The Catholic Thing
Heroic Priests & Radiant Nuns Print E-mail
By Brad Miner   
Sunday, 16 August 2009

I suppose I’ve seen 3000 movies.

I’ve written about a couple here (Doubt and Death Takes a Holiday), and I’m not alone in believing that the evolution of this quintessentially American art form reflects changes in the larger culture. Consider especially the evolving status of Catholics on the big screen.

Before the talkies, there were few priests or nuns or genuflecting laymen on film, although there were Catholics. Mack Sennett’s Keystone Kops were based upon the myth – or was it the reality? – of the ubiquitous Irish-Catholic cop. But American Catholic moviemaking began in earnest when John Ford (born Sean Aloysius O'Fearna or John Martin Feeney, depending on when you asked him) first started directing silent movies in the Twenties.

His part-silent, part-sound feature Mother Machree (1928) was notable for its sympathetic portrayal of a Catholic family – and for the beginning of Ford’s twenty-four-film collaboration with a then twenty-one-year-old actor named John Wayne. (Wayne converted to Catholicism shortly before his death in 1979.) The Informer (1935) with Victor McLaglen – Catholic in that it deals with the Irish Republican Army – cemented Ford’s reputation as Hollywood’s top director and won him his first Oscar. He would go on to adapt Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory as The Fugitive (1946) with Gregory Peck Henry Fonda, The Quiet Man (1954) with Wayne, and The Last Hurrah (1958) with Spencer Tracy. Ford had directed 140 films by the time he died in 1973.

But until The Quiet Man, Ford’s work mostly featured Catholic characters but didn’t celebrate Catholic life. The first movies to succeed in that came in two 1938 classics not directed by Ford, Boys Town and Angels with Dirty Faces. The former, directed by Norman Taurog, won Spencer Tracy a Best Actor Oscar, for his portrayal of Father “There’s-no-such-thing-as-a-bad-boy” Flanagan, and was the most celebrated movie of the year. The latter, with James Cagney, Humphrey Bogart, and Pat O’Brien (as Father Connolly), was also a big hit. Angels was directed by the great Michael Curtiz, famous for his work with Erroll Flynn and Bogart in Casablanca. But the point is this: In Angels with Dirty Faces and in Boys Town, the heroes are priests. This was new to American moviegoers and apparently welcome.

Francis Ford, John Wayne, Victor McLaglen, John Ford,
and (seated) Barry Fitzgerald on the set of The Quiet Man.

There are Catholic films being made today – notably by the indefatigable Leonardo Defilippis – but mostly straight-to-video hagiography. In the Forties, however, Catholic movies hit the big screen and the Big Time and marked a turning point in American culture. Catholics were no longer simply marginalized immigrants; they became mainstream American icons. No two films prove the point more surely than Leo McCarey’s Going My Way (1944) and its sequel The Bells of St. Mary’s (1945), which received ten and eight Academy Award nominations respectively, made Bing Crosby (as Father O’Malley) the nation’s top box-office star, and gave the luminous Ingrid Bergman (in Bells) her third consecutive Best Actress nomination. Although the sequel is probably more watched today, Going My Way was more honored at the time: McCarey and Crosby won Oscars and GMW was the top-grossing picture of the year. Bells topped the box office too, but GMW is by far the more poignant film – bittersweet really – in its depiction of the joys and sorrows of the priesthood. If the movie’s final scene doesn’t move you, better check for a heartbeat.
The most Catholic of all major-studio movies, though, was Henry King’s 1943 adaptation of the Franz Werfel novel, The Song of Bernadette. It received a dozen Oscar nominations, winning four, including one to Jennifer Jones for her portrayal of Saint Bernadette Soubrious, who met Our Lady at Lourdes in 1858. The Miracle of Our Lady of Fatima (1952) tried to replicate Bernadette’s lightning but, in my opinion, failed. (Decent Max Steiner score though.)

And let’s not forget that at about this time, Bishop Sheen’s “Life Is Worth Living” TV series sat atop the Nielsen Ratings.

