Saturday 28 May 2011

Our Lady's Month VI - The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965)

'The Greatest Story Ever Told' was the last of its kind in several ways. It was the last Biblical epic ever filmed by the Hollywood Studio System, Claude Rains' last film and the last great film of director George Stevens.

The stellar cast is headed by Swedish actor Max Von Sydow in his first English-language role as Our Lord. Once again, a relative unknown is chosen so as not to disturb the pious sentiments of the audience by too many profane associations, and there is something to be said for this. However, as with Jeffrey Hunter, Max might well have asked where does a career go after playing God. In both cases, it didn't go very far.

Dorothy McGuire is cast as Our Lady and Robert Loggia as St. Joseph (who was never out of work thereafter!). It must be said that, while St. Joseph is rather silent, as is appropriate, Our Lady is portrayed as rather insipid - as it had also been suggested she was in 'King of Kings' played by Siobhán McKenna.

Charlton Heston makes another towering Biblical performance as St. John the Baptist. Jamie Farr (St. Jude Thaddeus - to whom he had prayed for work when offered the part), David McCallum (Judas), Roddy McDowall (St. Matthew), Sidney Poitier (Simon of Cyrene), Pat Boone (as the Angel at the tomb), Van Heflin, Shelley Winters (healed woman #3), Ed Wynn, John Wayne (Centurion at Calvary), Telly Savalas (Pilate - for which role he shaved his head and kept it shaved for the rest of his life), Angela Lansbury (Pilate's wife), Martin Landau (Caiaphas), Jose Ferrer (Herod Antipas), and Claude Rains (Herod the Great) all add a sense of a masterpiece tribute to the subject matter, although, on the other hand, the sense of wonderment at the stars might distract from the theme.

Donald Pleasence plays the dark hermit, a figure of the devil, who hovers in the background of various events in the life of Our Lord. His character adds a unique dimension of spiritual insight.

Highlights include John Wayne as the Roman centurion who witnesses Calvary with the words "truly this Man was the Son of God." Duke pays tribute to the King of Kings, as it were. the story is told that, when Stevens asked Wayne to give the line more awe, he gave the line as "Aw, truly this Man was the Son of God."

The scenes of the Passion bring this film well within the class of devotional films and a precursor of 'The Passion of the Christ.' It is a brave director who tries to top the drama of the Crucifixion but the courage of Stevens is well placed in an uplifting vignette of both resurrection and ascension.

Stevens filmed on location in North America, explaining: "I wanted to get an effect of grandeur as a background to Christ, and none of the Holy Land areas shape up with the excitement of the American southwest. I know that Colorado is not the Jordan, nor is Southern Utah, Palestine. But our intention is to romanticize the area, and it can be done better here."

Filming took so long that the actor playing Nicodemus died before completing his performance as cinematographer William C. Mellor and the actress playing St. Mary Magdalene became pregnant, requiring costume redesigns and carefully placed camera angles, and the lake where filming of St. John the Baptist's scenes delayed the completion of the Glen Canyon Dam!

Veteran David Lean was the unit director for the early scene featuring Claude Rains as Herod the Great. The film received mixed reviews, although it was nominated for five Academy Awards: Best Musical Score; Best Cinematography (color); Art Direction (color); Costume Design (color); and Special Visual Effects. Perhaps on account of its length (3 hours 45 minutes shortened to 3 hours 19 minutes and later to 2 hours 21 minutes), the film was a box office floperoonie and was to discourage Biblical epic movies for decades to come.

Tuesday 24 May 2011

St. Pius X - Part VII

On this day one hundred years ago, Pope St. Pius X issued his Encyclical Iamdudum in Lusitania on the Law of Separation in Portugal.

Sancte Pie Decime, Gloriose Patrone, ora pro nobis!

Saturday 21 May 2011

Our Lady's Month V - King of Kings (1961)

King of Kings, rather like Ben-Hur is a 'story of Christ', that is, a series of fictional narratives that are blended with the Biblical account of Our Lord's earthly life. Unlike Ben-Hur, it gives Our Lord a face - Geoffrey Hunter's face, in fact - and gives Our Lady a voice - and an Irish accent! - played by Siobhán McKenna.

The music of King of Kings is also memorable and links it to other Biblical epics, Quo Vadis? (1951) and Ben-Hur (1959), which also featured scores by Miklós Rózsa.

Lowlights include the inclusion of the unbiblical 'For Thine is the Kingdom...' as Our Lord gives the 'Our Father' to the Apostles.

What would an Hollywood Biblical epic be without Charlton Heston? Apparently, it would be like this. The film received a poor review both from America (see below) and Time magazine (Friday, Oct. 27, 1961):

King of Kings (Samuel Bronston; M-G-M). Christianity, which has survived the Turkish onslaught and the Communist conspiracy, may even survive this picture; but individual Christians who try to sit through it may find themselves longing for extreme unction.

