Monday, March 1, 2021

There Ain't Nothin' Like a Dane

Van Morrison sang, “Want a Danish?” but we don’t have to ask.

We know that everyone here at Movie Churches wants posts about the great Danish director, Carl Theodor Dreyer. Born in Copenhagen in 1889, he began his career in silent films in 1913 writing title cards for Nordisk Film and went on as a scriptwriter and editor. He directed his first film in 1919 and kept directing for 45 years. (He was unable to get financing for what would have been his final film, from his own script, about the life of Jesus.) Dreyer died in 1968 in the city where he was born.

His films are known for their “stately” (i.e., slow) pacing and emotional austerity (i.e. dry), but they are also critically acclaimed. He explored such themes as social intolerance, the inevitability of death, and the power of evil in the world. Just the kind of escapist fun we’ve come to expect from Scandinavia. Best of all (as far as we’re concerned) his films often feature churches and clergy, and that’s really all we care about around this blog.

We will be watching the films of Dreyer this month, but here’s a look back at his most acclaimed film (which was featured in Maid of Orleans Month) The Passion of Joan of Arc -

Thursday, February 25, 2021

Dirty Gertie and The Blood of Jesus

Dirty Gertie from Harlem U.S.A.
(1946) and The Blood of Jesus (1941)
Some topic or other is always trending in movie-making. In 1997, there were two volcano films (Volcano and Dante’s Peak). In 1998 there were two giant asteroid films (Armageddon and Deep Impact). Also in 1998, there were two films about talking ants (A Bug’s Life and Antz). The 1940s, for some reason (perhaps because it was a real conflict in the African American community), had quite a number of films about churches at odds with jazz clubs. Last week we looked at two such films, Sunday Sinners (1940) and Go Down Death! (1944). This week we have two more. 

In 1991, The Blood of Jesus was the first race film added to the U.S. National Film Registry. It was written and directed by Spencer Williams (who also directed Dirty Gertie, as well as last week’s Go Down Death!) and Williams took a starring role as well. The film opens with a baptism: Martha Ann (Cathryn Caviness) going down to the river singing “Good News” and “Amazing Grace” and marching with fellow congregants. A voice-over talks about a time “when the Ten Commandments was the law of all the countries of the earth....When people prayed on their knees rather than preying on their neighbors.” (I doubt there ever was such a time, but maybe that’s just me). The pastor (the Rev. R. L. Richardson) baptizes Martha Ann.

Martha Ann’s husband, Razz (Williams), is not at the baptism. He claims he was out hunting, but actually, he was poaching a neighbor’s pig. Martha Ann is a new believer and the couple have been married only three months. She encourages her husband, “Why don’t you try to pray and get religion? We would be so much happier if you would.” 

“Alright, I’ll try,” Razz tells her. 

But before Razz gets to try, he accidentally shoots Martha Ann with his rifle. She isn’t taken to a hospital, no doctor comes to look after her, but the sisters from her church immediately come to her bedside, singing “Sweet Chariot.” A woman from the church tries to assure Razz, saying, “If it’s the Lord’s will for her to stay, she’ll stay, If it’s the Lord’s will for her to go, she’ll go.” This same sister prays for Martha Ann’s healing, “She is a new sister, she hasn’t had a chance to strap on her sword and fight.”

Razz listens in on the prayer as the woman prays, “Make Brother Jackson see the light! Come down and make Martha Ann well again.” Razz prays by her side.

Most of the rest of the film seems to be a dream or a vision. An angel comes down to Martha Ann who seems to leave her body. She is taken to a crossroads where she must choose the pass toward heaven or hell.

The devil sends a man named Judas to tempt her, then he laughs maniacally. Judas takes her to a nightclub where we hear singing and some quite acrobatic dancing. So, nightclubs seem to be a stop on the way to hell.

Martha Ann eventually realizes she must leave the club and goes back to the crossroads -- which we now see is the cross of Jesus. She falls in front of the cross and the blood of Jesus falls upon her.

Back in her bed, we see Martha Ann open her eyes. All the people from her church, are still surrounding her bed, and they all celebrate, somehow now sure Martha Ann is well. Martha and Razz embrace, ready now to live a godly life together. (And one assumes, never will they go to another nightclub or juke joint.)

Our final race film of the month, Dirty Gertie from Harlem, U.S.A., takes the side of the entertainers in the battle between churches and nightclubs. This film is an uncredited take on Somerset Maugham’s short story, “Rain” which had three direct adaptations (in 1928, Sadie Thompson, in 1932, Rain, and in 1953, Miss Sadie Thompson).

Gertie LaRue (Francine Everett) is a big-time New York entertainer who comes to the small tropical island of “Rinidad.” A large crowd awaits her arrival at the Paradise Hotel, and the manager gives her the honeymoon suite. Her cast and crew take up most of the other rooms in the house -- much to the annoyance of missionaries just arrived on the island, the Reverend Jonathan Christian (Alfred Hawkins) and his assistant, Ezra Crumm (David Boykin). On their arrival, they're given inferior rooms.

The preacher was already in a sour mood. “The nerve of that inspector going through our luggage.” He was on the same boat as Gertie, but delays in customs made him later to the hotel. He complains to the manager about their accommodations, “You gave us the worst rooms in the house. If we are going to teach these people about sin, we need to be comfortable. That woman [Gertie] is a painted-up trollop, a Jezebel. Why do those show folks have all the good rooms?”

Christian tells Ezra he is convinced Gertie will lead the people of the island astray, but he believes he might be able to turn her around if he talks to her alone. The missionary finds his chance when Gertie returns to the hotel late at night (or early in the morning) with a soldier and a sailor (she calls them “Big Boy” and “Tight Pants”). She flirts shamelessly with the men but sends them off and enters the hotel alone.

