They, in this case, would be the old CRC pietists (following the analysis of [was it D H Kromminga?] that the CRC is composed of “pies, docs, and kuyps,” i.e. pietists, doctrinalists, and Kuyperians) who heaped scorn on “the silver screen,” (movies), dancing, and cards. No, I’m not becoming a pietist but I did just finish a sub-par bio of James (Jimmy Stewart), who would be 100 this year. Marc Elliot did provide sufficient historical context and background, however, to keep me interested enough to finish the book.
Three things stood out. First, it is surprising how often in the book Elliot uses the word “Presbyterian” as an adjective, as if we all know what it denotes and connotes. Usually Elliot used it as a synonym for “repressed.” It appears, from Elliot’s account, that Stewart was raised in the PCUSA and his religious views and practices seem to reflect that background. During his youth he nearly died from Scarlet Fever and his parents called a Roman priest to administer last rites. A student at Princeton University when he became interested in theater, by the time he left Broadway for Hollywood, Stewart’s religious devotion cooled.
Second, I knew that Stewart flew bombers during WWII, but what I didn’t know is that he really was heroic and that he continued to fly, off and on, for decades after the war even flying one official bombing mission over Vietnam (in a B-52) and one unofficial bombing mission (over Cambodia?). It puts his Strategic Air Command film in new perspective. It wasn’t just propaganda, we were watching Stewart getting checked out on a new aircraft.
Third, according to Elliot, MGM required single actors to prove that they were not homosexual by visiting the company brothel on a weekly basis. In other words, the very sorts of moral corruption in Hollywood, about which the old CRC pietists warned in the early part of the 20th century, which evils I have often dismissed as over-stated and alarmist, seem to have been real. I was naive.
Does this mean that we should shun film? No but it is a reminder not to be naive. Hollywood was and has always been nothing more or less than a business and, as they say, “business is business.” Stewart was a commodity to be groomed and sold to the public. A good bit of what we see in Stewart’s films seems to have been Stewart himself, but that’s only because it was good business.
However right the old pietists were about the sexual mores of old Hollywood, what they missed perhaps was even more dangerous. By focusing on the obvious violations of the seventh commandment implied in the movies (Marlene Dietrich really was threat to public and private morality on screen and off), they may have overlooked the even more profound effect of selling dreams and a vision of reality that largely excludes God from reality or where he is reduced to a limiting concept, where there is not such thing as creation or nature, where religion is mostly therapy (even back in the “good old days”) or morality, where people are basically good, and where this life is really all there is. In other words, with a few exceptions, the worldview peddled by Hollywood reflected the theology of those who backed, produced, wrote, and directed films and it still does. I guess the point is caveat emptor.
Too often in Christian film reviews grace overwhelms nature. Films are justified on the basis of how they witness to this or that Christian doctrine or redemptive theme. Just as frequently films are justified on the basis of how they testify to continuing Christian relevance to the culture. It seems difficult for us simply to watch films on the basis of creation and nature, to ask whether a film satisfies the demands of genre, whether an actor a cinematographer has created beauty or excellence. On that basis I resist the temptation to find Christian themes in films to justify them but I do wonder whether it is possible that, In “Rear Window” or in “Vertigo” there are perhaps hints, of both Hitch’s neuroses and of a doctrine of total depravity.
After the rise of the “method” actors of the late 50s and the new realism of the 60s Stewart’s fortunes faded and in the 70s he was reduced to doing guest spots on Carson. In the centennial year of his birth we should appreciate Stewart’s craft. Over the course of 80+ films in five decades he became a skilled actor. In his better films he drew us into alternative worlds and served as a kind of everyman. However mythic the portrayal, in Stewart, one does get a sense of an earlier American experience and of a persistent American character type.