Courtroom drama as an elderly doctor goes on trial for generosity!
US / 62 minutes / bw / Family, Lutheran Church (Missouri Synod), Presbyterian Church in the USA Dir: William F. Claxton Scr: Charles Francis Royal, Herman W. Gockel Idea: Leete Renick Brown Cine: Joseph Biroc Cast: Houseley Stevenson Sr., Donald Woods, Onslow Stevens, Robert Stevenson, John Eldredge, Tom Neal, Paul Cavanaugh, Russell Hicks, Alan Bridges, Effie Laird, Joe Devlin, Esther Howard, Houseley Stevenson Jr., Chester Clute, Tim Ryan, James Lloyd, Emory Parnell, Franklin Parker, James Guilfoyle, Clark Howat, George Pembroke, Lee Phelps.
A genuine curio: a courtroom drama made by and for the Presbyterian Church in the USA. Even more curious, there’s quite a lot to like about it. Unfortunately, most of those likeable bits happen in the first half, with the second half being more of a challenge (at least to this incorrigible rationalist).
The premise is that genial elderly Dr. Charles “Charlie” Grayson (Houseley Stevenson Sr.) decided a while ago to start giving some of his accumulated wealth to people in need and to the church. His nephews Bert (Neal) and Ken (Houseley Stevenson Jr.) have brought a court case on the grounds that he must be mentally incompetent, and should be prevented from further impoverishing himself, the implication being that they want to stop him further reducing their inheritance. Prosecutor Palmer (Stevens) and Doc Charlie’s attorney Peter Grover (Robert Stevenson) duke it out in the court of Justice Webster (Eldredge).
Greedy nephews Bert (Tom Neal) and Ken (Houseley Stevenson Jr.) are the claimants.
Outside, it’s been raining cats and dogs forever. This is an important plot point for later.
A reporter called Noonan (Lloyd) is on the job for the Evening Ledger; in due course he’ll phone through his story to the Ledger’s rewrite man Joe (Parker). These two journalist roles are quite small, but they help tie the movie together.
Justice Webster (John Eldredge) presides.
So witnesses are called, each of them being accorded a brief flashback that relates their evidence. First up is Doc Charlie’s banker, Jess Northrup (Hicks), visibly proud of his vice-presidency of the Midvale First National. He describes his startlement when the old surgeon opened a new account in the name of just “Charlie” as a conduit for his charitable giving.
Banker Northrup (Russell Hicks) and Prosecutor Palmer (Onslow Stevens) in court.
Then comes habitual petty criminal Louie Lumpkin (Devlin). He met Doc Charlie poisoning feeding pigeons in the park, struck up a conversation with him and, to the disgust of patrolling Officer Malone (Phelps), was given a check for $50. Louie’s sob story to earn this was a pretty good one:
Louie: “You ever tried doing anything once you been in the hoosegow?”
Doc: “Well . . . no.”
Louie (Joe Devlin) gives Doc a markedly selective autobiography in the park.
Louie introduced Doc Charlie to his pal Mrs. Dalton (Howard), who sobbed that her Freddie had just died and she didn’t have the money for a proper funeral. Doc Charlie gave her $400; much later we discover that $200 of this went as kickback to Louie, that Freddie was not her husband, as we’d assumed, but her cat, and that Doc Charlie guessed this from the outset.
Doc Charlie’s housekeeper and handyman, Mary Biddle (Laird) and her husband John (Bridges), tell how, after a visit from Pastor William Goodwin (Woods), Doc Charlie agreed to give the pastor $50,000 for his church. Could there be anything more indicative of mental incompetence than this?
Mrs Dalton (Esther Howard) tells her tale to Prosecutor Palmer.
Doc Charlie’s lawyer Grover now takes up the cudgels in the doc’s defense:
“We will recall some of these witnesses and, by their own additional testimony, prove that the so-called aberrations of the defendant were in truth the sane impulses of a benevolent and godly man—a man who realized that he never could have reached the pinnacle of success without divine help. A man who came to feel that all of his worldly goods and possessions were not actually his, but God’s.”
We revisit Pastor William Goodwin, the handsome picture of the successful evangelist, complete with the rugged good looks and the presidential hair—a sort of Mitt Romney clone. (Would you buy a used Gideon Bible from this man?) Apparently he first got to know Doc Charlie when pleading with him to step briefly out of surgical retirement to tackle the infernally difficult case of one of his parishioners, Jimmy Daniels, whose brain injury might render him an imbecile. Aided by Dr. George Wagnell (Howat), Doc Charlie effected an against-the-odds cure.
Doc Charlie (Houseley Stevenson Sr.) watches with a whimsical smile as the court stenographer’s typewriter types.
So far, so good in the movie: things are bopping merrily along. But we then discover that Doc Charlie’s real epiphany came when in church one Sunday he heard a sermon by Pastor Goodwin that persuaded him he should give more, more, more to Christian enterprises. We get several minutes of this sermon, which is delivered with extreme unction.
Goodwin (Donald Woods) and defense attorney Grover (Robert Stevenson) get chummy in court.
It is a sequence to be gotten through with difficulty.
At first Doc Charlie intended his $50,000 to contribute to the building of the church’s new wing, but the pastor persuaded him that the money would be better spent on missionary activities, bringing the word of Christ to deprived foreigners. Doc Charlie agrees, and coughs up the fifty grand.
At this point I began to look at All That I Have and its makers, the Presbyterian Church in the USA, in a whole new light. One of the acknowledged most frequent and efficient ways whereby phony evangelists rip off their donors is by spinning the “overseas missions” line—because the donors can tell if the new north wing is going up or not but they haven’t a hope of finding out if the bibles and medical care are actually getting to poor villagers in Botswanaland or even Alabama. (Try James Randi’s 1987 book The Faith Healers for examples of this particular scam.) Having this in mind, the relevant sequences read extremely oddly to me.
The Biddles (Effie Laird, Alan Bridges) look guiltily at each other in court as their misapprehension is revealed.
The movie ends, very predictably, when prosecutor Palmer is put on the stand and forced by Grover to admit that he too contributes money to his church. “Why?” asks Grover, Palmer is lost for an answer, and off runs Noonan to phone through his story to Ledger rewrite man Joe.
Noonan (James Lloyd) phones through that hot story to the Ledger‘s rewrite man.
Joe looks out the window on what had been earlier a rainswept scene and says, “Well, whaddya know? The sun’s breaking through.” Don’t let no one tell you there’s no such thing as symbolism in the movies, kids.
As noted at the outset, the first half of the movie is surprisingly entertaining, focusing on a moral dilemma that for most of us is easy enough to solve—it’s Doc Charlie’s money and, if he wants to use it to try to do good, all the more kudos to him. During much of the second half of the movie, however, we find ourselves dealing with a more churchified agenda for giving money, and that’s more problematic, more ethically ambiguous and, from the vantage of a movie-watcher, more boring.
There are some surprisingly illustrious names in the cast. The one that stood out for me was that of Tom Neal, who’s just about the last actor I’d expect to find in a “Christian Values” movie—try here for a few of the salacious details.