Thomas J. Craughwell is the author of Thomas Jefferson’s Crème Brulee: How a Founding Father and His Slave, James Hemings, Introduced French Cuisine to America.
If you’re looking for a little Catholic uplift, you’re unlikely to find it at your local cineplex. I don’t have to tell you that Catholic priests, religious, and even folks in the pew have been taking it on the chin from Hollywood producers and screenwriters for years. But it wasn’t always like this, and thanks to live streaming, and On Demand, and other services that let you call up just about any movie you want to see, you can tap into an incredibly rich tradition of classic films that celebrate the faith and values of Catholics, Protestants, and Jews.
There are the blockbusters, of course—The Ten Commandments and Ben-Hur, with their all-star casts and heroes who slowly, gradually move in the direction of a spiritual epiphany, all between incredible action-packed scenes. Even the lesser religious epics delivered positive messages about salvation: Barabbas, the story of the rebel whose life was spared while Christ was crucified; Samson and Delilah, the Biblical strongman who, before he comes to his senses, wastes his gifts on a doomed affair with a Philistine vixen; and The Robe, the tale of the Roman legionnaire who crucified Jesus. And did you notice: the thing that moves the plot along is Christ’s robe—what Catholics call a relic.
While these movies are generally religious, what’s especially fascinating are the Hollywood hits that were aimed specifically at a Catholic audience.
In The Song of Bernadette (1943), the entire plot and the motivations of the entire cast are driven by a series of apparitions of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Jennifer Jones brought incredible depth to her portrayal of Bernadette Soubirous, an ignorant teenage peasant girl whose visions, at the time, confounded Church and State. As good as Jones’ performance was, she was surrounded by some of Hollywood’s finest character actors, including Lee J. Cobb, Vincent Price, Charles Bickford, and Anne Revere. At the Academy Awards, Song went up against Casablanca, but it still won Best Actress for Jones, Best Black and White Cinematography, Best Art Direction, and Best Musical Score.
Then there’s Going My Way (1944), in which the immortal Barry Fitzgerald plays a grumpy but lovable elderly pastor and Bing Crosby is a chipper young curate who finds there is no problem that can’t solved by crooning an upbeat song or forming the neighborhood toughs into a boys’ choir. Going My Way won Oscars for Best Picture, Best Actor (Crosby), Best Supporting Actor (Fitzgerald), Best Director (Leo McCarey), Best Screenplay, and Best Song (“Swinging On A Star”).
The next year Hollywood released the sequel to Going My Way, The Bells of St. Mary’s (1945), with Crosby now a pastor who takes on the indomitable principal of the parish school, played by Ingrid Bergman, and a miserable old miser, played by Harry Travers (he was Clarence the angel in It’s A Wonderful Life). Bells snagged only one Oscar, for Best Sound Recording, but it was nominated for Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Director, Best Musical Score, Best Song (“Aren’t You Glad You’re You”), and Best Film Editing. This isn’t an Academy Award category, of course, but Bells also wins as Best Advertisement Ever for the Catholic School System.
The Nun’s Story (1959) features a luminous Audrey Hepburn as a sister in a nursing order who is torn between the demands of her religious vocation and her devotion to her patients. It was nominated for Best Picture, Best Actress (Audrey Hepburn), Best Director (Fred Zinneman, who would go on to direct A Man for All Seasons), Best Screenplay, Best Film Editing, Best Color Cinematography, Best Musical Score, Best Sound. If The Nun’s Story lagged at the Academy Awards, bear in mind that it was released the same year as Ben-Hur, which swept the Oscars.
Historians of American film debate if the standards set by the Legion of Decency (active 1934-1948), which was endorsed by the Catholic Church in the U.S., and Hollywood’s own guidelines, known as the Hays Code, influenced the production of wholesome Catholic films. Maybe. But it was the caliber of movies such as The Song of Bernadette and The Nun’s Story that set the bar high for portrayals of people of faith. And remember, during these days of “repression,” Hollywood gave us dozens of movie classics, including It Happened One Night, Mutiny on the Bounty, Captain Blood, The Informer, Gone With the Wind, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, The Wizard of Oz, Ninotchka, The Philadelphia Story, How Green Was My Valley, Mrs. Miniver, The Pride of the Yankees, Casablanca, Notorious, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, and Miracle on 34th Street. These are movies that deliver a great message, while at the same time showcasing the art of American film during its glory days.