It wasn’t long after Fatima and The Quiet Man, however, that the golden age of Catholic cinema pretty much turned leaden. To be sure, there were fine Catholic films made later on in the Fifties, Sixties, and after, but, as in the Silent Era, they were Catholic mostly in that some of their characters happen to be. You can’t say The Exorcist (1973) doesn’t portray Catholics – and well – but is it a Catholic movie?
And since then it’s been all gangsters and guilt.
We’ll never know the extent to which Catholic directors such as Ford and McCarey, actors such as Tracy, Crosby, and O’Brien, and the great Catholic films of the Thirties, Forties, and Fifties shoved anti-Catholicism to the shadowy corners of American culture, much as the films of Sidney Poitier would do to racism in the Sixties.
Here’s my list of the Ten Best American Catholic Movies – annotated with notable clerical roles. (I’ve indicated the year of the film’s release, its director – with a C, if that director is Catholic. Just three are.) I encourage readers to tell The Catholic Thing about their favorites. I discourage choosing films that simply appeal to Catholics (Ben Hur, for instance, or other historical epics) but that aren’t actually about American Catholics.

10-The Cardinal (1963, Otto Preminger) Tom Tryon as Father Fermoyle.
9-Come to the Stable (1949, Henry Koster) Loretta Young as Sister Margaret.
8-Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison (1957, John Huston) Deborah Kerr as Sister Angela.
7-The Nun’s Story (1959, Fred Zinneman) Audrey Hepburn as Sister Luke.
6-Gran Torino (2008, Clint Eastwood) Christopher Carley as Father Janovich.
5-I Confess (1953, Alfred Hitchcock, C) Montgomery Clift as Father Logan.
4-The Fighting 69th (1940, William Keighley) Pat O’Brien as Father Duffy.
3-Lilies of the Field (1963, Ralph Nelson) Lilia Skala as Mother Maria.
2-The Quiet Man (1952, John Ford, C) Ward Bond as Father Lonergan.
1-Going My Way (1944, Leo McCarey, C) Barry Fitzgerald as Father Fitzgibbon.

Brad Miner, a former literary editor of National Review, is senior editor of The Catholic Thing.
© 2009 The Catholic Thing. All rights reserved. For reprint rights, write to: info at thecatholicthing dot org
The Catholic Thing is a forum for intelligent Catholic commentary. Opinions expressed by writers are solely their own.

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Comments (36)Add Comment
Here's one...
written by Wil, August 17, 2009
I was surprised not to see Rudy (1993, David Anspaugh) on your list... one of my fav movies and rife w/things Catholic!
written by John, August 17, 2009
THE most Catholic Movie of the last 20 years, Gran Torino, Catholic in every sense.
The Quiet Man
written by Amy, August 17, 2009
I loved LOVED The Quiet Man. It was the first catholic Catholic movie I ever saw. Although the lead was an American, I would consider it an Irish story as that is where it takes place. The Nun's Story is based on the novel, which is about a nun of Belgium, and later of might be an American-made movie, but it doesn't seem correct to call it "actually about American Catholics."

