Thursday, May 15, 2014

Count Three and Pray

I probably should have done a full-length post about Count Three and Pray yesterday, since it's coming on fairly early this afternoon at 2:00 PM on TCM, and it doesn't seem to be available on DVD. That, and TCM doesn't list it as coming up on the schedule after tomorrow at any time through August. But with any luck you can catch this afternoon's airing.

Ven Heflin stars as Luke Fargo, whom we see at the beginning of the film returning to his southern hometown fresh from having fought the Civil War. However, he fought on the Northern side, which is going to be a problem with any number of the townsfolk, especially shop owner Yancey Huggins (Raymond Burr). Before the War, Luke led a dissolute life, romancing the girls such as young Georgina Derais (Allison Hayes), and carousing. But something happened in the war: he was at the battle of Vicksburg, where he saw a chaplain die. He kept the man's bible and, disturbed by the horrors he saw at Vickburg, vowed that he was going to become a man of peace, spreading God's word. In fact, he's returned to his hometown to rebuild the church, which was burned down during the war.

However, there are several problems. First among these is that somebody else hs already take up residence in the parsonage, an orphan girl named Lissy (Joanne Woodward), who was obviously driven out of her own home -- wherever that was -- and took up residence here because nobody else was. It just wouldn't do for an unmarried preacher to be sharing the parsonage with an underage woman who isn't a maid or anything like that. Why, they're practically living in sin! And Lissy has absolutely no intentions of moving out.

There's also the problem of actually building the church. Luke just doesn't have the funds to do it, and doesn't have a flock who can help donate the funds or the labor. So in a scene you'd be able to see coming a mile away, Luke winds up betting on his horse against the owner of the local lumber mill -- something that Luke would have done back in his former high-living life, but just shouldn't be done by a preacher. It's the sort of trope we already saw in Friendly Persuasion when I blogged about it back in February 2012, but in fact Count Three and Pray came out a year before Friendly Persuasion.

The next complication is that although Luke believes he's gotten the calling, in fact he doesn't have much ability to be a preacher, being a lousy public speaker and not really knowing what to talk about even if he did have the gift of delivering a speech well. The other preacher thing he doesn't have is the ordination. Nowadays this theoretically wouldn't be a problem, what with all those independent megachurches out there. But back in the 19th century actually having been ordained would have been a pretty big deal for a lot of townsfolk.

And some of those townsfolk, especially the aforementioned Yancy, would like nothing better than to see Luke fail in his attempt to become a preacher and bring goodness and love to this town. Finding out that he hasn't been ordained could just get his growing flock to abandon him, but worse is that relationship with Lissy, who is still living with him.

You can probably guess where everything winds up going, just as you could see the horse racing scene coming. Count Three and Pray is nothing earth-shatteringly original, instead being an amiable little picture that meanders its way to a conclusion that satisfies the strictures of the Production Code, as well as being reasonable if unspectacular for the viewers. Instead, Count Three and Pray should be judged on the basis of the performances in it, which are all more than good enough, if not the best work that any of the principals put on screen. Van Heflin, who was never glamorous, is however always good as a conflicted man like he is here. Joanne Woodward is too old for her role, but does well enough with it. Raymond Burr was still about a year away from starting Perry Mason, and was still playing a lot of bad guys. This one isn't quite as bad as some of his others, but he's still entertainingly hissable.

All in all, Count Three and Pray is a nice, well-made little movie. It's unprepossessing and, while it will never wind up in any list of the greatest films made, it's solid enough and succeeds at what it sets out to do. It's more than worth a watch.

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