Hollywood and the Catholic Church – By Les and Barbara Keyser 1984

  • Hollywood and the Catholic Church
  • The image of Roman Catholicism in American movies
  • By Les and Barbara Keyser
  • Loyola University Press – Chicago
  • © 1984 Les J. Keyser
  • Printed in the United States of America.

All rights reserved. First Edition.

Hollywood has been called “the dream factory” and “tinsel-town,” but the name is also synonymous with American filmmaking and its powerful ability to create myths which have left an indelible stamp on the American consciousness. And from the birth of the film to the present day, Hollywood has been fascinated with the Catholic Church. For many Americans, the only priest or nun they have ever seen close-up, has been on the screen. The film is indeed a teacher; it is in a true sense the Hollywood catechism.

Saint Bartholomew’s Day Massacre in Intolerance.

The Epic Film – Saints, sinners and spectacles

When (D.W.) Griffith turns to the history of Catholicism in his (Intolerance) Judean and French episodes, he raises the whole question of history and its treatment in film. Griffith was well aware, as he wrote in the Boston Journal in April of 1915, that “one man’s orthodoxy is another man’s heterodoxy” and that “one man’s judgment is another man’s prejudice.” For all his evocations of the past, Griffith plumbed the depths of libraries and frequently even footnoted sources in title cards. Yet the selection of details and their interpretation were always his; for all the authenticity of decor, there was still the necessity of a point of view in the narrative. A good example of this comes in his presentation of Catherine de Medici and the Saint Bartholomew’s Day Massacre in Intolerance.

In her autobiography, Lillian Gish details the far-reaching research that went into Intolerance. Although her role was brief, she was very involved in the film and frequently discussed characters with Griffith. She felt “too young and unworldly” to understand Catherine de Medici, so she asked the director about the best interpretation. Griffith told Gish: “Don’t judge. . . . Always remember this, Miss Lillian, circumstances make people what they are. Everyone is capable of the lowest and the highest. The same potentialities are in us all—only circumstances make the difference.” Yet in Intolerance Griffith has Josephine Crowell play Catherine as such a grotesque monster that most critics fault her performance. William Everson is quite correct when he asserts that “the fault is Griffith’s as much as hers.” The power-mad Catholic Catherine obviously was meant to balance the insanely jealous Miss Jenkins. Each uses morality as a cloak for her real motivations.

White Sister Lobby Card (Inspiration Pictures)

A major theme in earlier war melodramas involves the choice between life in the world of heroes and battlefields and life in the cloister, a world of sacrifice and prayer. The various adaptations of Francis Marion Crawford’s immensely popular 1909 romance The White Sister suggest how important this theme was in American films of the twenties and thirties. Catholic mystic Henry King directed Lillian Gish in the best known, most widely acclaimed version of The White Sister, which was released at the peak of America’s disillusionment with World War I in 1923. The plot of The White Sister involves an Italian heiress Angela Chiaromonte, who thinks her betrothed, Captain Giovanni Severi (Ronald Colman in the 1923 version), has died in battle and dedicates her life to God by entering the convent. Her lover returns, however, and she must choose between God and man.

The White Sister

The White Sister represented a daring gamble on the part of both director King and star Gish, for the film was an independent production under the aegis of the aptly named Inspiration Pictures, and the feature’s heavy emphasis on the rubric of Roman Catholicism almost blocked its distribution, since exhibitors feared a Protestant backlash. Discussing the film in her memoir, Dorothy and Lillian Gish, Miss Gish recalls that in the silent era, religious stories from the Bible were easily marketed, but exhibitors shied away from The White Sister, which she considered “the first modern story, based on Catholicism.” In Gish’s interpretation, the exhibitors’ motives for refusing to show The White Sister were more economic than sectarian; she remembers that “the big companies who owned the theaters said the public could get religion free on Sundays, so they’re not going to pay for it during the week.” (Miss Gish’s analysis suggests an interesting reversal of the earlier encounter between an impecunious exhibitor, Adolph Zukor, and a censorious priest who feared religion in the movies would challenge the Church’s hegemony.) To circumvent this impasse between Inspiration Pictures and the major exhibitors, producer Charles H. Duell, director Henry King, and star Lillian Gish opened The White Sister themselves at the George M. Cohan Theater in New York City. The premiere was a gala affair, which the reviewer for the New York Times, seemingly incognizant of the behind-the-scenes difficulties, described in great detail. In the critic’s words, the audience was “a most interesting assembly, which included persons prominent in society, distinguished politicians, well-known authors and writers, screen celebrities, and heads of the motion picture industry,” and this opening for The White Sister was an occasion, the journalist opined, which “revealed the standing of the films possibly more than any other photoplay presentation.” The White Sister, it seems, brought both American film and American Catholicism to a new social standing.

The White Sister

Within days, everyone recognized that The White Sister was box office magic in New York City, and Nicholas Schenk of Metro Pictures took over distribution. Even in its later national distribution, however. The White Sister was handled with special care because of its Catholic theme. Theater owners were instructed to inform local Protestant clergy about the film’s inspirational tone and its markedly Catholic orientation, in the hope that local ministers would encourage their congregations not to avoid the film just because of its unique religious orientation. The Exhibitors Trade Review for September 22, 1923, tried to assure theater owners that this story of a soldier desperately in love with a nun is one “that will stir the non-churchman,” and “to those who follow the creed of any denomination and, of course, the Catholics especially, the impress must be multiplied manyfold.”

The White Sister

Director King had actually increased the Catholic focus in The White Sister manyfold. On his way to Italy to shoot the film. King happened to meet the papal delegate to Washington; after a brief chat about the film’s treatment of the sister’s final vows, the papal delegate arranged for the head ceremonial director of the Vatican to show the company all the intricacies of an Italian nun’s traditional wedding with Christ. Lillian Gish recalls that the company was allowed to film a sacred ceremony “that had never been filmed before, with the bride in all her finery being married to the church . . . just before dawn.” Director Henry King assured Kevin Brownlow in The Parade’s Gone By that everything in the sequence was authentic; he watched the papal adviser stage the ceremony and then “shot the entire thing while it was fresh in my mind, without a scene of it being written down.”

The White Sister

King did have one big problem in his script, however. In the original novel the lovers eventually marry. As Gish recalls the project, this was “an impossible situation for a successful film”: “You can’t care about a character you see taking solemn vows before God at eight o’clock and then by nine changing her mind.” This is especially true if the most interesting visuals in your film picture her eternal marriage to Christ. To resolve this dilemma, the film of The White Sister introduces an eruption of Mount Vesuvius which kills Captain Giovanni and thus frees Sister Angela of any qualms about her oath whatsoever.

Lillian Gish – The White Sister

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