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155 Chapter Twenty-Two Magnificent Obsession Lew turned down Magnificent Obsession, plus an impressive salary of $250 a week, to turn his attention to his own obsession. During a free period, Lew had decided he should try something new and more challenging than simply acting on screen. At first he planned to direct a narrative film in Africa for his friend and Johnny Belinda costar Charles Bickford to star in, but these plans were soon shelved.1 He felt it was time to truly challenge himself. For a time, he considered writing or performing in a play or writing, but nothing ignited his passions. As usual, he turned to his faith: So I talked this over with God, alone with God. “Nothing seems to be right for me.” Went to bed at around 11, woke up around 5:30 and saw a sign that said “Make a motion picture on the world religions.” Turned on the light and rubbed my eyes and it was still there but then it started to break up. And my reaction was, I smiled and said how could I possibly do something like that? I don’t know enough about making motion pictures, I would have to go around the whole world. I couldn’t make a motion picture on all the world’s religions. But I couldn’t get it out of my mind and it stayed with me. I thought maybe if I can get one of the big producers, but none of them wanted to do it. And a friend of mine came by who was a technician and said if you need a technician I would go with you. I said, “I can’t possibly pay you” and he said, “You don’t have to pay me I would like to go. Could you pay my fee?” “I think I could pay for your food and travel.” I put my house up for sale, and as we were leaving, I got the phone call. You put your house up? We just sold your house.2 Magnificent Obsession 156 This new adventure would eventually be called Altars of the East, and it was his former stand-in and longtime friend Bob Duncan who joined him as his cameraman and technician. The two old friends traveled throughout the world for an entire year, sending film back every month to California. Ultimately, he secured the remainder of capital for the venture by renting his Lookout Mountain home. It was a remarkable personal sacrifice to give up the house he had once described as a dream come true. By sacrificing the thing he had treasured for nearly twenty years, Lew ensured his personal commitment to this latest project.3 He would spend a total of $85,000 on the year of filming and, after his return , devoted an additional year to editing the film.4 Altars of the East was a truly admirable project to undertake on such an individual and personal level. Yet, as one reviewer suggested, “Technically , his films are amateurish, they are no better than the color movies which tourists take. But he has poked his camera at many colorful rituals and people, from the Sikhs sacred pool at Amritsar to a parsee wedding in Bombay.”5 He filmed in Japan, Hong Kong, Burma, India, Pakistan, Fig. 22.1. Lew editing his Altars of the East films. Library of Congress. Magnificent Obsession 157 Egypt, Jordan, Turkey, and Israel in order to include segments on Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, Shinto, Formosa, Confucianism, Taoism, Hindu, Jains, Sikhs, and Zoroastrianism, subjects that were rarely discussed in American culture at that time.6 As a celebrity, Lew was given the opportunity to promote his work on a far more public stage than most other documentarians would have had in 1956. Doubleday published a companion book of the still photographs Lew had taken during his travels, and the documentary was reviewed in major publications. But while the project’s success was dependent upon his promoting it, Lew resisted interviews, as every interviewer eventually asked him about his position as a conscientious objector and his experiences during the war, a subject he would never give details of.7 Sadly, Lew’s single-minded focus on the film led him to ignore everything else in his life. It was at this time that Lionel Barrymore, one of Lew’s favorite people, became extremely ill. Lionel called and asked Lew to come for a visit. Lew later recalled: I had been...


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