Friday, January 6, 2017

Gangster and Mob Movie Churches -- Angels with Dirty Faces

There comes a point in this 1938 film, Angels with Dirty Faces, when I wouldn’t be surprised to hear the priest, Father Jerry (Pat O’Brien), say, “You kids need to accept basketball as your Lord and Savior.” He’s spent months trying to get a group of young thugs (the Dead End Kids) to join his basketball league. They wouldn’t dream of it until a released prisoner named Rocky (James Cagney) encourages the boys to play. Then they rush to the court (basketball, not criminal, court).

What puzzled me is why the priest should spend months trying to get kids to play basketball if they didn’t want to play? Is his goal to lead kids to God and the Bible or to James Naismith and his playbook?

As you can see, I had some problems with the ministry style and goals of Father Jerry, but I have few problems with the film itself, because it’s a gangster film with James Cagney and Humphrey Bogart, and it’s hard to go wrong with Cagney and Bogart and guns and wise talk. But remember, we’re not here for film critique but Movie Church critique.

Father Jerry and gangster Rocky were boyhood friends who went to church together and stole together but took different paths in life. Fortunately for viewers’ interest, most of the film focuses on Cagney’s criminal escapades rather than Father Jerry’s church and his outreach to youth.

Besides running a basketball league, Father Jerry also runs a boys’ choir. The choir is, in fact, very good. But we never see the priest interacting with any of the kids in the choir. We also never see Father Jerry performing mass (though he invites Rocky to come).  We never see Father Jerry working with adults. His sole concern seems to be keeping kids away from lives of crime through singing and basketball. We never see him encouraging kids to say, read the Bible or pray.

Sadly, the kids continue to admire the glamorous lives of gangsters like Rocky and aspire to a life of luxury found by pursuing a path of crime. Father Jerry despairs of helping kids from, as he says, “the bottom,” and decides to change society “at the top.” He decides to pursue an indictment against his childhood buddy Rocky, dedicating himself to that goal full time.

So, apparently he’s going to give up performing Mass, visiting the sick, feeding the poor, etc. Of course, we’ve seen no evidence that he was performing the normal functions of a priest in the first place. He’s apparently also going to give up his choir and basketball league.

He sounds a bit like people in the Church who make their exclusive priority seeking social justice. I think it can be a good thing for people in the church to try to change social institutions, the government, schools, businesses, etc. But someone in ministry should never pursue such things exclusively.  A vital role of clergy is to care for the spiritual needs of individuals. There are politicians, police officers, teachers, and, yes, basketball coaches, who can deal with other societal needs. Priests should never neglect the spiritual needs of their congregants and communities.

Pat O'Brien has the same expression in every pic
One thing I do respect about Father Jerry, before I move on to a rather horrible thing he does at the end of the film. Gangster Rocky tries to give Father Jerry thousands of dollars for a “recreational center,” but Jerry refuses it because the money was gained illicitly. Props to Jerry on that.

This is a big spoiler, so if you haven’t seen the film and want to (and you may well want to), don’t read this last gripe…. At the end of the film, Rocky has been caught, convicted, and
sentenced to death. The neighborhood kids still look up to Rocky, so Father Jerry asks Rocky to set a negative example by going to his death as a coward. How about if Jerry addresses Rocky spiritual state rather than staging a rather sick display for the kids back home?

End of spoiler.

Though I can’t recommend the Movie Church ministry of Father Jerry, I can never get enough of Cagney and Bogie. (I so wish The Roaring Twenties had a church in it.)

Two steeples for the church in this film.

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