Hollywood and Religion: Priests, Nuns and the American Silver Screen

SDG Original source: Our Sunday Visitor

An old witticism has it that Golden Age Hollywood was “a Jewish-owned business selling Catholic theology to Protestant America.” If not strictly accurate, the bon mot contains more than a kernel of truth.

From the early sound era through the 1950s and beyond, representatives of Christianity on the American silver screen more often than not wore clerical blacks or religious habit; and, if they weren’t always concerned with Catholic theology per se, at least they were typically trying to build or save some Catholic parish, mission or school.

Archetypal examples include Spencer Tracy’s earnest Father Flanagan in Boys Town (1938), Pat O’Brien’s square-jawed Father Jerry in Angels with Dirty Faces (1938), Bing Crosby’s affable Father O’Malley and Ingrid Bergman’s tough-minded Sister Benedict in The Bells of St. Mary’s (1945), and Deborah Kerr’s demure Sister Angela in Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison (1957).

Where did Hollywood Catholicism come from? While Catholic imagery was part of the American screen from the early silent era, it was in 1926 that the Catholic Church in America proved ready for its close-up. That year the immigrant minority faith put on a spectacle worthy of national attention: the 28th International Eucharistic Congress in Chicago, with papal legate Giovanni Cardinal Bonzano celebrating an outdoor Mass for a congregation of a million worshipers.

In a unique collaboration of Church and Hollywood, Fox Films and the Chicago Archdiocese jointly produced a successful 96-minute documentary covering the whole event from Rome to Chicago. This project was brokered by one Irish Catholic layman, trade journalist Martin J. Quigley, and promoted by another, archdiocesean PR man Joseph I. Breen. Both Quigley and Breen later became key figures in the effort to bring morality to Hollywood.

In 1930, with “Hollywood priest” Fr. Daniel Lord, SJ, Quigley coauthored the Motion Picture Production Code, which replaced earlier, inadequate Hollywood moral guidelines (like the 1927 list of “Don’ts and Be Carefuls”) with what was meant to be a true philosophy of moral art founded in Thomism and natural law.

In 1934 Breen began a twenty-year tenure enforcing the Code as head of the new Production Code Authority, created to stave off the wrath of the Legion of Decency, founded in 1933 to classify films for moral appropriateness.

Although sometimes caricatured as a mere prudish censor, Breen was a Hollywood player and movie buff as well as a devout Catholic, and the stamp of his Jesuit schooling and moral vision is found throughout films of Hollywood’s Golden Age. Filmmakers of Catholic stock such as Leo McCarey (Going My Way, 1944), Frank Capra (It’s a Wonderful Life, 1946) and Alfred Hitchcock (I Confess, 1953) enhanced the Church’s Hollywood cache.

For all its piety, classical Hollywood lacked spiritual depth. When the Vatican film list was compiled in 1995, American cinema was well represented in the categories of “Art” and “Values” — but the “Religion” category was dominated by non-American films like The Passion of Joan of Arc (1927) and A Man for All Seasons (1966), with only one dubious Hollywood effort, Ben-Hur (1959), making the cut.

There were exceptions. The Song of Bernadette (1943), starring Jennifer Jones as St. Bernadette Soubirous, was a spiritual high point of Breen–era Hollywood. The year Breen retired was also the year Hollywood religion met social justice in Karl Malden’s tough-talking Father Barry in On the Waterfront (1954), “a Going My Way with substance.” (On the Waterfront did make the Vatican list, for “Values.”)

With the possibility of increased substance came ambiguity and the need for discernment. Like other art forms, movies weren’t all family-friendly any more. By 1955 it was thinkable to portray a self-styled non-Catholic man of the cloth as a psychotic fraud (Night of the Hunter). In 1959 Fred Zinnemann’s The Nun’s Story offered a challenging depiction of the struggles of an idealistic nun (Audrey Hepburn) who ultimately leaves religious life. Though not anti-religious, the open-ended final scene would never have flown in Breen’s Hollywood.

In 1968 — the same year the MPAA dropped the Production Code for the age-based ratings system — the curiously semi-prescient The Shoes of the Fisherman starred Anthony Quinn as a Slavic pope (“the first non-Italian pope in 400 years”) who emphasizes authority more than orthodoxy, and, in silly-Sixties climax, sells off the Church’s treasures to provide humanitarian aid to China.

The 1970s offered more challenges and ambiguity. The Exorcist (1973) cast Catholicism, rather than the therapeutic culture, as the only hope against spiritual evil, but also depicted priests questioning their vocation, struggling with doubt and eking out an ambiguous stalemate with Satan. Scorsese’s Mean Streets (1973) and Coppola’s Godfather films depicted clergy on the periphery of the lives of lawless men, unable if not uninclined to offer redemption.

In time, outright anti-Catholic portrayals became increasingly glaring and common. The Exorcist opened the door to the church-bashing horror tripe of The Omen (1976) and its sequels, as well as latter-day heirs like Stigmata (1999) and The Order (2003). Monsignor (1982), with its priest–nun affair and ecclesiastical dissolution, was critically panned, but was followed by better-received through similarly problematic depictions of priests and religious, from Agnes of God (1985) to Priest (1994). More recently, the sinister ecclesiastical machinations of The Da Vinci Code (2006) and Elizabeth: The Golden Years (2007) are among the most anti-Catholic depictions in Hollywood history.

The picture isn’t all black. Wholesome depictions of priests and religious still crop up, often at weddings, funerals, and other critical junctures; recent examples include Ladder 49 (2004) and We Are Marshall (2006). In tales of adventure or heroism, priests may support the heroes, as in The Mask of Zorro (1997), The Count of Monte Cristo (2002) and Cinderella Man (2005).

On occasion, priests and religious may even rise to heroism themselves. Examples include Dead Man Walking (1995), Hotel Rwanda (2004), The Exorcism of Emily Rose (2005) and Miracle at St. Anna (2008). Such films may not offer unmixed depictions of Golden-Age do-gooders in Roman collars or wimples, but they bear witness to ongoing moral credibility in the Catholic Church even in these troubled times.

Faith & Film, Priestly, Religious Themes