One Foot in Heaven (1941): Irving Rapper’s Melodrama, Starring Fredric March

In One Foot in Heaven, Irving Rapper’s melodrama is one of the weakest features to be ever nominated for the Best Picture Oscar. It also has the distinction of being one of the few films in Oscars history to earn only one nomination.

The estimable Fredric March, who brings gravitas to every role he plays, is cast as the Reverend William Spence, an “obscure” minister of unique stripe and personal integrity.

Casey Robinson’s screenplay is inspired by newsman Hartzell Spence’s biography of his father of the same title.

As was the norm of biopics at the time, “One Foot in Heaven” presents an idealized view of a deeply human and compassionate individual whose leadership was based on instinctive, down-to-earth knowledge of people’s psychologywhat motivates and what inspires ordinary people.

Bearing the signature of a polished Warner melodrama of the 1940s, the production values are polished, particularly Charles Rosher’s cinematography and Max Steiner’s score. The movie also benefits from a grand turn by March, who is surrounded by excellent supporting players like Martha Scott, Beulah Bondi, Gene Lockhart, Harry Davenport, and Laura Hope Crews.

Oscar Nominations: 1

Picture, produced by Hal Wallis

Oscar Awards: None

Oscar Context

Nominated for ten Oscars, “How Green Was My Valley” won five, honoring Ford’s Direction, Arthur Miller’s Cinematography and Art direction. Sara Allgood was nominated for Supporting Actress, as the gentle mother, and Donald Crisp won the Supporting Actor Oscar for playing the stern father who’s killed in the mine.

Not to be underestimated is the fact that “How Green Was My Valley” was selected by the Academy, while the U.S. had already been involved in the War. The film’s warmly sympathetic depiction of family unity must have hit deep chords in the country’s collective consciousness, which may explain, at least in part, why its two major competitors, Orson Welles’s masterpiece, “Citizen Kane” and William Wyler’s “The Little Foxes,” each with nine nominations, were the losers. Both films particularly “Little Foxes,” represented dark and somber visions of the American family. Once again, the “right” contents and ideological approach made the difference, though it’s noteworthy that “How Green” was as visually distinguishable as it was thematically acceptable.

The most nominated film in 1941 was Howard Hawks’ patriotic saga, “Sergeant York,” which received 11 nominations and won two: Gary Cooper as Best Actor and Film Editing for William Holmes.