A Brief History of Christian Films: 1918-2002 by Brian Hess, Ph.D.

Share Button

Not until the religious film is taken out of the commercial field, and allowed to develop unhampered under the Church will the splendid religious and ritualistic opportunity [of film] be realized. -Vachel Lindsay

A Brief History of Christian Films: 1918-2002
Film professor Brian Hess, Ph.D.

Although he was not aware of it, plans to make religious films independent of commercial studios had been underway for years before the American poet made his statement in 1922. Yet it would be nearly 20 years before an independent Christian filmmaking movement had any degree of success, financial or aesthetic. This brief summary of the history of religious filmmaking will look at 2 such pioneers, whose vastly differing ideas about the role of these films and their audiences have influenced every Christian film-maker of the last 6 decades. [1]


The first attempt at a Christian film company was the creation of the International Church Film Corporation in 1918 headed by Dr. Paul Smith of the Central Church in San Francisco. He planned the company and its film Finger of Fate (1918) to be an instrument of preaching incomparable in its power to reach millions who never enter a church. The company produced only 10 films before going bankrupt. A year later, the Historical Film Corporation of America announced their intention to film the Bible cover to cover in a series of 52 two-reel films. One year later, they had completed only As We Forgive (1920), based on the book of Philemon. By 1921, New Era Films was formed by Bertram Willoughby, a pastor of the First Congregational Church in Osage, Iowa. Willoughby believed that the remedy to ‘evil’ filmmaking was for the church to see the possibility of the motion picture for righteousness and use this great invention for the Glory of God and Salvation of Men (Rosini 311). Like the Historical Film Corporation before it, the Geographic Film Company of Cincinnati in 1922 wanted to make a series of 50 Biblical pictures only this time they would settle for 1-reelers. This, too was largely unsuccessful and by 1925 a philanthropist named William E. Harmon had founded the Religious Motion Picture Foundation. Harmon wanted these to support not supplant the sermon, yet only about 90 minutes worth of programs were ever completed.

By 1925, most religious film companies were defunct. The longest lasted only a few years, and even Harmon’s company never produced more than the 4 films it made during its first year (313). All the above-mentioned failures have a few things in common. First, they made films solely for church exhibition and for non-sectarian audiences (310-312). Second, their stated goals were less biblical gospel than moral gospel and social uplift, vague notions based on class and ‘taste.’ As Kevin Brownlow has noted, such films were common in the silent era, as it coincided with the era of progressive reform (xvi-ii). Given this, one can understand the failure of such pious efforts. After all, how could a ‘tasteful’ independent film compete with a Griffith or DeMille production, which offered the spectacle of vice, as well as reassuring virtue? Finally, the market for church films was just not large enough to accommodate all these hopeful producers, due either to a lack of 16mm projectors or the belief long held in Protestant denominations that images were not conducive to spiritual truth.

Whatever the cause, the fact remains that these pre-1939 attempts were fiascos and their films regrettably lost to history. Fortunately, the same cannot be said of either Charles Baptista or James K. Friedrich, 2 Christian film pioneers whose work has influenced every Christian film producer of the last 6 decades.

A History of Baptista Films

Carlos Octavia Baptista was born in San Cristobal, Venezuela to that country’s ambassador to Switzerland. In 1915 he came to the United States, and soon found work in the Kimball Piano Company, helping process South American export orders. By 1938 he had become involved in a movie-manufacturing firm in Chicago, distributing its titles to Latin American countries and building a film laboratory of his own at 325 W. Huron St., Chicago. The following year he had produced his first short film, The Story of a Fountain Pen (1939), based on a sermon he had given to the Sunday school children of the church he attended, Winnetka Bible Church. It was an object lesson paralleling Christian life to a fountain pen and while crude, it was a hopeful indication of the evangelical work he was to continue in the future. As Baptista said himself of the film: Although mediocre, it was the first clear indication from the Lord that we could put the Gospel on film (Baptista 22). During the next 3 years Baptista’s interest in distributing others’ films waned, as the production and distribution of his own grew. This culminated in the creation of the Scriptures Visualized Institute in 1942, Baptista’s production company, with headquarters at the Huron St. address.

The year 1940 would see Baptista producing his first gospel Musical, The Singing Heart in the home of his first employees, two young men who soon discovered that it was too difficult to make films in their home (22). This was the year of his first converts to the Lord through film, and one year later he had started a small machine shop, and made a half dozen more Gospel films. Unfortunately, though, he faced a problem that was plaguing James Friedrich at the same time: the reluctance of the churches to accept films as instruments of Christian doctrine. Still having a hard time convincing churches that our Gospel films honor Jesus Christ. Sold them projectors below cost, and sent many films for free preview by church boards. Practically every one likes the films. Very little income, and many problems (22). The next year was equally tough for Baptista. In 1942, the Army drafted cameraman Wilford Miller and his partner. Likewise, the laboratory head, his assistant and their machinist all left to work in war production, and they had difficulty finding some of the needed materials. This was also the year he started his animation department and named his company Scriptures Visualized Institute (SVI).

His persistence paid off, though and 1943 was a good year for the filmmaker. Despite setbacks due to the war, he had already built a small sound studio, made his first animation films, and finished The Man Who Forgot God and The Prodigal Son, 2 of his earliest and most popular evangelical dramas. As he noted, The war is causing lots of problems, but the work keeps growing. Churches are finding out that our films are true to the Bible, and glorify the Lord Jesus Christ. More souls are being saved through the Gospel films (22).

Perhaps the effects of the war had something to do with the churches’ sudden interest in spiritual films. His zeal for preaching the Gospel via films is evident when considering Baptista’s early film rental policy. As film professors Terry Lindvall and Andrew Quicke note, he offered a free preview service in his catalogs for pastors and church leaders. He would also send any of his films for a free preview without cost, and he offer an extensive installment plan for film purchases (27). In the 1950s he became even more generous, offering film rentals with repayment taking the form of the church offering. Unfortunately, this did not always cover shipping and production costs.

Another of the constant problems faced by Baptista was a lack of venue, as most churches did not have 16mm projectors (Baptista’s sole format). By 1944, he felt God was leading him to design a projector of his own. The following year Baptista met Maxwell Kerr, a young engineer who Baptista was sure the Lord picked to design and build our sound projector (Baptista 22). The story of Kerr’s involvement with Baptista is worthy of a treatment in itself, but his most important contributions were his work on Baptista’s 2 technical marvels: the Miracle Projector and the Tel N’ See Slide Projector.

By 1946, Baptista had its first working Miracle Projector, designed and engineered by Kerr and former Bell and Howell designer Stephen Platt. Baptista always had difficulty providing projectors to churches. The war made them even more scarce, since they were required by the military. According to Kerr, Platt designed the projector mechanisms, while he invented the sound system. The result was a machine that used a sprocket-type mechanism, instead of the usual claws. This made the projector quieter, with a faster film pulldown, allowing more light to reach the screen. It also weighed only 25 pounds, 60 lighter than normal 16mm projectors, and had high fidelity sound (Kerr). As a former Baptista employee remembered, The project was so secret that none of us were allowed into the room in which the projector was being built. In fact, we did not even know about the Miracle Projector until it was finished. However, when Charlie [Carlos Baptista] claimed the invention to himself, the creator (Max Kerr) quit the company (Lindvall 28). The Tel N’ See slide projector was automatic, featuring 2 slides at a time instead of the usual 1, which then changed every few seconds. According to Kerr, this was made possible by customizing a special French camera, so that 2 pictures could be exposed at the same time, instead of its usual 3. That year Baptista also began work on what many consider his masterpiece, an hour-long animated version of Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress. [2] The project would take 4 years. As he himself noted, A good thing the Lord didn’t tell us what a tremendous job it was to be. It took 6 months just to plan the design of the 60 odd characters, their mannerisms, costumes, colors, etc. (Baptista 22).

