Saturday 11 July 2009

The Portrayal of Priests - Part I

Mention of Fr. Edward J. Flanagan and the film Boys' Town brings to mind the portrayal of Catholic Priests in popular culture. During what was known as 'the golden age of Hollywood', that portrayal was generally sympathetic. While the addage that Hollywood consisted of Jews making Catholic films for Protestants must be taken with a grain of salt, the grain of truth is there already. We must exercise a critical faculty with such movies, and exercise right judgement both with the work itself and in regard to those who appeared in and worked on it, generally there is much edification in many of them.

Spencer Tracy, himself a Catholic, although not always an exemplary one, played the part of a Priest four times. First in San Francisco in 1936 and then in Boys' Town in 1938 and its sequal, Men of Boys' Town, in 1941, as well as in The Devil at 4 o'clock, in 1961.

San Francisco is set in that city about the time of the Great Earthquake and consequent Great Fire of 1906. The plot follows a familiar pattern of two childhood friends, one who has chosen a life of goodness (Tracy as Fr. Tim Mullen), the other a life of wickedness (Clarke Gable as 'Blackie' Norton, together with the lady (Jeanette MacDonald as Mary Blake) who helps to reawaken the good that was always within him.

In the first clip, we see MacDonald/Blake singing in Church at Christmas. The second clip, the final scene, shows Gable/Norton's final conversion in thanksgiving for the survival of MacDonald/Blake. The admixture of piety and materialism can be viewed in a favourable or an unfavourable light. One is tempted to see Americanism there, except that these movies are the world glancing at the Faith rather than the other way around.

Although they can be seen with a Catholic eye, the themes are not overtly Catholic. However, the film is essentially respectful, edifying and, which is not to be dismissed, a good opportunity to see Jeanette MacDonald at the peak of her talent!