Christian berates her, “The Lord would be shocked to hear you talk like that! The Lord wants you to give your life to him because the wages of sin is death!”

Gertie will have none of it, “You dirty Psalm singing polecat, you want me like all the rest!” She returns to her room and tells her maid, “I hate that reformer.” But she's told the minister could cause trouble, perhaps sending her back to Harlem.

At breakfast, Ezra tells his boss, “I’m worried about you! You didn’t sleep and you haven’t touched your breakfast.”

“Ezra, I’m going to see the governor and have him send this woman and her cheap trash off the island! They will not perform tonight!” Christian rushes off, and Ezra happily eats Christian's breakfast -- he's finished his own.

He first approaches the manager of the hotel who is putting on Gertie’s show, “I’m giving you a chance to close this show and send all those devil mongers off the island.” The manager assures him the show will go on. Christian goes to see the governor who also refuses to close the show.

Christian tells Ezra of the governor’s decision and Ezra calls him a wicked man. But he asks Christian whether he should perhaps go to the show. "Otherwise, I won’t know an awful, sinful thing it is.” 

Christian tells him that’s a bad idea. He says, “I must commune with God in secret!” So he goes to his room and prays rather loudly. He asks, “Lord, what should I do with this temptress of men?” He becomes convinced that God is telling him to sneak into Gertie’s show.

So Christian and Ezra both sneak into the show, separately. The show starts with showgirls who are frankly quite modestly dressed in floor-length dresses. A couple of men join them and dance competent softshoe, while the showgirls gesture incompetently behind them.

Gertie then comes out, in an ankle-length dress and a bare midriff. She begins to pull off her gloves which is just too much for Christian. The missionary rushes the stage, comparing himself to Jesus clearing the temple, and slaps Gertie in the face. Mayhem ensues, and the show stops. His mission was accomplished! There's no way for the show to go on that night.

As a matter of fact, the show doesn’t go on at all. After she's returned to her hotel room, Gertie’s lover comes to the island from Harlem and shoots Gertie dead. 

So what kind of steeple ratings will these two films get? The congregation of The Blood of Jesus gets Four Steeples for being there for Martha Ann and Razz when they were needed most.

Christian and Ezra, on the other hand, get a measly Two Steeples for being creepy and selfish.

Thursday, February 18, 2021

Race Films Double Feature

Go Down Death!
(1944) & Sunday Sinners (1940)

The confrontation in today's today's two films is classic: congregation vs. juke joint, church vs. jazz club. It does make sense. These two institutions are central in African American culture of the middle part of the twentieth century, and at times they would certainly be at odds. The central conflict in both films is between a club that's breaking the Sabbath and a Reverend who condemns the practice -- probably not an uncommon conflict when these films were made. Since the Civil War and Reconstruction, churches had played a central role in African American life, not only in the area of faith but also of community and social life. But as ragtime, blues, and jazz grew as musical forms, clubs to celebrate those forms grew as well and began to compete with the church for a role in the hearts and minds of many.

Go Down Death! opens with a rather solemn title card: “Alfred N. Sack Reverently Presents Go Down Death! A Harlemwood Studios Production - This Story of Love and Simple Faith and the Triumph of Good over Evil was inspired by the Poem “Go Down, Death!” from the Pen of Celebrated Negro Author James Weldon Johnson, Now of Sainted Memory” with the hymn “Holy, Holy, Holy” playing as the soundtrack.

We then see a club with drinking and dancing and women wearing slacks (it stops short of dogs and cats living together). The owner of the club, Big Jim Bottoms, is outraged by the new preacher in town who has condemned his club for being open on Sundays. Big Jim is played by Spencer Williams, who is also the film’s director. Williams directed a number of films, some with religious themes such as The Blood of Jesus and entertainments like Juke Joint. But he is most famous for Andy in the controversial television program, Amos & Andy. (The show was controversial for propagating black stereotypes, but the radio version may have been worse with Caucasians playing the African American roles.) In Go Down Death!, the club scenes feature some quite good singing and dancing (one woman seems to perform a moonwalk decades before Michael Jackson).

Then we see the Reverend Jasper (Samuel H. James) as he preaches before his congregation. He reads Psalm 1 and then briefly exposits on the text, “To be godly, one must be God-like, pure in heart, the very essence of Christ’s message.” (He does what many of my seminary profs urged, find a way to preach Jesus, even in Old Testament texts.) Little did the Reverend know that three women in the congregation were sent by Big Jim to catch the pastor in a compromising situation. The attractive young women go to the Pastor’s private study after the service.

Minnie, Mable, and Lady ask the pastor, “How might we go about being converted?” The pastor quotes passages from the Sermon on the Mount and Romans 6, urging the women to trust in Jesus. The women claim they want to hear more and ask the pastor to come with them to their apartment. Unwisely, the pastor follows them. He gives them each a New Testament and says, “If you read and ingest this much of the wholly Scriptures it will do you good.” Then the women break out alcohol, one of the women kisses the pastor on his lips, just as photographers come out from behind the curtains and take incriminating pictures.

The pastor considers resigning because of the pictures. He doesn’t trust his congregation to take his word that he is innocent. Sadly, in the news recently we have been reading about pastors who committed sexual sin but were believed when they denied the charges, so it is difficult to know what the right call for the pastor would be.

But Aunt Caroline, Big Jim’s adoptive mother, attends Pastor Jasper’s church. Her dead husband appears to her and shows her where to find the phony blackmail photos. The ghost of her husband opens Big Jim’s safe and Caroline takes the pictures. (I will not even attempt to deal with the theological implications of this spectral aid.) When Big Jim finds Caroline with pictures, he takes the pictures back, killing her in the process.

