Latter-day Saint Video Vault celebrates decades of uplifting, funny, weird, and sometimes cringe-worthy Mormon-related videos, most of which are now found on YouTube. Join Jared Jones every other Friday as he breaks down one of these classics.
[dropcap]I[/dropcap]n 1984 the church produced The Last Leaf: An Easter Parable—a period adaptation of O. Henry’s short story of the same name. This film was designed as an Easter special for broadcast television to “proclaim the church’s belief in the “living, resurrected Christ.” It was paired with a four-minute film about Jesus appearing to disciples on the road to Emmaus.
The film opens with a narrator announcing this special presentation and we see scenes of 1900s New York City. Joanna Brady paints and explains how her small neighborhood became popular with immigrants and artists alike. We continue to see scenes of the city and have a title card showing the film was presented by the church with “The Mormons” as a subhead right under the official logo.
Joanna takes over the narration of the film. She lived in this neighborhood with her 14-year-old sister Susan. Below them lived a rough man named Mr. Behrman. Behrman was a frustrated artist who dreamed of painting his masterpiece for 50 years but could never quite manage to put on canvas the images he felt in his heart. Joanna also talks of the pneumonia that began to spread through their small part of the city. Susan became ill and so weak that she was even beginning to lose her will to live.
As we move from exposition to the main action of the film we see Mr. Behrman fall down outside of Schlosser’s Grocery. Joanna pushes through the crowd to help her neighbor. She urges him to head home but he says he must stay to work for the grocer. He stacks vegetables and fruits for $1 which he uses to buy paint, brushes and canvas. Joanna reluctantly agrees to let him continue and goes to buy some lemons and oranges to help her ailing sister. Mr. Schlosser gives her the fruit at no charge. He also asks her to convince Mr. Behrman to take his dollar and go home for the day.
Joanna walks Mr. Behrman to his apartment and offers to come in and help him get settled, but he declines and urges her to go care for Susan.
Joanna arrives to see the doctor finishing up with Susan. As he writes a prescription he comments that Susan hasn’t improved. “She has made up her mind she is going to die.” Joanna protests surely not as she is only 14. He hands her the prescription and takes his leave. We then see Susan counting the leaves on a vine outside her window. There were so many that counting them gave her a headache but now only 7 remain. Joanna dismisses the leaf counting as nonsense, wipes Susan’s brow and steps away.
We cut to Joanna coming home in the pouring rain. Her landlady, Mrs. McCleary, asks her for rent, and Joanna assures her it’s coming. She’s waiting for payment from a book illustration. She begs forgiveness as she goes to care for her sister and Mrs. McCleary gives her another week of forbearance.
Joanna comes in to check on Susan. Susan does not look good. She says the wind is so strong and the leaves are falling faster. “These last few leaves struggle to hold on to the vine.” She coughs. “In the end it doesn’t matter. The last leaf falls just like the first. I just have to wait for the last leaf to fall.” Joanna can’t believe what she is hearing.
She is pulled away from Susan by a knock at the door. It’s Mr. Behrman. He’s here for an art lesson/discussion with Joanna. She doesn’t really want to but she lets him in. He prattles on and on about his Parisian sketches while Joanna tries to explain about Susan. Finally, Joanna can’t take it anymore and she snaps at him. “She is dying! She is obsessed with the leaves on the vine outside her window and when the last leaf falls she will die!”
Mr. Behrman is unconvinced. He tells Joanna she is giving up on life just like her sister. He goes to talk to Susan and tells her she has so much to live for. He says she looks better but Susan tells him he is a terrible liar. Susan says she is tired of fighting. Tired of being a burden. He encourages her to look to the future and her eventual trip to Paris with Joanna. He says to take another look at the vine—to see how it struggles to grow out of a crack in the ground. You must have a will to live like the vine and Marie (Mr. Behrman’s late wife). Now Susan is unconvinced. “But Marie died, Mother and Father died, and that vine will die.” His final admonition to Susan is to not be afraid of life and living.
