Disciples Go Hollywood

When the movies Come to the Stable: a tour of good and bad portrayals of Christians and their beliefs in the movies.

When friends gather around the Christmas tree to sing at the close It’s a Wonderful Life, it’s a “resounding affirmation of Christian ethics,” and yet without a homily or even overt Christian smells and bells.

That’s Peter Dans, a medical doctor who is a movie buff,  weighing in his Sheed & Ward book, Christians in the Movies: A Century of Saints and Sinners, now in affordable paperback. During an interview with Kathryn Jean Lopez, he talks about another movie of the season and what we look like on the silver screen — with a closing salvo to his Catholic schooling.

Have Christians really gone from saints to sinners on the silver screen?

There have always been sinful Christians in film and, appropriately so, since we are all sinners. What has changed has been the preponderance of negative as opposed to positive portrayals of Christians and the vitriol and ridicule directed against them, beginning in 1970 with the incompetent priest Dago Red in M*A*S*H* right through to the end of the millennium with Dogma.

This led the critic Michael Medved, an Orthodox Jew, to say in his 1992 seminal book Hollywood vs. America that “whenever someone turns up in contemporary film with the title Reverend. Father or Rabbi in front of his name, you can count on the fact they will be corrupt or crazy — or probably both.” Interestingly, the directors of both films mentioned above [Robert Altman and Kevin Smith] were raised Catholic.

What do you see in Come to the Stable?

The film reminds me of growing up in a more innocent time. I saw it at the Patchogue Theater when I was in eighth grade and enjoyed it. Starring Loretta Young and Celeste Holm, two actresses who were very outspoken about their Catholic faith, it fits the category of a movie that Hollywood will never make again. 

It’s loosely based on an actual story of French nuns who founded the abbey of Regina Laudis in Bethlehem, Conn., after World War II, fulfilling a promise the directress Mother Benedict Duss — an American brought up in France — made when Patton’s army did not bomb their Children’s Hospital. Later, Patton’s granddaughter joined the abbey.

An interesting sidebar is that the abbey’s current prioress is Dolores Hart, the actress who gave Elvis his first on-screen kiss in King Creole, and who gave up her movie career to become a nun in 1962. She is the only nun who is a voting member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science. She liked the book, by the way.

Do you agree with writer Jody Bottum’s contention that “the Legion of Decency may have been the Catholics’ greatest contribution to the golden age of Hollywood?

I do. Because of the concerns about the impact of film, the American Catholic bishops established the Catholic Legion of Decency in 1933. The organization included many Protestant and Jewish clergymen, so the name was changed to the National Legion of Decency in 1934. Its director, Martin Quigley, worked closely with another devout Catholic, Joe Breen of the Hays production code office, to enforce the code agreed to by the studio bosses.

Not wanting their films to get an objectionable rating, which Catholics and members of other religions pledged to avoid, the moguls got serious in enforcing the production code, whose seal was required for a film’s distribution. The code stated: “No picture should be produced which will lower the standards of those who see it.”

Among the areas regulated were: crime, sex, vulgarity, obscenity, profanity, costume, dances, and religion. It’s no coincidence that the universally recognized Golden Age of cinema from 1930’s to 1960 coincided with the Legion’s lifespan and code enforcement.

One reason was that filmmakers had to be creative. For example, in It Happened One Night, winner of the five major Academy Awards for which it was nominated, Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert stay in the same motel room and hang a blanket in between their beds and dub it “The Walls of Jericho.” After they marry, it comes down to signal the consummation of their relationship.  The audience got the point.  It’s in stark contrast to today’s predictable scenes of bed rattling and sexual acrobatics. 

Why would you even give The Last Temptation of Christ a mention?

I included that film, as well as others which I disliked, to support my thesis that there has been an arc in the treatment of Christians from reverence and respect to irreverence and ridicule. It also raised some interesting issues.

Clearly, Christ is portrayed in very negative terms such that theaters showing it were picketed and boycotted. That may have worked in the film’s favor by giving it more visibility. If ignored, the film, which is often incomprehensible, boring and at times unwatchable, would probably have sunk like a stone.

It also is another example of a highly irreverent film made by a cradle Catholic and an ex-seminarian, to boot. Given his stature, Martin Scorsese was able to make a film in which he and Nikos Kazantzakis, the author of the book on which it was based, could work out their personal demons and the eternal battle between the spirit and the flesh. Their point was that if God is human, then he must have been subject to the same temptations that beset us all (lust, craving for power, vengeance, lying, etc.). However, they forgot that he was also God and as shown in the Bible, he was tempted by the devil whom he successfully cast aside.

It’s interesting that The Passion of the Christ, in which I believe that Mel Gibson was wrestling with his own demons, found, by contrast, a tremendous audience.

Do you have new classics?

I suggest The Nativity Story, which covers the time from the Annunciation to the Flight into Egypt. It gives an interesting portrait of Mary and also Joseph, who is too often simply a statue hovering over the manger.

I particularly liked the scenes where Joseph ruminates as to whether he can teach Jesus anything and when, after he guided her on the donkey over rocky terrain, Mary washes his bloody feet and tells the child in her womb: “My child you will have a good and decent man to raise you — a man who will give of himself before anyone else.”

How does your Catholic education at Transfiguration School in New York’s Chinatown influence the way you take in and interact with popular culture?

As you know, the term “catholic” means “universal.” Our Catholic school textbooks, which affirmed God and country (Pro Deo, Pro Patria) and were inclusive, not hyphenated. The teachers taught us about the world; this was especially so at Transfiguration where they were Maryknoll missionaries.

I am especially indebted to Sister Mary Berchmans Flynn, who taught a combined fifth and sixth grade. She skipped me a grade by moving me over a row and counseled my parents to send me to a school that could better meet my needs.

At great expense, my mother, a court interpreter, and my stepfather, a merchant seaman, sent me to military school, which set me on the right path.

I got a chance to see Sister Berchmans during a stop in Hong Kong on my way to take care of cholera patients in Calcutta in 1963, and later in the 1970s at the Motherhouse in Ossining [N.Y.]. I must also mention that the neighborhood I grew up in, and which [urban planner Robert] Moses destroyed, was truly diverse, not in the phony way the term is used today. It was made up of Italians, Irish, Jews, Chinese, Spaniards, Greeks, Portuguese, Puerto Ricans, and blacks.

I grew up understanding the motto “E pluribus unum,” out of many, one. Some invert that today to “out of one, many.”

Kathryn Jean Lopez is editor-at-large of National Review Online and a nationally syndicated columnist.