Religion in the Cinema – By Ivan Butler (1969)
Film-makers were quick off the mark in realising the attractions of the religion-sex formula, and as early as 1903 one of the founders of the French cinema, Ferdinand Zecca, having already made a Prodigal Son in 1901, directed what is probably the first version of Samson and Delilah. Pathe followed with a Prodigal Son in 1907 and a Samson and Delilah (“ending with his entrance into Paradise”) in 1908. The first Biblical murder story appeared in 1905 with Melies’s Justice and Vengeance Pursuing Crime (after Proud’hon) which seems—from an extant still showing one skin-clad man fleeing across the rocks from the body of another, pursued by determined-looking angels—to have been inspired by Cain and Abel. In the year 1909 the American Vitagraph Company set out a Biblical feast consisting of a Jephthah’s Daughter, a Salome, a Judgment of Solomon (“Grand Biblical Reel for Sunday Shows”), and a Saul and David. The latter was noted as a novelty in that the characters were introduced “with individual pictures before the commencement of the Story proper.” In 1910 the Company followed these up with a five-reel Life of Moses. An Italian film on Herodias (Erodiade) appeared in 1912 with Suzanne de Labroy in the title role.
1913 saw what might now be called the first Biblical block-buster—D. W. Griffith’s Judith of Bethulia. This version of the Apocrypha story was made in Chatsworth, California, on a spectacular scale and is the first flowering of the Griffith genius, revealing already his skill in handling large vistas without losing individual interests. The cast includes most of the later Griffith repertory—Blanche Sweet, Henry B. Walthall, Robert Edwards, with Miss Bara dripping pearls prodigally as she vamps a buxom John the Baptist (Albert Roscoe) who seems to thrive remarkably well on his diet of locusts and wild honey.
Priests, Ministers and the Church
A still of 1917 shows Stuart Holmes (later a famous silent heavy) emoting violently in The Scarlet Letter, with Mary Martin as Hester clinging to one arm and a coy little girl named Kittens Reichert sheltering beneath the other. The Pastor’s moustaches look strangely out of place. Sidney Olcott and Gene Gauntier, the team responsible for From the Manger to the Cross, were director and scenarist. But Hawthorne s classic had to await Lillian Gish and Lars Hanson before coming into its own.
One of the most famous of all silent films, The Scarlet Letter (dir. Victor Sjostrom) was produced in 1926—beautifully photographed, directed and played. Though Lillian Gish may not be quite the doughty Hester Prynne of Hawthorne’s novel, she comes much closer to it, particularly as the climax of the film approaches, than some critics have allowed. She entirely convinces us of her ability to persuade the pastor to keep quiet about the fact that he is the father of her child because of the importance of his work to the little community, and her gradual transition from the light-hearted girl to the ferocious defender of her child and her secret is completely credible and often very moving.
It is throughout, as Edward Wagenknecht says, “a profound and beautiful study.” Lars Hanson power¬ fully supports her and the final scene, when, tortured by con¬ science when Hester’s lost husband returns, the pastor confesses in public and dies in her arms, is as affecting today, in a scratched and jerky print, as when the film made its note¬ worthy first appearance. The 1934 re-make (dir. Robert C. Vignola) does not stand comparison. Hardie Albright is just a pleasant young American dressed up in costume, and Col¬ leen Moore, most charming of comediennes, cannot compare in more tragic matters with Lillian Gish.
Monks and Nuns
Although portrayals of monks and the monastic life are much less frequent than those of the priesthood, several actresses have had an irresistible urge to don the nun’s robes and veil, even if in the majority of cases the stories have been only superficially concerned with the religious aspect. Generally they make use of the retreat to solve a triangular problem, or afford a Grand Renunciation scene. An early example is The White Sister, first filmed in 1915 by Essanay, with Viola Allen. The great silent star Francis X. Bushman (Ben Hur’s Messala) reputedly walked out of the studio when asked to play opposite her in support, and Richard Travers took his place.
The most famous version was that made by Inspiration in 1924, starring Lillian Gish and most sensitively directed by Henry King. Miss Gish gives one of her best performances as the young girl torn between her call to a life of religious dedication and her love for a young French officer—Ronald Colman is his first American role. It all appears very simple and naive now, but the contrast between Lillian Gish’s fragile beauty and her iron determination to follow her conscience made it the tear-jerker of its day. It was re-made with sound in 1933 but, despite a touching and sincere performance from Helen Hayes, the time and the spirit had passed.