Check out the animated show Bat out of Hell on Kickstarter!

The Prisoner (1955)

Theocoid (also known as Bill B.) over at Is My Philactery Showing? (and btw, yes, it is Bill, but it looks pretty good on you) has contributed another review to our priestly film festival! Alec Guinness (who also played Chesterton’s Fr. Brown) makes his second appearance in priestly vestments here.

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The Fighting 69th

The Fighting 69th (click on the link to view it on YouTube) features James Cagney and Pat O’Brien performing an interesting repetition of the tough-guy priest and charismatic misfit roles they played two years earlier in Angels with Dirty Faces. In my review of Angels, I took issue with the failure of the priest to move beyond the ethical sphere. In The Fighting 69th, O’Brien’s Fr. Duffy–based on an actual WWI army chaplain–is much more satisfyingly depicted in a religious mode proper to his priestly office. Fr. Duffy utters heart-felt prayers, invokes Christ, blesses an officer who unabashedly kneels before him, hears confessions, celebrates Mass, sensitively interacts with and ministers to Protestant and Jewish soldiers as well as their Catholic counterparts, and simultaneously exudes both a lightness and a gravity towards the soldiers under his care. The battlefield setting, fraught with danger and death, highlights the priest’s sacrificial role, his standing in the place of Christ, side-by-side with young men who are also offering themselves up to be sacrificed. Then we have Cagney’s mouthy Jerry Plunkett. Although Cagney’s charisma is still in play, he convincingly portrays Plunkett as a much more repellant and alienated character than his gangster counterpart in Angels. At every turn, Plunkett responds to military discipline with a sneering grin and a smart mouth–towards superiors and fellow soldiers alike. Fr. Duffy alone reaches out to Plunkett and defends him when Major “Wild Bill” Donovan (played by George Brent) decides to transfer him to a different battalion. Fr. Duffy convinces the major to let him stay, but Plunkett continues to be an obnoxious cad out of battle and a coward who endangers the lives of his fellow soldiers in battle. You can guess how it ends. Twice Fr. Duffy references Christ’s words about there being more rejoicing in heaven over the one lost soul who is saved than the ninety-nine that didn’t stray from the fold. Overall the movie is dramatically less successful than Angels with Dirty Faces, but more successful in plumbing the depths of life and death and sin and redemption.

Overall grade: C+
Priest factor: A-

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The Scarlet and the Black (1983)

Theocoid over at Is My Philactery Showing? posted another Year of the Priest review — and it’s another one with grim Gregory!

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The Keys of the Kingdom (1944)

I watched The Keys of the Kingdom back in August and then got sick (the flu followed by pneumonia) and busy (trying to publish rather than perish at my day job) and never got around to posting a review. (That’s my excuse, what about all you other Year of the Priest reviewers out there?) Without giving the film another viewing, I’ll offer up my shame and a few fragmentary comments.

Gregory Peck made his screen debut in the film as Fr. Francis Chisolm. I couldn’t help but think of Binx Bolling’s reference to Peck in The Moviegoer. Binx’s initial strategy in seducing his secretary is to maintain a “Gregory Peckish sort of distance.” Later he describes himself as “Gregory grim.”

(This has nothing to do with the movie at hand, but when we’re done with this Year of the Priest cinematic celebration, maybe our next film festival should revolve around films that are mentioned in The Moviegoer. In fact, one of Korrektiv’s many Walter Mitty projects ought to be–and therefore is, since we’re not talking about reality here–to open an art house theater called The Moviegoer in historic downtown Moses Lake.)

The main storyline is framed by a scene in which the elderly Fr. Chisolm has been called back from his Chinese mission and is being investigated for “unorthodox views” (which are never specified).