The Reverend Jasper performs Caroline’s service saying, “Weep not, she is not dead, she is resting in the arms of Jesus. Heartbroken son, weep no more. Grief-stricken niece, weep no more… She has gone to heaven. God looked at Sister Caroline tossed with pain, and God commanded that tall white angel called Death to reach down to her.” (I have a problem with pastors discouraging people from expressing their very real grief.)

The pastor went on to give a title drop, “Go down, Death! Death came on his white horse while we were watching round her bed. She saw old death coming like a falling star, but death didn’t fight Sister Caroline, he looked to her like an old friend.” This wasn't the approach taken by Jesus when He wept for his friend, Lazarus, or Paul who referred in Death in I Cor. 15:26 as “the last enemy”.

After this sermon, Big Jim is racked with guilt, hearing voices that accuse him of his crimes. He has visions of hell and runs. When he is found dead in a box canyon, Rev. Jasper says, "May God have mercy on his soul."

Sunday Sinners
has much in common with Go Down Death, including some very good small-scale musical numbers. Even the church choir in the film is very talented. It also shares the same basic conflict of a pastor opposing the depravity of club life.

As the film begins, the pastor, the Rev. Jesse Hampton (Earl Sydnor), is trying to build his attendance, “We can’t run a church without a congregation.” So he comes up with a strategy, “I’m going to direct my next sermon toward those cafe people. It might do some good.” The pastor also tries to encourage young people to come, opening a fitness center. “That’s our youngsters. The future of our church, our race! It is our duty to cry out against the evils of the city. The Cafe People are leading our youth astray.”

The pastor is particularly upset that the local cafe has scheduled the “Monster Dance Contest” on a Sunday, so he visits the cafe to see what’s going on. When his church board learns that he was at the cafe, and witnessed women dancing in skimpy clothing, they are not pleased.

Even worse for the pastor, his son, Ray (Ernie Ransom), gets a job at the cafe. He becomes involved with some nefarious characters and is accused of murder. The church threatens to fire the pastor.

The pastor decides to take the offensive. He leads his congregation from the church to the cafe. He ends up starting a fistfight between his congregation and the staff of the cafe (the pastor is very much involved in the fight). The cafe owner's wife shoots into the crowd, injuring a woman (not seriously). The police come, and for some reason are harsher with cafe staff than the church folks that came and started the fight.

And yet, somehow, this all resolves for the best. The pastor assures the cafe owner, “Our church isn’t against dancing, we just don’t want dances on Sunday nights.” So the owner agrees to close on Sundays. And all is swell.

Still, I just can’t support the Rev. Hampton’s policy of violence for community action. I am much more supportive of Rev. Jasper’s humble spirit. But jointly, the pastors and their churches achieve a meager Two Steeple average in our Movie Churches ratings.

Thursday, February 11, 2021

Race Month: Hell-Bound Train

Hell-Bound Train

You often see the Devil depicted in cartoons in red tights, holding a pitchfork, sitting on the shoulder of Donald or Daffy Duck. Those images of Satan are downright nuanced and sophisticated compared to the Prince of Darkness in the 1930 silent feature, Hell-Bound Train.

Hell-Bound Train was the creation of James and Eloyce Gist, African American evangelists who never intended their work to be seen in such a questionable, disreputable place as a movie house. It was intended to be shown in churches. The couple traveled from town to town, revival to revival, using the film to warn about the wages of sin. Theirs was the only print of the film, so it is rather surprising that preservationists have managed to present as decent a print as is now available. The original print was stored in the Library of Congress and much work went into its restoration.

There isn’t a lot of what we expect to find in a feature film. There are no credits at the beginning or end of the film. There isn’t much in the way of a plot. We first see the Devil (in a costume that would probably come in last in a Halloween contest) offering all who are interested free admission to the Hellbound Train -- “Just Give Your Life and Soul,” as the ticket reads. Plenty of folks take up his offer to ride his train.

The first car of the train features dancing, and a title card informs the audience, “dancing is indecent." Bootleggers are honored guests in the car, and women are encouraged to drink. The second car has drunkards. The third car is a Jazz Club (a title card warns that such music destroys the minds of innocent children). The next car has thieves, crooks, and pickpockets. Another coach represents immorality. There even is a car for boys who “mistreat dumb animals.”

We see scenes of sinful behavior on each of these cars, all followed by the Devil dancing and exclaiming, “How my heart does rejoice!”

The last car of the train is for “Backsliders and hypocrites who used to be church members!” We see a young man actually sleeping in his own bed rather than going to church! A card warns, “Some people serve God when in town but as soon as they get on their feet, it’s back to the devil.” We also see a man who claims, “I don’t drink, I treat everybody right, I pay my debts, even if I haven’t repented or joined a church. I am as good as some of those in church.” 

But a good preacher warns, “Poor boy, he’ll regret it someday,” because the man is also a passenger on the Hellbound Train.

That last car on the train also carries “False preachers who will get together with church officers and steal the church’s money. Often they walk hand and hand with the devil. While righteous preachers carry the program of Jesus Christ.”

We then see good people going to church as opposed to those passengers on the Hellbound Train. (A title card provides something of a non-sequitur: “While some serve God on the Sabbath, others worship automobiles.”) We read that the good, churchgoing folks follow II Cor. 6:17, “Therefore come out from among them and be separate.”

We then learn the fate of those who ride the Hellbound Train. As the train comes down the tracks a sign reads, “Entrance to Hell -- Welcomes to All” and the train jumps the tracks and bursts into flames. (It looks a lot like a model train being thrown off its track and burned, but effects aren’t cheap.)

A title card warns. “Get off the train by repenting, believing, and being baptized before it is too late!”

