I’d Climb the Highest Mountain (dir. Henry King, 1951) is a small and pious film. Nether adjective is meant to slight. Although one can always find reason to question the motives behind why a film of this type is made, the product itself is earnest enough. Based on a novel by the Georgia writer Corra Harris, the film chronicles the experience of Mary Elizabeth (Susan Hayward), a young woman who comes South to marry minister William Thompson (William Lundigan), assigned to a church in the North Georgia mountains. The house they move to is so isolated that the nearest neighbor is five miles away. The film was made largely where it was set, and numerous scenes show authentic mountain people (the film used numerous people from the region as extras) going about their daily business. Their faces are drawn and often haggard. Their children wear worn clothing and go bare footed (and often seem to have come straight out of Walker Evans photographs). They travel on horse and in buggies on washed out dirt roads. In many ways the use of setting and local inhabitants in the film is a major virtue. It rarely condescends. The only automobile in the area is driven by a rich woman from Atlanta who has a summer home in the mountains. She’s driven around by a chauffeur. The appearance of her car suggests that the film is set around 1920.
Through her own narration, we learn how Mary Elizabeth adjusts to marriage, to the rigors of life as a preacher’s wife, to the isolated mountains region where she lives. Most of all she has to adjust to her husband William. He has a lot of modern views, has a couple of wild streaks, rarely loses his temper, but is stubborn. He’s not afraid to argue with unbelievers or with the richest man in town, who makes donations to the church. (On occasion his virtuousness seems difficult to bear, even for his wife). As modern as William might be, she is even more so. When a local young man (Rory Calhoun) widely regarded as a ne’er-do-well falls in love with the daughter of the wealthiest man in town, both she and her husband take his side. In one prolonged episode, an unspecified pestilence strikes the area, and Mary Elizabeth and William assist the local medical doctor in caring for the ill.
In a certain way the film dramatizes an ongoing conflict between faith and reason, belief and disbelief. A Harvard-educated man and his family live nearby. He has taught his children that religion is false and raises them in a firm and unyielding way. He and William have several discussions about reason and faith. As the pestilence wears on, the local doctor questions why God would inflict such suffering. Even Mary Elizabeth seems to have doubts. William is an unwavering believer. He’s never swayed by arguments against the existence of God, by the pestilence, by personal tragedies. Gradually his piety wins over his wife, and gradually her willingness to break with traditions and even to break some rules in service of a good cause wins him over too.
There’s only a tenuous relationship between the film’s title and its subject. In addition to the title’s being a vague expression of religious faith, it also implies all the challenges Mary Elizabeth must face as she learns to live with her husband. In the end, she explains to him that she’s realized her destiny is to be a minister’s wife, to go with him wherever his calling takes him, quoting from the Book of Ruth, “Whither thou go’est, I will go, and whither thou lodge, I will lodge,” and so on.
This brings us to some of the more archaic aspects of this film. Shortly after the death of a neighborhood boy by drowning, Mary Elizabeth goes into labor and delivers a stillborn son. She is, understandably, grief stricken. She rouses from unconsciousness to insist that her husband baptize the child because she doesn’t want to believe he isn’t alive somewhere. For months she says she is in mourning, hardly aware of where she is. She then says that she commits “the gravest sin a woman can commit against her husband: I ceased to care how I looked.” Only the visit of a wealthy woman from Atlanta, who says she wants William to explain “some Biblical questions,” brings her out of her stupor. As Mary puts it, she was “rudely awakened” by the sight of this woman. After the second visit, Mary warns the Atlanta woman to go back to her own husband and to leave William alone. She goes to the local store and buys expensive fabric to make a dress that will win William’s notice. Later she confesses to him that this wasteful act inspired all the women in the church to spend money on expensive fabric rather than donate to the local mission. So it takes jealousy, envy, and self-indulgence to rescue this woman from grief—no spiritual or emotional or philosophical coming to terms with tragedy, not the passage of time, but jealousy, and at the cost of the local mission to boot!
The poorly hidden subtexts of this film (reinforced by the quotation from Ruth above) are that woman is shallow and fickle and that marriage is a sacred institution to be revered above all others, and that a woman must accept her subordinate place within it—to follow her husband’s will, to play a subservient role. Although we are told that William’s stubbornness is a weakness he must struggle to overcome, it is Mary who does most of the struggling. Her litany of mistakes and small sins are all what we would expect from a female character in a 1950s melodrama or comedy about marriage—a woman who does not closely cleave to her expected role as wife (and, in this case, minister’s wife)—must be brought back into the fold. Mary Elizabeth is a North Georgia version of Lucy Ricardo, always getting into trouble, always in need of gentle correction. Her husband is invariably smarter and more perceptive than she—when she confesses (on several occasions) that she has lied to him, he tells her that he knew she had lied all along—all of this in the lightest and most flirtatious of marital banter.
One wonders about the domestic life of the screenwriter, Lamar Trotti, an Atlanta native. Was he trying to deliver a message to someone at home? Or was he just speaking for the culture at large? In 1951 marriage was a revered institution, a pillar of the social structure, and this film, through frequent demonstrations of piety and good heartedness, makes the dramatic moment for Mary Elizabeth not her recognition of the value and goodness of the community where she has come to live but instead her willing and happy acceptance of her role as obedient wife of the church minister.
The Circuit Rider’s Wife (1910) by Corra Harris is often described as semi-autobiographical, but it doesn’t reveal the less-than-satisfactory nature of her marriage to her own husband, a philandering and alcoholic Methodist minister whose adultery cost him his position and led to his ultimate suicide, and to her public shame and humiliation. The marriage of William and Mary Elizabeth is sometimes faced with minor challenges, but not of the sort Harris faced in her own life.