Oscar season is upon us, which is one of the best times of the year for movie nerds. This is the time to think about our favorite movies and discuss or debate their merits with friends, co-workers, and fellow film buffs. But first, what is the purpose of art? Let’s see what the Church says about that:
“The fine arts, but above all sacred art, ‘of their nature are directed toward expressing in some way the infinite beauty of God in works made by human hands. Their dedication to the increase of God’s praise and of his glory is more complete, the more exclusively they are devoted to turning men’s minds devoutly toward God'”
– Catechism of the Catholic Church, Paragraph 2513
Point being, art should bring one’s mind back to the most important thing in our lives, our relationship with God. And movies haven’t been doing a great job of that lately.
There was a time when Hollywood and Christians got along very well. Hollywood made movies that inspired people to be better, to improve themselves spiritually or in their character.
Let’s check out some of these classic movies that really knew how to tell a great story, with wonderful characters, won some Oscars, and help to lift your soul! In fact, these six movies were nominated for 43 Oscars, winning 20 of them! Let’s start with the oldest, and move forward in time. Each movie on the list has links to IMDB, as well as where you can get the film on DVD or digital download/rental.
“Boys Town” (1938)
This movie tells a fictionalized story of the founding of Boys Town in Omaha, NE from the perspective of Father Flanagan. Finding resistance against the idea that “There’s no such thing as a bad boy”, Father Flanagan goes about trying to build a home for youths looking to turn their lives around. This is a great film the whole family can enjoy and is especially fascinating to see how much the world, and Omaha, have changed. Full Cast and More Details on IMDB
Stars: Spencer Tracy as Father Flanagan, Mickey Rooney as Whitey Marsh.
Oscar Nominations: Best Actor (Tracy, Won), Best Writing for Original Story (Won), Best Picture, Best Director, Best Screenplay
“Angels with Dirty Faces” (1938)
Directed by Michael Curtiz (“Casablanca”, “Adventures of Robin Hood”, “Yankee Doodle Dandy”), this film is mostly set during the mid-30s when notorious gangsters were the biggest celebrities in town. James Cagney plays a criminal returning to the neighborhood of his youth where he finds that his old best friend is now the parish priest. When a group of troubled kids start to hero-worship the recently returned gangster, the priest knows he’s got his work cut out for him to set them back on the right path. For fans of classic movies, this movie also features a supporting role for a young Humphrey Bogart! Full Cast and More Details on IMDB
Stars: James Cagney as Rocky Sullivan, Pat O’Brien as Fr. Connelly, Humphrey Bogart as James Frazier.
Oscar Nominations: Best Actor (Cagney), Best Director, Best Writing for Original Story.
DVD: Amazon | Digital Rental/Own: Currently Not Available ????
The Song of Bernadette (1943)
Based on the book by Franz Werfel, this is a fictionalized version of the life of St. Bernadette Soubirous and the miracles of Our Lady of Lourdes. Hollywood took some license in the making of this movie and while they did hit all of the major historical points correctly, they did add some conflict and drama to make it more interesting. Full Cast and More Details on IMDB
Starring: Jennifer Jones as St. Bernadette, Charles Bickford as Fr. Peyramale, Vincent Price as Prosecutor Dutour, Gladys Cooper as Sister Marie Therese, and Anne Revere as Mrs. Soubirous.
Oscar Nominations: Best Actress (Jones, Won), Best cinematography Black and White (Won), Best Interior Decoration-Black and White (Won), Best Music (Won), Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor (Bickford), Best Supporting Actress (Cooper), Best Supporting Actress (Revere), Best Director, Best Writing, Best Sound, Best Film Editing.
Going My Way (1944)
In this musical comedy, a fun, young priest named Fr. O’Malley uses unorthodox methods to help revitalize a small New York City parish in trouble. The old pastor is very wary of this new priest that the bishop has sent him, however, and is intent on saving the parish alone. Wholesome hilarity ensues! It was the highest grossing movie of the year, and its “sequel” “The Bells of Saint Mary’s” was also a critical and financial success! Full Cast and More Details on IMDB
Starring: Bing Crosby as Fr. O’Malley, and Barry Fitzgerald as Fr. Fitzgibbon.
Oscar Nominations: Best Picture (Won), Best Actor (Crosby, Won), Best Supporting Actor (Fitzgerald, Won), Best Director (Won), Best Writing, Original Story (Won), Best Screenplay (Won), Best Original Song (Won), Best Actor (Fitzgerald, nominated twice for the same role, only time that’s ever happened for one movie in history), Best Cinematography – Black and White, Best Film Editing.
The 1950s of course are home to many biblical and “sand and sword” epics like “The Robe”, “Quo Vadis”, “The Ten Commandments”, and “Ben-Hur”, all of which were nominated for multiple Academy Awards. I also won’t include “I Confess”, the Alfred Hitchcock classic, because it wasn’t nominated for any Oscars (though that is a crime). And though “On the Waterfront” has a great portrayal of a priest, I don’t count it as a Catholic movie. Quite a few people may have already heard of or seen these films, so I want to concentrate on just two more small films from the 1960s instead.
“Lilies of the Field” (1963)
A traveling handyman named Homer Smith helps a small group of German nuns build a chapel in the middle of a western desert. The Mother Superior and Mr. Smith are both trying to use the other to reach their goals, but find each other equally stubborn in negotiation. This movie has a less than ideal portrayal of a priest in it, but the amount of faith and inspiration from the nuns and Poitier’s performance as Homer Smith is more than enough to make up for it. This movie is equal parts humor and heart, and reportedly is LeVar Burton’s favorite movie ever. Full Cast and More Details on IMDB
Starring: Sidney Poitier, as Homer Smith, and Lilia Skala as Mother Maria.
Oscar Nominations: Best Actor (Poitier became the first African American to win Best Actor with this performance), Best Picture, Best Actress in a Supporting Role (Skala), Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Cinematography – Black and White)
“A Man for All Seasons” (1966)
This is the story of St. Thomas More, and his fight to follow his conscience. I don’t think that this movie should be watched by every Catholic, I think this movie should be watched by every person who likes movies, or stories in general, regardless of faith or lack thereof. Here is a story of a man told to put aside his conscience, his beliefs, himself, and to throw it all away for the good of King Henry VIII and England. This is one of the best movies ever written and has some of my favorite dialogue from any film. Full Cast and More Details on IMDB
Starring: Paul Scofield as St. Thomas More, Robert Shaw as King Henry VIII, Orson Welles as Cardinal Wolsey, Wendy Hiller as Alice More, and John Hurt as Richard Rich.
Oscar Nominations: Best Picture (Won), Best Actor (Scofield, Won), Best Director (Won), Best Writing, Adapted Screenplay (Won), Best Cinematography – Color (Won), Best Costume Design – Color (Won), Best Supporting Actor (Shaw), Best Supporting Actress (Hiller).
Movies are works of art, and we should remember the great ones that elevate our thoughts to good and holy things. While this list is made up of classics at least 50 years old, let’s not give up hope in Hollywood. Filmmakers produce new movies every day, and there’s always a chance that we can get another “classic” like these soon.