In 1947 the company relocated. The move was something of a miracle, too. According to Baptista, the landlord of their Huron St. address came to him in December of 1946, demanding a 2-year renewal on their lease, which would expire on May 1 of the following year. The new contract was for $500 per month, 4 times the 1938 rate. They had 1 week to renew the lease, and Baptista decided not to, based on prayer and his belief that the Lord would have their new building foundation built in time for the company to relocate before the lease ended. The Christian builder was doubtful that the building would be complete, due to a shortage of steel for beams and supports, the earliest shipments of which were estimated at nine months. On March 12 the beams arrived, and on April 30, two days before the expiration on the lease, the Scriptures Visualized Institute moved to 434 Sunnyside Avenue in Wheaton, Illinois.

Over the next 2 years more than 200 Miracles were produced and shipped around the country. By 1950, Baptista’s engineers had conceived of a newer, smoother-running Miracle projector, [3] and Pilgrim’s Progress had its premiere at the Moody Church in Chicago. The following year, Baptista started delivering Miracle 2 projectors. According to him, at the first use of the Miracle 2 one soul was saved-a theater-operator who watched it run (23). This was also the year that work began on the Tel N’ See slide projector. Over the next few years, Baptista gradually phased out the production of films in favor of slide shows. These were originally designed to be used with accompanying sound-on-record, but by 1955 records were abandoned in favor of sprocketed tape, which meant modifications had to be made to the Tel N’ See tape player.

Baptista died 10 years later, and with him the company. Its peak years were behind it by 1955, and the next decade would see Baptista selling his Tel N’ See projectors to a group of Christian businessmen, [4] and the confiscation of his house to pay a large debt. Evidently, investment in research and development of the equipment, along with his generous policy of film and equipment rental to poorer churches led to Baptista’s sizable liability, and the subsequent sale of his assets after his death. According to Maxwell Kerr, Baptista died a brokenhearted man. He also offers an explanation for the failure of the Tel N’ See and Tak N’ See:

The main reason they were not successful is because they insisted in putting them on 16mm double-frame filmstrip, which was non-standard in the industry. You had to have a special projector for it, and a special camera, which I found theymade in France, and I have the whole stock of what’s left of them, because the company’s gone out of business.

Ironically, it seems Baptista’s decision was motivated by desire to save money. The special camera Kerr spoke of had the capacity of taking 500 shots in color, with a processing cost of only 2 cents per shot.

Baptista saw a gulf between entertainment and education. As such, he believed that only by presenting information could one effectively preach the gospel of Christianity. In the frontispiece to the company’s 10th catalog, Baptista explains the function of his products:

Three main characteristics distinguish the Baptista Gospel films. First, they magnify only the Lord Jesus Christ and present Him as Savior and Lord. Second, they are true to the Bible, without compromise-no toning down, no soft pedaling the message for the sake of making more sales. Third, they apply the message to present needs. Unless the people in the audience see themselves in the film, it may entertain them but will not make a deep, lasting impression. Baptista films are not just pictures to entertain people The purpose of making these films is not commercial but to win the lost for Jesus Christ.

A History of Cathedral Films

The story of Cathedral Films has its beginning in 1932. A young Episcopalian named James Kempe Friedrich had dropped out of the University of Minnesota, and was selling Bell and Howell cameras. That year, Friedrich’s church in Red Wing got a new rector named Earle Jewell. Friedrich was changed by this encounter. As his widow, Elaine, recalled, “He never did say exactly how it happened, or when. He said only that ‘this man introduced me to Christ'” (James Friedrich 3). The following year, while in seminary in Virginia he developed an idea for films that would minister to the church, specifically Sunday school children. What they see impresses people more than what they merely hear There are hundreds of thousands of little feet toddling over the thresholds of the theaters of America Too many of our boys and girls are growing up with no knowledge of the Bible. If I can rouse in them an interest to read the Bible, then, thank God, I shall have done something worthwhile. (3) For his thesis, Friedrich wrote a script on the life of Paul, and after graduating from seminary in 1936 soon moved to Hollywood. Within a year he had met the people who would be his collaborative team for years to come: producer/director Jack Coyle, [5] writer Dana Burnett [6] and respected director Irving Pichel. Because of a $135,000 inheritance, Friedrich was able to make The Great Commandment (1939), a feature-length fictional film about a Jewish zealot who shows mercy on a Roman soldier after hearing Jesus preach. The film was shot on the old Selznick International Studios in Culver City at the same time as Gone With the Wind. As Elaine Friedrich remembered: There we were: the smallest and newest company in California sharing a lot with one of the greatest pictures of that or any other year. I’m sure that Vivien Leigh and Olivia DeHavilland, Clark Gable and Leslie Howard were not even aware of us, but we-still getting used to life in Hollywood-enjoyed them wandering around in their nineteenth century wardrobes. And when we compared the Cathedral budget with their costs for one week, or even one day, we had to laugh. (4) The film premiered in Joplin, Missouri and Emporia, Kansas in November of that year, and was so well received by audiences and critics that Twentieth-Century Fox offered to buy the rights for a remake. Friedrich agreed, and reaped a $35,000 profit. Unfortunately, like Griffith’s Intolerance (1916) and Ince’s Civilization (1916) before it, Friedrich’s opus was scuttled in the wake of international politics. Poland had been invaded 2 months before the premiere, and a year later it appeared as though the U.S. would enter the war, with the Battle of Britain and passage of the Lend-Lease Act. Mrs. Friedrich: As the war clouds gathered, a screening which had been scheduled for the White House was canceled, and finally the project was put on the shelf. For who is to be taught to love your enemy when he may soon have to learn to shoot at him? (Lindvall 21)

Still, the movie was distributed on 16mm by Films, Incorporated, and it remains a watershed. Not surprisingly, it was named by The Christian Century in June, 1941 as one of the Best Current Films for families along with Disney’s Fantasia (1940), Joris Ivens’ Power and the Land (1940), and Andy Hardy’s Private Secretary (1941). It was the first feature-length independent Christian film exhibited in 35mm and optioned by a major studio. Although negative materials exist in 35mm for other early Cathedral titles such as Queen Esther (1947), it is unclear whether they were actually shot in this format, or ‘blown up’ later, and although the premiere for The Great Commandment was prestigious, Friedrich did not release another film theatrically until 1954’s Day of Triumph. The noble failure of The Great Commandment (1939) encouraged him to make films solely for the church. Like Baptista, though, he faced several problems, which fell under 2 basic categories: lack of projectors and lack of trust among clergy for whom there was no precedent of a Christian film. [7] Baptista and Friedrich were the only Christian filmmakers at this time; it had been 20 years since the pious attempts of the silent days, and many churches did not trust films to convey God’s message. [8] Friedrich’s son James noted of their mentality, “In the beginning was the Word, not the picture” (6). Many of them feared the misrepresentation of Jesus on screen, since what is seen is believed to be real. Yet Friedrich was determined that films based on the Bible with sound and picture could be more powerful than either element alone.

The Reverend’s view on the entertainment/education debate in Christian films can be seen in an article he wrote for Christianity Today in 1961.

My use of audio-visuals in teaching unfolded for me a vast new world of possibilities for presenting Bible truth in a way that actually makes teaching a pleasure Out of the experience came a conviction that Christian education had to face realistically the fact that the modern church exists in a visually dominated culture The Church School teacher or leader who is not aware of this is severely limited in planning for and carrying out an effective program of Christian education. (8)

It is safe to say that Friedrich believed persuasion to be most effective when least expected, hence his emphasis on pedagogy through entertainment, unlike Baptista. Despite their differences, both men always insisted on Biblical rigor. If a story was expanded, it was always a dramatic necessity, and never contradicted the theme of Scripture. Reputable and responsible producers assure pastors and teachers that their visual-aids are as theologically and historically trustworthy as any reputable Bible commentary because they are based on sound Christian scholarship (9).

Unfortunately, Friedrich did not have Miracle projectors, and during the war he had to be a 1-man band, promoting and showing the films wherever there were projectors and audiences. His son remembers how, during the war, their backyard Sunday school gradually grew from a few children to several hundred (7). After the war, the Sunday school became a new parish, and Friedrich had proved his point; within a few years he had broken ground at 100 N. Hollywood Way, the site of Cathedral Pictures’ offices and studio for the next 3 decades. The end of the war also brought about a blessing in the form of surplus projectors. “Friedrich was the motivator in getting churches to pick up these projectors; in fact, he gave them away, Rev. Friedrich did, gave them away so that the churches would have projectors, and having projectors they would start looking at films. So that’s how Cathedral really got started. To broaden the films’ appeal, he hired scholars and educators to consult on the scripts, and based them on biblical history, with a non-denominational outlook. His mission was to educate and enlighten the church-at-large, without reference to denominational doctrine.