So what Movie Churches rating should we give? Though there were good and bad preachers in the film, this week I believe we will give some other clergy the Steeple rating. The filmmaking evangelists James and Eloyce Gist certainly deserve a lot of credit for pioneering this innovation in ministry. 

Cinema historians point to the Gists as important trailblazers for African Americans. On the other hand, the content of the film is simplistic and legalistic. It is interesting that Eloyce wasn’t strictly a Christian, but a practitioner of the Baha’i religion. Baha'is teach that every religion has value, which is why, I suppose, she was willing to support her husband James’ advocacy of fundamentalist Christianity. We'll give the Gists a generous Movie Churches rating of Three Steeples (weighing the Movie portion of things more than the Church portion).

(You owe it to yourself to get a glimpse of this unique film. You may look at a Youtube clip here.)

Thursday, February 4, 2021

Race Month: Within Our Gates

Within Our Gates

In 1915 D. W. Griffith made an innovative film, a landmark achievement in cinema. In what can only be called Griffith’s masterpiece, he pioneered a variety of techniques that would become standard in filmmaking such as close-ups, tracking shots, parallel action sequences, and cross-cutting. It was a financial blockbuster, and some argue that if inflation is taken into account, it still may be the most profitable film ever made. 

This film, The Birth of a Nation, had the support of Woodrow Wilson, the President of the United States, who chose it as the first film to be screened in the White House. The Democrat president is said to have described the film as “like writing history in lightning.” (Wilson had another connection to the film -- the book the film was based on, The Clansman by Thomas Dixon Jr., was dedicated to Wilson.)

Sadly, this undeniably accomplished work of cinema was made in the service of a story that ridiculed all African Americans as stupid, lustful, and dangerous. It celebrated the Ku Klux Klan, even glorifying murderous lynching.

Through the years, African American filmmakers have rightfully responded to this racist classic with films of their own.  Nate Parker used the same title, The Birth of a Nation, for his 2016 work about Nat Turner’s slave revolt, and Spike Lee used excerpts from the  1915 film for his 2018 docudrama, BlacKKKlansman.

But long before either of these films were made, a pioneering filmmaker, Oscar Micheaux, responded to The Birth of a Nation with his 1920 film, Within Our Gates

Oscar Micheaux

Micheaux was a pioneer in almost every sense of the word. Born in Illinois, son of a former slave, he moved to South Dakota during his twenties to become a farmer and homesteader. These life experiences led him to become a writer and eventually a filmmaker. His first film, The Homesteader (which he directed and wrote based on his own novel, The Conquest) was based on his experiences in the West. It even featured a prominent role for a minister -- so we at Movie Churches would love to write about it -- but sadly. the film has been lost. No prints of the film have been preserved.

In fact, today's film, Within Our Gates, is the oldest existing "race film" made by African Americans and featuring African Americans. It was almost lost as well until a print was found in Spain. The original title cards were lost, so preservationists needed to translate the Spanish cards into English (leaving out some of the cards which provided the cultural context of American life.)

It was Oscar Micheaux’s second film, and it's a harsh critique of American racism and particularly lynching. Within Our Gates even opens with a rather sarcastic title card, “At the opening of our drama, we find our characters in the North, where the prejudices and hatreds of the South do not exist -- though this does not prevent the occasional lynching of a Negro.”

It tells the story of Sylvia Landry (Evelyn Preer, or as the opening credits read, “the renowned Negro artist Evelyn Preer”), a woman who leaves the perils of living in the South to be with her cousin Alma in the North. But her cousin betrays her, and Sylvia returns to the South. There she meets the Reverend Wilson Jacobs, principal of Piney Woods School and “founder of the school and apostle of education for the black race.”

There certainly are challenges to running the school. A title card informs us that Piney Woods School is in a “land where lynching reigns supreme.” Wilson takes in all black students, even though most can’t pay the fees for the school. The pastor admits, “The colored people who live here are too poor to help us.” He tells Sylvia that the state pays “$1.49 a year to educate each Negro child.”

Sylvia decides to help Jacobs and his school, saying, “It is my duty and the duty of each member of our race to help destroy ignorance and superstition. I am going up north where I’ll try to raise the money we need. May God be with us!” This makes the Reverend slam his fist on his desk and shake her hand.

In the North we see Dr. V. Vivian (Charles Lucas) reading a copy of The Literary Digest with Teddy Roosevelt on the cover. An article in the digest reads, “Rev. Thurston has begun an active campaign for the education of the black race. He asks that the federal government contribute significantly so that Negro children in all of the United States can receive proper instruction. He called on senators and congressmen…”

This doctor meets Sylvia and comes to her aid when she's the victim of a purse snatching. Sylvia meets Elena Warwick, a wealthy, white philanthropist who is willing to contribute to the Piney Woods School until her friend, another rich woman named Geraldine Stratton (Bernice Ladd) tells Miss Warwick she would be wasting her money. Mrs. Stratton says educating "blacks, lumberjacks, and fieldhands" would be a mistake, because "it would only give them a headache. Send the money to Old Ned, the best colored preacher in the world who will do more to keep them in their place.”

We see Old Ned in the pulpit. He preaches, “The text of my sermon this morning will be ‘Abraham and the Fatted Calf.’ Behold I foresee the black people will be first and the whites will be the last. While the white people with all their schooling and wealth and education won’t make it to heaven. While our race, lacking these vices and whose souls are more pure, most all will ascend to Heaven! Hallelujah!” Those in the congregation that aren’t asleep, nod in agreement.

Old Ned then takes his offering, “And now my brethren and sisteren, I request a small contribution. But before acceptin’ your offering, I want to relate a deplorable instance that happened while we was in intimate conversation with our Lord. Somebody has stolen money from our offering plate. I will not dispute the matter, but whoever took it, must give it back!” A number of men come forward and put money in the plate.

