For, Feb. 27, 2015

Fredric March stars in the biographical melodrama “One Foot in Heaven” (1941, b/w), which earned an Oscar nomination for Best Picture — in competition with pretty heady company: “Citizen Kane,” “The Maltese Falcon,” “Sergeant York,” “Suspicion.” (They all lost to “How Green Was My Valley.”)

Based on the autobiography by Hartzell Spence about growing up in the home of a minister shortly after the turn of the 20th century, “One Foot in Heaven” has March playing Hartzell’s father, William Spence.

The film begins in Canada as William graduates from medical school and becomes a doctor but feels strongly that he has received a call to enter the Methodist ministry.

This decision takes William and his new wife Hope (Martha Scott) across the border and they find themselves in Iowa as they move from parsonage to parsonage, eking out a living from donations and by performing weddings.


          Fredric March at the pulpit in 'One Foot in Heaven.'

This gives the film an episodic feel with William entering each new location expecting to follow rigid Methodist policy but finding himself humbled as he learns the value of bending tradition to change with the times.

Perhaps the film’s most famous moment comes when William learns that his son Hartzell has been going to motion pictures, which is thought to be forbidden by the church. So William attends a movie with his son, expecting to point out its evils, but as they watch a William S. Hart silent Western, William is impressed by its moral message and surprises his congregation the following Sunday by suggesting parents can learn a thing or two from their children.

A goodly portion of the film’s second half is devoted to the family settling in Denver, where the Spences must deal with wealthy church members and their snobbery, and their unwillingness to easily part with their money to keep the local church in good repair. This leads to some unexpected situations that include Harzell being unjustly maligned — until William steps up to take corrective measures.


“One Foot in Heaven” is a wonderfully constructed, beautifully directed and performed slice of Americana and is highly recommended.

It’s also making its home video debut on the Warner Archive label next week (on Tuesday, March 3), though why it’s taken so long is a mystery.