To accomplish this goal Friedrich was willing to hire anyone, regardless of his religious beliefs, unlike Carlos Baptista. As a result, Cathedral films look much more polished and professional than those of his contemporary Baptista, and belie their ‘independent’ origin. [9] As Friedrich put it:We select our actors and actresses because of their God-given talent, and we give them an opportunity to use that talent for the glory of God. I do not think I have the right to ask them if they are Christian I take my cue from Christ himself He always took people where he found them and led them to a better experience of life. And that’s what our pictures do to the people who work in them. They are better because of the experience. And they always want to come back and work with us again. (9)

A present-day look at the credits of Cathedral films reveals some surprises. Several famous character actors worked for Cathedral: Tom Neal in Voyage to Rome -1951), [10] George Macready (I Beheld His Glory-1953), Lee J. Cobb and Joanne Dru (Day of Triumph-1954), Hugh Beaumont (Indian American-1955), John Larch (Big Steve-1957), [11] Walter Brennan (Don’t Blame Me-1962), Edward Platt (Is This For Me? 1962), [12] Raymond St. Jacques [13] and Michael McGuire (Number One-1979). [14] In addition, famous (or infamous) homosexual evangelical preacher Mel White made two films for Cathedral during the mid-1960s, the very strange The Moral Choice (1965) and bland To Forgive a Thief (with Roy Rogers, Jr.-1966). Both projects occurred before White taught film production at Fuller Theological Seminary in the early 1970s, and his subsequent revelation of his sexual identity. [15] Perhaps the most fascinating find for film buffs and students, however, is the work done for Cathedral by three very different crew members, known for their efforts in feature films. These are director Irving Pichel, [16] and cinematographers John Alton and Sven Nykvist. By the time Pichel directed The Great Commandment in 1939, he had been a jack-of-all-trades in Hollywood. He began as a stage actor, and came to California with the beginning of sound on film in the late 1920s. There, he became a scriptwriter for MGM, while continuing to appear as a character actor, his most famous roles being Fagin in the Oliver Twist (1933) and the title character’s manservant in Dracula’s Daughter (1936). His first directorial feature was The Most Dangerous Game for RKO in 1932. [17] In addition, he was a regular contributor and later board member of The Hollywood Quarterly in the late 1940s, [18] and his coworkers in the journal included Alvah Bessie, Lester Cole and Abraham Polonsky. Because of his associations with them and their alleged fronting groups, Pichel was blacklisted as one of the original Hollywood 19, and his name cleared only after it was discovered that he had no affiliation with the Communist Party. Throughout his 2-decade directing career (mostly for 20th Century-Fox), Pichel worked in almost every genre: musicals (Dance Hall-1941), action-adventure (O.S.S.-1946), ‘film noir’ (They Won’t Believe Me-1947), comedy (Colonel Effingham’s Raid-1945), science fiction (Destination Moon 1950) and drama (the Steinbeck adaptations The Moon is Down-1943 and A Medal for Benny-1945). [19] Sadly, Day of Triumph (1954) was his last film; he died of a heart attack the year it was released. John Alton was a master cinematographer who came to Hollywood from Hungary in the early 1920s and became a lab technician for MGM in 1924 [20] before transferring to Paramount later that decade. While at this studio, Alton worked extensively in South America making Spanish language films. By 1937, he was working again in Hollywood, for Republic Pictures. It was here that Alton would help create the distinctly stark and contrasting look of the ‘film noir’ in a series of films made for director Anthony Mann: T-Men (1947), Raw Deal (1948), He Walked By Night (1948) [21] and Reign of Terror (aka The Black Book -1949). [22] In 1942, while still at Republic, Alton photographed No Greater Power for Cathedral, a dramatization about Zaccheus the tax collector. Although Power did not warrant the stylization of his later films with Mann, it does have moments of flamboyance, most obviously whenever Jesus is strongly backlit, giving a halo effect, or when shafts of light seem to strongly contrast darkness with His light. Harvey Marks commented on this quality in Friedrich’s black and white films in general: He (Friedrich) took detail in the lighting of [them] many black and white films were flat, flat lighting. His aren’t. His have almost a 3-D effect to them because of the lighting (Kerr). Sven Nykvist, the other notable cinematographer, shot two films for Cathedral, both about colonial Africa, In the Footsteps of the Witch-Doctor (1950) and Africa and Schweitzer(1961). [23] Both films look beautiful, the latter an especially good example of Nykvist’s trademark emphasis on natural source lighting. The same year that he completed Africa and Schweitzer, Nykvist replaced Ingmar Bergman’s regular director of photography, Gunnar Fischer, to work on Bergman’s ‘faith’ trilogy (Through a Glass Darkly -1961, Winter Light -1963, The Silence -1963). This high standard of quality was the rule, not the exception for Cathedral Films, and Rev. Friedrich often used union actors and members of the prestigious American Society of Cinematographers. In spite of their professional gloss, Cathedral films cannot easily be written off as merely religious entertainment. As Harvey Marks recalled in an interview, Friedrich was deeply evangelical in what he did (Marks). Rev. Friedrich himself stated the goals of his no

nprofit company in a 1942 interview with Educational Screen Magazine:

It is so important that we reach the ‘man in the street’ with the simple way of life that Jesus talked and lived. Few people these days stop to consider the values with which Christ was really concerned, for, in His way of looking at life, He placed new values on certain things that we seldom consider of any importance at all. Yet anyone who has caught a glimpse of what Jesus really meant, has found that a man can be born again; and the world he lives in, though its surroundings be the same, is changed completely because he looks at everything so differently. It is through the eye that I believe this transformation may be done quicker; other methods used by the Church have failed to accomplish the task. (388)

Cathedral Films is probably best remembered for two lengthy projects: the ‘Life of Paul‘ series (1949-51), [24] and the ‘Living Christ‘series (1951-7). [25] They were both 12-part series of half-hour episodes, to be aired in order like a Republic serial. The first was shot in black and white, and the latter in color. Fittingly, director Jack Coyle had worked for Republic Pictures (like John Alton) before joining Cathedral, and although the films contained a generous amount of fictional elements, these were often necessary to bridge biblical accounts, and never contradicted the theme of the books on which they were based. [26]

Unfortunately, another of Friedrich’s pet projects would not fare so well. Day of Triumph (1954), his return to theatrical features, sank despite favorable reviews. For example, Newsweek: “Compared with Hollywood biblical extravaganzas, Day of Triumph is a model of simplicity and good taste; Los Angeles Examiner wrote “An outstanding cast, absolutely top direction, cinematography and settings all contribute their important shares to the film’s impressive whole; Film Daily thought it “Should enjoy vast popularity throughout the world; and the Los Angeles Times said it was a “Forcefully told story rich in inspirational values scenes of moving power. According to James L. Friedrich, what killed the film’s potential was an outcry by the Jewish community over the presentation of Judas, whom they claimed looked more Semitic than the other disciples. Fearful of backlash, the newly independent theater chains froze the film out “Before it had played even 20% of the screens” (10). If true, this is ironic because Judas is a sympathetic character, a misguided and ambitious man who does what he can to throw off Roman oppression. [27] Perhaps what the largely Jewish theater owners found disconcerting was the fact the filmmaker was a Catholic with a German surname, and the story largely about two Jewish groups (Pharisees/Zealots) who wish to manipulate Jesus for their own ends. Whatever the reason, it was a financial failure. Like Baptista’s Scriptures Visualized Institute, Cathedral Films was veering away from film production at the end of the 1950s, and toward educational filmstrips on Bible stories. In the decades to follow, Cathedral would become more a distributor than a producer, for groups like the United Lutheran Church in America and Brigham Young University. Also, in the decade before Friedrich’s death in 1966, he began to consider using films for missionary evangelizing rather than American churches.

