Jump to: navigation, search

Film History (2002) - The Catholic Vision in Hollywood: Ford, Capra, Borzage and Hitchcock




The different ways in which a Catholic view of the human condition is reflected in the cinema of John Ford, Frank Borzage, Frank Capra and Alfred Hitchcock, are examined. The belief system at work in the canon of these filmmakers of the studio era is rooted in a Catholic understanding of the human person and his relationship to others.


This article explores the different ways in which a Catholic view of the human condition is reflected in the cinema of John Ford, Frank Borzage, Frank Capra and Alfred Hitchcock. The belief system at work in the canon of these Hollywood filmmakers of the studio era is rooted in a Catholic understanding of the human person and his relationship to others, to the world and to God, Notions of love, sin, redemption and communion - as taught and lived in the Catholic tradition - are central to understand the worldview of four filmmakers who were raised in the Catholic faith.1

Ford (1894-1973), Borzage (1894-1962) and Capra (1897-1991) share a common immigrant background: they were born in the last decade of the 19th century into large European families of rural background who had left the Old World searching for a better future in the United States. Ford and Borzage were first generation Americans of Irish and Italian/Austrian/Swiss origins, respectively; and Capra was born in Sicily and immigrated to the US at age six. As noted by their biographers, the cultural and religious patterns of these hyphenated families were absorbed by their children and combined, in the case of Capra with long-lasting repercussions, with the prevailing values of the Anglo Protestant establishment.2

Hitchcock (1899-1980), on the other hand, was born in London into a middle-class family, of English and Irish descent. He noted to Francois Truffaut: 'Ours was a Catholic family and in England this in itself is an eccentricity.3 He attended Catholic schools, including the Jesuit St. Ignatius College, a formative experience that left a lasting influence. 'It was probably during this period with the Jesuits that a strong sense of fear developed - moral fear - the fear of being involved in anything evil. I always tried to avoid it', he acknowledged to Truffaut.4

Frank Capra was the most explicit of the four directors in discussing his religious affiliation. Capra's biographers and critics agree that the power and consistency of the filmmaker's moral vision are rooted in his own life and experiences. Even if Joseph McBride's biography Frank Capra: The Catastrophe of Success (1992) shows that Capra's 1971 memoir should be read with qualifications, it still provides the point of departure to examine the extent to which Capra's moral vision is shaped by the Catholicism into he was born. There are many revealing references in Capra's The Name Above the Title to the Catholic faith in connection with his personal life and work. An individualist by temperament who did not accept his religious heritage as a given but gradually came into it, Capra writes that in his early adulthood he was a 'Christmas Catholic'.5 In the mid 1930s, the astonishing success of It Happened One Night (1934) triggered an artistic crisis, which resulted in a conversion experience, not unlike the one faced by many of his characters. He relates that the admonishment of an anonymous little man catapulted him back to action: 'The talents you have, Mr. Capra, are not your own, not self-acquired, God gave you thosE talents; they are His gifts to you, to use for HiE purpose. And when you don't use the gifts God blessed you with - you are an offense to God - and to humanity.16 Whether Capra wrote the facts or printed the legend about this defining episode, as McBride notes, it doesn't alter the autobiographical resonance of Clarence, the guardian angel in It's a Wonderful Life (1946) through him the hero becomes aware of the effects of his God-given talents.

View Image - Fig. 1.

In later years, through his wife, Lucille Reyburn, who had converted to Catholicism, Capra returned to the faith. He defined himself 'as a Catholic in spirit; one who firmly believes that the anti-moral, the intellectual bigots and the Mafias of ill will may destroy religion, but they will never conquer the cross'.7 If his films are seen as a form of submerged biography then one can understand why in so many of them Capra is fashioning plots that reflect his personal conflict: the clash between a Catholic moral view an idealist hero - and his desire to be a successful Hollywood director - the materialistic world which his memorable villains inhabit.8

John Ford's Catholicism is also a known fact: a complex personality, he was a man of faith and deeply held convictions. His biographers - beginning with grandson Dan Ford - attest to this fact but fall short of exploring the full implications of this lifelong fidelity to the Church, which resulted, for example, in the conversion of his Protestant wife. They tend to dwell (sometimes rather negatively in the case of Ronald L. Davis) on what they perceive as the Irish qualities of Ford's religious beliefs, like superstition, childishness and the adoration of the Virgin Mary. The two most recent biographers, Joseph McBride and Scott Eyman, tend to emphasize the ethnic component of Ford's Catholicism, examining it primarily in relationship to the life rather than the work.

Hitchcock, an intensely private person, did not disclose publicly the importance of Catholicism in his adult life. He was a parishioner of the Church of the Good Shepherd in Beverly Hills, where he attended Mass with his wife Alma Reville, a close collaborator during his entire career, who converted to Catholicism before their marriage in 1926. Like Ford, Hitchcock was reluctant to discuss his cinema other than in cinematic terms. So to assess the Catholic outlook that French critics saw as shaping his work, one has to look at the evidence of the films. When Truffaut asked Hitchcock if he considered himself a Catholic artist, the filmmaker was not so much evasive as cryptic: 'Maybe one's early upbringing influences a man's life and guides his instinct. I am definitely not antireligious; perhaps I'm sometimes negl...

[ to view the rest of the article, please try one of the links above ]