Book highlights high-profile Catholics from the past

Friday, May. 13, 2011

SALT LAKE CITY – "The Look of Catholics: Portrayals in Popular Culture from the Great Depression to the Cold War" by writer and historian Anthony Burke Smith, traces such public faces from Bing Crosby to Mel Gibson. Some of them are good and others questionable, from directors John Ford, Leo McCarey and Frank Capra to publisher Henry Luce, who gave special coverage to Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen.

One of the first stars given the best of the care is Bing Crosby, who portrayed Father O’Malley in a series of movies in the 1930s. The character first was seen in his seminary days in Cincinnati, then as a priest who played basketball with the boys in the school to which he was assigned. Fr. O’Malley also carefully sat by the side of his predecessor, played by Barry Fitzgerald. Crosby was one of the first movie-priests who made it possible to bring Catholicism to the big screen.

Crosby was followed by Spencer Tracy, James Cagney and Charles Boyer, among others. "But in addition to the local character of the Catholic experience, Catholicism also increasingly assumed a national, pan-ethnic dimension after World War I," the book states. "The Catholic bishops, for instance, established their own National Catholic Welfare Conference in 1919, an institutional vehicle intended to offer the American hierarchy a collective voice on issues of national importance. Among the most prominent features was its Social Action Department, headed by the Reverend John A Ryan, the noted Catholic social reformer who had written the Bishops’ Program of Social Reconstruction of 1919, an early and far-sighted call for social reforms, including a living wage, the right of workers to organization and a form of Social Security."

McCarey, though Catholic, didn’t emphasize religion in the films he directed. His own early career in movies entailed a stint at Keystone Studios, which was founded by Mack Sennet, an Irish Canadian who migrated to the United States and eventually landed in Los Angeles. McCarey directed Charles Chase in a series of successful slapstick comedies at the Roach Studios, including "His Wooden Wedding" (1925), which allowed him to develop his talents as a comic filmmaker. In 1926, he became vice president of the Roach Operation, overseeing all film production. In this position, McCarey proved instrumental developing the team of Laurel and Hardy. In 1929, he left the Roach Studio and signed a contract with Paramount, so by the time McCarey became a director of feature-length films in the 1930s, he already had years of experience honing his comic skills in a film milieu shaped by ethics and immigrants.

One of the elements this book lacks is a balance between male and female actors. Women like Irene Dunne, Jenny Rise Stevens, Helen Hayes and Loretta Young are mentioned, but they are few, compared to the male actors, producers, directors and scene designers featured in the book. And they are almost always lumped together with one or two other women. It is hard to believe that there was a lack of romances, comedies and just plain funny women to balance the men.

"The Look of Catholics: Portrayals in Popular Cultures from the Great Depression to the Cold War," By Anthony Burke Smith, University Press of Kansas, 284 pages.

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