‘One Man’s Way’ (1964): A positive, humane, understanding biopic

If you live in a state like mine, with mandatory curfews on our personal movements now set in place and Thanksgiving canceled in no uncertain terms—yes, I am actually speaking about America, the United States of America, people, and not some despotic Third World hellhole—then maybe it is time for a little spiritual guidance…even for the nonbelievers.

By Paul Mavis

A few years back, MGM’s marvelous manufactured-on-demand Limited Edition Collection label released One Man’s Way, the 1964 United Artists biopic of The Power of Positive Thinking author, Norman Vincent Peale. Based on the book, Minister to Millions by Arthur Gordon, and starring Don Murray, William Windom, and Diana Hyland, One Man’s Way is fictionalized, to be sure (as all good biopics are), but it’s also quite earnest in an appealingly square-headed way, with Don Murray giving it his all as Peale. The results are surprisingly moving.

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According to One Man’s Way, young Norman Vincent Peale (Mickey Sholdar) had no intention of growing up to be a minister, having had a difficult time with his role as the son of a Methodist minister, Reverend Clifford Peale (William Windom). Flash forward to Norman (Don Murray) as a young reporter for a Detroit newspaper, working with cynical hotshot, Evelyn Grace (Carol Ohmart). Touched by the plight of a murder suspect (and sickened by his role in exploiting her obvious mental anguish for the sake of a sensationalized newspaper story), Norman begins to wonder of what use his role as a newspaperman is to the world.

Walking home from a bar, Norman is transfixed by the sight of a young girl, Mary (Veronica Cartwright), trapped in a crumbling building that just exploded. Taken over by some force, Norman implores the child to cross a narrow board set up from an adjacent building, willing her across by telling her that God is with her, and that with his help, she can do anything. Mary makes it across safely, and Norman is changed: he decides to follow in his father’s footsteps after all, and become a minister.

However, Norman has difficulty conforming to the established seminary ways at Boston University, and he eventually decides he must impart the Scriptures in his own unique voice. His romance with free-spirited Ruth Stafford (Diana Hyland) is also difficult: she has no intention of becoming a preacher’s wife and living a “dull” life. But perhaps Norman’s greatest challenge comes when he’s at the pinnacle of his success with his bestseller, The Power of Positive Thinking: he’s accused by theologians and newspaper columnists of being a charlatan and a con man.

Leaning towards the “cynical, nihilistic, alcoholic, suicidal fatalist” reading on the personal faith meter, I suppose it’s not surprising I’ve never actually gotten around to reading The Power of Positive Thinking. I of course remember Norman Vincent Peale when I was a boy back in the early 70s; he was still a leading figure in theology at the time (although I suspect Billy Graham was a lot bigger by that point), and as an Ohio boy who grew up Methodist (just like Peale), his name was certainly known in our house. That was a long time ago, both in years and personal philosophy. So I can’t really judge One Man’s Way in terms of how faithful it is to Peale’s philosophy (a brief trip to Wikipedia—always a mistake—headlined slams against our current and future President, so I just bailed).

I’ve never required my biopics to be faithful to the truth (as John Ford so keenly understood, “when the legend becomes fact, print the legend,”), so I came to One Man’s Way clean. And I rather liked it, not because it’s a particularly scintillating piece of moviemaking, or because it “converted” me. It follows a fairly standard Hollywood biopic formula, to be sure: psychological conflict set up during youth; maturation as the historical figure finds his or her way in the world; accomplishment of noteworthy works; a complicated romantic pursuit; a personal crisis; and then redemption. Nor is it technically dazzling or even visually interesting; it’s pretty square filmmaking. One Man’s Way may indeed convert someone out there, or reinforce what they already believe in, but as with most overtly religious films, even if the specific intent is to produce a genuine transcendental experience, that rarely (if ever) happens.

No, I enjoyed One Man’s Way simply because it was a positive story, told with a straight-faced earnestness that I found appealing…in a square sort of way. The opening of the movie is perhaps One Man’s Way‘s best part: Norman, fed up with being called a “sissy” because, as a minister’s son, he can’t ever “act up,” fires back at his tormentors and his father, vowing in church no less, that he doesn’t even believe in God. Norman’s father (William Windom, excellent as always) reacts angrily, but both eventually come to an understanding, and even though Norman vows never to be a minister, his father hugs him, proud that he’s an independent thinker. It’s a heartwarming scene, and a nice tonic against the noxious prevailing view of Christians as intolerant, bigoted zealots in mainstream Hollywood and television entertainments, and in so-called American “journalism” (curious how those same anti-Christian critics seem strangely uninterested in going after any other more-pressingly problematic religions….).

