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 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.
Among the first movies to succeed in being truly Catholic were 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 on several films with Errol Flynn and with 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.
There are Catholic films being made today – notably by the indefatigable Leonardo Defilippis – but mostly as 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 catch Bernadette’s lightning in a bottle 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 to lead. 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. But they helped.
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 Song of Bernadette  (1943, Henry King) Jennifer Jones as Bernadette.
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.
*Image: The men of The Quiet Man: Francis Ford, John Wayne, Victor McLaglen, John Ford, and Barry Fitzgerald