Friday, May 26, 2017

Silent Movie Churches -- The Scarlet Letter

The Scarlet Letter (1926)
Many parents puzzle over what they should share with their children about their own past behavior, particularly in such matters as sex and drugs. They struggle with two conflicting values: the desire to keep their kids safe and the desire to be honest. If, as a teenager, you did some underage drinking, you wonder if it would be better to let your teen know about this, as a warning, or keep it on the downlow. (It’s an even tougher challenge if you look back on some of those experiences fondly.)

Pastors face a similar problem. Should they share their sin and weakness with their congregations? Do such confessions give people in their congregation license to sin as well? Or will hiding sin lead accusations of hypocrisy, with even more harmful results in the long run?

For a sermon illustration, a pastor doesn’t think anything about mentioning the temptation to scarf a second muffin or snap at the children, but the clerical sins of Pastor Arthur Dimmesdale in The Scarlet Letter aren’t the “little sins” of say, gluttony or pride. No, as some of you remember from high school English (when you were assigned Nathaniel Hawthorne’s classic novel in high school -- whether you read the book as assigned or read the Cliff Notes or read the quiz on a neighbor’s desk), the Rev. Dimmesdale had an affair with a married woman and fathered her child. This was something he decided to keep quiet.

There have been a number of screen adaptations of The Scarlet Letter (including the 1995 Demi Moore version that is completely nuts), but since this is Silent Movie Month at Movie Churches, we’re looking at the 1926 MGM adaptation which starred Lillian Gish (sister of Dorthy Gish) as Hester Prynne. (Gish was, at the time, one of the biggest stars of the silver screen.)

The film takes some liberties with the novel, which opens with Hester receiving her punishment for adultery. In the novel, the father of Hester’s child is a mystery revealed much later in the story. The 1926 movie version opens with a focus on Reverend Dimmesdale as a greatly beloved minister jn his church and community. He is renowned for his compassion for others, particularly for sinners. We see him talking with a man forced to wear a sign marking him as a heretic. The pastor says to the man,  “I pray that God will help me to explain the point which thou hast disputed with the Elder on Lecture Day, and make thee one with us again in Spirit.”

Congregants give Dimmesdale a gift of money, saying, “We thank God everyday for your ministry.”

Actually, the film opens with a title card reading, “Here is recorded a stark episode in the lives of a stern and unforgiving people, a story of bigotry uncurbed and a tale of sorrow, shame and tragedy.” Perhaps, though, their time was unique -- our day and age would never be so judgemental. If someone made, say, an indiscreet remark on Twitter, everyone would treat them with sweetness and light in these enlightened days, of course.

In the movie, though, we see people walking by Hester Prynne’s home. An old biddy takes offense at Hester’s pet, “Hester’s bird singing on the Sabbath! What is Boston coming to?” Even worse, the woman spies Hester at play on the Sabbath. “Tis a law against running and skipping on the Sabbath. The Minister must be told.”

And Rev. Dimmesdale is told. He calls Hester to the front of the church to rebuke her, “Thou hast profaned God’s Holy Day!” But it’s the local governor who puts Hester in a pillory in the town square. Dimmesdale comes to release her, saying, “Hester, I hope thou hast learned a great lesson,” and their friendship begins.

We see Hester and Dimmesdale taking long walks in the woods. We see them kiss. We assume more happened.

Dimmesdale is called by the governor to take a mission to England. When the Reverend returns, the film has reached the beginning of the novel, with Hester being punished for adultery (she’s had a baby daughter, but she has no husband) and forced to wear the Scarlet Letter of the title.

In spite of her punishment, Hester will not reveal the name of the father, even when Dimmesdale urges her to. “Thou shalt not be branded alone. Together we shall stand, thou & I. I am the guilty one!” But Hester will have none of it, “And make me suffer doubly? To know that I helped destroy thee? Thou hast no right to tear down the ideals of thy followers who look to thee for guidance. Atone! Atone for both of us with thy good works. We shall never see each other again, but I will have comfort in betolking (sic) until thy life of devotion and service.” (The card was a little blurry. Maybe she meant "beholding").