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There’s also a highly effective scene where Murray talks and prays Veronica Cartwright over a suspended plank between two buildings (see the synopsis above). Beautifully edited for maximum suspense, this sequence really brings home the notion of Norman and this emerging passion for his religion, a passion to do something with it to actually help people. Stridently calling out to the terrified girl, “With God’s help I can do it! With God’s help I am doing it! God and I are doing it! You and God have done it!” Murray is fervent and completely unself-conscious (his searching, intense performance is rock solid, anchoring the movie), helping to make this sequence an effective dramatization, I would imagine, of Peale’s entire philosophy.

Following this scene, when Norman declares to Evelyn that he’s going to be a preacher, she contemptuously challenges him, saying that any sensible person would have crossed that plank. Notably, the movie doesn’t shy away from this challenge; it goes right to Peale’s self-confidence in why he believed he was put on earth: to help remind people that they have guts and common sense, and that with God’s help, anything is possible. He states whatever came over him to help that girl, Evelyn may call it luck, but he calls it God. The movie is careful (and clever enough) to provide disbelieving characters throughout the story, which not only balances it for viewers, but also gives the Peale character opportunities to counter with his beliefs (a good example is the father of the little girl in a coma for whom Peale prays; even at the end, when the girl awakes, the father doesn’t believe…but Peale does, and it restores his faith).

It’s a weird effect, but in One Man’s Way, the director, Denis Sanders, breaks with established Hollywood moviemaking techniques and shoots Murray preaching straight into the camera. It may come off as stagey and not particularly cinematic, but when one thinks about it, it’s probably the most honest way to approach what Peale did. Maybe it’s the only way to truly dramatize this man’s life. He was a preacher, after all; what are you going to show him doing? Bowling?

He preached for a living, so anyone interested in seeing his life portrayed up on the big screen would expect a few scenes with him in the pulpit. Now, I suspect a low budget nixed “crowd” shots or multiple camera set-ups like over-the-shoulder ones (where we could see his parishioners reacting to the sermons), or a camera down in the pews for more varied visual effect. Budgetary or artistic, I took this limited visual design decision as a plus: he’s preaching head-on to masses, and the movie isn’t avoiding it.

Of course, as with any Hollywood biopic, there are going to be inventions and deliberate omissions (the movie doesn’t go near Peale’s disastrous tangle with JFK’s nomination for President), but then again, you expect that with a typical Hollywood biopic. Anyone going into one of these movies for a history lesson is kidding themselves. It’s best to experience a movie like One Man’s Way as a separate, fictionalized entity, divorced largely from the real deal.

Again, I don’t know Peale’s teachings, but looking at One Man’s Way‘s message…I couldn’t see anything wrong with it. It was positive, humane, and understanding…so what’s the beef, Wikipedia and all the smug critics? You have something against self-sufficiency, and the will to try and take charge of situations and obstacles, all with a positive outlook on life because God is with you (if you believe in him)? That’s a terrible way to live your life?

In a scene where Peale officiates over his mother’s funeral, there’s an explanation of death and rebirth (from screenwriters Eleanore Griffin and John W. Bloch), that I found quite moving and beautiful. The analogy is how a baby, experiencing one stage of “life” in the womb, would see its own birth away from that safe womb as “death”…and so, too, with us, when we leave this physical earth at the end of our lives. It’s not very often you get such serious ruminations on religious belief in a Hollywood studio pic, let alone one so touching as in One Man’s Way.

If only it were all true.

PAUL MAVIS IS AN INTERNATIONALLY PUBLISHED MOVIE AND TELEVISION HISTORIAN, A MEMBER OF THE ONLINE FILM CRITICS SOCIETY, AND THE AUTHOR OF THE ESPIONAGE FILMOGRAPHY. Click to order.

Read more of Paul’s film reviews here. Read Paul’s TV reviews at our sister website, Drunk TV.

One thought on “‘One Man’s Way’ (1964): A positive, humane, understanding biopic

  1. A great review of an interesting film, but about John Ford and “Print the legend.’ He has just spent two hours telling you and everyone else the truth, now he is telling you something even more true and certainly relevant. The press is full of shit. They lie and are proud of it. Tom Doniphon shot Liberty Valance, but another man, Ransom Stoddard was elected to the senate, stole his girl, and lived a lie. Seems familiar.

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