Not much specifically Catholic or theological content. I read somewhere (one of those “external reviews” links on IMDB) that the screenplay was written by an atheist and that the author of the novel on which the film is based may have been more atheist than Catholic as well. (Speaking of atheists, check out Lickona’s recent piece.) The focus of the movie, at any rate, is on the humanity of the priest. Peck’s Fr. Chisolm embodies an admirable combination of meekness and strength. Christ’s admonition to be gentle as a dove but wise as a serpent comes to mind. That clip from Kung Fu comes to mind.

But Fr. Chisolm is a bit harsh in his criticism of “rice Christians” and his refusal to accept the conversion of the high ranking official whose son he saved with some rudimentary Western style medicine.

Vincent Price appears as a smarmy monsignor who later becomes a bishop — and initiates the investigation of Fr. Chisolm. The investigator sent by the bishop reads Fr. Chisolm’s journal and is convinced he is a good and holy priest.

The long timespan covered by the film–with Peck portraying Chisolm from the age of about 20 to maybe 70–is believable. Peck earned an oscar nomination for the role.

Overall, the film was OK. Peck was great and his greatness infused the possible greatness of Fr. Chisolm, forcing me to give the film a higher priest factor rating than might have otherwise been the case.

Overall grade: B-
Priest factor: B+

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On The Devil at 4:00

The Devil at 4:00 opens with a scene on a cargo plane: Father Perreau (played by Kerwin Matthews) is in the hold with three convicts chained together. Charlie (Bernie Hamilton) and Marcel (Gregoire Aslan) and Harry (Frank Sinatra) are on their way to a prison in Tahiti, while the Father Perreau is on his way to the much smaller (and fictional) island of Talua to replace Father Doonan (Spencer Tracy), the whiskey priest with a cynical heart of gold. Father Doonan has made too many enemies on the island, presumably because of the mendicant glad handing he does on behalf of a charity project that is even less popular with the French residents: a hospital for children lepers he has built half way up the side of a mountain that happens to be an active volcano. One may doubt the wisdom in choosing an active volcano as the site for a children’s hospital, but then Doonan maybe was drunk while making the initial survey.

In any case, the hospital is very much a work-in-progress, and Father Doonan figures that convict labor is the best way to get it done, especially since he, being from Hell’s Kitchen, has become the nemesis as well as a kind of tough-guy friend to Harry, being from Jersey. Here’s the memorable exchange marking the turning point in their … relationship:

DOONAN Where you from, tough guy? I hear echoes.
HARRY I’ve been around… What’s it to ya?
DOONAN You spit your T’s. That’d be Jersey, I guess, maybe Jersey City. Hunh! I came from just across the River – Hell’s Kitchen. We used to eat punks like you.
HARRY Maybe. That’s when you had your teeth.

That’s not the only … relationship formed by Frank – pardon me, I mean Harry, who tries to seduce one of the local gals in the Hospital garden one night before he figures out that she’s blind. Then he falls in love with her.

All this is getting a little complicated, meaning that it’s time for the volcano to start acting up, which it does as if on cue. The govenor of the island (well played by Alexander Scourby, familiar to me as the narrator of the KJV bible on 40 something CDs) orders the evacuation of the island, in due consideration of the fact that lava is begining to stream down the sides of the mountain. What about the hospital, not to mention the children staying there? Well, Tracy – pardon me, Doonan – has a plan, in which he and the three parachute onto the volcano to lead the children and the hospital staff to safety. Governor Scourby – or maybe it was the ship’s capitaine – agrees to wait unitl 4:00 the next day before taking off in a rescue schooner.

I won’t give the rest away – what comes of the children, what comes of the priest and the convicts, and what comes of the budding romance between Ol’ Blue Eyes and the Polynesian Beauty without eyesight – but it’s fairly compelling drama of the disaster film cum Problem of Evil with bare bones theological commentary in dramatic form. I think it’s worth seeing. I’ll also note that, thus far, Tracy has the edge over Guiness when it comes to movie priests. The Gruff Exterior is inherently more dramatic than a Saint or a Genius.