A Presbyterian layman named Elwain Steinkamp asked Friedrich if he could dub the ‘Living Christ‘ series into Spanish, and distribute it in Mexico. He had been distributing tracts and Bibles there for some time, but was unable to overcome the population’s large illiteracy problem. [28] Permission was given, and the result was a perfect tool to illustrate God’s love to people who could not read about it. A few months before his death, Cathedral’s founder wrote to a friend about another young missionary who had been using the films in Mexico:

He assembled the whole community, some 300 people, into the village square, and with a portable generator to run his projector he showed them the film from the Living Christ series, Holy Night dubbed into Spanish. Afterwards, he asked how many in the group would like to give their lives to the Lord. The missionary could not see the congregation because the only light was the one from the projector, and it was shining in his eyes, so the operator turned the projector off and he was amazed to find practically everyone in the village square had his hand up. (11)

Of course, Baptista had been doing this for years. His films had been translated into Chinese, Portugese, Spanish, Dutch, German, Hindi and many other languages years before. Unfortunately, Friedrich had trouble raising the funds necessary for mission work. Like the clerical distrust of films 20 years earlier, the Episcopal Church did not want to spend mission funds on films. As Friedrich himself put it in a letter to a friend, “The tragedy of our present situation is the fact that the major denominations, including our own church, are not aware of the tremendous potential that lies with these new tools for taking the gospel to people in other lands” (10). He never got to see the harvest from his labors, but you can see evidence of this newfound use for the films in Many Faces of Mexico (1967), which shows a similar village projection of Conflict (1955), 4th film in the ‘Living Christ‘ series. Friedrich died in July, 1966, a year after Carlos Baptista.

Genre and Legacy

In the mid-1890s, during the pioneering days of cinema, 2 distinct approaches emerged concerning the practice of filmmaking and film’s relation to its audience. These approaches are perfectly illustrated by the work of two groups of French filmmakers: brothers Auguste and Louis Lumiere and Georges Melies. The Lumieres made actualites, or documentary views, in which a static camera tried to capture reality-a baby eating food or a train pulling into a station. Melies, a stage magician, was referred to by Louis Lumiere himself as the “Father of the motion-picture spectacle. He used trick photography, lap dissolves, fades, stop motion and the like to create unreal worlds in which viewer disbelief was temporarily suspended, and the unseen was manifested. Both groups used film to manipulate truth as they saw it. The Lumieres saw film as a way to chronicle reality, while Melies saw in film’s formal properties a way to extend the experience of a night’s entertainment in a theater magic show. Forty years later, Carlos Octavia Baptista emerged as the Lumiere of Christian film. He presented the gospel simply and explicitly, using film as a way of extending sermons by directly addressing his audience. At the same time, James Kempe Friedrich was the Melies of Christian films. He used the medium to suspend disbelief – short dramas that implicitly illustrated biblical principles and stories. This is helpful in classifying the men, but is admittedly simplistic. While the above-mentioned types of films are typical of their output, neither the Frenchmen nor their religious counterparts were restricted solely to these types. While Friedrich was known for his dramatic films, and Baptista for his documentary-like filmed sermons, both men frequently encroached on the other’s territory. In addition to Bible fiction like The Great Commandment (1939), James Friedrich also made documentaries with strong evangelical rhetoric, such as In the Footsteps of the Witch-Doctor (1950), while Baptista made children’s animation, like Thankful Dandelion (1946). [29] However, the style in which they approached these projects unmistakably reflected each man’s preferred philosophy of filmmaking. ‘Witch-Doctor‘ is content to document the superstitions of certain

n tribes and inroads made by medical missionaries, while Thankful Dandelion is full of heavy-handed and leading narration. [30] There have been several messy attempts over the years to subdivide the ‘Christian’ film genre into subgenres. [31] One of the simplest was proposed by film professors Terry Lindvall and Andrew Quicke in their recent manuscript The Brazen Serpent: The Christian Film Industry. They identify 5 main types of Christian films, based on intent and narrative presentation: Historical Narratives – which “present the viewers with dramatic teachings concerning the historical accounts of many Bible characters.” Most Cathedral films made between 1939-1950 are of this type, including heavily dramatized biblical stories like Man of Faith (1944), The Rich Young Ruler (1946), Amos, Shepherd of Tekoa (1947) and Jairus’ Daughter (1947). The Gospel – films that “center on Christ as the key figure in the film” and are designed to invoke a response to the viewers concerning the Lord. The obvious model for these would be Cathedral’s ‘Living Christ‘ series (1951-57). Didache/Witness – teaching films that are 1 of 3 types, the ‘talking head’ instruction, the ‘confession biography’ or contemporary issues stories; all varieties are common among Baptista’s output. Five Minutes to Live (1943) is the archetypal ‘talking head’ film: 4 preachers (Drs. Oswald Smith, W.B. Riley, Walter, and H.A. Ironside) give short sermons on what the audience should do, given the title condition. There is frequently bleed-over among these 3 approaches; the 4 pastors of ‘Five Minutes‘ give their testimonies while preaching, and Dutch woman Grace Zijp preaches directly to the audience while giving her testimony in Why I Am So Happy (194?). Likewise, voice-over narration coats all of Baptista’s contemporary missionary documentaries, like Airmail From God (1952), Filipino Farmers (194?), Heathen Rage (1951), From Confucius to Christ (194?), etc. [32] Some contemporary issues witness films from Cathedral include Alaskan Discovery, Cry of the China Seas and Tongues of Fire (all 1958), A World on Fire (1961), Savage Flame (1962), Many Faces of Mexico (1967), Crisis in the Ministry (1970). [33] It is worth noting that Cathedral distributed several social/health films with no evangelical Christian content during the 1960s, most made for Brigham Young University by Mormon director Wetzel O. Whitaker: [34] Time Pulls the Trigger (1961-smoking), Teenage Marriage (1962), Dropout (1965), Marriage Mixup (1966), Mirror, Mirror: You and Your Self-Image (1968), Walk in Their Shoes (1968-parenting) and Johnny Lingo: Building Self-Worth in Others (1969). [35] Dramatic films can be either evangelistic, parabolic, or celebratory. Evangelistic dramas are typified by S.V.I.’s The Man Who Forgot God (1943), in which a backslidden Christian and his wife become missionaries after the death of their young daughter. Parabolic stories are unfortunately rare in Christian filmmaking, usually taking the form of animation. An exception is the Cathedral-like drama Parable (1964), produced by the New York City Council of Churches and generally considered the greatest Christian film ever made. A clown walking a road joins a circus and bears the burdens of the performers, if not their successes: the carnies setting up the tents, the man in the dunking booth, etc. At the end he is chased away, but returns to walk the road waiting for another circus. Celebratory dramas are simply ones that celebrate an aspect of the Christian life. Good examples include the docudramas made by Cathedral’s youth-oriented subsidiary, Outreach Films in the 1970s: Sun Seekers: a Surf Odyssey (1969/1973), Reach for the Summit (1975) and Love is Beautiful (1978).

Finally, Apocalyptic/Surreal films portray events like the rapture and final judgment (62-74). This last category is fairly recent, and is the only kind of film not made by either Baptista or Friedrich during their years of operation. This genre came to existence in the anxious 1970s. [36] examples include the 2 collaborations between southern exploitation auteur-turned-evangelist Ron Ormond and Southern Baptist preacher Estes Pirkle, If Footmen Tire You, What Will Horses Do? (1971) [37] and The Burning Hell (1974) [38] and Mark IV Films’ ‘apocalypse’ series: [39] Thief in the Night (1972), [40] A Distant Thunder (1978), [41] Image of the Beast (1980) [42] and Prodigal Planet (1983). [43] This genre is the specialty of new studio Cloud Ten Pictures, whose ‘Apocalypse‘ series is clearly modeled after Mark IV: Apocalypse: Caught in the Eye of the Storm (1998), Apocalypse II: Revelation (1999), Apocalypse III: Tribulation (2000), Apocalypse IV: Judgment (2001), as well as the similar Deceived (2001) [44] and Left Behind (2000) and Left Behind II: Tribulation Force (2002), based on the popular books by Tim Lahaye. The Omega Code (1999), Megiddo: The Omega Code 2 (2001) were both produced by the Trinity Broadcasting Network (TBN).Friedrich’s Cathedral Films can best be described as “Discussion-Starters.” This term, first mentioned by Wheaton alumnus Gene Getz in his book Audio-Visual Media in Christian Education (1972), [45] was used by Mars Hill Films in the late 1970s to describe their products, which are very similar to the kind of church films Cathedral made 20 years earlier. In the literature on their films, the company lists several criteria for such a film.

