Continuing my description of movies with Catholic significance at the 7th annual TCM Film Festival, the third morning again began with a mid-morning showing of “Ace in the Hole” (1951) at the Chinese Multiplex. Billy Wilder wrote, produced and directed this searing exposé of the unsavory, immoral side of American popular culture.
Arrogant and egotistical, Chuck Tatum (Kirk Douglas), a disgraced New York reporter, has worked his way down the ladder of success. Now at a flyspeck newspaper in New Mexico he happens on a routine cave-in where Leo Minosa (Richard Benedict) is trapped and injured in an old cliff dwelling where he was gathering Indian artifacts to sell in his trading post/restaurant.
Realizing this as his ticket back to the big time Tatum colludes with the local sheriff (Ray Teal) to pressure the rescue crew to drill from the top of the cliff rather than shore up the existing passages. What should have been completed in a few hours will stretch into several days.
The rescue becomes a national obsession. Tourists flock to the town. A carnival erects a Ferris wheel; a TV crew brings cameras. Tatum is the hero of the hour, releasing encouraging interviews with the weakening Leo — while romancing his bored wife, Lorraine (Jan Sterling).
Contrasting Lorraine, who’s sullenly outgrown Catholicism (“Kneeling bags my nylons”) with Father Diego (Lester Dorr), who valiantly enters the now destabilized shaft in order to bring Leo the consolation of the Sacraments, the Church alone escapes Wilder’s biting cynicism.
Next stop was the centennial presentation of the silent epic, “Intolerance: Love’s Struggle Throughout the Ages” (1916). D.W. Griffith’s masterpiece was highly innovative in technique and storyline, illustrating how intolerance has caused death and destruction throughout history. I’d seen it before but not on the big screen and wasn’t about to miss this opportunity.
The film consists of four tales. “The Babylonian Story” shows how rivalry between the priests of Marduk and Ishtar allowed Cyrus the Persian to overcome King Belshazzar. “The Modern Story” is a compelling parable about a young woman and her love, a union striker railroaded through court for a murder he didn’t commit, the victim of a campaign waged by a puritanical “moral uplift society.”
Without subtlety the film reflects the spiritual divide in US Christianity a century ago. The wealthy were often comfortably, even smugly, Protestant, scorning poor, benighted Catholics as deserving their poverty. Griffith contrasts the Calvinist do-gooders with the sincerity of a Catholic priest, the prison chaplain who consoles the young man awaiting the gallows with spiritual strength and trust in God.
Speaking of the deity, “The Judean Story” depicts the wedding feast at Cana; Jesus forgiving the woman taken in adultery; the triumphal entry; and the crucifixion. The Pharisees and Sadducees, of course, block Christ on every front. Piously rendered, a given for the era, this stilted sequence is probably the least interesting story today.
“The French Story” explains how the tension between Catholics and Protestant Huguenots in 1572 led to the commonly believed version of the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre.
Lavishly made, “Intolerance” was the most expensive film produced to date, costing over $2,500,000 ($47,000,000 today), but the four stories are not presented sequentially. Throughout the film’s three hours and 17 minutes, Griffith crosscuts from one tale to the other and back again in seemingly random fashion. Audiences were confused; people stayed away in droves.
The failure of “Intolerance” bankrupted Griffith’s studio, Triangle Films. Yet the power and creativity of Griffith’s cinema continues to influence filmmakers the world over.
For a chance of pace, back at the Roosevelt Hotel, French film archivist Serge Bromberg presented an excellent demonstration of the painstaking art of film restoration. He showed how “The Bank” (1915), a lost Chaplin two-reeler, was pieced together from three recently-discovered prints of varying degrees of deterioration. He also presented the restored prelude of “Battle of the Century” (1927), with all the mayhem of Laurel and Hardy’s still hilarious pie-fight par excellence.
Sister Rose Pacatte, a movie reviewer and recent TCM host, introduced “The Song of Bernadette” (1943). She told of the film influencing her vocation and how in 1940, Franz Werfel, a Jewish playwright from Prague, and his wife Alma escaping France with the Gestapo on their heels, heading for Portugal, were forced to make a detour to Lourdes a town near the Pyrenees
There the Werfels learned about St. Bernadette, the visions and the cures from the six families who hid them. Admiring their courage and devotion and touched by the story, Werfel vowed to tell the world about Bernadette’s life. His novel was a blockbuster.
The story of the apparitions of Our Lady at Lourdes is well-known and 20th Century Fox spared no expense to tell it faithfully. Jennifer Jones is luminous as Bernadette, winning the Oscar for Best Actress. All the supporting actors are superb, with Charles Bickford standing out in as the forceful and authoritative Father Peyramale, dean of Lourdes. His Academy nomination for Best Supporting Actor was a personal triumph since Bickford had been blacklisted after stepping on a lot of influential toes in Hollywood, including those of William Randolph Hearst.
About the title: In his personal preface to the novel, Werfel explains how troubadours composed songs to spread the fame of the ladies they loved. The novel, he said, was the modern equivalent, the only way he had to spread the fame and glory of St. Bernadette.
Sean M. Wright is an Emmy-nominated television writer and author. He presents workshops and Catholic faith formation courses at parishes throughout the archdiocese.