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Film / One Foot in Heaven

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One Foot in Heaven is a 1941 film directed by Irving Rapper and starring Fredric March.

It is an episodic story about William Spence, a Canadian medical student who undergoes a religious conversion and decides to become a Methodist preacher. Taking his new bride Hope in hand, he abandons both medicine and Canada, moving to the United States and becoming a "circuit preacher" with responsibilities in multiple towns in his district, located in rural Iowa. William and Hope raise children together while he ministers to his flock. Meanwhile, they have to deal with the pressures of life as a rural Protestant minister, some of which are a low salary, various dumpy parsonages (the homes provided for ministers), the strictness of William's Methodist discipline, and the petty narrow-mindedness of the people William serves.


Tropes exhibited in this work:

  • Answer Cut: Rev. Spence talks in a sermon about the importance of peace to the world. Cut to newspaper headlines about the assassination at Sarajevo and the beginning of World War I.
  • Based on a True Story: Specifically, Hartzell Spence's biography of his father, Rev. William Spence.
  • The Church: Rev. Spence's strict Methodist discipline makes problems for his family.
  • Extreme Doormat: Hope Spence. See "Housewife"
  • Good Shepherd: Rev. Spence sacrifices his welfare and his family's for the sake of his flock.
  • Gossipy Hens: A major irritant for the reverend, especially when one of his enemies in the town uses the gossipy hen network to spread an ugly rumor that gets Hartzell expelled from school.
  • Happily Married: The Spences, although they probably shouldn't be—see Housewife below.
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  • Have a Gay Old Time: Hartzell grouses about all the problems that ensue if he, a preacher's son, ever gets "gay enough to hold a girl's hand."
  • Hollywood Atheist: The town dentist, who exists only to be easily outpointed by Rev. Spence in a debate.
  • Housewife: In 1941 the character of Hope Spence was no doubt meant to be an inspiring example of a virtuous wife who supports her husband. To a 21st century viewer, however, Mrs. Spence may come off as an Extreme Doormat. William makes her leave her family and come with him to the U.S., he tells her that she can't redecorate the dingy parsonage they move into, he tells her she can't dress nice because that might outshine the other ladies in the congregation, he tells her they have to go hungry because advertising for his wedding services is "too commercial", he refuses the much cushier posting in California that she wanted him to take, he disregards her wishes about naming their third child, and he forces her to leave for another crappy district just when things have been fixed up nicely in their Iowa home. At no point in the film does William ask her about any of these life choices; he tells her, and she obeys.
  • Hypocritical Humor: One nosy old lady buttonholes the reverend, telling him that two kids in the congregation were holding hands and weren't even paying attention to his text. Rev. Spence asks "By the way, what was my text?", and the old lady has no answer, because she wasn't paying attention either.
  • Match Cut: An audio match cut from the reverend ringing some bells for a couple he just married to the bells ringing in the church.
  • Preacher Man: Played straight, as Rev. Spence ministers to his flock, giving sermons, performing weddings and baptisms, and setting an example to the community.
  • Preacher's Kid: The Spence children chafe at restrictions on their behavior and how they are perceived. Hartzell says that girls are shocked when he tries to hold their hand, thinking that he's a pure-hearted preacher's son, while his sister Elizabeth complains that boys think exactly the opposite. They win a small victory when Hartzell takes his father to the movies and convinces the reverend that film-going isn't inherently sinful.
  • Rich Bitch: Mrs. Sandow, the richest lady in town and the town snob. She flies into a rage when she finds out that the reverend called on her live-in gardener, because she thinks that raises the gardener to her social status.
  • Serious Business: The narrow-minded people of the dinky little town the Spences live in can be amazingly petty. One of the church's benefactors walks away in a huff, withdrawing his support, when Rev. Spence says the new church should have the choir moved to the back. The benefactor doesn't like this because it would make his wife, a choir member, less prominent. See also the tantrum Mrs. Sandow throws when Rev. Spence calls on her gardener.
  • Slice of Life: There is no real story arc, just an account of the Spences and their lives together over several decades.
  • Time Passes Montage: One that includes brief clips of the reverend going about his duties while the births of their first two children are inscribed in the family Bible.

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