Living Religion to the Screen
SCREEN history of the past few years has proven that religion as a picture theme or background, when properly used. is not only excellent cinematic entertainment inspiration but is also remarkably good box office.
It took movie-makers a long time to realise that religion definitely has taken its place on the commercial screen, In the first place. the silver screen is unquestionably the world's greatest single entertainment medium. It brings entertainment to millions of people all over the world and it presents its stories graphically and in a multitude of tongues. No other medium reaches as many people as frequently, and no other entertainment is as universally available or as cheap.
Consequently the men who make the motion pictures control a staggeringly powerful channel of education, entertainment, and enlightenment.
This imposes a solemn obligation on all of us who create the world's motion pictures. While the screen's first function is entertainment, it has been shown that the precepts of religion are far from incompatible with this service. Such a universally effective medium as the screen must certainly be used in some degree to further the teachings that underlie religion.
Hollywood and Religion
One reason that the screen took too little cognisuricc of the spiritual truths for so long was that producers and executives tended more to think of religion, as a screen subject, in terms of Biblical productions made especially for schools and churches. There have been many fine and inspiring pictures made in this field, but this by no means exhausts the potentialities of spiritual themes.
To-day, due partly to. the wide success of a number of films. including two of my own, Going My Way and The Bells of St. Mary's. we realise that the religious theme is not necessarily stodgy or wooden on the screen.
Interpreted into terms of a daily living credo, religion is the greatest motivating dramatic force we know.
To use current backgrounds and contemporary characters and popular themes to illustrate the great spiritual concepts is far from being a province restricted to to-day's movies. The idea of sugar-coating, so to speak, a noble moral in an illustrative and entertaining story stems back to the Bible itself. Indeed, the Son of Man liked to convey his great truisms in the form of parables based on the contemporary life around him.
Holy Writ presents numberless instances of religious precepts being conveyed in the form of dramatisations. Religion should he part of our every living minute. and a motion picture could have virtually any contemporary background and still be highly religious in impact. In my experience as the author of my own and other screen plays. I have learned that, indeed, the greatest dramatic force possible is contained in the spiritual values of everyday living. In order to be dramatically valid. any good story must represent in a sense a parable in which certain characters symbolise evil and certain characters good. There is no possible great drama without that element.
"The Miracle Man" I recall that many years ago, hack in the silent era, there was a very successful picture called The Miracle Man. It concerned a group of crooks who decided to take over a highly sincere faith healer for their own financal gain. At first they thought him a fraud, but in time they realised not only his sincerity but the truth of his spiritual teachings, and the end of the film found them reformed and converted. It was one of the first instances. within my knowledge of the use of a substantially spiritual theme in a contemporary, dramatic story, and the result was a fine picture.
Since then there have been various instances, but it is only during the past few years that religion has come to play so dominant a part in the
world's screen fare. Even pictures of an almost exclusively and devoutly religious genesis, such as Song of Bernadette, have proven enormously popular.
It so happened that Going my Way and The Bells of Sr. Mary's were both directly identified with the Church, but any picture which tends to show in a dramatic way that religion and the spiritual values give us all a fuller and a richer and a happier life, is in effect a picture with
a spiritual message. This is true, even though the footage may never show a church or a cathedral or a clergyman.
This current tendency on the screen must certainly have the effect of impressing many theatre-goers with the fact that religion is not necessarily an overly dignified nor evclusively solemn thing, but a way of life and a philosophy applicable to all our daily doings.
This matter of teaching that the spiritual precepts are not just something we should memorise on Sunday, but a code that we should live by, has been the policy and aim of all the great divine teachers.
For this reason I think that cynicism has very little place on the screen. To have a real punch and to have an abiding moral, a picture must present a positive approach and roust demonstrate the rewards of charity, fair dealing, honesty and
the other moral virtues. A picture which fails to do this, or which depicts the debased and the perpetrators of evil as going unpunished is an abuse of the screen as an educational and entertainment medium. Incidentally, it also is probably a very dull picture to hoot.
The Greatest Dramatic Force Although it is frequently submerged, this conflict of the good and the evil underlies many, many screen stories. Even the standard. typical Western movie usually presents a hero who is unselfish and who has at least an obscure nobility of purpose. whereas all villains are selfish and the perpetrators of wrong. In order to get audience interest and sympathy with the hero. who. of course. is the symbol of good, the movie-makers usually portray him as championing the oppressed against the wrong-doers, for example, a group of poor-hut-honest frontier householders who are being cheated
of their rights by predatory interests.
While this is certainly not a " religious " theme, nevertheless it demonstrates my point that moral right is the greatest of all possible dramatic forces. And a picture which would tend to show the forces of evil going unpunished and the forces of good going unrewarded would reflect an inexcusable cynicism, in addition to being poor drama.
The screen is far and away more vigilant about its morality than
either the stage or literature. In addition to having a. self-imposed censoring set-tip in the Eric Johnston office. individual producers are extremely careful to avoid presenting anything in a picture which involve), bad taste.
Any producer or studio which would attempt to make a picture employing the characters, dialogue, or situations which stage producers get away with all the time, would be barred from the movie industry.
Of course, one of the considerations here is that the motion picture audience is much wider and much more general than the stage audience. After all, the number of people who can see a play in the course of its run is limited. Moreover, the audience is a more or less specific class. Motion pictures are shown everywhere, and many constant movie-goers may not see more than a dozen plays in their lives. Consequently movies. like radio, must be planned and made with careful consideration of the fact that their audience is vast and general.