Overall rating: B
Priest factor: B+

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Father Brown (1954)

When Christ advised his disciples to be as crafty as serpents and as gentle as doves, he might have had Fr. Ignatius Brown in mind. This amiable priest, though simple and guileless, is a keen observer and an astute student of the human heart. He is — or was, when G.K. Chesterton first conjured him up — a new thing in the annals of detection: a kind of anti-Holmes, who captures crooks not by deductive reasoning from physical evidence, but by understanding the wayward ways of sinners.

The great Alec Guinness plays Fr. Brown, and quite well too. My first impression was that the cinematic Fr. Brown was rather too moon-faced, too naive, too much an apparent bumbler, but then I remembered that Chesterton himself described Fr. Brown as having “a face as round and dull as a Norfolk dumpling,” and all, or nearly all, was forgiven. The story is based on the very first of Chesterton’s Fr. Brown tales, “The Blue Cross”, and it goes like this: Fr. Brown is taking a priceless treasure, a cross, to a Eucharistic Congress, and the renowned and flamboyent thief Flambeau intends to unburden him en route. Hilarity ensues. (In the film, the cross is said to have belonged to St. Augustine, and also to be “12 centuries old”, which makes it the once-prized possession of a St. Augustine now lost to historical science.)

The trouble with short stories, insofar as they are considered from the vantage point of screenwriters, is that they are so consistently short. The screenwriter is obliged to have recourse to additional diversions and detours, drawing out the existing characters, introducing new ones, and whatever else belongs to the art of adaptation. The screenwriters here have done just that, but not always with grace, or even reason. At one point we see Fr. Brown, in an attempt to fool Flambeau (who is no fool), try the ol’switcheroo with some packages, apparently with the senseless intent of leaving his precious cross sitting unattended at a sidewalk cafe.

More troubling are some none too subtle touches that tarnish Fr. Brown’s upright character. In the short story he leaves clues to assist the police in apprehending Flambeau; here he actually helps Flambeau to escape, and even deceives detectives into arresting an innocent bystander. True, his intention all along is to save Flambeau’s soul, which is certainly a great good, but there is a distinct sense that he is pitting human justice against divine, and that, as the real Fr. Brown would certainly point out, is bad theology.

Yet Fr. Brown’s priestly dignity is not entirely marred by these maladroit additions to the script. He does try to save Flambeau’s soul, and he speaks seriously and perceptively with him about repentance. He is shown preaching, with considerable grace, and even authority, to his congregation. We are left in little doubt that he is, at heart, a good man. In that, at least, the story is true to its original.

Overall rating: B
Priest factor: B-

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Korrektiv Cinema

Korrektiv writers Jonathan Webb, Rufus McCain, Quin Finnegan, and Henri Young attend a showing of Going My Way in 3D as part of the 52 Movies for the Year of the Priest film festival.

San Francisco (1936)

I’m embarrassed to admit this is the first Clark Gable movie I’ve seen. What a freakin’ mensch that guy was! Gonna have to watch some more for sure. And the Gable/Tracy combo makes for some great screen-pal energy–which is raised to the third power when Jeannette MacDonald is added to the triangular mix: the tough rascal, the tougher priest, and the sublime lady. From the standpoint of our focus on the priest’s role, Spencer Tracy’s Fr. Mullin has much less screen time than his Fr. Flanagan in Boys Town; but in San Francisco the priest’s impact is arguably more profound–or at least operating more within Kierkegaard’s sphere of the religious, rather than within the more commonplace sphere of the ethical. Each appearance by Fr. Mullin represents a key turningpoint in the film’s development of the relationship between Blackie Norton (Gable) and Mary Blake (MacDonald) as well as Blackie’s progress from hard-headed unbelief towards a collision with faith. Perhaps the two key parallel scenes in this regard are (1) when we are first introduced to Fr. Mullin engaging in some recreational boxing with Blackie and knocking him down and (2) when Fr. Mullin intervenes to stop Blackie from exploiting Mary, and gets punched in the face by Blackie (see the above YouTube clip). The film has some odd time disjunctures (it sometimes seems as if much time is passing, but at other times it seems only a day or two has passed). The earthquake and its aftermath which bring the film to a close also seem oddly timed. But ultimately it is quite a charming, fascinating film with a struggle of faith vs. unbelief–and an interesting priestly presence–at its core.