Cut to Mr. Behrman in his apartment. We hear a voice-over of a conversation Mr. Behrman had with his wife. She encourages him to paint with his heart but he can only feel the disconnect between his heart and hands. She reminds him “the greatest portrait of all time is the life of a common carpenter whose love and sacrifice changed the world forever. Every deed is a stroke in our painting.”
We then see Susan, struggling and feverish. She reaches to pull the shade to see the vine. Hoping the last leaf has fallen so she can finally die. Joanna holds her back and tries to comfort her.
The light shifts from the dark and stormy night to the gentle glow of a clear morning. Mrs. McCleary is sweeping up outside the building. As she bends down to pick up a poorly tossed newspaper she sees something in the alley and goes to investigate.
Joanna leaves Susan’s bedside to answer a knock at the door. The doctor has arrived to check on Susan. Mrs. McCleary is also there and tells her that Mr. Behrman died in the night. She said he had been out in the weather earlier, but they said he was out more recently as his coat was soaked through.
Susan pulls up her blind and sees a single leaf still clinging to the vine. We hear Joanna’s narration explain: Mr. Behrman had been out in the storm all last night with a ladder and paints. Mrs. McCleary found his pallet in the alley way with fall colors mixed on it. He had painted the last leaf so Susan would wake to see it on the vine when she woke. We see Susan sit back in the bed and rest easy.
Joanna concludes: “It was weeks before Susan realized the last leaf never fluttered or moved. It’s Mr. Behrman’s masterpiece. He painted it there the night the last leaf fell.”
From a film perspective this Easter story lacked a little of the emotional power of Mr. Krueger’s Christmas–a film/PR experience church public affairs hoped to emulate. It’s a fine period film with good acting and a good story, but I didn’t feel it as much as I felt Willy Krueger kneeling before the Savior. Taken on its own, it delivers more on the testimony of Christ’s purpose rather than of his resurrected glory. I expect if you watched it in conjunction with The Road to Emmaus as it originally aired you would have felt that more.
The film is still a solid reminder of Christ’s role in the Plan of Salvation. Mr. Behrman’s sacrifice allowed Susan to live. He gave of himself in a way only he could so that another might have the strength to go on. Susan’s belief in her linkage to this ailing plant was irrational, but Mr. Behrman’s sacrifice covered it just the same. We all have sins and shortcomings, fears and foibles that are both irrational and unsurmountable. The story of The Last Leaf reminds us the Atonement is both vast and personal. We are given strength by a divine individual who helped in a way only he could.
In this troubled, confusing and just plain weird time, Christ’s sacrifice for us can provide the unshaken stability of Mr. Behrman’s painted leaf.
Happy Easter from This Week in Mormons and the Latter-day Saint Video Vault.
Thoughts musings and Trivia
- The Last Leaf was first loosely adapted as a film in 1912. It was made into a film again in 1917 and then again in 1952 before the church’s adaptation in 1984.
- The Church’s version used neighborhoods in Chicago as a stand in for 1900s New York.
- Church Public Affairs hoped The Last Leaf would build upon the success of Krueger’s Christmas, which many stations continued to air on a voluntary basis for years after its initial airing.
- Although I couldn’t find a version of The Road to Emmaus with a 1984 copyright a couple of versions are available on the church website.
- Art Carney plays Mr. Behrman. He became famous by playing Ed Norton in The Honeymooners.
- Landlady Mrs. McCleary was played by British character actress Hermione Baddeley. You may recognize her from her role as Ellen—the sassy maid from Walt Disney’s 1964 classic Marry Poppins.
- Jane Kaczmarek plays artist Joanna Brady. She is probably best known for her Emmy-nominated role as the mom in Malcom in the Middle that aired in the 2000s. She received 7 Emmy nominations but never won.
- O. Henry was known for short stories with a surprise ending. You may also be familiar with his Christmas tale—The Gift of the Magi—in which spouses trade what they treasure most to buy gifts for each other.