So the Reverend Dimmesdale reminds silent about fathering the child, Pearl. And goes on ministering to the adoration of the congregation. But the Reverend’s health takes a dark turn, as guilt builds in his soul.

He preaches one last time to his congregation. He proclaims, “Purge yourselves of intolerance for only God can see the heart of a sinner.”

A congregant exclaims, “An inspired sermon, never before has he spoken so eloquently.”

Dimmesdale’s imminent death seems to be what allows him to speak so freely. In death, he finally confesses to the congregation. He opens his shirt to reveal he has marked his own chest with a scarlet “A.”  The Reverend proclaims before the people of Boston, “People of New England, at last I stand where I should have stood five years ago with Hester Prynne.”

And then he dies.

So, were those five years of ministry worth Dimmesdale’s secret and suffering?  Or were those years of ministry made invalid because of Dimmesdale’s lies and hypocrisy?

I don’t really know. And I don’t know whether a parent should share what happened at that party or on prom night back in the day.

Still, relying on the opinion of those in his congregation, I’m giving the Reverend Dimmesdale and his church 2 steeples, in consideration of the difficulty of his circumstances.

Friday, May 19, 2017

Silent Movie Churches -- Sadie Thompson

Sadie Thompson (1928)
One of the most interesting things about 1928’s Sadie Thompson is the two words that aren’t used in the film: “prostitute” and “missionary.”

There have been three film adaptations of Somerset Maugham’s short story “Miss Thompson” (which was renamed “Rain” for a short story collection; it appeared first in a literary magazine, The Smart Set). In 1932, Joan Crawford starred in an adaptation called Rain, and in 1953 Rita Hayworth starred in an adaptation entitled Miss Sadie Thompson. But since it’s Silent Movie Month at Movie Churches, we’re looking at the first big screen version of the story.

The credits for the film are extremely impressive, with a number of names that would continue to achieve great things in the sound era: Gloria Swanson starred but also produced, the film’s director Raoul Walsh (White Heat, High Sierra) also plays the film’s male romantic lead, Lionel Barrymore practices the villainy he’ll use later in It’s a Wonderful Life, and the art director is William Cameron Menzies who served the same role on Gone With the Wind.

I don’t know whether the 1932 or 1953 versions use the words “prostitute” or “missionary,” but I do know that Maugham’s short story uses the latter but not the former. In the story, Sadie comes from Honolulu to Pago Pago. She is never directly called a “whore” or a “hooker” or any other direct term for women who practice the world’s oldest profession, but it is said she used to work in the “red light district” -- which is about as direct a way as calling her a prostitute as can be done without using that term. While in Pago Pago, she asks not to be disturbed during “business hours” and there is no doubt she is still working as a prostitute.

In the 1928 film, Sadie says she came from the district in San Francisco where they “hang the red lanterns.” Her shady past is implied, but she just says, “I had a singing job. But my pipes got rusty.” In the film, though, It’s clear that she’s trying to make a change in her life. Sure, she parties with Marines from the local base, but it’s all fairly wholesome fun. She falls for Sergeant Timothy O’Hara (Walsh), who knows of her past but tells her, “Them that kick the highest settle down the hardest.”

As for that second word, “missionary,” it is used in the short story. Alfred Davidson and his wife are called missionaries. The story presents them as servants of the Lord who have been serving in the islands for years. The 1928 film calls Davidson (Barrymore) and his wife “reformers.” (Davidson says, “The knife of reform is the only hope of a sin sick world.”) It never calls them “missionaries,” but that seems to be the work Davidson does. He says, “I’ve been talking to the natives -- they’re so depraved I actually have to teach them what sin is.” But the film avoids ever calling Davidson a missionary.

Davidson is forced to stay in the same boarding house as Sadie, which greatly disturbs him. He is sure she is a practicing prostitute, saying, “I’m never mistaken. She’s here to carry out her shameful trade. I refuse to have this house turned into a brothel.”

