Thursday, September 2, 2021

Taking One for the Team: School Sports Month!

Trouble Along the Way

Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation is a book that has been stirring up some waves in the church these days. The book is a critique of views of masculinity in the American Evangelical Church of the 20th and 21st centuries -- all quite interesting stuff -- but it has little to do with today’s film because as it turns out, John Wayne isn’t in an evangelical church but rather in a small Roman Catholic college.

And some of Wayne’s behavior in Trouble Along the Way (1953) is, well, troublesome. I had high hopes for this film because it starred not only Wayne but also the delightful Donna Reed and was directed by Michael Curtiz (The Adventures of Robin Hood, White Christmas, and Casablanca). 

One of the posters for the film has this line, “That All-Man Quiet Man has a new kind of dame to tame!” The aforementioned “dame” is Donna Reed, who comes across a bit like the librarian Mary (if George Bailey had never been born).

She plays Alice Singleton, a social worker investigating football coach Steve Williams (Wayne) for his fitness as a parent. Steve’s wife left Steve and their daughter Carol (Sherry Jackson) when the girl was a baby (she’s 11 when the film opens). Williams is an often-fired football coach who lives in an apartment over a bar. We clearly see that Miss (officer of the court) Singleton's concerns about Williams’ parenting are understandable.

So what does Williams do as Singleton investigates the case? He drunkenly bursts into her office, mansplains to her about why she’s single, and forces her into an embrace and kiss. This is stupid and unacceptable on any number of levels. But since he’s the movie star, this is romantic of course.

Fortunately, this is Movie Churches and we aren’t discussing the Duke in this film. We get to talk about the priest who hires him, Charles Coburn as Father Charles Burke. The priest is the President of St. Anthony’s College. The school is in financial trouble because Burke doesn’t take tuition from over eighty percent of his students. He is very proud of this monetary recklessness.

Not surprisingly, his superiors are looking to close the school because it is $170,000 in debt. Burke tells them, “When I take a vow of poverty, I go all the way.” (Of course, that isn’t how a vow of poverty works. It’s like someone said they were taking a vow of poverty because they were running up debt on a credit card.)

Word gets to the students of the college that the school will soon close, so they gather under his window and sing Auld Lang Syne. The priests who compose the faculty are quite concerned, of course. But he assures them they shouldn’t be afraid because it is only a matter of money, so why be fearful?

Burke asks the priests if they have a Bible and they look about furiously for one. Burke says, “Do you have a Bible in the house or do you have to go to a hotel?” (An admittedly funny line.) Burke then reads Deuteronomy 32:15 but what he reads sounded nothing like the verse when I looked it up. I don’t know what is worse about this Catholic College, that they have so few Bibles or that the President of the school seems ignorant of the Scriptures.

So Burke comes up with a brilliant scheme to save the school. He'll start a football program that will raise money to save the school. This isn’t much worse than fundraising schemes we’ve seen in other church films, such as writing a hit song or betting on horse races. But it’s still a crapshoot and pretty stupid.

Burke hires Williams, a coach with a shady reputation, and gives him a free hand to run the football program. Williams sees an opportunity to make some money and brings some coach friends to come to work with him. He will let the school keep all the gate receipts, but he and his friends will make money selling parking, programs, and concessions.

Of course, they need a winning team to make this work, so Williams recruits players who have played professionally and others who don’t meet the college’s academic standards. But the shady practices aren’t Williams’ alone. Burke puts pressure on the presidents of other Catholic schools such as Notre Dame to play against them. This seems to be not in line with the regular collegiate practices.

It all works for a while, and St. Anthony’s makes money. Williams and his friends make money, too, but his ex-wife notifies the press about Williams’ unscrupulous practices in order to gain custody of their daughter. It becomes quite the scandal in the press.

Burke fires Williams and professes shock, shock! that unethical practices took place in the college’s football program. The only reason he wouldn’t know the problems of the program he began is because he was a fool or he kept himself willingly ignorant. This is not unlike many college presidents in the NCAA. But as Burke says, “You won by going against the very principles we teach!”

After firing Williams, Burke does apologize to him for putting him in a position where the only possible way to succeed was to cheat.

So Burke agrees to resign from his presidency when his higher-ups say they will save the school once it is free of his incompetent leadership. Though John Wayne doesn’t corrupt the evangelical church in this film, he does corrupt college football. But really, Father Burke plays a part in the corrupting as well, earning a sad Movie Churches rating of Two Steeples.

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