Relationship. A “discussion-starter” film requires the kind of interaction which stimulates and facilitates realtionship. Relationship is the basis for any long-term effort to help people. Positive Tension. Growth rarely occurs without tension. A good “discussion-starter” film creates positive tension in the viewer, which then creates a need for resolution, which then provides the motivation that stimulates growth. Unlike most films, the resolution of the story comes not in the film, but the discussion. Respect for the Viewer. To help a viewer form a conclusion, caring discussion is significantly more respectful than telling the viewer what to believe in a film. Ownership of the Conclusion. Most media can be used to manipulate people. When a film “spoon-feeds” the viewer with answers to difficult issues, the viewer often rejects those answers without working through the issues. Unless an individual personally works through an issue to form a conclusion, he probably doesn’t have the ownership of the conclusion.

Like Cathedral, Mars Hill frequently provides study guides for its films, which are aimed at a primarily juvenile audience. The similarities between the 2 companies can be seen in Friedrich’s film, New Doorways to Learning (1953), a public relations film for the church, to both explain Friedrich’s position and motivate use of his films. In it he stresses 4 main goals for the films: 1) “to edify and educate the church,” 2) “to enhance interest in civic affairs,” 3) “to promote missions work around the world,” and 4) “to evangelize,” in that order. The film ends with his encouragement that “We at Cathedral Films hope they will become a daily and continuing asset to your church program educational, instructive, inspirational.” Both film companies taught; Baptista told, while Cathedral showed. [46]

Unfortunately, despite the high technical quality of Cathedral films and the occasional quality of Baptista, neither company represents a high point in the artistry of the film medium. [47] There is no Citizen Kane (1941) or Rashomon (1950) in the bunch, and both companies failed to invoke what Paul Schrader famously called the Transcendent, a direct expression of the Holy itself, and not an illustration of beliefs (Baptista) or expression of holy feelings (Friedrich). Such a style seeks to maximize the mystery of existence, and cannot inform one about the Transcendent, [but] can only be expressive of it (6). In other words, films about holy subjects are best when least preachy and obvious. Less is more. [48]

Both men were born-again Christians, but the approaches they took in the making of their films, from conception through release, varied drastically and illustrate the two divergent paths offered Christian filmmakers to the present day. Businessman Baptista approached filmmaking first from a theological perspective, while theologian Friedrich saw films as commercial ventures whose persuasive power lay in their ability to rival Hollywood products. According to Harvey Marks, the founder of the Visual Aid Center, one of the first Christian film libraries, the strength of Cathedral Films lay in “the quality he (Friedrich) insisted on having. He was one of the first ones to say we’ve got to have quality in Christian films,” and while Baptista films “were not the quality of Dr. Friedrich They were good. They had a message, every one of them had a strong message and that was important and Baptista was dedicated to presenting that message. That was number one. So now Ken Anderson films uses that as their theme. [49] Carlos Baptista’s legacy can also be seen in the Moody ‘Sermons From Science‘ series (1946-1962), as well as the ‘illustrated sermon’ styles of Billy Graham’s World Wide Pictures (1950s-present?), Word Films (1970s-?), [50] The Ormond Organization (1971-1981) and especially Christian television: the Christian Broadcasting Network (CBN) since the 1960s, Praise the Lord (PTL) since the 1970s, and TBN (Trinity Broadcasting Network) since the 1980s.

James Friedrich has had a much broader impact in filmmaking than Baptista, whose movies were shown entirely in religious venues. Friedrich’s films certainly influenced his friend Walt Disney, whose studio in Burbank was often used to premiere the latest Cathedral film. [51] Harvey Marks: “I’m sure that Jim Friedrich influenced [the] life of Walt Disney when Disney was alive, there wasn’t a film you couldn’t take your children to. They were family-oriented films. And I think that Friedrich had an influence on him. Since his death, they’re bringing in the occult and witchcraft and things like that that were never in before. In addition to Mars Hill, the Cathedral stamp of technical excellence can be seen in the short dramatic films made by Concordia (1947-1968?), Family Films (1948-1985), [52] Church Craft (1948-1964), Broadman (1951-1979), Church Growth Films (1971-1983), Glenray (1973-1986), Valley Forge Films (1956-1972?), [53] Mark IV Productions (1973-1984), Ed McDougall Productions (197?-present), as well as the recent spate of ‘doomsday’ feature films by Cloud Ten Pictures and TBN. Cathedral’s legacy of quality can also be seen in the first-rate talent used by these various companies: R. Lee Ermey, Michael Ironside, Diane Venora, Franco Nero, Casper Van Dien, Gary Busey, Michael York and Udo Kier(!) (TBN), Ryan O’Neal, Tom Skerritt and Veronica Cartwright (Concordia/Family), [54] William Wellman, Jr. and Dee Wallace Stone (Mark IV), [55] Michael Biehn (TBN and World Wide Pictures), Dabney Coleman, Wes Studi, Pat Hingle and Ossie Davis (World Wide Pictures), Burt Reynolds, Orlando Jones, Corbin Bernsen, Margot Kidder, Louis Gossett, Jr., Judd Nelson (Cloud Ten Prod.) and Michael Madsen (Ed McDougall Prod.). [56]

Postscript: Availability

After Carlos Baptista’s death, Herbert Taylor, the grandson of Hudson Taylor, was elected the new president of SVI. He realized Baptista’s many debts could not be paid, and told the debtors to take what equipment and assets the company still possessed (Kerr). The films were then packaged and sent to Ken Anderson Films, among others. Nobody had a use for them, though, and they were sent back to 434 Sunnyside Avenue where they collected dust in a room that Herbert Taylor persuaded the landlords to let them use. A few years later Taylor was told to get the films or they would be thrown away. Former Baptista employee Maxwell Kerr took a vacation from his job, drove to Wheaton and saved them. He held on to them until 1984, when Regent University purchased what remained of the Baptista estate. New release prints of the films were struck from the remaining negatives, which were then transferred from rusting metal cans into plastic ones. [57] In addition to the Baptista collection, several thousand Christian films are housed in the University Library’s Special Collections, covering the years 1939-1997. [58] Cathedral Films was renamed Cathedral Films and Video in the ’80s, and under the leadership of his son James L. Friedrich, the company continued to make documentaries and ministry films for and about the church through that decade. It folded sometime in the mid-’90s, and the remaining papers, films and production materials were donated by Mr. Friedrich to the Archives of the Episcopal Church, USA in Austin, Texas. Unlike the Baptista films, several Cathedral titles have been released over the last 10 years: The Great Commandment, Day of Triumph and the entire ‘Life of Christ‘ series. [59] Literally thousands of Christian films have been made over the last 65 years by dozens of companies. [60] The vast majority of those made 1939-1980 have never been released on home video formats and remain buried in the elephant’s graveyard.of 16mm. [61] This is a shame because they are important to social history and film history, shedding light on both the church’s attempts to utilize a new medium for the spreading of God’s Word, and the forgotten backwater of independent religious film producers. It’s also a shame because once the films are gone, they’re gone. [62] Many of the titles from the ’40s and ’50s are already in the advanced stages of ‘vinegar syndrome,’ ‘rancid butter syndrome’ or ‘rotten fish syndrome,’ so named after the odors given off as the acetate base or photographic gelatin decays.. [63] Unlike the preservation of films (silent and otherwise) in the Library of Congress or George Eastman House, though, these films are largely ignored because they have little commercial value. As author Ken Smith noted, We know more about sonnets written 500 years ago than we do about films shown to American kids 50 years ago. Fortunately, for the serious student there are still alternatives. The Library of Congress has one of the world’s largest collections of 16mm films. This stash expanded tremendously with the Library’s purchase of The Prelinger Archives, a collection of over 48,000 educational, industrial and religious films amassed by collector Rick Prelinger over 20 years. Most of the films are legally in the public domain, and about 1500 can be downloaded through Prelinger’s website, www.moviearchives.org. [64] Within a few years, they should be catalogued and available for use in the Library’s new storage facility in Culpeper, VA. Meanwhile, dozens of ephemeral films have already been released on home video. The best such series is distributed by Fantoma Films, on their DVD series ‘Educational Archives.’ The volume on Religion (2003) includes Baptista’s The Door to Heaven (1947), Friedrich’s New Doorways to Learning (1953) and BYU-Whitaker’s Of Heaven and Home (1963). The prints used were taken from private collector Skip Elsheimer’s collection of 11,000+ films. Elsheimer co-founded, maintains and shows films from the A/V Geeks Educational Film Archive, which can be found at www.avgeeks.com. But then, you already knew that.