But the film avoids calling Davidson a clergyman. In fact, Sadie says to him, *”You reformers don’t fool me… You ain’t a minister!”

Still, in both the short story and in the film, Davidson does his best to bring Sadie to “salvation.” He tries to drive her off the island, with the help of the island’s governor. He tells Sadie he’ll send her back to San Francisco. The idea of going back to San Francisco horrifies Sadie, which seems strange (What frightens her? The seals at the wharf? The cable cars? The lack of public toilets?) until we learn that if she goes back to San Francisco, she’ll go to prison. But that is where, with the governor’s help, Davidson is going to send her.

Sadie strikes out against Davidson saying, “What right do you have to judge me? You Psalm singing louse! You’d tear out your mother’s heart and call it saving her soul! You don’t know what I’ve suffered and you don’t care -- and you call yourself a Christian!”

Eventually, though, Sadie feels she has nowhere to turn but to Davidson. He tells her,
“Sadie, you are an evil woman! Kneel and repent!” and he offers her eternal salvation. Sadie does begin to pray and repent. She spends three days locked in a room, “Three lonely days of loneliness, repentance and redemption!”

Davidson spends all those three days with her. (Well, he does take a break to go down to the beach and tell the natives to stop dancing.)

Sadie says that she’s changed. She has come to God and is willing to go to prison in San Francisco. “Can’t you see? I’ve been saved! You’re trying to send me to hell! I’ve been born again and I have to pay for it.”

O’Hara offers escape on another boat off the island, but she refuses. Davidson commends her for resisting the temptations of Satan.

Davidson claims he is upset to send Sadie to prison, “I’ll suffer all the time she suffers.”  But Davidson becomes a little too close to Sadie and apparently makes sexual advances. In the film it isn’t clear how she responds to those advances, but in both the film and the short story Sadie says, “You men are all alike! Pigs, pigs!”

And in both the short story and film, Davidson cannot deal with his own sexual weakness and commits suicide.

So how can we give a Steeple rating for this film? The short story clearly had a clergyman, but the film has a “reformer” who talks about sin, God, and the blood of the Lamb. I guess instead of steeples, this week I’ll give “Reformer” Davidson a low rating of two grass huts.

Friday, May 12, 2017

Silent Movie Churches -- The Docks of New York

The Docks of New York (1928)
I’m generally hesitant to write about a film that only uses a church as a setting for a wedding or clergy as a wedding officiant, because often the church and pastor are just scenery in film. The church and pastor are not that different from film to film (since they’re essentially set dressing), so they aren’t worth writing about. It’s if one wrote a law blog post about how different Justices of Peace or judges perform wedding ceremonies.

But there are times when a film does use weddings in interesting ways, as in director Josef von Sternberg’s 1928 film The Docks of New York.  Based on a book titled The Dock Walloper (I wish they’d kept that awesome title), it’s the story of a ship stoker, Bill, (he shovels the coal into the fire of a tugboat) who rescues a young woman, Mae, from drowning in the waters by the docks. (His rescue is rather leisurely. He sees her in the water and casually strips down to dive in for her.)

He takes her to a room in a disreputable place called The Sandbar. (A title card assures us that such places used to exist by the docks, one assumes pre-prohibition, but that they exist no longer.) At The Sandbar there is much drinking, dancing, and carousing. We see Bill’s captain flirting with a woman when he sees his wife flirting with another man. The wife tells the captain she can do what she wishes since he “gave her the air” years ago.

There is a sign at the Sandbar that reads, “Save Your Soul and Your Money, Come to ‘Hymn-Book Harry’s Harbor Mission.”  At one point, when the crowd gets rowdier than usual at the Sandbar and it looks like Bill is about to start a fight, the proprietor says, “I better get Hymn-Book Harry before he wrecks the place.” But things calm down before he takes such drastic measures.

Gustav von Seyffertitz as Hymn Book Harry
Hymn-Book Harry comes to the Sandbar for another reason. Bill decides he wants to marry Mae.  Now Bill doesn’t seem the marrying type. His arms are covered with tattoos of naked women and the names of women from various ports. And it is implied that Mae has what they call a “history” as well.