In the next scene, we see Old Ned visit a small group of rich white men. One says to him, “Listen here, Uncle Ned, you’re a good ol’ colored man. What do you make of this?” He shows Ned a newspaper article. 

“It’s about the Negroes’ right to vote. We are all in favor of your people -- but we can’t be havin’ Negroes voting." 

“Y’all knows what I always preach," Old Ned says. "This is a land for the white man and black folk got to know their place. Let the white man go to Hell with his politics, wealth, and sins. Give me Jesus!”

The white men clap. “Leave it to me, gen’men, I always preach that vices and sins of the white folk will end them in Hell. When the Judgement Day comes, more Negroes than whites will rise up to Heaven.”  Ned concludes. One of the men kicks Old Ned on the seat of his pants, and Ned laughs and says, “White people is mighty fine!”

But when we see Old Ned alone, he’s saying something quite different, “Again I’ve sold my birthright. All for a miserable ‘mess of pottage.’ Negroes and whites -- all are equal. As for me, miserable sinner, Hell is my destiny.”

Back in his office, Dr. Sydney is reading, “The Negro is a human being. His nature is not different from other human nature. Thus, we must recognize his rights as a human being, this is the teaching of Christianity.”

Sylvia raised money for the school, and she finds romance. And we learn something about her history. Her black adoptive parents were lynched in the South, and she was nearly raped by a white man. The film clearly inverts the good guys and the bad guys from The Birth of a Nation.

But here at Movie Churches, we're here to look at churches and clergy. Though the Reverend Jacobs has noble goals of education, he’s rather a wimp and would be hopeless without the help of Sylvia. Old Ned is a much sadder case, telling his people to give up hoping for anything good in this world and wait for the sweet by and by. That's quite different from the gospel of Jesus. Jesus promises heaven to come, but there's work in this world as well: “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because He has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor, He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free.” This is closer to Rev. Jacobs, and the polar opposite of the “gospel” of Old Ned.

I was impressed with the bold nature of Oscar Micheaux’s work, but the pastors in his film average out to a meager Movie Churches rating of Two Steeples.

Monday, February 1, 2021

Race Films that aren't about Track and Field

The first African Americans portrayed in movies were often not African Americans: films made to present minstrel shows usually used white actors in blackface. Even though the Edison Company demonstrated the Kinetoscope in 1891 and the Lumiere Brothers started charging audiences for their presentations in Paris in 1895, it wasn’t until 1909 that we’re sure that African Americans appeared on film -- in a comedy series titled Sambo. The first mainstream film starring an African American was 1914's production of Uncle Tom's Cabin with Sam Lucas as Uncle Tom. His casting in that role is the exception to the rule that African Americans were rarely seen on screen.

Black artists and business people saw an opportunity to change that, and in 1915, the Lincoln Motion Picture Company in Nebraska, the Ebony Film Company in Chicago, and Norman Studios in Jacksonville made films featuring African American actors, often with African American crews. These companies were the beginning of a film industry that -- for decades -- ran parallel to the Hollywood film industry. Between 1915 and 1952, nearly 500 of what were called race films were produced. These films were targeted primarily, usually exclusively, to African American audiences.

Fortunately for Movie Churches, these films often had religious and ecclesiastical themes. Some films were made by believers for the purpose of evangelism, but even when they were not, many African American films featured the church and clergy because of the dominant role the church played in African American communities.

So this month at Movie Churches we will be looking at films made during this period, specifically, films made in 1920, 1930, 1940, 1945, and 1946. Sadly, many race films were not preserved, especially films from the silent period (but as you might note, we’ll look at one of ‘em). These are interesting films as far as film history goes, but even more interesting for our purposes is the glimpse they provide into how clergy were viewed in the African American community.

These films were usually made on the cheap and, to modern eyes and ears, they look and sound like it. But without these films, we might never have had such likely Oscar contenders as last year’s Soul, Judas and the Black Messiah, Da 5 Bloods, and Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom -- all produced by the major studios.

We'll begin Race Film Month on Friday with a silent film that was a response to D. W. Griffith’s racist blockbuster, The Birth of a Nation.

Thursday, January 28, 2021

Final Blow to Brit Film Month

Final Prayer
aka The Borderlands

This last entry in British Film Month falls in the specific, rather limited, genre of “found footage,” films that pretend all the film's footage was amateur video or film discovered after the events that make the story. The Connection, a film about a group of junkies waiting for their dealer (directed by Shirley Clarke in 1961) is thought to be the first such film. The first widely popular found footage film was 1999’s The Blair Witch Project which was made for $60,000 and grossed $140,500,00. Part of its success came through instilling the viewer with the belief that it was a documentary of real events. Many horror films have followed in the Blair Witch tradition, and Final Prayer (with the alternative title of The Borderlands) is one of them.

The film opens in a church that has obviously gone through some kind of disaster, torn apart and thrashed. A man cries out, “They’re all gone!” Those picking through the rubble find video cameras and a satchel with tapes.

Those tapes provide the rest of the film, which tells the story of a group of Vatican investigators sent to research an alleged miracle. The team consists of Gray (Robin Hill), a videographer who isn’t even a believer; Mark (Adian McArdle), a stuffy Vatican official; and Deacon (Gordon Kennedy), a veteran of miracle investigations with a dark secret.

Gray insists the team wear mini cameras and microphones, and Deacon is not thrilled with the idea. He might not want the camera capturing and reporting to the Vatican the large stash of booze he brought to their lodgings.

When Deacon and Gray go into town, Gray is quite condescending to the locals. Deacon asks a man, “Can you tell us where the church is?” 

When the man doesn’t answer quickly, Gray says, “You know, the building with the spire on top? God’s house?”

