Thursday, March 19, 2009

The Bells of St. Mary's and the Movies: The 'Good Old Days' had Problems, Too

It's been a long time since Going My Way and Bells of St. Mary's represented a common perception of Catholicism. These days, The Exorcism of Emily Rose and Our Lady of the Assassins are more what I've come to expect. And, of course, that blast from the past, "The Last Temptation of Christ."

Those two Bing Crosby films were, I think, well done. But I don't think there ever was a 'good old days' when the film industry could be counted on to produce nice movies with religious themes.

They Just Don't Make Movies Like That Any More - And Never Did

I think we tend to remember "Bible movies" that weren't too bad, like David and Bathsheba (1951), ones where the director didn't 'improve' the story too much, like The Bible: In The Beginning, and forget films like Salome, where "the contrived proceedings are colorful but have little to do with the Gospel account and Hayworth's performance is lovely to look at but is unconvincing as a dramatic character...." (USCCB)

That was Rita Hayworth as Salome, by the way: and she was emphatically not hard on the eyes.

Wonderfully Awful Movies

Then, there were those wonderful movies whose writers and directors might have learned their theology and history by watching Ghosts on the Loose (1943) and Abbott and Costello Meet the Mummy (1955), respectively.

Some of the howlers I watched in my teens could have been made before that Abbott and Costello film, though.
Satan: A Really Nice Guy?!
I watched quite a few movies on late-afternoon television, in my teens. Sadly, I can't remember their titles. Most were unremarkable, but some touched on serious theological concepts.

With mixed results.

Several presented Satan as an urbane gentleman who was dressed as if he were about to watch an opera. So far, no problems. Theological plausibility hit the fan when it turned out that, once you got to know him, he was a really nice guy.

One of these fantastically optimistic films had Mr. Mephistopheles' office done in a sort of deco-modern style, with lots of open space - and a trap door right in front of the desk.
Warning! Middle-Age Guy Reminiscing!
The only scene of that movie I remember was where a worried-looking new arrival from Earth had been introduced. A fussy, overweight, middle-aged woman marched in and began giving the devil a piece of her mind. The devil's initial look of gentlemanly concern turned to annoyance, he pushed a button, and she dropped through the trap door.

Funny, in a way. The new arrival was then assured that unpleasantness in Hell was reserved for fusspots like that: not for nice people who just happened to be there.

Irwin Allen's The Story of Mankind (1957), if it's the one I think it is, did a better job of approximating Judeo-Christian ideas of how the big picture works. Wouldn't take that much.

Don't get me wrong: I think some of those 'he's not so bad' movies are funny. Amusing, anyway. As long as I don't think too much about what I'm watching.

The attitude behind Mark Twain's "heaven for climate, and hell for society" quote, and his reaction to late-Victorian era self-righteousness, may behind some of the mid-20th-century movie nuttiness.

Which opens a can of worms I don't have time to deal with right now.

Hollywood, Bible Epics, and Nostalgia

A few decades ago, a reviewer said that a film's dialog had been written in 'Biblese.' I'm pretty sure what he meant was that thees thys and thous strewn across a bad imitation of King James' English.

That sort of film, by and large, I'm not nostalgic about.

And, I'm just as glad that the American film industry isn't cranking out movies like Samson and Delilah. It was one of those films that proved Victor (Samson) Mature's claim: "I'm no actor, and I've got 64 pictures to prove it."

I actually enjoy watching Bible Epics: There's a sort of over-the-top feel to many of them that the movie industry didn't recapture until Star Wars hit the screen. My opinion. Their close-but-not-quite take on theology, on the other hand, is something else.

On the whole, I don't think the movie industry is doing that badly. It's not doing that well, either: but I don't think it ever was.

The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB): They Review Movies, Too

The USCCB's Office for Film and Broadcasting" has about 8,000 movie reviews online - and an indexing system that leaves something to be desired. I often use Google to get at specific reviews: mostly because I don't always know the right title.

I put together a set of links to USCCB reviews of the movies I mentioned, at the start of this post:
  • "Going My Way -- Bing Crosby ambles amiably through the role of Father O'Malley, the crooning curate sent to assist the aging, crotchety pastor (Barry Fitzgerald) of a poor parish in need of change...." 1944
  • "Bells of St. Mary's-- Director Leo McCarey's sequel to "Going My Way" (1944) pulls out all the emotional stops in a sugary confection that takes happy-go-lucky Father O'Malley (Bing Crosby) to a poor parish with a crumbling school run by overworked Sister Benedict (Ingrid Bergman)...." 1945
  • The Exorcism of Emily Rose "Sober, theologically oriented thriller based, in part, on true events surrounding a Catholic priest (Tom Wilkinson) on trial for negligent homicide in connection with an exorcism he performed on a young woman (Jennifer Carpenter)..." 2005
    • "Requiem, 2006, is a German film based on the same incident as The Exorcism of Emily Rose.
  • La Virgen de los sicarios, 2000 /
    "Our Lady of the Assassins-- Depressing drama shot in the violence-drenched drug capital of Medellin, Colombia where an older gay man (German Jaramillo) has returned to die but falls in lust with a volatile teen (Anderson Ballesteros)...." 2001, Paramount Classics
  • "The Last Temptation of Christ -- Deeply flawed screen adaptation of the Nikos Kazantzakis novel probing the mystery of the human nature of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, fails because of artistic inadequacy rather than anti-religious bias...."

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From time to time, a service that I use will display links to - odd - services and retailers.

I block a few of the more obvious dubious advertisers.

For example: psychic anything, numerology, mediums, and related practices are on the no-no list for Catholics. It has to do with the Church's stand on divination. I try to block those ads.

Sometime regrettable advertisements get through, anyway.

Bottom line? What that service displays reflects the local culture's norms, - not Catholic teaching.