- The Look of Catholics: Portrayals in Popular Culture from the Great Depression to the Cold War
The simultaneous personal and universal nature of religion makes it a ripe theme for use in entertainment. In The Look of Catholics, Anthony Burke Smith carries out an academic examination of how Catholics and Catholic rituals were portrayed in film, television, and print from the late 1920s to the early 1960s. Smith uses a wealth of archival information in attempting to show how the image of Catholicism developed during this time of the changing mass media. While much of his analysis is interesting and presents new information and insights, the book is not completely successful in its mission to prove that “[t]he highly Americanized renderings of Catholics did more than simply turn Catholics into good citizens; they also provided a cultural space in which to elaborate new understandings of an American community that included Catholics” (2). This study reaches both too far in some of its arguments and not far enough in others. That is not to say that the book is not useful or well written, because it is both; however, the chapters seem to offer jumping off points for further study rather than a complete and coherent work as a whole. While each chapter is individually well researched, the overarching argument regarding the change in the media perception of Catholics feels stretched rather thin.
The book attempts to cover a wide range of areas pertaining to Catholics, including how Catholics promoted values and traditions within the community and how those values were then portrayed in film, television, and print. It covers four primary subjects: 1) the representation of Catholics on the cinema screen; 2) the representation of Catholics in Life magazine; 3) the Reverend Fulton J. Sheen on television; and 4) the role of Catholic film directors. Smith’s analysis is most convincing when it identifies how portrayals of Catholics changed on screen, especially in its analysis of Boys Town (Norman Taurog, 1938) and Going My Way (Leo McCarey, 1944). It is here, as well as in the chapter on Life to a lesser extent, where Smith most successfully [End Page 48] shows how the representations of Catholicism helped in “the dramatic cultural transformations in national community as the American Century triumphed over the reformist hopes of New Deal society after World War II” (3). He persuasively argues that portrayals of priests by Catholic actors such as Bing Crosby helped change the general perception of Catholics as separate or different from the rest of Americans. More generally, he notes how Catholic morality and ethics were aligned with issues surrounding the New Deal—for example, how films often made the priest the “cultural twin rather than the foil of the famed ethnic mobster” (38), suggesting an intriguing twist on the Depression-era portrayals of those on the fringes of society.
Less persuasive are the chapters on Catholic film directors Leo McCarey and John Ford. Given the great number of films that each director helped make, it often seems that Smith has picked the examples that best support his argument and left out those that did not. This may be owing to a lack of space. But Smith’s analysis, while engaging at many points, gives almost complete credit for the films to the two directors rather than acknowledging the non-Catholic influences in them or discussing how screenwriters and cinematographers may have influenced those films he uses as examples.
This book provides a useful and intriguing look at how Catholics moved from the margins toward the center of how American-ness was represented on in Hollywood after the Depression. Smith writes passionately and with humor about film and Catholicism. While this work feels oriented more toward those who might view film from a religious perspective, it integrates media and religion in a way that will make it useful to a variety of disciplines including film, media, religion, and history. It is most valuable for its strong individual...