Once they find the church, they hear a rather bizarre sermon from the local priest, Father Crellick (Luke Neal). “In the year 700, a monk encountered the actual presence of Jesus Christ. The bread and wine were transformed into actual flesh and blood.”

Crellick, in standard priest’s garb, is surprised by Gray and Deacon’s casual dress, saying, “I thought I’d be underdressed.” 

Deacon responds rather self-righteously, “We are dressed in humility because God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.”

The priest shows the investigators where “it” happened. He then shows them a video of a christening he performed, in which his nose begins to bleed, then the cup and bread on the altar begin to shake and fly off the table to the ground. It is rather baffling to see why anyone would consider this odd event a miracle of God, but the team is there to investigate.

Gray asks Deacon, “What happens if we find something?” 

Deacon answers, “We report it and move on. Very few things are reported as miracles.” 

“You’re saying that was fake?” Gray asks. Deacon says, “Yes.”

Gray brings up Deacon’s past investigations, “That girl in Brighton, with the stigmata, you can’t fake that…” 

Deacon answers, “Fake, and not a very good one. Her mother cut her hands and feet every day for ten weeks. The girl got septicemia and died. And the mother said, ‘Now you can make my daughter a saint.’”

Mark proposes the theory that the objects that moved in the church were disturbed by vibrations of a speaker planted under the table or somewhere else in the church. The team begins to search the building for evidence of fakery.

During their search, Deacon comes across Dr. Pritchard Mandeville's journal. The priest wrote in the 1800s that the Lord appeared to him and told him to open an orphanage. As Deacon reads through the journal, he becomes convinced that Mandeville went mad. He wrote about an ancient god from the pre-Christian era who lived under the church. There are indications in the journal that Mandeville sacrificed children from the orphanage to that god. Mandeville’s final journal entry diary reads, “I beseech you, readers, leave this place. He who lives beneath has a hunger for more. I understand the orphanage now.”

The investigative team begins to hear odd sounds: the cries of children and sinister laughter. The people of the village begin to turn on the team and have whispered conversations about this other god.

Gray asks Deacon, “Do you feel a presence in the church?”

Deacon answers, “Well, it is a church.”

Father Crellick is upset that the team seems to be working against him, “You don’t believe in my miracle, do you? I prayed for you to come, but if this is not a miracle, if this is not the hand of God…” And just then a large crucifix in the church falls from a wall to the floor, and the image of Christ smashes to pieces.

Father Crellick does not deal with these incidents well, but climbs to the roof of the church, diving off, and committing suicide. Deacon gives the last rights to Crellick, though he says, “The souls of those in a state of mortal sin descend into hell.”

The team comes to believe that the supernatural is at work in the church, but not necessarily the work of God. They call in Father Calvino (Patrick Godfrey), an expert on exorcism, to do his stuff. Not surprisingly, considering the shape of the church as we saw it at the beginning of the film, all hell breaks loose and everything takes a dark turn for the team from the Vatican.

Considering that at least two priests in the film turn to work for the forces of evil rather than for God and that the other priests are absolutely impotent in opposing evil, I’m giving this Hellmouth of a church (and these incompetent priests) our lowest Movie Church rating of one steeple out of four.

Thursday, January 21, 2021

Brit Month suffers a near-mortal blow: Death at a Funeral

Death at a Funeral

We’ve dealt with originals and remakes before here at Movie Churches. One of the earliest (and still most popular) of our posts featured both The Bishop’s Wife (1947) and its remake The Preacher’s Wife (1996). Conversely, we used two posts for the two versions of Footloose (the 1984 version during ‘80’s Month and the 2011 version during Rebellious Teens Month.) Still, it is rather awkward to be getting to the original version of Death at a Funeral (the remake was featured last year in Comedy Month) this week in Brit Month.

The films are amazingly similar, screenplays by the same writer (Dean Craig) and filmed just three years apart. But watching the original film, I realized I had misread a joke and wrote with complete obliviousness when I wrote about it in the remake. I’ll save that embarrassing admission for the end of this post.

The original version was directed by Frank Oz (Yoda himself) and was set in England (obviously -- this is Brit month, after all). Matthew MacFayden (Daniel) stars as the son of the subject of the funeral. Keeley Hawes (Jane) plays Daniel’s wife and Rupert Graves (Robert) his brother. Two actors in this British film would return for the American remake as the same characters: Alan Tudyk (Simon) as the guest who accidentally consumes hallucinogenics and disrupts the funeral and Peter Dinklage (Peter) as the secret lover of the deceased who appears at the funeral to blackmail the family.

But what matters here, of course, is the relatively minor role played by Thomas Wheatley as the Anglican Priest, the Reverend Davidson. We first see the minister as he approaches the sons of the deceased and one of them uses the Lord’s name in vain. The priest quite obviously hears this and pretends not to have heard. (This is a set-up for a joke later in the film. When the priest is concerned about being late, he looks at his watch and loudly exclaims, “Christ!” This will certainly be a mark against when the Movie Church Steeple Rating is issued.)

He is quite impressed to be meeting Robert (a best-selling author) and lets him know he has read several of his novels. He asks Robert if he will be doing the eulogy and when the response is that Daniel will be presenting the eulogy, the priest does not do well at masking his disappointment.

The priest says, “Daniel, I really think we should start calling everyone in. Really, I’m only supposed to be here until 3.” (Maybe it’s just me, but a funeral or memorial really is a time when a clergyperson should make it clear they will be available as long as the family needs.)

A scene played out in both films is when one of Daniel and Robert’s cousin has to distract the priest while a corpse is being moved about. Cousin Howard (Andy Nyman) attempts to talk theology with the priest, “How is God today? God is a funny one isn’t He?” The priest is trying to make an important phone call, so he tries to move past Howard.