Hopefully more movies will get listed here - I'm interested anyway.
written by Peadar Ban, August 17, 2009
I wonder whether or not you'd be interested in making a list of films with a redemptive theme, and I don't mean some kind of action film like that thing about all the aliens dying after a cataclysmic battle. But is something like The Matrix a film with Catholic values?
Nun's Story
written by Brad Miner, August 17, 2009
Amy: You're right about The Nun's Story. It was a big, American production, was a hit, and got a slew of Oscar nods, but Sister Luke is supposed to be Belgian and pricincipal action takes place in Africa. On the other hand, you could say much the same about The Quiet Man: an American film but set in Ireland. Still, these films were a reflection of our country's love affair with the Church.
written by Tom Borek, August 17, 2009
Anti-Catholicism is coming out of hiding, and sneering secularism distains sincere religious sentiment except as an idiosyncracy for minor neurotic characters. It's partly innocent: the desire to avoid religious controversy has made popular films and other media avoid recognizing the importance of God in people's, which in turn has taught recent generations that God is not important in the world as portrayed by the media.
written by Joe, August 17, 2009
Was "On the Waterfront" considered?
On the Waterfront
written by Brad Miner, August 17, 2009
Joe: I certainly did consider On the Waterfront, and would have put it on my list had there been space to do a Top 25. -Brad
Gran Torino smells
written by Henry Elden, August 17, 2009
II am flabergasted to see Gran Torino in your top ten listing. This lowers my opinion of "the Catholic Thing", which I think very much of.
written by ron, August 17, 2009
Why wasn't "A Man For All Seasons" listed? To my mind, the best MOVIE of all time!
Favorite Catholic Movies
written by Ed Steele, August 17, 2009
I would add "The Mission" to the list, because even though obedience to Rome is questioned, the idea of redemtion in the Church, and the conviction of the priest played by Jeremy Irons is wonderful. I would also add "Becket", because beneath the main story line is the way St. Thomas Becket takes on his role as Archbishop of Canterbury, and fights for the rights of the Church against Henry II.
what about
written by debby, August 17, 2009
so, since you included A Nun's Story, what about
The Scarlet and the Black? Gregory Peck, Rex Harrison.
love this movie!!!! my anti-catholic mom saw it years ago with us and was crying at the end.
and Captains Courageous with Spencer Tracy......also great Catholic message. I love Spencer's talk about going to Heaven to fish with the Great Fisherman.
how i wish there were more to list
written by kyle, August 17, 2009
"The Sound of Music" and "A Man for All Seasons" come to mind as pretty obvious choices, although I'm not sure the latter was American.
written by Bob, August 17, 2009
"The Quiet Man" is a must see event at my house every St. Patrick's Day. I don't want to seem trivial but I was not raised Catholic and, as a teenager, watched all the vampire movies of Lugosi, Cushing, and Lee. Implicit in those movies is the special nature of the Catholic Church. Nothing is better for dealing with the forces of darkness than priests, holy water, and crucifixes.
American Catholic films
written by Brad Miner, August 17, 2009
Of course, I'm to blame for offering unclear guidelines. A Man for All Seasons is a truly great movie but in no sense American. That's less true of The Mission, since it's set in South America--or of one of my favorites, Black Robe, which is set in Canada. But I was thinking in the column of positive portraits of AMERICAN Catholic life, which all but Nun's Story evoke. I love Bob's point re: vampires.
Here's a suggestion
written by Tracy, August 17, 2009
I hope this falls within the parameters - I loved the one with Anthony Quinn as the pope, I think it's called "The Fisherman's Shoes" or something like that. But I am a really big Anthony Quinn fan, so I like everything I have seen him do.
Gran Torino?
written by W., August 17, 2009
In light of some of the comments, perhaps a Catholic Thing could entertain a discussion or analysis of Gran Torino. The redemptive aspect. The sacramental nature of the film. And, even, an evaluation and judgment on the strong language. Does it serve a legitimate purpose?
Grand Torino?
written by Achilles, August 17, 2009
I too am troubled by Gran Torino being on the top ten list? It seems to me we have to squeeze many elements into tight places to call it Catholic.
written by Chris, August 17, 2009
Ford's renditiong of Graham Greene's The Power and the Glory, starred Henry Fonda as the "whisky priest", not Gregory Peck. I'm not trying to nit-pick here, only to save some confusion for anyone who, like me ,is now trying to track down the movie version of one of 20th century Catholic literature's best novels.
My bad
written by Brad Miner, August 17, 2009
Chris: You are absolutely right. For some reason I think I had The Keys of the Kingdom in mind as I typed. Thanks for the correction, which is certainly not a nitpick. I've made the change in the body of the article. -Brad
written by Caite, August 18, 2009
Constantine? Re-watched it the other day and the issues are very Catholic to my mind and not in a mocking way like most of the bigger Hollywood movies. Also one of the 2 I would consider Keanu's acting passible.