Overall grade: A-
The Priest Factor: A-

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Boys Town

Overall I found Boys Town much less satisfactory — more dated and sappily moralizing — than Angels with Dirty Faces. In both movies, any sense of religious transcendence, faith, or sacrament — as represented by the priest — is trumped by the weight of the ethical. In Boys Town, this is made clear in the first scene. Spencer Tracy as Fr. Flanagan (the movie states at the outset that the story is based on that of a real priest) is called in to hear the confession of a convict about to be executed. But no confession is ever really heard, at least none that is shown on film. Instead, the convict issues an impassioned indictment of “the system” responsible for turning him into a hardened criminal and setting him on a path that has ended on death row. When the condemned man asks Fr. Flanagan if he is afraid of death, the answer remains steadfastly in the ethical sphere: “I’ve made mistakes, but I’ve always been sorry for them and I’ve tried to make up for it.” No mention of what one might hope a priest might reference in this context: God, Christ, grace, mercy, Jesus’ words to the thief on the cross, confession, absolution, last rites. The dramatic purpose of the scene is to launch Fr. Flanagan on his crusade to treat the root of the problem by saving boys from the evil system — hence “Boys Town” is born and flourishes Utopia-like … until Whitey Marsh (a young but nevertheless annoying Mickey Rooney) shows up. (Fr. Flanagan to Whitey late in the movie: “It was a sad, bad day when I brought you here.”) Spoiler alert: Whitey turns good in the end and is even elected mayor of Boys Town. Before that happens, however, Boys Town has developed into a sort of institutional Leave it to Beaver writ large, with a pinch of Catholic guilt and a couple of scenes that might set off one’s post-scandal alarms just a bit.

Overall grade: D+
Priest factor: C-

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Angels with Dirty Faces

In Kierkegaardian terms, the priest in Angels with Dirty Faces represents not so much the religious sphere as the ethical. This is not a movie of ultimate concerns or the paradoxes of faith, but of the either/or dichotomy of esthetic damnation (represented by the gangster milieu) versus “being good” and creating a good and wholesome community–characterized by rec centers and young men playing basketball rather than engaging in vandalism and petty larceny. Pat O’Brien, as the priest and former teenage hoodlum, cuts a pretty good figure. He’s a sensitive, intelligent priest, but also a dude who is capable of (a) decking some jerk in a barroom altercation and (b) taking on organized crime and enlisting the support of the media in order to create a place where young men have a fighting chance to grow into upstanding citizens. His childhood pal, Rocky, played by James Cagney, upstages him of course, and is the life force of the movie; but Fr. Jerry proves a powerful influence on Rocky. Aside from Cagney’s dynamic performance, the film has a lot to recommend it–including an outstanding performance by a young Humphrey Bogart as a slick and subtly sleazy lawyer who gets [spoiler alert] righteously capped by Rocky in due course. Cagney’s Rocky is a charismatic character and there is a running motif in scene after scene that highlights how his genius as a gangster is not unlike the genius of an actor playing roles. At the end, that acting motif rises to a new level, being enlisted by Fr. Jerry in the cause of the ethical–and it is quite a stunning finish. Does it have anything to do with faith? Well, maybe not, although Cagney’s charisma and verve, and the brilliance of Rocky’s own performances, perhaps indicate a trajectory in the direction of the religious sphere where we might assume Fr. Jerry ultimately dwells.

Priest portrayal grade: C+
Overall grade: A-

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