Howard tries another approach, “I’d like to become a priest because I’ve watched you today and you are amazing…” (Any priest who would fall for that line of flattery probably be better off in another line of work.) 

“I’m delighted to hear that,” the priest responds.

Howard then asks, “On Sundays, is it true the wine is sweeter, or not?”

“Listen,” the priest says, “We’ll deal with this later on. I need to get to a phone.” (Some of us remember the days when we would have to find phones.)

Howard tries one last ploy, “I have a confession to make, I have thoughts about a pen up me bum.” This certainly drives the priest along.

I’ve put this off long enough. When I wrote about the remake of Death at a Funeral, I wrote that it would be highly unlikely that a priest would use the story of David and Jonathan in a funeral service, that passages such as Psalm 23 or John 11 would be more likely. But the passage is used as a set-up for the revelation that the deceased was gay. In my defense, in the American remake, it seems that the priest doesn’t seem to have known the deceased and so using that story from Scripture is a bizarre choice.

The joke is set up much better in the original film, as the priest introduces the passage in this way, “Family and friends, I’d like to start with a favorite passage of Edward’s.” (It makes much more sense that the passage was the choice of deceased rather than the priest’s.) “It’s from the King James Bible.” (As if the story isn’t found in other translations.) “It’s the First Book of Samuel, chapter 18. ‘Then Jonathan and David made a covenant because he loved him as his own soul. And it came to pass the soul of Jonathan was knit with the soul of David. And Jonathan stripped himself of his robe, and gave it to David and his garments and even to his sword and bow and even to his girdle.’”

I didn’t get the joke the first time around, but I do think Rev. Davidson should have figured this out as well. One of the many reasons the priest earns only Two of Four Movie Church Steeples.

(One final item that will be of interest to perhaps no one. The film concludes with the song “Love Our Time Today" written by Murray Gold. To me, the song sounded an awful lot like the song “Travel Hopefully” by Andrew Lloyd Webber from the musical By Jeeves. Probably the only one interested in this is Webber himself. If you win your suit, Sir Andrew, may I have a percentage?)

Thursday, January 14, 2021

Brit Month: "The Most Exciting Motion Picture Ever Made!"

Odd Man Out

A poster for this film claims it's “The Most Exciting Motion Picture Ever Made!” Admittedly, this was 1947 -- Steven Speilberg was barely a year old and hadn’t gotten around to directing Jaws or Raiders of the Lost Ark, but Hitchcock had done some pretty effective thrillers, Universal had their monsters, and Fritz Lang directed some pretty suspenseful films in Germany and America.

But even if Odd Man Out isn’t all that poster said, it’s still a pretty great film. It was the first film to win the BAFTA Award (the Brit’s Oscar equivalent) for Best British Film. Director Roman Polanski (yes, I know the man has “issues”) often called this his favorite film. But most important for this blog, Odd Man Out has a pretty great priest.

Written by R. C. Sherriff (The Invisible Man) and directed by Carol Reed (The Third Man), Odd Man Out tells the story of Johnny McQueen (James Mason), an Irish revolutionary who has been hiding from the government. He agrees to lead a heist to get money for his organization, the operation goes south, he's shot, and he kills a guard. McQueen has to go on the run alone, forced to depend on strangers and questionable allies along the way.

Many people are looking for McQueen: other Irish nationalists; the police; people wanting to collect the reward on McQueen’s head; and Kathleen (Kathleen Ryan), a woman who loves him. All of them go to Father Tom (W. G. Fay) for help locating him.

A man named Shell (F. J. McCormick) sees McQueen being dumped by a hansom cab. He goes to Father Tom for help in apprehending McQueen and turning him in for a reward. 

The priest tells him, “You foolish man, money won’t make you happy. A thousand pounds would be a terrible burden.” 

Shell protests, “I’m a poor man, I’ve got no money.” 

The Father answers, “I’ll inspire you with faith.” 

Shell objects, “Will faith pay the rent and provide stout?”

Father Tom tells him, "Faith will give you real riches.” And Shell believes him.

Kathleen also goes to persuade Father Tom to tell her if he sees McQueen. She wants to help McQueen escape, but Father Tom won’t go along with that. He says, “I’ll hear his confession and provide him some peace. I’ll encourage him to give himself in, so he doesn’t hurt anyone else… You couldn’t hide him for long. He killed a man and must pay the penalty.” Father Tom worries for McQueen, “When people are in deep troubles they talk to me about killing themselves. But God gives them the courage to win. This trial is nothing but a trial for the life to come.” 

Kathleen is unpersuaded by the priest, “You’re wise father, and good, I know. But my faith is in love."

And when the police ask whether Father Tom knows McQueen and his compatriots he tells them, “I know them all. I taught them as children.” Father Tom says, “I’ve seen the bad in them and I’ve condemned that. But what should we do with the good in them?”

As Father Tom works to bring McQueen in, the injured and delirious fugitive sees Father Tom, his priest from childhood, in a vision. In his vision, he can see but not hear the priest, and McQueen calls out, “Tell me, Father, like you used to tell us. Louder, Father! Speak louder! We’ve always drowned your voice with our shouting, haven’t we, Father? We never really listened to you. We repeated the words without thinking about what they meant. But I remember when I was a boy, ‘When I was a child, I spoke as a child. But when I became a man, I put away childish things. If I have not charity, I am nothing.’”

I can tell you, almost every pastor or priest would be moved to know their words were remembered by those that seemed to be their most hardened parishioners in their final days. And Father Tom is there for McQueen until the end. Therefore we are giving Father Tom our highest movie church rating of Four Steeples.

Thursday, January 7, 2021

Brit Month Continues with H. G. Wells!

