And it’s true. We tend to think of the 1950s as being a time when conformity ruled all. It was a time of innocence and chastity, when cinema heroes all wanted to have a house in the suburbs and loving couples slept in separate beds and nobody ever questioned anything. Of course, the truth of the matter is that there were a lot of films released in the 50s that challenge that perception.
And then again, there were also films like 1955’s A Man Called Peter.
A Man Called Peter is a biopic about Peter Marshall (played by Richard Todd), a Scottish immigrant who came to the United States, became a Presbyterian minister, and then eventually became the Chaplain of the United States Senate. (That means that he would open each session of the Senate with a prayer and occasionally provide spiritual counsel to the senators.) I recently watched it on Netflix, specifically because I thought it might be appropriate for this series of political reviews.
And it is, but just barely.
It actually takes the film a while to get to the part where Peter Marshall becomes the Senate Chaplain. First, we watch him as a boy in Scotland, trying to stow away on a boat heading for America. Then, several years later, he’s out walking on a foggy night. He trips over a tree root and, as he lies on the ground, he announces that God has told him to 1) pursue a career as a minister and 2) to do so in America. (I have to admit that I was raised Catholic so I have no idea whether he was having a typical Presbyterian spiritual experience or not. But the film certainly takes it seriously.)
Peter ends up in America where he ministers to a church in Atlanta, marries Catherine (Jean Peters), and then eventually ends up at a church in Washington, D.C. When he eventually is asked to serve as Chaplain of the Senate, both he and the film go out of their way to avoid taking any definite position on any issue. Instead, Peter gives prayers that encourage the senators to put partisan bickering aside and work together to make the United States the best country in the world.
Having now watched all 120 minutes of A Man Called Peter, I can safely that this is a film that epitomizes everything that we always assume to be true about the 1950s. From the film’s view of marriage to religion to politics, A Man Called Peter is perhaps one of the most stereotypically 1950s movies ever made. This is such a 1950s movie that it’s even filmed in CinemaScope!
(And speaking of CinemaScope, A Man Called Peter looks great but it’s perhaps one of the least intimate biopics that I’ve ever seen. You can see every inch of the surrounding landscape but the human beings get lost.)
For me, the film’s most 1955 moment comes when Catherine first discovers that her husband has been reassigned to Washington, D.C. She and Peter are on their honeymoon when they get a telegram telling them that their new home in Washington is ready. Catherine is shocked. Peter says that he didn’t want to interrupt their honeymoon by telling her that they’re not going home to Atlanta. Instead, they’re going to an entirely new city and an entirely new life. (In other words, Peter has decided to say goodbye to Catherine’s family and friends.)
“Aren’t you pleased?” Peter asks her.
Cheerfully, Catherine replies, “Well, who wouldn’t be?”
Ah, the 50s.