Roman Catholicism in the United States: A Thematic History

By Margaret M. McGuinness; James T. Fisher | Go to book overview

NINE
Pulp Catholicism: Catholics in American Popular Film

Anthony Burke Smith

Catholics in the United States have been deeply involved in the film industry since its beginnings, shaping both their own image and that of the nation itself. To understand the role of Catholics in film is, in fact, to engage the history of American cinema. From film pioneer D. W. Griffith’s fascination with immigrant Catholics to Mel Gibson’s early twenty-first- century retrieval of Baroque Catholicism in The Passion of the Christ, Catholicism and the movies have enjoyed a long, intimate, and contentious relationship. The mutual attraction between Catholics and film testifies to the unlikely but enduring home that movies provided Catholics in America.

Hollywood allowed Catholic outsiders to devise new roles for themselves as American insiders, simultaneously performing their religion and crafting stories that spoke to mass audiences. It also provided a space for Catholic filmmakers and moviegoers to revise their understanding of themselves and their society by critiquing older representations and projecting new ones. In the process, American films absorbed and refracted a range of Catholic sensibilities and imaginations. The result has been a cinema richly sedimented with Catholic images, perspectives, and preoccupations. Movies, the popular enterprise of the modern age, also proved to be a deeply Catholic one.

The intertwined history of Catholics and the movies is suggested by the simultaneous development of the Catholic subculture and the studio system of the nation’s film industry after World War I. As the major studios such as MGM and Warner Bros. were establishing their industrial model of mass production during the 1920s, a parallel system of cultural integration and coordination characterized Catholic life. Parishes, schools, and

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