Book Reviews2 Old Books, Old Movies

Rather than a book, I am going to discuss some old feature films in this column. Most of these films are based upon novels or short stories so, while it is a stretch, I can just barely classify them as literature. Some of them are available on DVD; virtually all of them are shown from time-to-time on the Turner Classic Movies cable channel. They are all worth watching.


No one needs to be reminded that today’s Hollywood movies lack Christian content. But there was a time not so long ago when the Christian worldview so permeated American society that it even popped up in the movies. And not merely in overtly Christian religious films, such as The King of Kings (1927), The Song of Bernadette (1944), The Miracle of Our Lady of Fatima (1952), The Ten Commandments (1956) or Ben-Hur (1959). The Christian understanding of life and death, love and marriage, sin, forgiveness and redemption peeked through some purely secular films, from the memorable to the relatively obscure and now forgotten. So, rather than moan about what today’s popular films fail to do, let us learn from what yesterday’s succeeded in doing, sometimes unconsciously or even despite themselves, in the hope that what has happened before can, God-willing, happen again.


Not surprisingly, a good number of these films are about marriage. For example:


Adventure (MGM, 1945, 135 mins., directed by Victor Fleming, from the novel by Clyde Brion Davis). Clark Gable stars as a boisterous but cynical merchant mariner on shore-leave. While searching for a good time, an old sea-dog pal (Thomas Mitchell) drags him into a public library where he encounters a beautiful librarian (Greer Garson). Deft direction and talented acting then turn what could have been a stock soap opera into an excellent moral tale about a man who yearns for adventure, but fails until the last moment to recognize the greatest adventure of them all – marriage. In the film’s heart-pounding climax, Gable’s sailor finally confronts the humbling realities of life and death in the person of his “unwanted”  infant son.


Claudia (20th Century Fox, 1943, 91 mins., directed by Edmund Goulding, from the play by Rose Franken). This film and its sequel (Claudia and David, 20th Century Fox, 1946, 78 mins., directed by Walter Lang, from stories by Rose Franken) are small gems. Claudia and her husband, David, are typical, middle-class young marrieds who must face the thousand small and two or three large difficulties of ordinary life – the death of a parent, the birth and sickness of a child, the jealousy of a spouse. In doing so, they show us how great an undertaking marriage is. Sometimes a bit too sweet, but touching. Stars Dorothy McGuire and Robert Young.


The Enchanted Cottage (RKO Radio Pictures, 1945, 92 mins., directed by John Cromwell, from the play by Sir Arthur Wing Pinero). Dorothy McGuire and Robert Young also star in this charming film about two disfigured people, one by birth and the other by war, who find beauty in each other. Almost a fairy tale. Very well done.


Green Dolphin Street (MGM, 1947, 141 mins., directed by Victor Saville, from the novel by Elizabeth Goudge). Two beautiful sisters (Lana Turner and Donna Reed) fall in love with the same man. But, in a case of mistaken identity ridiculous even for Hollywood, he accidentally marries the one he does not love. There follow world-girdling, big-budget adventures as these two seemingly mismatched people live through years of hardship and trial, dryness and misunderstanding, sustained only by their sense of duty. But finally they realize that their difficult marriage has borne fruit in the growth of their children and the maturation of their own characters. Their realization leads them to a deep, lasting adult love which totally outstrips the grandest expectations of their egotistical, youthful infatuations. The most Catholic view of marriage ever found in any Hollywood film. Tremendous. 


Detective Story (Paramount, 1951, 105 mins., directed by William Wyler, from the play by Sidney Kingsley). Kirk Douglas and William Bendix play two tough cops out to nail a low-life abortionist – it really was illegal back then. But Douglas, a man tormented by his father’s criminal past, discovers that his own beloved wife (Eleanor Parker) was once among the abortionist’s clients. Can he forgive her? Can he forgive anyone? An intense presentation of the deeply Catholic themes of sin and forgiveness, culminating in a climactic death scene in which Bendix tearfully recites the Act of Contrition over the dying Douglas. ($9.36 at Deep Discount Video:


Captains Courageous (MGM, 1937, 117 mins., directed by Victor Fleming, based on Rudyard Kipling’s story). Fatherhood is the theme of this grand and wonderful film based on Kipling’s rousing tale. Harvey (Freddie Bartholomew) is a spoiled young lad who one day falls overboard from his millionaire father’s ocean liner into the waters of the Grand Banks, from which he is rescued by the rugged, hard-working crew of a Gloucester fishing sloop. Taken under the wing of the lyrical and joyous Portuguese fisherman, Manuel (Spencer Tracy), Harvey learns the value of honesty, work and song and so becomes a man. An amazing performance by Tracy, whose Manuel serves as a powerful Christ-figure. Also stars Lionel Barrymore, Melvyn Douglas, Mickey Rooney and John Carradine.

More in Book Reviews2


Prince of Foxes (Fox, 1949, 107 mins., directed by Henry King, based on the novel by Samuel Shellabarger). An epic film set in the Italian renaissance, shot on location and, unfortunately, in black-and-white. Too eager for success, an aspiring young painter (Tyrone Power) hides his humble origins, stifles his talent, and sells himself into the service of the most utterly corrupt politician of his time, Duke Cesare Borgia (played to the decadent hilt by Orson Welles). Under Borgia’s tutelage, Power parlays his talent for intrigue, deceit, betrayal and murder into great success. But when he attempts to use his painter’s art to accomplish his most fiendish enterprise, beauty stops him cold and leads him back to truth. He throws away his worldly success and his spiritual redemption begins. Also stars Everett Sloane.


Strange Cargo (MGM, 1940, 113 mins., directed by Frank Borzage, from the novel, Not Too Narrow … Not Too Deep, by Richard Sale). In the opening shot, Clark Gable’s rugged face emerges painfully from a black screen into the light. That’s it in a nutshell for this strange and haunting film about a band of Devil’s Island escapees, aided in their flight through the jungle by a mysterious stranger who just might be Jesus Christ. Contains one of the most subtle and chilling portrayals of the “mystery of iniquity” found on film. The excellent cast stars Joan Crawford and features Ian Hunter and, as “Pig,” Peter Lorre.


Sullivan’s Travels (Paramount, 1941, 91 mins., directed by Preston Sturges). I have no good excuse for including this last film. Sturges wrote it all by himself; it’s not based on anything else. But we need to conclude this list of dramas and adventures on a lighter note. Here we have an uproarious comedy, a Depression-era tale about a successful Hollywood director who wants to experience human suffering. So he dresses up as a penniless hobo and takes to the open road, trailed not-so-discreetly by a busload of his press agents, secretaries and gourmet chefs. Sturges was a peerless master of comic dialogue and used his skill to skewer condescending social manipulation disguised as charity and to demand respect for the human dignity of the poor in terms strangely prophetic of John Paul II. Joel McCrea stars and Veronica Lake debuts. ($28.76 at Deep Discount Video:


(Column continues below)

That’s enough for films. Next time, back to the books.

Our mission is the truth. Join us!

Your monthly donation will help our team continue reporting the truth, with fairness, integrity, and fidelity to Jesus Christ and his Church.