet, gorgeous white horse whom she named and whose stitching up after an accident gave Jason the confidence that he could become a doctor. Mary Wilkins gives up this horse for the only earthly creature she loves more than this horse. Without grasping what is happening, Jason is further and further isolating his mother, divesting her of precious keepsakes, and all the while withholding his own presence. He is a great battlefield surgeon on the Union side in the Civil War, easing as much pain as his father had done in a different capacity; but he has no time to let his mother know he is alive. After years of silence, she presumes he is dead and writes the president to find out where her son’s grave is so that she might make a pilgrimage to it. Lincoln calls in Jason; gently and forcefully, he confronts the man with his selfishness, at times with stunningly intelligent indirectness. Jason breaks down and weeps. Whipping out pen and paper, Lincoln orders the boy to write home. A furlough actually enables Jason to go home, and he doesn’t go home alone. Serendipity intercedes and allows Jason to reunite Mother and Pilgrim.

At the last, at dinner, Jason appears to be part of a human community; his mother is there, as are Dr. Shingle and a very patient girlfriend, whom Jason also had discarded. Before they eat, Mary gives the prayer of thanksgiving that her Ethan had always given. We do not doubt Ethan’s spiritual presence. Mary feels it, and we feel her feeling it.

Brown’s film is very patient and highly cumulative; it moves us gently to a waterfall of tears. Some of the imagery is strikingly beautiful; Clyde De Vinna’s black-and-white cinematography especially shines in a shot of Jason, shown against the nighttime sky, riding Pilgrim home.

But it is for the acting that this film lives. Walter Huston’s Ethan Wilkins is among this great actor’s most complex character creations; indeed, it may be his finest hour. Beulah Bondi is tremendous as Mary, giving what is doubtless her greatest film performance. (One recalls that Huston and Bondi earlier played a very different preacher and wife in Lewis Milestone’s Rain, 1932.) Charles Coburn is good as Shingle, and John Carradine astounds as Lincoln. James Stewart has a rangy role as Jason and perhaps not quite the technique necessary to finesse its upheaval; but he is very moving when Jason becomes belatedly human. Guy Kibbee, formerly Babbitt (1934), is in his element as Ames and very funny. Charley Grapewin and Gene Lockhart also ably contribute to what might be called one of the movie casts of our dreams.





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