Bibliography

Baptista, Carlos. Highlights Through the Years. C.O. Baptista Films Catalog Number 10.
Pgs. 22-23. Regent University Library-Special Collections.
Best Current Films. The Christian Century 18 June 1941:
Cox, Alva, and Janet Isbell. Eds. Audio Visual Resource Guide 7th Ed. 1965. New York: National Council of the Churches of Christ, 1964.

—. Audio Visual Resource Guide 9th Ed. 1972. New York: National Council of the

Churches of Christ, 1972.

Friedrich, Rev. James K. Interview at 4th International Christian Film Workshop, Green Lake,

Wisconsin 1947. Audiocassette. Collection 327 Billy Graham Center Archives,

Wheaton, Ill.

—. Teaching Can Be Pleasure. Christianity Today. 5.8 (1961) : 8-9.

Friedrich, Rev. James L. His Pulpit is a Movie Screen. Virginia Seminary Journal

60.1 (1988): 1-13.

Getz, Gene A. Audio-Visual Media in Christian Education. Chicago: Moody Press, 1972.

Hockman, William S. The Film in Religious Education. Film and Education. Ed. Godfrey

Elliott. New York: Philosophical Library, 1948. 335-360.

Kerr, Maxwell. Interview at Wheaton College. 6 April 1982. Audiocassette.

—. Interview at CBN University. 17 February 1984. 3/4 inch U-matic videocassette.

Lindvall, Terrence and Andrew Quicke. The Brazen Serpent: The Christian Film

Industry. MS. Draft. Regent UP, 1999.

Lindsay, Vachel. The Art of the Moving Picture. 3rd Ed. New York: The Modern Library,

2000. 1915.

Marks, Harvey. Interview with Robert Shuster. Chicago, Ill. 26 July 1985. Transcript.

Collection 308 Billy Graham Center Archives, Wheaton, Ill.

A Producer Serves the Church. The Educational Screen Dec. 1942: 388-9, 401.

The Question: Discussion Guide. Houston: Mars Hill, 1983.

Rosini, Vincent. Sanctuary Cinema: The Rise and Fall of Protestant Churches as Film

Exhibition Sites 1910-1930. Diss. Regent U., 1998. Va. Beach: Regent U.

Press.

Schrader, Paul. Transcendental Style in Film: Ozu, Bresson, Dreyer. Berkeley: University of

California Press, 1972.

Smith, Ken. Mental Hygiene: Social Guidance Films 1945-1970. New York: Blast Books,

1999.

Usai, Paolo. Burning Passions: An Introduction to the Study of Silent Cinema. London: British

Film Institute Press, 1994.



[1] This criterion is more economic than philosophical; someone who makes independently produced/ distributed religious films, not whether he or she is a ‘Christian,’ or of what denomination, etc.

[2] The film was distributed in both black and white and color prints, rental costs being lower for the former. Despite its popularity, Pilgrim’s Progress (1950) is difficult to find in its original hour-long format. Ken Anderson re-edited the film in 1978, trimming over 20 minutes, and adding contemporary music to the soundtrack. This version was released under the aegis of Ken Anderson Films, and has been available on VHS since the 1980s. The film is easily Baptista’s best, and the quality of the animation can be attributed to his use of a multi-plane camera of differing focal lengths (foreground, background), similar to the more sophisticated 3-plane camera (foreground, middle-ground, background) developed a decade earlier by Walt Disney Studios and used in such classics as Fantasia (1940) and Pinocchio (1940).

[3] Problems with the first Miracle led to the joke that its slogan should read, If it runs, it’s a Miracle.

[4] They would form the Audiomatic Visual Equipment Company in 1961.

[5] He had previously done special effects on Gene Autry’s serial The Phantom Empire (1935) and carpentry on Keaton’s The General (1927), among others.

[6] Burnett had 2 decades of experience under her belt by the time she met Friedrich. She began writing for the silents in 1917 (Sadie Goes to Heaven); other notables include The Marriage Clause (directed by Lois Weber) and The Shopworn Angel (w/ Gary Cooper- both 1928), Seven Faces (w/ Paul Muni and Lon Chaney, Sr.-1929), and a remake of Shopworn Angel, co-written with Waldo Salt and starring Jimmy Stewart and Margaret Sullavan in 1938.

[7] The need for films in the church was a grassroots movement that gained momentum throughout the following decade. 1942 would see the creation of the Religious Film Association by the publishing divisions of the larger denominations; its aim was to promote the distribution of films to churches. By 1945, the Protestant Film Commission was established to both produce independent dramas/documentaries for the church and convince the studios to make more quality religious films. Their first finished film was Beyond Our Own, released on Nov. 10, 1947. The first audiovisual catalog for the purpose of church programming was printed by the RFA in the late 1940s, classified both alphabetically and according to content categories (the Bible, the Family, Worship, etc.). This system would become the model for the National Council of Churches’ massive Audio Visual Resource Guide (AVRG) in the early 1950s, the ‘Bible’ of church film programmers through the 1970s.

[8] They were also flammable. It wasn’t until 1951 that dangerous cellulose nitrate film base, standard in 35mm and the slightly more stable cellulose diacetate (in 16mm) were replaced by cellulose acetate ‘safety stock.’ Baptista worked entirely in 16mm, while Friedrich’s early films were shot in 35mm and ‘blown down’ for church use.

[9] The reverend also produced the all-black feature comedy Mr. Washington Goes to Town (1941), starring Mantan Moreland and directed by Jed Buell, who worked with Spencer Williams, Jr. on the Herb Jeffries westerns of the 1930s (Harlem on the Range-1937, etc.). Buell was also Producer on the cult favorite, The Terror of Tiny Town (1938).

[10] The star of Edgar G. Ulmer’s ‘noir’ cult masterpiece Detour (1945). Sadly, Neal is known today more for his stormy offscreen life than anything else. He was blackballed from A-pictures in 1951 after breaking Franchot Tone’s nose (Neal had been a boxer), and was brought to trial in 1965 for the shooting death of his wife, Patricia Fenton 7 years earlier. Although the prosecutor sought the death penalty, a trial jury convicted him of ‘involuntary manslaughter,’ and he was sentenced to 10 years (Neal had a Harvard law degree). He was released after serving 6 years and died of a heart attach 8 months later. He also had a small part in Condordia’s All That I Have (1953), directed by Twilight Zone alum William Claxton and shot by cinematographer Joseph Biroc. His son, Tom Jr. starred in a remake of Ulmer’s film in 1992, playing his father’s part.

[11] Despite his vast television and film work, Larch is best remembered for 3 episodes of The Twilight Zone: ‘Perchance to Dream’ (1959), ‘Dust’ (1961) and ‘It’s a Good Life’ (1961), as well as for playing police officers in both Dirty Harry (1971) and Play Misty For Me (1971).

[12] Platt, like John Larch, had dozens of supporting parts in TV and film. He debuted in Howard Hawks’ I Was a Male War Bride (1949), and has also been in Sirk’s Written on the Wind (1956), Pollyanna (1960), the Twilight Zone episode ‘A Hundred Yards Over the Rim’ (1961) and Cape Fear (1962). He is best known as police officer Ray Fremick in Nicholas Ray’s Rebel Without a Cause (1955) and as Chief in Get Smart (1965-1970).

