A well-known schoolteacher in a little American town is taken ill, and this causes her to reflect on her life. This unabashed 'weepie' from 20th Century Fox will catch you out unless you have a crisply-laundered hankie pinned to your lapel!
Nine years after her sex-kitten role in "Lust In The Dust", Jennifer Jones pulls off a tour de force as the prim Miss Dove. Henry Koster's direction plays it straight down the middle in this simple yarn of small town life.
Liberty Hill, we hear, is a typical American town. There are a hundred like it, in which "a sense of life's continuity hangs in the air". It is not clear whether the narrator is describing Liberty Hill as 'snug' or 'smug', but it doesn't matter - both adjectives apply. In Cedar Grove School a graduation ceremony is attended by parents who were themselves pupils here. This is the deep complacent sleep of Eisenhower's America, a world in which everybody has a pre-ordained place and the doctor, the policeman and the pastor are all ex-pupils of Miss Dove.
It is seemingly a day like any other. Miss Dove is enforcing classroom discipline when she starts to fall ill. Typically, she instructs a child, "I am indisposed. Mention this to no-one."
The stricken teacher looks back on her life in a series of reveries, starting with her happy youth in the 1920's. We see her as a beautiful, vivacious young woman who shares her father's passion for geography. The two plan an overseas vacation together, ensconced in their improbably lavish parlour which is only slightly smaller than the Houston Astrodome. It seems odd that Miss Dove's father should command such opulence, and after his death certain banking irregularities come to light. To prevent a slur on her father's memory, Miss Dove undertakes to work to pay back the 'debt'.
Miss Dove places duty before personal happiness, declining Wolf Pendleton's offers of marriage and an expedition to the Himalayas, because she must teach here in Liberty Hill. The stiff, correct character of Miss Dove is illustrated by the way she remains formal until Wolf has left, then collapses in grief, and coming out of her daydream, composes herself as Doctor Tom Baker arrives. Public displays of weakness just won't do. "It is not my custom to wobble."
Tom Baker (Robert Stack) is, of course, an alumnus of Miss Dove. The classroom undergoes minor changes over the years, but the American kids keep being churned out like little Ford Thunderbirds. China was coloured orange on the wall map ten years ago, now it's purple (the communist bloodbath?) and Eisenhower's portrait has replaced Truman's. But Miss Dove never alters. She enumerates her symptoms to Doc Baker like a talking medical textbook and as she is carried to hospital she assures him, "You have defined my responsibility. I shall keep my spine rigid." No-one doubts that.
We meet various ex-pupils who have thrived under Miss Dove's tutelary genius. Bill Holloway (Chuck Connors) was an impoverished kid whose true worth was recognised by Miss Dove - " a child in whom the ethical instinct was as innate as breathing". He adores his former teacher. He is now a police officer. Virginia was a pretty but confused youngster until a year ago, when under Miss Dove's guidance she met and fell for Doc Baker. She has found her vocation in motherhood.
Maurice Levine and Fred Makepeace turn up. Fred is now a gangster, but he's an OK kind of guy. He breaks out of prison to be with his teacher in her hour of need. Thanks to Miss Dove, his American morality is pristine: "When I hear some commie jerk belittling this country ..." Maurice first comes to Cedar Grove in the 1930's (the wall portrait is Roosevelt). He is a jewish child, freshly escaped from Hitler's Germany, and speaking no English. Miss Dove protects him from Liberty Hill's ingrained xenophobia and nurtures his literary talent. Single-handedly, she cures her class of antisemitism, and Maurice goes on to become a Broadway playwright.
This lady's influence reaches beyond the school gates. Mr. Porter was the incoming Bank President who handled Miss Dove's father's indiscretion so unsympathetically. Now he visits her in hospital, an older, humbler man. "She's always been a stiff-necked termagant," he says, but confesses that he owes everything to her. In the Depression, she acted with courage and authority and averted a run on the Liberty Hill Bank.
As for the film's weaknesses, the script is cast in a quaint literary style which grates. Nurse Green shows the cop into the room, announcing "Police Officer Holloway begs to intrude." The sentimentality is laid on too thickly. Doc Baker recounts how he survived shipwreck and thirst thanks to a shining vision of Miss Dove - "She was right there with me all the time!" The hushed crowds on the hospital steps are 'over the top'.
The establishing shot of the colonial church's spire, repeated as the hours pass, reinforces the film's themes of parochialism and continuity. Ex-pupils donate blood, symbolising their ties to Miss Dove and the reciprocity of the relationship.
The sick woman contemplates death and concludes that, whatever people may think, her life has been happy. The dreams of world travel were never realised, but she knows the world through study. Learning has compensated her for lost opportunities. This is a metaphor for her having sacrificed love and a family. Yet in the last 30 years, every child in Liberty Hill has been 'hers'. She has touched every young life. "Kids?" says Officer Holloway, "She has a thousand of 'em!"
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