Harry (Gustav von Seyffertitz) comes into the rowdy bar with a grim, disapproving look on his face. He asks Bill, “Where’s your wedding license?”  The whole idea of the wedding was rather spur of the moment, so Bill and Mae don’t have a license. Harry heads for the door. A woman stops him, saying,  “Are you going to queer our fun just because you got to have a piece of paper?”

Another woman steps to the front of the bar saying she’ll do the ceremony if the preacher won’t. (“Let the old fusser go. I’ll marry you!”) She stands on the bar and asks whether anyone knows of any reason these two people should not be married -- which brings much laughter, but no objections. This visibly bothers Hymn-Book Harry.

Harry asks Mae, “Does it mean that much to you?” Harry asks Bill whether he will get a license. Bill assures him, “Word of honor, Pastor, I’ll get it first thing in the morning.”

Hymn Book Harry performs a traditional ceremony: “Dearly beloved, we are gathered here in the sight of God and in the face of this company to join this man and this woman in holy matrimony. This is an honorable estate, not to be taken lightly.”

What I found interesting was that the crowd begins in a rowdy mood, but seems genuinely moved by the ceremony. They stop drinking and carousing to listen to Harry’s words. Harry brings a moment of peace to the place. When Harry asks Bill whether he has a ring, he doesn’t. But a woman in the bar crowd brings one forward. Bill responds to the questions of the vows with “Sure I will”.

When the ceremony ends, the crowd cheers.

Bill tries to pay Harry after the ceremony. Harry initially refuses the money, then says, “I expect you to bring me a license in the morning -- pay me then.” It seems that Harry is much less concerned about being paid than that Bill will take his responsibilities as a husband seriously.

Whenever I’ve performed a wedding, I’ve insisted on the couple having counseling beforehand, something Harry doesn’t do. I also try to inject warmth and humor into a service, also something that Harry doesn’t do. But Harry is willing to go to a bar to serve others, which wins some points in my book. So I’m giving the ministry of Hymn-Book Harry Three Steeples.

Friday, May 5, 2017

Silent Movie Month - Hypocrites

Church films used to have a lot more nudity back in the day. And “back in the day” I’m talking about over a century ago. At least in Hypocrites from 1915, one of the surviving works by writer and director Lois Weber. Weber was the writer and director of over 200 films, chiefly of in the silent era, though only about twenty of her films have been preserved. Weber, along with D. W. Griffith, was one of the first American auteurs of cinema, initiating techniques such as the split screen and the use of sound. She also introduced into cinema controversial topics and social issues such as poverty, political corruption, and even birth control and abortion. She is still, arguably, the most influential American female film director, even though she died in 1939.

I’m sure there are times when you read movie reviews and mean to get around to watching the film, but aren’t sure whether it’s on one of the steaming services you’re signed up for or whether the DVD is at the library...but fortunately you can watch this film on Youtube. Why not watch it right now before you read the review.

Hypocrites opens with a strange introduction of characters and a naked woman standing before “The Gates of Truth,” before the film moves to a church, where a pastor is preaching a sermon from an elevated pulpit. His text, on hypocrisy, is Matthew 23:28: “Even so ye outwardly appear righteous unto men, but within ye are full of hypocrisy and iniquity.”  

As he goes on about the Scribes and Pharisees, we see the congregation not giving rapt attention. Some people are chatting in the pews. Others are nodding off to sleep. There is even giggling in the choir loft as one young man reads a disreputable newspaper barely concealed. It does seem like a time and place where everyone felt obligated to be at church, whether they wanted to or not.

After the service people shake hands with the pastor telling him “Great sermon this morning!” That's what they say to the minister’s face. We also see a group of men in top hats with a different opinion. One of the men says, “Ask for his resignation, but keep my name out of it.”

The pastor talks to the man who was reading the newspaper in the choir loft, taking the newspaper away from him. The pastor is obviously distraught by the state of the congregation. One woman was obviously moved by the service and is on her knees praying in the sanctuary.