The Man Who Could Work Miracles

When people think of H. G. Wells, a writer of history, social commentary, and fiction, they usually think of his science fiction. Those are the works that have stood the test of time, and in the 1930s a couple of pretty great science fiction films came out based on his work: The Invisible Man (1933) and The Island of Lost Souls (1932, based on The Island of Doctor Moreau). This film, however, is based on a Wells fantasy story.

In 1898, the short story “The Man Who Could Work Miracles” was published in The Illustrated London News. The 1936 film, directed by Lothar Mendes and produced by Alexander Korda, has a screenplay co-written by Wells for London Films studio. The movie expands on the short story, bringing a political dimension with a warning against the threats of Communism and Fascism.

It tells the story of George McWhirter Fotheringay (Roland Young), a haberdasher’s assistant living in a small English village who is granted seemingly limitless powers by celestial beings (whether they are angels, gods, or something else is never made clear). Soon after he's given this gift, George argues in a pub that there are no such things as miracles. Then he performs one, turning a lamp upside down without touching it. He finds he can make all kinds of things float in the air, including people.

Out on the street, George attracts the attention of Constable Winch (Wallace Lupino), and the two get into an argument. George tells the police officer to “go to blazes” and we see Constable Winch in Hell. George regrets his action and sends the officer to San Francisco instead.

Maggie (Sophie Stewart), a woman who lives at the same boarding house where George lives, encourages him to see her Baptist minister, Pastor Maydig (Ernest Thesiger). Their landlady argues that he should see the local vicar instead, but George agrees to see Maydig.
The housekeeper at Maydig's house invites him into the parlor. When the minister enters, George says, "I'm told that you give good advice." George explains his newly found power to do “miracles,” virtually anything except force people to act contrary to their free will. 

Maydig responds, “There are no such things as miracles in the present dispensation.”

George makes a tiger appear in the room and then vanish. Maydig calls it a joint illusion. But then he sees paw prints.

Finally, Maydig agrees, “That was a miracle.” Soon, the minister considers the possibilities in their reach, “It’s power. Power! Power!” (sounding like the mad doctor this same actor played in Bride of Frankenstein) “What can you not do? Why not banish illness? Sweep it all away, a new age begins. A new hope for our race.”

George suggests they should consult businessmen about their plan of action, since, for instance, if they provide food and clothes to everyone in the world, Business would cease. 

The minister responds, “What do businessmen know?” He thinks ridding the world of poverty will be good for his business, “There will be conversions, I hope, all over the world. As people are healthy, they will be happy. If they are happy, they will be good.” (This seems to indicate a real lack of insight into human nature on the minister’s part.)

George takes some of the minister’s ideas for miracles. Colonel Winstanley (Ralph Richardson) finds all of the swords in his collections have been turned into plowshares. He goes to the police and asks, What is this Bolshevik thing?” 

The constable replies, “There’s been a serious outbreak of miracles.” 

The Colonel also finds someone has tampered with his bar and wine cellar. He asks his butler whether he turned his wine to water. The Butler answers, “I’d as soon poison a baby as doctor whiskey.”

Maydig and George confess to the Colonel they are responsible for changing his possessions. George says Maydig has been advising him; they plan to end all war. The Colonel says, “If you put an end to war, what are people going to do?”

Maydig answers, “People will go about loving one another. We are on the cusp of the biggest change in the history of the world. We must make them want to be artists. Healthier people are happier people.”

Maydig tells George they must make a plan for a miraculous new world. He asks George to bring together all who teach and preach and they will rule.

But then George begins to see that Maydig himself wants to rule. So George makes himself into the king of the world, and his foolish choices bring about disaster, nearly ending the world. Finally, George turns back time to before all his miracles took place and gives up his power. 

I’m not sure Pastor Maydig would have ever given up such power, so that’s why I’d only give the Baptist minister Two of Four Steeples for our Movie Churches rating.

Wednesday, January 6, 2021

The English Past

Last Friday, Movie Churches began our virtual tour of England with One of Our Aircraft is Missing. Of course, this isn’t our first trip to Blighty and so today we thought we’d pull out the scrapbook and think back on trips past.

A film made in 1942, the same year as 1oOAiM, Mrs. Miniver also was considered a great work of WWII War-Time Propaganda. Though it was supposedly set in England, it was actually filmed in the United States by an American studio, made primarily by Yanks. There was a mix of Brits and Americans in the cast.

The creators of 1oOAiM, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger reached their greatest level of acclaim with a film about Anglican nuns set in Nepal, Black Narcissus, which was one of our Christmas films just last month. As Charles Dickens knew well, England is a wonderful place to celebrate Christmas, as Movie Churches did with the films Millions and Last Christmas.

One of the advantages of visiting England via film rather than in person (along with avoiding new Covid strains and their Covid lockdowns) is that we can visit Merry OLD England as well as the present. In November of 2018, we spent a whole month in the 12th Century with Robin Hood, though our focus, of course, was on Friar Tuck. We went even further back in English history when we looked at Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

The Holy Grail is just one of many English comedies we’ve viewed here at Movie Churches. We’ve seen classic comedies with great comedians such as Peter Sellers (Heavens Above!) and Rowan Atkinson (Keeping Mum). Though not always thought of as a comedian, Sir Alec Guinness made very funny films such as Kings Hearts and Coronets and The Detective.

Britain can be a funny place, but it can also be a scary place, as seen in the classic Universal Monster film, The Wolf Man set in England, though it was made in the United States. (We also viewed a film made in England, by English filmmakers, The Curse of the Werewolf, but it was set in Spain.) 

And when we in the States think of British films, we eventually think of James Bond and the world of espionage. Some time we might find a Bond film with prominent clergy and churches but until then, we’ve had to settle for Kingsman: The Secret Service.

So enjoy the rest of our virtual adventure in England, there are still four more stops in our journey this month!