Compared with Fiction
As far as many of the current crop of novels are concerned, their language and situations would be unthinkable on the screen. Some are bought by Hollywood for conversion to the screen, but the stories are usually altered so drastically by the time they are made presentable for cinema audiences that very little of
the original remains. Needless to add, not all novel best-sellers are of the questionable type. Many are excellent in theme and treatment, and several direct religion-hackgrounded books have hit the top of the best-seller lists.
Incidentally, the universally
observed restrictions of moviemaking. imposed by the industry's OW/1 members., forbid many other representations in addition to that directly touching on morals. For instance. movie-roakers assiduously avoid situations or dialogue which might reflect on any nationality or clots of people. This tenet is ohserved so stringently that it is sometimes almost difficult to find a villainous character for a movie story who cannot he identified with any group or nationality.
An example of this is the fact that no • Western movie ever has a " heavy " or criminal or villain of any sort who is identifiable as a Mexican or a Canadian or any other specific nationality.
I need hardly say that no religion or faith is ever ridiculed or treated lightly on the screen.
All this is part of the mass of taboos observed by picture-makers. On top of this industrywide production code, individual members set up their own personal standards to which their screen product must adhere. These factors sombine to virtually insure one's ever seeing anything offensive or immoral on a motion picture screen.
The Beginnings of the Idea To return to the pictures which touch religion as a primary concern. my personal experience in this field may be -illuminating.
1 have been in the motion picture business many years, having started hack in the silent era. From my earliest years in the profession I was always directly or indirectly associated with movie writing and writers and consequently was always contemplating plots with screen possibilities.
It occurred to mc quite some years ago that a story centred around a personable young priest would be excellent screen entertainment. I had no precedent for it, but I personally was convinced that though revolutionary, it would he successful. Slowly over the years the story developed in illy mind. The first time mentioned it to a veteran filmmaker as a story possibility he poohpoohed the idea as being too " delicate " for screen treatment.
For a period, roughly, of some ten years 1 nursed the idea along and every time I became so sold on it that 1 broached someone with the premise of the story. I always received immediate discouragement. On every occasion during the reeitel when I was working as a hireling for other producers and studios. when my superiors asked mc for a story idea, I enthusiastically outlined iny plot built around a personable young priest who helps restore financial independence to a church in a very poor parish. I was always told that you couldn't treat a priest character in such a light, inasmuch as the policy until then had always been to mark screen priests with extreme dignity and solemnity. in time I got to a position where I could select my own stories and then I wrote out the plot in detail. Again when I solicited the opinions of my experienced movie friends I always got that warning that such a story could not be brought to the screen in such a way as would offend no one.
Bing Crosby The idea of putting Bing Crosby in the central priest role got the same cool reception at first. It was argued that most people thought of Bing as a mere singer of popular songs and as a pleasant and amiable screen personality whom the public would be slow to accept in the priest role.
Another hitch was the idea of having the priest a song-writer. Now I don't know why the idea persisted that the writing of popular ballads was somehow inconsistent with a religious point of view. But this seemed to he a widely-held attitude,
Bing reacted quite differently. I first outlined the idea to him verbally during a luncheon and Ire ',armed up to it immediately.
Later I gave him the script and he was convinced that it seas topshelf screen material. The public reception Of the finished " Going My Way " more than justified our enthusiasm for it, and it unquestionably had the additional effect of changing the attitude its many Hollywood quarters regarding this ' type of story. The success of the subsequent " The Bells Of St. Mary's " was no less gratifying to those of us who saw the idea through its early stages, My personal production plans include a projected feature titled "Adam and Eve," a screen version of the story of Genesis. Again, naturally. there have been many negative opinions expressed. some sought and some unsolicited, regarding the advisability of attempting to do this Biblical story as a current picture.
Again religion and religious precepts will he translated into human drama and human comedy. As a matter of fact, the picture will be aimed largely toward the humorous and the amusing and I see no reason why this is incompatible with its
The Biblical story will in no way
he ridiculed or made light of by being treated as an absorbing comedy-drama. I do not propose to forfeit one iota of my personal and profound religious convictions in order to bring this story to the screen, The Fixture
It is a pleasure to find that one's faith and ones work are so harmonious. After my years in the profession, 1 still find myself fascinated by the creative satisfaction of producing
and directing motion pictures. In time many more Biblical stories will he brought to the silver screen. The success of the religious pictures of the immediate past will convince the last Doubting Thomas that the puler lie likes films of this nature when they are made in good taste, and as a consequence the movie-goers of the world will see an increasing number of pictures with spiritual or religious themes.
The screen can thus be an even greater force for carrying the lessons of all churches. all religions. and all creeds to mankind. It will become an increasing channel of enlightenment and education, and bids fair to develop into one of the greatest forces in history for the universal message of international good will and the charity and tolerance of man for his fellow men.
There are some strains and frictions in the current international film import and export situation but these are only a part of the general national economic disturbances peculiar to our post-War period.
These differences are, after all, minor, and will all be amicably resolved with the passage of time. Reciprocal markets and trade have always managed ultimately to reach a balance in the past, and that will happen in the instance of the global film market.
Meanwhile. each national film industry has its own domestic market. and picture-makers all over the world will continue to strive to improve their product to bring the screen liner. more entertaining, and inure spiritually uplifting motion pictures.