After everyone has left, the pastor sits down to look at the newspaper. The headline reads “Why the Truth Has Startled Wicked Paris,” and it has a sidebar with a quote from John Milton, “Hypocrisy is the only evil that walks invisible except to God alone.” So you have to appreciate that the guy brought a newspaper that was relevant to the topic of the sermon. He was taking the multimedia approach to sermons long before it was fashionable.

Then the pastor then falls asleep and dreams. He’s leading his congregants up a mountain path, but one man decides it’s too difficult. A family leaves because they can’t force the child to move up. Another man can’t carry his gold up the hill. Another doesn’t want to get his clothes dirty. “The Broad Road or the Narrow Way” reads a title card. For a time, a couple of women do follow him (including the woman who was praying after the service), but then the pastor is alone.

He makes it to the top of the mountain where he sees a beautiful valley with a river. And then he has fleeting glimpses of the naked woman from the film’s opening (a title card reads, “Truth is ever elusive”). The pastor eventually catches up with the woman and says, “Since my people won’t come to you, come to my people.”

We see what seems to be a dream within a dream as the pastor finds himself in the Middle Ages as Gabriel the Ascetic. He is part of what seems a rather jolly monastery, and he's a monk among monks. “With prayers and fasting he found the Truth,” reads a card. He’s working on a project, and his Abbot tells him he should present his project on “Fete Day.”

On Fete Day, the monks join with the nuns and the people of the town for eating, drinking, and merrymaking. Everyone gathers to see the Abbot reveal the work of Gabriel. He pulls a curtain off the work to reveal a statue of the naked woman. A title card reads,“The people are shocked by the nakedness of Truth.” Through a few men laugh, most everyone else flees. But a crowd attacks the Monk Gabriel, killing him. The statue vanishes.

But the Naked Woman, Truth, goes about the world holding her mirror to various aspects of society. She holds it to Politics to reveal corruption. She hold it to Society and is told, “Truth is welcome if clothed in our ideas.” She holds it to love, and we see unfaithfulness.

When the dream ends, we see the pastor is dead on the floor of his church. We see another newspaper with a headline, “Prominent Minister Expires in Church” with a subhead, “After preaching sermon on hypocrisy, it was unfortunate he was found with a Sunday newspaper in his hands.” Yes, that was the makings of an ecclesiastical scandal at that time, clergy stained with newsprint on the Sabbath.

Though he apparently wasn't a great communicator, we at Movie Churches still appreciate that this pastor sought after truth and was a dreamer. So we’re giving him 3 steeples.

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Surprising Silence

“Preach the Gospel at all times and if necessary use words,”  is a quote often attributed to Saint Francis of Assisi, but sadly, there is no evidence that he actually said such a thing. Utterly bogus. Maybe he mimed it or acted it out in the first ever youth group round of Charades. It would be very meta if he conveyed this thought nonverbally.

This month at Movie Churches, I’ll be writing about films that don’t use a lot of words -- silent films. There are words, of course, but they’re displayed on title cards rather than spoken aloud, so there are fewer of them.  Another interesting aspect of these films made in the teens and twenties is they were made before the Hays Code (the system by which Hollywood censored its own films to keep the government from censoring them).

These films often address issues of sexuality and religious hypocrisy that you might not imagine Hollywood addressing prior to the 1960’s. You can see the contrast of pre Code and Code films clearly in the work of Cecil B. DeMille. Those of us who grew up watching DeMille’s The Ten Commandments on ABC every Easter think of him as a conservative, perhaps religious, filmmaker. Back in the silent era, pre-Code, DeMille was criticized by the Catholic Church and other religious organization for making films that featured violence, orgies, and nudity -- but he still presented Biblical history and themes in a chiefly positive light, in such films as The Ten Commandments (1923), The King of Kings (1927), and The Sign of the Cross (1932, a pre-Code talkie).

This month will be very quiet in Movie Churches as we look back on how the church was presented in films around a century ago.

(Special thanks to Michael Gibert for suggustions for Silent Movie Churches this month. He usually writes about food, but the man knows his film as well.)