[13] St. Jacques was also in Ken Anderson’s film of Born Again (1978), based on Charles Colson’s autobiography. He’s best known for the role of ‘Coffin’ Ed Johnson in Cotton Comes to Harlem (1970) and it’s sequel, Come Back, Charleston Blue (1972), based on Chester Himes’ novels of Johnson and his partner, ‘Gravedigger’ Jones. He also played Frederick Douglass in Glory (1989).

[14] Mcguire was a child actor who began on television in the late 1940s. He had recurring roles in Dark Shadows and One Life to Live, and can also be seen in Where’s Poppa? (1970) and Clint Eastwood’s Bird (1988).

[15] White’s son, Mike is a respected writer-producer-actor, with such credits as Chuck and Buck (2000), Orange County (2002) and School of Rock (2004).

[16] Prounouced peekle

[17] Check out the audio commentary on the Criterion DVD.

[18] Now known as Film Quarterly. It was one of the first scholarly journals of popular culture.

[19] Among Pichel’s other claims to fame: he was a Harvard graduate, a close friend of playwright George S. Kauffman, and was the first to ‘discover’ Natalie Wood.

[20] Alton and Pichel may have known each other as they both worked for MGM around the same time, although they never collaborated on a Cathedral production.

[21] Co-directed by Alfred Werker

[22] Alton worked for several ‘noir’ directors, notably Don Siegel (Border Incident 1949, Count The Hours -1953), John Sturges (Mystery Street 1950), Allan Dwan (Passion 1954, Silver Lode 1954, Slightly Scarlet 1956) and Joseph H. Lewis (The Big Combo 1955). He also lensed the only 3-D film noir, the first version of Mickey Spillane’s I, the Jury (1953). He won an Oscar for his very un-‘noir-like’ work on An American in Paris (1954), and his book Painting With Light (1942) is still required reading for aspiring cinematographers.

[23] Nykvist produced this film as well. It was directed by Jan Sadlo, and featured narration by Lowell Thomas.

[24] Stephen, the First Christian Martyr, The Conversion (aka Road to Damascus), Years of Apprenticeship, Return to Jerusalem, Ambassador for Christ, First Missionary Journey, Stoning at Lystra (all 1949), Second Missionary Journey, Visit to Corinth, Third Missionary Journey (all 1950), Trial at Jerusalem, Voyage to Rome (both 1951). These were condensed into the 80-minute feature Magnificent Adventure (1951). Nelson Leigh, who played the apostle for Cathedral was an experienced character actor who appeared in countless features and educational shorts, usually as a stern authority figure (Friendly Persuasion -1956, The Spirit of St. Louis -1957, Ocean’s 11 1960). Leigh also played preachers in Cathedral’s And Now I See (1947) and the short-lived TV series This is the Life (1952), and Jesus in Family Films’ 26-part ‘The Living Bible‘ (1952-3). He can be seen in an amusing clip from The Atomic CafĂ© (1983), explaining the hazards of nuclear radiation.

[25] Besides the promotional film for the series, these included: Holy Night (1951), Escape to Egypt, Boyhood and Baptism, Men of the Wilderness (all 1953), Challenge of Faith, Discipleship, Return to Nazareth, Conflict (all 1955), Fate of John the Baptist, Retreat and Decision, Triumph and Defeat, Crucifixion and Resurrection (all 1957). Robert Wilson, who played Jesus in this and I Beheld His Glory-1953 and Day of Triumph-1954 was the son of a pastor. Information on him is scarce and these are apparently the only professional acting jobs he ever held.

[26] The serial format would become commonplace in Christian filmmaking from the 1960s on, usually in a Baptista-like teaching sense.

[27] This sympathetic portrayal of Judas had never been seen before, and would not be again until Nicholas Ray’s remake of King of Kings (1961), nearly a decade later. Despite his dislike of the Ray film, Martin Scorsese also showed Judas as a tragic figure, in The Last Temptation of Christ (1988), based on Nikos Kazantzakis’ 1960 novel.

[28] Oddly, this was the same problem facing the Russian agit-prop. filmmakers of the 1910s (Dovzhenko, Eisenstein, Pudovkin). Illiteracy and the need to educate via film had led to the famous ‘Kuleshov experiment,’ and subsequent creation of their various montage theories.

[29] There are other similarities as well: both felt God’s calling in the mid-1930s, both released their first films in 1939, both formed their production companies in 1942, both slowly halted production of films in the late 1950s in favor of cheaper 16mm slides, they bore an uncanny resemblance and died within a year of each other.

[30] Although The Beginning of Wisdom (1949) and The Pilgrim’s Progress (1949) are both an hour long, the only Baptista title that could truly be called a feature film is one of his last, What Mean Ye By This Service? (1958), a 76-minute story about Messianic Judaism. Although technically crude, it lacks the wall-to-wall narration that mars so many earlier Baptista efforts. Baptista rarely dabbled in this kind of drama (feature-length or not) because human interaction is not ideally suited to rhetorical exposition.

[31] In their assessment of Baptista’s output alone the Archives of the Billy Graham Center, Wheaton College defines 7 different types of films: Christian dramatization, missions documentaries, sermon films, Gospel musicals, animated stories, children’s films and instructional films on the Christian life and witnessing. Obviously, these categories are not mutually exclusive.

[32] World Wide Pictures’ Wiretapper (1955) is unique because it contains all 3: dramatic recreations of Jim Vaus, Jr., Mickey Cohen’s top wiretapper before salvation, intercut with footage of Billy Graham’s 1948 L.A. crusade, and both framed by his direct ‘confessional’ address to the camera. Incidentally, he became a youth counselor in New York, whose story is also told in Valley Forge Films’ documentary Incident at Hell Gate (1969).

[33] All of these films were distributed, not produced by, Cathedral.

[34] Whitaker (nicknamed Judge ) was a pioneering producer-director of educational/religious shorts at Brigham Young University, for whom he made over 150 such titles from 1952 until his retirement in 1974. The hygiene ones distributed by Cathedral are uniformly good, and refreshingly free of glib moralizing and pat answers. It’s possible Whitaker was introduced to Friedrich by Walt Disney, for whom he had worked as an animator for 17 years before leaving for BYU. Some of his Disney credits include Make Mine Music (1946), Fun and Fancy Free (1947), Melody Time (1948), Cinderella (1950), Alice in Wonderland (1951) and Peter Pan (1953).

[35] This one is based on Patricia McGerr’s short story, Johnny Lingo’s 8-Cow Wife, which has been reprinted several times in The Reader’s Digest. A feature-length remake of the film by called The Legend of Johnny Lingo (2003), received limited theatrical release before heading to home video.

[36] A possible reason for the newness of this type of story is the contemporary events in the Middle East. Many evangelicals believe the ‘doomsday clock’ started ticking with the creation of the state of Israel in 1948; the 6-day war of 1967 and the battles (political and military) of the last 38 years over the territories conquered in that conflict seem to confirm that belief. Of course, this feeling was not limited to fundamentalist Christians; the oil shortages and political cynicism of the ’70s (post-Watergate, Vietnam, JFK, RFK, MLK, Kent State, etc.) led to similar concerns in society-at-large. These concerns were reflected in the political thrillers (The Parallax View-1974, Executive Decision-1974, 3 Days of the Condor-1975, Capricorn One-1978, Winter Kills-1979, etc.) and especially the ‘antichrist/apocalypse’ horror films of that era: Rosemary’s Baby-1968, Night of the Living Dead-1968, The Omen-1976, The Sentinel-1977, The Last Wave-1977, Damien: Omen II-1978, Dawn of the Dead-1978, The Final Conflict-1981.

[37] Based on the book by Pirkle. His thesis draws a correlation between sinful behavior (movies, dancing- the front door to adultery ) and an eminent Communist takeover of the United States, which the film then shows, Red Nightmare-style: people are randomly tortured and executed by beheadings, hangings, shootings, etc. In one scene people are brainwashed by being forced to listen to a tape repeating, Christianity is stupid.