A remake of Cecil B. DeMille's 1927 life of Christ. King of Kings was produced in Spain by a marked-down DeMille named Samuel Bronston who built 396 sets, hired some 20,000 extras and a dozen slightly famous players, spent more than four months and $8,000.000. And what emerged? Incontestably the corniest, phoniest, ickiest and most monstrously vulgar of all the big Bible stories Hollywood has told in the last decade. Nevertheless, the subject is so dear to the hearts of millions that King of Kings will undoubtedly be filling Hollywood's collection plates for months to come. Scheduled for reserved-seat. pre-Christmas release at fancy prices ($1.50-$3.50 on Broadway), the film will soon be playing in 26 cities from Los Angeles to Rome, has rung up an advance sale of about $600,000—bigger than Ben Hur's.

Fortunately. Bronston's bust enjoys one solid virtue: a script precisely organized and competently prosed by Playwright Philip (Anna Lucasta) Yordan. who has often quite sensitively reconciled the grandeurs of the King James version with the need for a fresh, contemporary tone. After noisily establishing the Romans in Palestine. Scenarist Yordan moves swiftly and synoptically through the Gospels: The Nativity, The Flight into Egypt. The Massacre of the Innocents; Christ's boyhood, baptism and temptation in the desert; Salome's Dance and the murder of John the Baptist; the Sermon on the Mount, the triumphal procession to Jerusalem, the Last Supper, the Agony in the Garden, the Trial before Pilate, the Ascent of Calvary, the Crucifixion, the Resurrection. Unfortunately, many of these episodes are shamelessly scanted and most of Christ's miracles—certainly the most dramatic moments of his ministry—are inexplicably omitted. The time thus saved is devoted to two bombinating battles that never actually took place; to a wildly unhistorical subplot that exaggerates Barabbas (vaguely identified by the Bible as an insurrectionist) into a sort of George Washington of the Jews, and makes Judas merely a bewildered Benedict Arnold; to a number of incidents in the life of Christ —among them a dramatic death-cell confrontation with John the Baptist—that are nowhere sanctioned by scripture and invariably ring false.

Director Nicholas Ray makes few positive contributions. With his customary penchant for the pretentious (Johnny Guitar), he slushes up the sound track with angel voices—all, as usual, soprano, apparently on the theory that only girls are nice enough to be angels: he fancy-pants around with his camera in a ludicrous gilt-plaster palace that looks as if it were made of baroque-candy; and he ever-so-reverently overdresses his hovel scenes till they gloom and glow like cheap reproductions of Murillo.

With his actors Director Ray does no better, Frank Thring plays Herod Antipas in the grand, grotesque manner of Eisenstein's Ivan the Terrible, but since nobody else is playing at the same pitch he just looks like some kind of a nut. Robert Ryan reads the part of John the Baptist with a clear Midwestern twang, and a degree of woodenness that may incline the spectator to sympathize with Salome when she calls for his head on a platter. As Salome, 16-year-old Brigid Bazlen is pretty enough, but as a belly dancer she has too little ootch in her cootch. And as the Mother of God, Siobhan McKenna does little more than smirk and mince as though she were playing Mother Machree. The imitation of Christ is little better than blasphemy.* Granted that the role is impossible to cast or play; granted that the attempt may nevertheless be worth making. Whatever possessed Producer Bronston to offer the part to Jeffrey Hunter, 35, a fan-mag cover boy with a flabby face, a cute little lopsided smile, babyblue eyes and barely enough histrionic ability to play a Hollywood marine? And why dress the poor guy up in a glossy-curly pageboy peruke, why shave his armpits and powder his face till he looks like the pallid, simpering chorus-boy Christ of the religious-supply shoppes?

The definitive criticism of Bronston's Christ, and indeed of his entire film, is expressed in the snide subtitle by which it is widely known in the trade: I Was a Teenage Jesus...

*Writing in America, a Jesuit weekly, Film Critic Moira Walsh last week anathematized Hollywood's biblical epics as "disedifying and even antireligious," and called King of Kings "the culmination of a gigantic fraud perpetuated by the film industry on the moviegoing public." Noting that the film has been criticised by the Roman Catholic Legion of Decency as "theologically, historically and scripturally inaccurate," she adds: "Christ is there as a physical presence, but His spirit is absent . . . There is not the slightest possibility that anyone will derive from the film any meaningful insight into what Christ's life and sufferings signify for us ... It is obvious that Bronston, Ray and Yordan have no opinion on the subject of Christ, except that He is a hot box-office property."

