Words Wrought Wide

Words Wrought Wide

Posted by Mike Finnegan on Dec 4th 2018

When it arrived on the scene in October 1953, Cinemascope was ballyhooed for its ability to deliver beautiful single-lens widescreen imagery that would envelop audiences in ways that upstart squarish homebound box called a television could not. Everything it conveyed seemed bigger and more intense. Spectacles of adventure, period recreation, scenic wonderment and extravagant musicality were created in that busy, learning-curved first year to enrapture movie fans. Moviemaking being the eternal crapshoot it has always been, not all among the dozens of offerings served up in that first year of the format scored in the box-office marketplace but there were game attempts in all manner of subject areas to see what worked. In the spring of 1955 came an interesting proposition for big-screen grandeur: an adaptation of a popular 1951 biographical bestseller about a man of deep-seated, commonsensical Christian faith and an unflashy lifestyle whose dynamic oratory rested largely in the power of words and ideas about the road to heaven, with quality actors and not marquee-dominating star legends in the lead roles. A Man Called Peter (1955) worked…outstandingly. 

The Peter of the title, Scotland-born Peter Marshall (1902-1949), was a Presbyterian minister who served during the 1930s in parishes in Covington and Atlanta, GA, before becoming pastor of Washington DC’s New York Avenue Presbyterian Church in 1937 and later rising to become U.S. Senate Chaplain in 1947, in that capacity just two years before his untimely death. He was an unassuming man, noted for his openhearted decency, joy of living and fiercely inclusive take on Christian values that embraced all of humanity – and he channeled all that into uncommonly stirring sermons that millions of Americans and others around the world took to heart. The above-mentioned, same-named book captured all that, and its author, the preacher’s widow Catherine Marshall, became a “technical advisor to the screenplay” – assigned to Eleanore Griffin, a veteran scribe who won an Oscar® for 1938’s Boys Town – to ensure its title subject’s comprehensive spirit of humanity and spiritual Christian fervor was preserved – and not shortchanged by any Hollywood tendency toward arch sentimentality and fabricated plot contrivances. The man’s stirring words would be an integral part. Producer Samuel G. Engel and director Henry Koster, already felicitously teamed on the popular religious-flavored Come to the Stable (1949), initially considered the oratorically gifted Richard Burton and Laurence Olivier but both were unavailable. The next choice – quite ideal as it turned out – was Richard Todd, already a Best Actor Academy Award® nominee for The Hasty Heart (1949) and a veteran of Alfred Hitchcock’s Stage Fright (1950) and the three British-made Disney adventures The Story of Robin Hood and His Merrie Men (1952), The Sword and the Rose (1953) and Rob Roy: The Highland Rogue (1953). He was won over not by the script treatment sent to his Pinkneys Green home in England, but by a follow-up parcel containing an audio tape of Marshall’s Were You There? sermon on Christ’s crucifixion. 

As Catherine Marshall reports in her follow-up 1957 memoir To Live Again, Todd was roused and intrigued to the point that he asked to set up a screen test: “One evening at six, after a hard day’s work in the studio, Mr. Todd rounded up some 40 people. Deliberately, he picked an odd assortment. There were technicians, wardrobe and makeup people, some of the camera crew, several old-time character actors. In the front row was a hard-bitten blonde off the street, with her boyfriend on her arm. None of the group knew why they were there or what was coming. Dick Todd mounted a makeshift pulpit and looked out over his hastily gathered congregation. What he wanted was not only a screen test but a reaction from human beings. If Peter Marshall’s sermon material could move this group, it would move anybody! The words poured out over the Elstree soundstage. For eight minutes Todd spoke. When he had finished, the blonde in the front row was in tears. So were several others. An electrician came down off his perch and gripped the actor’s hand, ‘You must do that picture. I never heard of it. But you must do it.’ Dick Todd cabled the Fox studios that he would take the role.” The actor would happily continue working with Koster on three widescreen Fox films in quick succession: The Virgin Queen, Good Morning, Miss Dove (both 1955) and D-Day the Sixth of June (1956).

Todd’s bracing way with Marshall’s words – Twilight Time essayist Julie Kirgo’s coverage reports “more than 30 minutes of (we swear) genuinely engaging, philosophically provocative sermonizing” in the two-hour chronicle – received divinely inspired support on screen by Jean Peters (the co-star of TT’s Captain from Castile in the final role of her eight years in movies) as devoted spouse Catherine, Marjorie Rambeau as a crusty Washington, DC, blueblood who contends with the ruddy reverend’s embracing take on ministry, and young Billy Chapin (whose subsequent outings in Violent Saturday and The Night of the Hunter would make a marvelously memorable 1955 trifecta for the talented 11-year-old) as son Peter John Marshall, who would follow his famous father into the religious life. The production captured on film many locations associated with Marshall’s ministry in Scotland, Georgia and the Nation’s Capital, and cinematographer Harold Lipstein received an Oscar® nomination for his efforts. As mighty a stirring sonic instrument as Marshall’s words is Alfred Newman’s marvelous score, a rapturous compendium of melodies that embrace both ethereal and human realms. (The nine-time Academy Award® winner would pick up one of his trophies that year for Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing.) 

In the end, this Cinemascope study of the power of one man’s word and unshakable faith – significantly, an immigrant – turned out well: popular, critically lauded and a showcase for American values of decency, decorum and dynamism that was chosen by the National Board of Review as one of 1955’s 10 Best Films, with Rambeau winning its Best Supporting Actress Award for her work here and in The View from Pompey’s Head. TT’s hi-def Blu-ray presentation of A Man Called Peter includes the complete Newman score on an Isolated Music Track, an audio recording of Marshall’s Were You There? Easter sermon accompanied by vintage photo images documenting the man’s life and the film’s production, and an extensive Fox Movietone Newsreel assemblage (with both sound and silent portions) covering the movie’s three gala premieres in New York, London and Glasgow. Marshall’s eventful life and consequential words can fill your wide home screen to overflowing starting December 18. Preorders open tomorrow, Wednesday December 5.