The Look of Catholics: Portrayals in Popular Culture from the Great Depression to the Cold War

By Blake, Richard A. | The Catholic Historical Review, April 2011 | Go to article overview

The Look of Catholics: Portrayals in Popular Culture from the Great Depression to the Cold War


Blake, Richard A., The Catholic Historical Review


The Look of Catholics: Portrayals in Popular Culture from the Great Depression to the Cold War. By Anthony Burke Smith. (Lawrence: University of Kansas Press. 2010. Pp. xi, 284. $34.95. ISBN 978-0-700-61716-6.)

In presenting his study of media images of Catholics in America over forty tumultuous years, Anthony Burke Smith, associate professor and director of graduate studies at the University of Dayton, has opted for a variety of approaches. The complexity of topic demands no less. In each of the seven discrete but related chapters, he advances the exploration one step further through a chronological progression with perspectives borrowed from several academic disciplines. In his view, historical events in the United States and Europe set the context, but technology, economics, sociology, art, and theology all exerted an influence that must be included in his survey.

Movies learned to talk in 1927, not long after radio began to reach a majority of American homes. Within months the nation began its downward spiral into the depression. Photojournalism blossomed in the mid-1930s with the founding of Life magazine and flourished through the war years, only to be gradually supplanted by television during the cold war. American Catholics appeared in all these media through every period, and Smith explores the mutations and adaptations that their presence underwent, both as they were presented by the secular media and as they presented themselves. It was a reciprocal relationship. Catholics certainly influenced the media, while the media helped shape the perception of Catholics by themselves and nonCatholics alike.

In the early talkies, Catholics, particularly Irish Catholics, appeared as gangsters and parish priests. Both roles represented the outsider striving for upward mobility in a hostile environment. In a period known for Catholic involvement in labor unions and social services, this image resonated remarkably well with the communitarian vision of the New Deal. As the nation prepared for war and valued unity over ethnic divisions, Pat O'Brien's streetwise Father Connolly of Angels with Dirty Faces (1938) mellowed into Bing Crosby's respectable but hip Father O'Malley in Going My Way (1944). …

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