Friday, July 15, 2016

Sports Churches: The Leather Saint (1956)

 "If every clergyman had a right like yours, there wouldn't be be many sinners left around," Father Gil's gym buddy tells him. Boxing evangelism hasn't caught on over the last half century as some would have hoped, but the good work of this Episcopalian pugilist is preserved in Paramount's 1956 release, The Leather Saint.

Here at Movie Churches, we're used to seeing fundraising as the primary goal of the clergy and churches in films. At least Father Gil (played by Bo's future husband, John Derek) is raising money for something other than paying the church’s mortgage before Simon Legree forecloses. Because of a recent polio epidemic, the local children's hospital is ill-equipped to meet the needs of the community, so Father Gil says, "Whatever I have to do to help the kids, I'll do it."
Early in the film, we see Father Gil meeting with his superior within the church. Gil is asked why he hasn’t pursued the suggestion that he to get married and have children. He’s told congregations find such pastors more relatable. Father Gil replies that having a wife and family of his own would take attention away from his kids. In fact, he’s taken a year-long vow of celibacy to concentrate on work with the kids.

Father Gil asks if the denomination is going to come through with money for the hospital and is told he’s going to need to be patient. But as the doctor at the hospital says, “Paralysis doesn’t understand patience.”
A solution to the money problems comes when a boxing manager sees Gil working out with the punching bag. Manager Gus asks Gil if he’d like to get in the boxing game. Gil says he has a job, and Gus says, “I don’t know what racket you’re in, but you can make some dough in the ring.” Gil agrees to fight, but doesn’t divulge what “racket” he’s in, attempting to keep the worlds separate.
Gil also catches the eye of a boxing promoter, Tony (Cesar Romero, TV’s Joker), and his moll, Pearl (they seem to be interested in Gil for different reasons). I assumed, Hollywood being Hollywood, that Gil would eventually end up with Pearl. But Gil ducks and weaves from her advances as well as he dodges blows in the ring. He even brings his gym buddy along when he goes to see Pearl rather than be with her alone.
Manager Gus and Promoter Tony both worry that Gil might not have the killer instinct necessary for a good fighter. In the ring, he tends to bob and weave before making one devastating knockout punch.  After the fight, he always checks on the condition of his rival. Gus says, “It’s like representing a Bible salesman.”
We never do see Gil preach or meet with adult congregants. We do see him talk and play with the children in the hospital. He promises them a swimming pool to help with their physical therapy and a second iron lung. We also see him giving the money from each fight to a priest at the hospital without admitting it’s prize winnings. He claims to have benefactor in the  “leather glove business.”
We also see him -- often -- go to church to pray by the altar. This is the one time we hear him quote Scripture, using Psalm 23 as his prayer. He asks God to forgive him if boxing is the wrong approach to getting the money but he sees no other.
The paucity of Gil’s references to God and especially to Jesus keep him from getting our highest rating, but he wins by decision with a solid Three Steeples.

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