Gran Torino Suicide
written by Thomas C. Coleman, Jr., August 18, 2009
Doesn't the hero in Gran Torino virtually commit suicide? He reaches for his lighter, knowing that the gansters will think it's a gun so that they will kill him and get arrested. Is that justifiable suicide? At least the priest in that film did not, like the one in Million Dollar Baby, say that anyone who attends Mass daily has something he connot forgive himself for. Clint has much to make up for for that film alone. How dare I be judgemental!
The Forgotten-Brothers
written by Mark, August 18, 2009
Wouldn't it be inspiriing to have a Catholic movie about a religious brother? Seems they are off all of our radar screens.
Return to Me!!!!!!!!!!!
written by nan, August 18, 2009
Where is the movie "Return to Me"? Corny,maybe, but what a great assorted group of American working class Catholics. A movie to make you smile!
Not the Cardinal, Please
written by David Deavel, August 18, 2009
Otto Preminger's The Cardinal is a glitzy failure. Tom Tryon was horribly miscast since the flagrantly homosexual actor wasn't even remotely convincing as a man torn in two by love of a beautiful woman. (Montgomery Clift was better in I Confess but wasn't faced with trying to portray the same kind of role.) It also had to squeeze in every problem possible--Father Fermoyle fights Southern Racists! Father Fermoyle fights Nazis! Father Fermoyle fights Vatican Indifference!
Gran Torino priest?
written by Jeff MIller, August 18, 2009
I found the priest in Gran Torino to be rather pathetic as seemingly intended. The homily he gives after he learns from Clint was pure cliche. There were aspects of the movie I liked in their obvious Christ like parallels. But it was a bit heavy handed in that regard, especially the planned suicide. More compelling than his previous movie on euthanasia, but similar themes.
written by Achilles, August 18, 2009
Thomas,I didn't have time to say it earlier, but that was my biggest objection to Grand Torino, it was about a hop and a skip away from Seven Pounds.
St Genesius
written by Christopher, August 18, 2009
We've been trying to start a Catholic Film club in Dublin, Ireland and having great debates as to what constitutes a "Catholic Film". Some of you might be interested too in the Fraternity of St Genesius dedicated to praying for actors and those involved in the industry. We're celebrating the saints novena at the moment and there's a great on-line novena at the site - my wife's the webmistress.
I'm With Nan
written by David Deavel, August 18, 2009
"Return to Me" is definitely a great choice.
Korrektiv's 52
written by Rufus McCain, August 19, 2009
I thought the priest in Gran Torino was fairly solid and the Dirty Harry meets Jesus Christ theme pretty compelling. Korrektiv and Transcendental Musings compiled a list of 52 movies, one per week, for the Year of the Priest.
A Couple More Picks
written by Rev. Mark Reilly, August 21, 2009
"On The Waterfront" - Malden's portrayal of the priest and Frank Capra's (I think) direction would certainly put it in the category of a great American "Catholic" film. "The Passion of the Christ" - with its apparent conformity to the traditional 14 Stations of the Cross popularized by St. Alphonsus Ligourii, as well as the Eucharistic and Marian sympathies would make it a powerful entry. (Director Gibson's personal problems of late are irrelevant to the choice . . .)
To Rev. Reilly
written by Brad Miner, August 21, 2009
On The Waterfront is a good choice (and by the way it was directed by Elia Kazan), but--personally--I've always found it a bit hectoring. And Gibson's Passion, powerful as it is, isn't a depiction of Catholicism at all (being pre-Church in setting), let alone of American Catholicism.-Brad
Duly noted - & one more
written by Rev. Mark Reilly, August 23, 2009
Thanks for the correction - of course it was Kazan with OTW... Point taken re: The Passion of the Christ - doesn't fit the category, given the criteria. An afterthought, not necessarily great, but certainly as an honorable mention: The Exorcism of Emily Rose.
written by Joe, August 31, 2009
Although not an American movie, I'd strongly recommend the English movie "Millions." It is by the same guy who directed Slum Dog Millionaire. Great movie about a boy grieving for his mother in a very unique way. His visions of (and conversations with) various saints are priceless!

Roger Ebert named it one of his "ten best" in 2005. Search his site for a nice review.
Very Narrow requirements
written by Aeneas, September 28, 2009
First off, to Tracy, the film is called "The Shoes of the Fisherman", and it's a GREAT movie, I have it on dvd. But that film does not meet the very narow requirements, seeing as how its about the Vatican and world politics, not about America that much at all. Secondly, some of the greatest 'catholic' movies of all time are not about americans, so it's sad that this list will always be missing those films.
written by brendan, January 31, 2011
the first movie i would show any non-catholic is 'the nativity.' its very well done and most importantly doctrinally correct....and leaves the viewer with an understanding of the first mysteries...the annunciation, visitation, nativity....and Mary's role in salvation.

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