[38] This is the more famous of the 2 Ormond-Pirkle collaborations, an illustrated sermon on the terrors awaiting the unsaved, including worms, giant beasts, Satan himself and of course, ever-present fire. A Christian film distributor I spoke to several years ago said Burning Hell was the only 16mm print he kept when he sold his film library. He still had handbills, and charged $200 per rental.

[39] A comparison could easily be made here with 2oth Century-Fox’s ‘Omen‘ trilogy.

[40] The title is a reference to Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians, Chapter 5, Verse 2: For you yourselves know full well that the day of the Lord will come just like a thief in the night.

[41] This is simply Thief in the Night with a new intro. and minus the Larry Norman theme song, I Wish We’d All Been Ready, (recently covered by pop group D.C. Talk).

[42] Easily the best film in the series; the first 10 minutes alone is worth a look, a grisly end to the saga of our heroine, Patty. William Wellman, Jr. stars as David Michaels, whose story continues in the final film. Incidentally, one of the stuntwomen (Susan Backlinie) was the first victim in Jaws (1975).

[43] The most ambitious of the 4; it’s the only one to break the 2-hour mark (127mins.), and makes effective use of stock footage (including the explosive car-train finale of Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry-1974). Ironically, some of the footage taken (from The Rains Came-1939) was used as a gag in Kentucky Fried Movie‘s (1977) film within-a-film, That’s Armageddon! One can only assume the producers didn’t realize this.

[44] Wunderkind Andre van Heerden directed all 5 films and produced the first 2 of the ‘Left Behind‘ series.

[45] In it, Getz proposed 9 different types of Christian films: missionary, evangelistic, Christian life, leadership training, Bible background, promotional, science and documentary. Getz’ taxonomy, like that of Wheaton College, is based on both subject matter and style (rhetorical intent). As such, the categories are loose-fitting mixtures and not very helpful for our purposes.

[46] It’s a shame the two never collaborated. The resulting ‘show and tell’ combination might have made a great film.

[47] The poor aesthetic quality of Christian films had been noted form their beginning. As one pastor noted in 1948, Compared with the best entertainment films, the highest rating church films would be considered weak on many counts (Hockman, 341-2).

[48] As mentioned earlier, polls among Christian Film distributors in the 1970s revealed the consensus that Parable (1964) by the New York City Council of Churches was the best Christian film ever made, a story without a single word of dialogue and whose style is consequently similar to the criteria Schrader presents for a Transcendent film.

[49] Anderson had worked for Baptista in the late 1940s, starting with That Kid Buck (1949), before going into business for himself the following decade. The leader tape on all his films reads, Ken Anderson Films: Where the Message is Always First. I personally am reminded of Sam Goldwyn’s famous response about the lack of ‘message’ in his films: When I want to send a message, I’ll call Western Union.

[50] They produced James Dobson’s extremely successful 6-part ‘Focus on the Family‘ series (1979).

[51] The two were good friends, and shared a love of model trains.

[52] Concordia and Family Films frequently collaborated on projects. Incidentally, ‘Family’ founder Sam Hersh was not a Christian but a Jewish businessman.

[53] Valley Forge Films began as Good News Productions in 1952 by director Irvin Shorty Yeaworth in idyllic Chester Springs, PA (the first film was Twice Convicted, that same year). Over the next decade, the company was renamed Valley Forge (in the hopes of attracting a broader audience), and Yeaworth would hire ‘triple threats’ Russ Doughten and Donald Thompson (writing-producing-directing). Their most successful venture would be The Blob (1958), giving Steve McQueen his first starring role (Yeaworth’s feature debut had been The Flaming Teen-Age 2 years earlier). He would direct 3 other features before his retirement (4-D Man-1959, Dinosaurus!-1960, and Way Out-1966). After Valley Forge folded in the early ’70s, Doughten and Thompson moved to Iowa and created Heartland Prods. and Mark IV Films. Although retired, they maintain a website selling Mark IV films, and have contributed audio commentary to the DVDs of their famous ‘apocalypse’ series (1972-1983). Incidentally, the stop-motion dinosaur seen briefly in the Twilight Zone episode ‘The Odyssey of Flight 33’ was created by special effects company Project Unlimited while they were working on Dinosaurus! Yeaworth died in a car accident in Jordan in the summer of 2004. For more on Valley Forge and his directing style, check out his commentary on the Criterion DVD of The Blob (2000).

[54] Although Skerritt and Cartwright were in separate films, they would co-star together in Alien (1979) a decade later.

[55] The son of legendary director Wellman, Sr. has had a career as interesting as his father’s. He began as an actor, playing supporting parts in such fare as Jack Arnold’s High School Confidential! (1958) and its unofficial sequel, Albert Zugsmith’s College Confidential (1960) and Lewis Milestone’s Pork Chop Hill (1959). His friendships with Jerry Lewis and Tom Laughlin (with whom he’d acted in his father’s Lafayette Escadrille-1958) led to parts in The Errand Boy (1961) and The Disorderly Orderly (1964), as well as Laughlin’s ‘Billy Jack’ series: Born Losers (1967), The Trial of Billy Jack (1974) and Billy Jack Goes to Washington (1977) [how did he miss out on Billy Jack (1971)?]. He became a producer in his 40s, hooking up with schlockmeister Larry Cohen (Wellman produced It Lives Again-1978), before his affiliation with Mark IV in the late 1970s for whom he was both an actor and producer.

[56] Ken Anderson’s use of a young Liam Neeson in Pilgrim’s Progress (1978) is an anomaly.

[57] To date, only 1 Baptista film has been released on home video format: The Door to Heaven (1947), on the Religion title of Fantomas’ DVD series ‘Educational Archives.’ As mentioned earlier, Ken Anderson’s truncated Pilgrim’s Progress has been available on VHS for several years.

[58] It was my task as a grad. student to make a catalogue of these titles, a job that took 4 years.

[59] Several classic LDS films have also been released on both VHS and DVD, among them Cipher in the Snow (1973), The Phone Call (1976), John Baker’s Last Race (1976), The Gift (1977), and The Emmett Smith Story (1979). Although ‘Cipher’ was produced by Wetzel Whitaker, he did not direct the film or any of the others, and none were distributed by Cathedral. Evidently, the 1970s were the golden age of BYU productions, as the 1950s were for Cathedral and the 1940s for SVI.

[60] The Christian Film Distributors’ Association (CFDA) was formed on Sept. 29, 1974. The organization had a 10-pt. agenda, which it presented at the first annual meeting the following July. This boils down to 3 essential goals: 1) improvement of relations between producers and distributors (film libraries/Christian bookstores), 2) improvement of relations between distributors and churches (still the primary customer and #1 venue), and finally 3) to act as a clearinghouse for newer and smaller film companies. Although only 7 companies were represented at the initial 1974 meeting, the group expanded throughout the 1970s before VHS rendered its function largely obsolete the following decade. The papers of the CFDA were given to the Regent University Library-Special Collections in 2001. It is unclear what became of either the Religious Film Association or Protestant Film Commission of 30 years earlier, or why the need to duplicate their efforts. Like the films themselves, such history is deemed unimportant even by churches. Hopefully the answer lies in a musty church basement somewhere, waiting to be discovered.

[61] Exceptions include Mark IV Films, World Wide Pictures, and the Southern Baptist Radio and Television Commission’s animated ‘Davey and Goliath‘ series (1960-77). Incidentally, a reference to ‘D&G’ pops up in Kevin Smith’s Dogma (1999).

[62] According to Paolo Usai, director of the George Eastman House approximately 80% of the world’s production of silent cinema (1894-1927) has been lost forever (18).

[63] One of the batches of gift films we received at the Regent Library had been stored in airtight cans in someone’s attic. Most were literally dust, as they’d been stewing in their own gases for 40 years .I’ve seen 90 year-old nitrate that looks better.

[64] Including BYU-Whitaker’s strange anti-smoking film, Up in Smoke (1960).

One Comment
  1. I have many Water Color Paintings by Cathedral Films in the late 40’s, about 9 x 12″ that were then photographed to make a presentation narration.

    Having a hard time finding info about these, looking under “film strips” only brings up “movies”.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *