Prime in the Dustbin: ‘The Heart is a Rebel’ (1958)

Behold now, the curious case of The Heart is a Rebel, a faith-based film which received no verifiable theatrical release and about which very little information is available online. A mix of family drama and conservative Christian theology, this movie is also labeled a musical. That’s a bit of a misnomer; it’s a movie with songs, to be sure, but not what one could call a true musical.

Oh, yeah, I almost forgot.

Billy Graham is in it.

The story is simple. Davy Foster is a typical little boy. He loves television Westerns. He likes to build model rockets. And he has a congenital heart defect. His parents, Hal and Joan, are workaholics, swept up in their desire to move up the corporate ladder, but Davy’s medical bills are stressing them out. Why, they can barely afford to keep Gladys, their African-American housekeeper, who takes care of Davy all day and most of the night.

Davy is quite fond of Gladys, but Hal doesn’t appreciate her telling his son those crazy Bible stories. Hal also doesn’t want Joan to work. He’s gunning for a promotion at the ad agency he works for. His secretary is hoping for that promotion, too. We’re never flat out shown Hal bending his Miss Friday over a desk and going to town, but it’s fairly well implied.

Davy’s latest round of medical test results have come in, and there’s no progress. Even though Davy has been eating his carrots, just like the doctor prescribed for a congenital heart defect, he’s not getting any better. As he signs off on increased dosages for Davy’s medication, the doctor tells Joan, “You know, sometimes I think we ought to have a symbol for prayer to put on these prescriptions.” That word literally echoes in her mind (you can hear it repeated on the soundtrack) until Joan decides to go inside a church. She doesn’t pray or anything, but she does watch the people around her in the pews, like a spiritual voyeur.

Gladys is a singer. She loves to sing hymns to Davy with lyrics like, “They crucified my Lord, and He never said a mumblin’ word.” That’s completely out of line with Scripture, but whatever fits the paradigm, right? It turns out that Gladys has been singing with the Billy Graham Crusade Team at Madison Square Garden. She’s a soloist, and she invites Joan to come listen to her perform that night. We’re treated to stock footage of the giant evangelistic meeting, intercut with glimpses of Joan, obviously shot somewhere else. Oh, but there are American flags and bunting and hundreds of thousands of people, and Billy Graham is on a holy roll, laying out the five-point plan of salvation. It isn’t something you need to understand intellectually, Graham insists, but it’s something that needs to be done. Will Joan go forward during the altar call?

What do you think?

One might expect a film produced by the Billy Graham Ministries in the late 1950s to be problematic when viewed through a post-modern 21st century lens, and there are certainly aspects that cause an uncomfortable raising of the eyebrow. Gladys working as an apron-wearing domestic, singing plantation-era spirituals to her Caucasian-bread ward, evokes some shuddery Song of the South vibes. A cocktail party scene, in which all the males passive-aggressively denigrate their wives for having opinions, is brutal to watch. One woman speaks proudly about the glory of being an average American. “We average Americans run everything!” she says, before her alpha male CEO husband shuts her down with a death stare. How small minded! What about three piece suits and Manifest Destiny? Silly women, getting in the way of everything.

Movies like The Heart is a Rebel are what critics call “bulletproof.” They may not be great works of art, but they aren’t meant for the general populace. A secular person looks at a Kirk Cameron movie and dismisses it as garbage, but it has a built-in audience, ready to absorb its message and feel bolstered by it. You can’t shoot it down without it making a statement on a larger, more profound scale. If you don’t enjoy something like The Shack or The Omega Code, you must be an enemy of God. What one group of people refer to as “witnessing,” others call “proselytizing.” Any piece of media that non-Christians can point at as being “propaganda,” Christians can label “a means of leading people to salvation.”

Which side is right? It’s hard to say, because any discussion following those lines devolves into dealing with ideological divides instead of sticking to smaller topics like entertainment value. It’s simple to say to a non-Christian who doesn’t like a particular faith-based film, “It obviously wasn’t meant for you.” Sorry, Rusty, you’re out of the club.

The Heart is a Rebel has the workman-like visual style of an educational film. You half expect Betty Furness and Reddy Kilowatt to show up and tell you to duck and cover. The performances are on that same level of proficiency. The Madison Square Garden segments are badly edited and are of variable quality, like going from 35 millimeter film to old kinescope footage.

On the bright side, this isn’t a movie filled with hellfire and brimstone preaching. There’s no mention of the One World Government or the Mark of the Beast, nor is there an epilogue where a cast member breaks the fourth wall and begs the viewer to accept Christ and send money. If you’re attentive, you can even hear Billy Graham call for the end of materialism from the pulpit! How amusing you find that probably depends on your personal experience with evangelists. The Heart is a Rebel earnestly presents its message then backs away, like a server who gives you a menu, then scurries off to let you consider your choices instead of immediately trying to upsell the loaded potato soup.

In the end, this movie doesn’t care if you love it or hate it. It’s a tool, like a hammer or a miter saw, and if it does the intended job, then glory to God. If it doesn’t, then The Heart is a Rebel obviously wasn’t meant for you.

The Heart is a Rebel waits silently on Prime Video for your decision.

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