Friday 20 May 2011

The ones that got away - Edenderry

It is one of the greatest ironies of the modernist liturgical/architectural movement in the Diocese of Kildare and Leighlin that 20th century Churches, and mid-twentieth century Churches at that, have generally come off worst when it comes to the destruction of sanctuaries.

"They have razed our proudest castles, spoiled the Temples of the Lord,
Burned to dust the sacred relics, put the Peaceful to the sword,
Desecrated all things holy, as they soon may do again,
If their power to-day we smite not, if to-day we be not men!

One of the few early 20th century Churches in the Diocese - and a gem of neo-Hiberno-Romanesque - is new St. Mary's Church, Edenderry, Co. Offaly. It's own re-ordering was delayed by the Planning and Development Acts and the decision of An Bord Pleanala (Ref. No.:19.RF0970) which provided that the construction of a new sanctuary area, a modified seating arrangement and the conversion of the baptistry to a "reconciliation room" would require planning permission.

To quote again from a certain Cardinal Ratzinger to the then Bishop of Kildare and Leighlin: "It is certainly true that a great number of churches since the Second Vatican Council have been re-arranged; such changes, while inspired by the liturgical reform, cannot however be said to have been required by the legislation of the Church."

William Byrne and Son, who were responsible for the new towers additional to the Parish Churches in Abbeyleix (1906) and Mountmellick (1904), and for the Parish Church in Suncroft (1906) in a simple gothic idiom, had submitted a design for a romanesque Church with aisle, small transepts and short belltower with pyramidal roof in Edenderry. What was built was not far from that description but it was the work of Anthony and William Scott, father and son.

Anthony Scott designed the mortuary chapel in Naas cemetery (1907) as well as the Convent of St. John of God next to St. Mary's Edenderry (1914), However, his practice as regards Churches was generally confined to renovations and alterations of pre-existing structures. The elder Scott was to die in 1919. St. Mary's and the Convent seem to have been the only work undertaken by the younger Scott in the Diocese.

The first sod of St. Mary's was turned 1913 and the foundation stone laid in 1914 by Bishop Foley of Kildare and Leighlin. The Church was opened for public worship in June, 1919, and, in 1932, became one of the few Churches of the Diocese to be Consecrated. The entrance gates are attributed to Arthur Williams (1921). The magnificnet interior is partly the work of the firm of the great George Ashlin in partnership with Thomas Coleman. In his previous partnership with Edward Welby Pugin he was responsible for the Church of the Sacred Heart, Arles, and, appropriately enough, St. Coleman's Cathedral, Cobh. Ashlin and Coleman are responsible for the High Altar, Sacred Heart Altar, pulpit, Shrines of St. Brigid and St. Anthony, communion rail, mosaics, etc. In short, it is their contribution that was principally under threat from the new liturgical requirements of somebody-or-other.

Wednesday 18 May 2011

Saint Bran Beg of Clane

May 18 is the feast of Saint Bran Beg of Clane, County Kildare. Canon O'Hanlon has published the following account of him:

St. Bran Beg, of Clane, County of Kildare. [Sixth or Seventh Century.]

In the published Martyrology of Tallagh at the 18th of May, the name of Branbice, of Chlaonadh, occurs; and, the entry is nearly alike, in the Franciscan copy. He is commemorated, likewise, in the "Feilire" of St. Oengus, at this date. He is noticed, also, by the Bollandists. This holy man is said to have been the son of Degill, and a nephew of the great St. Columkille, by his sister Cumenia, also called Cuimne. His brothers were Mernoc, Cascene, and Meldal; although that Tract, on the Mothers of the Irish Saints, makes Cuman only to be the mother of the two sons of Degil, i.e. Mernoc and Caisene. However, there was a place in Tyrconnell, called the cell of the seven sons of Degill. The Martyrology of Donegal mentions, that a festival was celebrated on this day, in honour of Bran Beg, of Claenadh, in Ui Faelain, in Magh Laighin. This may be rendered into English, "the plain of Leinster." The present Clane, in the county of Kildare, lies in this plain. We do not know, whether the present holy man was founder of a religious establishment there; but, as he flourished at an early date, it seems altogether probable, he may be regarded as the founder and patron of Clane in the eighth century, there was an abbey, at Clane; for, we read of the death in 777 or 782, of its Abbot Banbhan. A synod, consisting of twenty-six bishops and a great number of abbots, was held there, a.d. 1162. In the thirteenth century, a Franciscan abbey was founded, in the place—it is thought by Gerald Fitz-Maurice, Lord Offaley ; but, this account is not confirmed. It was suppressed, in the reign of King Henry VIII. The ruins yet remain, in an open field, beside the present town of Clane. It was situated within the territory, formerly styled Hui-Faelan, in Mag-Laigen. From the term of Little applied to the present saint, it seems probable, he was of small stature. St. Bran is said by Adamnan, or by his scholiast, to have been interred at Derry, although venerated, on this day, at the church of Claonadh—the ancient name of Clane—in Lagenia. With two other Irish saints, Bran is named, at the 18th of May—or xv. of the June Kalends—in the Kalendarium Drummondiense.

