The Vernon Johns Story
There are a lot of local structures in this television film, such as It’s a Wonderful Life governing Johns at home vexed over his congregation, annoying his wife and daughter with his complaints until the former sits down at the piano to play some stirring Chopin, which vexes him further. Other scenes are more difficult to ascribe, and fairly allusive, like the size of the lady churchgoers’ thighs making them averse to stockings out of shyness.
The main structure appears to be laid on the foundation of Senensky’s A Dream for Christmas, a transposition of Renoir’s The Southerner to postwar Los Angeles and a minister’s family, the neighborly conflict there is with a developer who holds the mortgage on the church.
Atop this is an analysis of Johns’ position based on the central portrayal in Curtiz’s Life with Father, a High and Low Church comedy which supports much of Johns’ dissatisfaction with his stiff-necked congregation, a generation of snobs (Koster’s A Man Called Peter has a similar opposition).
The minister and paterfamilias is very akin to Clarence Day, he keeps a taut ship as far as possible, but instead of pacing back and forth in his study and dictating letters to the editor no-one records, he delivers sermons from the pulpit about the situation dangerously impinging on himself, his family and the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama.
This is all accurately reflected in his hearers, who aren’t particular fans of drama on Sundays.
The delicate touch of the writers includes a précis of Albee’s The Death of Bessie Smith in a rape case turned away by an inconvenient law.
In the end, having said his piece, Johns moves on like Monroe Stahr at the end of Kazan’s The Last Tycoon, replaced in the pulpit by Martin Luther King.
A rare, very trenchant part for James Earl Jones, who could not resist the art of it.