Celluloid Sermons: The Emergence of the Christian Film Industry, 1930-1986

Celluloid Sermons: The Emergence of the Christian Film Industry, 1930-1986

Celluloid Sermons: The Emergence of the Christian Film Industry, 1930-1986

Celluloid Sermons: The Emergence of the Christian Film Industry, 1930-1986

Excerpt

If Shakespeare could see sermons in stones, we of today ought
to be able to see sermons in pictures.

—Thomas Opie

The hostility and antipathy that some groups expressed toward Hollywood in the 1930s seethed through the pages of the evangelist Robert Sumner’s Hollywood Cesspool. The book catalogued a legion of immoral deeds on the screen and within the Hollywood community, citing divorces, adulteries, murders, and other crimes against humanity and God. In recognition of his critique of the American entertainment business, Sumner received an honorary doctorate from Bob Jones University in Greenville, South Carolina, a fundamentalist Christian university. That Christian fundamentalism would castigate the Hollywood industry, even during the days of collective studio censorship, is no surprise. What might be unexpected is that the same fundamentalist institution that lauded Sumner’s critique of the entertainment industry would build a significant film program of its own and make credible films for its own audiences. Respectable dramatic features would roll out of the university under the oblique, even self-effacing, imprimatur of Unusual Films.

The unexpected development of an underground movement of religious pictures offers an odd revelation, a mixing of oil and water, of God and Mammon. In 1939, the film historian Margaret Thorp stumbled on peculiar cooperative ventures of churches and theaters, finding drive-ins near Los Angeles that offered their exhibition facilities to all churches for Sunday services during any part of the day. She discovered movie theater managers in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, who promoted a “go to church on Easter Sunday campaign,” and in Elroy, Wisconsin, film exhibitors who arranged a special screening of the 1938 Norman Taurog film Boys Town for all the local clergy. For Thorp, however, the acme of cooperation occurred in Thomasville, Georgia. When a Gypsy Smith revival tent hit the town, the local exhibitor recommended the revival meetings over his own shows, declaring that Mr. Smith . . .

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