Rev. John O'Hanlon, Lives of the Irish Saints, Volume 5 (Dublin, 1875), 503-4.

Sunday 15 May 2011

Beatification Report - Bl. John Henry Newman Shrine at Oxford Oratory

The Oxford Oratory is the third of the English Oratories and the only one not established within John Henry Newman's life though it is close to the heart of the city in which he spent a significant part of his life. During Newman's lifetime Bishop Ullathorne attempted three times to bring the Oratorians to Oxford but despite considerable efforts it was not be. It was not until 1990 when the Birmingham Oratory realised Newman's dream when it responded to an invitation to take over the running of The Church of St Aloysius, which in 1993 became an independent congregation.

Newman's Shrine at Oxford is temporary feature. It is made up of a painting by William Ouless, aedicule and altarino by Timothy Newbery and achievement of arms by Tom Meek. Located at the back of the right hand aisle it clearly lacks the impact of those at both Birmingham and London. However, the Oratory is in the process of a major building project which will see a permanent chapel to Newman, the descriptions of which are most impressive. A substantial fundraising appeal is in progress and I look forward to seeing the chapel once complete.

Founded in 1875, the Church of St Aloysius was originally served by Jesuit Fathers. It was designed by Joseph Aloysius Hansom (1802-1888), incidentally also designer of the Handom Cab and Birmingham Town Hall, and was inspired by French Gothic. Originally decorated in Italianate style in the fifties it then became two tone grey which has been superseded by more colourful refurbishment. Whilst impressive throughout the most striking feature is undoubtedly the 52 statues of saints and angels and two saints heads behind the altar which dominate the Church.

Newman spent a considerable portion of this life in Oxford, as student at Trinity College, a Fellow of Oriel College and an Anglican Minister. It was here he formed many of the ideas that he built on during his time in Dublin and in his 'Idea of a University' and indeed he is credited with establishing the tutorial system common throughout university education today.

Leaving Oxford soon after his conversion, Newman lived in effective exile from Oxford and its academic life until in 1878 he was made the first Honourary Fellow by Trinity College. I was struck by the words in Father Jerome Bertram's Book Newman's Oxford, "So it came about that it was the Observatory that he was to leave on the morning of the 23rd, not to see Oxford again for many years, save only its spires as they are seen from the railway." But to quote Newman's own words, "To live is to change, and to be perfect is to change often."

Blessed John Henry Newman pray for us!

Saturday 14 May 2011

Our Lady's Month IV - The Miracle of Fatima (1952)

The Miracle Of Our Lady Of Fatima is a feature film made in 1952. It starred Susan Whitney as Lucia dos Santos, Sammy Ogg as Francisco Marto, and Sherry Jackson as Jacinta Marto. Neither of the three had particularly notable prior or subsequent careers. Sammy Ogg went on to become a Protestant minister. Gilbert Roland, already a divorcee at the time, was cast in the entirely fictional role of Hugo, a kindly agnostic friend of the three children, who rediscovers his faith in God through the Miracle of the Sun. The musical score by Max Steiner received an Academy Award nomination and the soundtrack includes several traditional hymns.

An obvious error in the introduction to the film is the date of 15th May, 1917, when the first apparition took place on 13th May, 1917. The film is unremarkable for the quality of its script and acting but is, nevertheless, a reverent pastiche of the story of Fatima, albeit one that largely omits Our Lady's message, for example, "in the end God will triumph" rather than "my Immaculate Heart". While it can certainly be classed as a 'Catholic' film, it is one created for a general audience.

When the film was shown to Sr. Lucia she is reported not to have liked the film. I don't disagree but as a portrayal of Our Lady, it is an example of the better forms that were once observed. The voice of Our Lady - and oddly of Sr. Lucia as an older nun - was that of Angela Clarke. The figure of Our Lady is throughout indistinct but dignified. The conclusion of the film is a presentation of a ceremony at the Fatima of the day together with a rather odd reunion between Sr. Lucia and Hugo.

Friday 13 May 2011

Our Lady's Month III - Universae Ecclesiae

This morning the Holy See published the text of Universae Ecclesiae, the Instruction of the Pontifical Commission Ecclesia Dei on the Implementation of the Motu Proprio Summorum Pontificum.

Dignare me laudare te Virgo Sacrata. Da mihi virtutem contra hostes tuos.