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Saturday, November 03, 2007

A Fifties All-Star Obscurity

You Can Change The World was a philosophy embraced and promoted by Father James Keller from 1948 when he penned the best-seller (250,000 hardbacks, then 300,000 in paper) until his death in 1977. Charismatic priests and ministers enjoyed inroads to Hollywood lost when cultural tides went out in the late sixties. Billy Graham made features and premiered them before blue ribbon panels of filmland power brokers. Father Keller hung with Bob Hope, Walt Disney, and Harpo Marx. Few doors were closed to him. Top names did his television playlets for scale, and those continued through 1970. The Christophers was an organization emerging from the spiritual and civic lifestyle promoted in You Can Change The World. Teaching, politics, and writing were among professions wherein one could spread the Christophers message. Combating Communism was incidental to the wider mission of integrating Gospel principles into every aspect of life, all of which was appealing to director Leo McCarey (just off My Son John) and the stunning array of stars enlisted to help Father Keller change the world. He must have been some dynamic presence among industry folk, as how often would one find Jack Benny, Rochester, Bob Hope, Bing Crosby, Irene Dunne, Loretta Young, William Holden, Loretta Young, Paul Douglas, and Ann Blyth on the same bill? Each play themselves, attending an impromptu meeting at Jack’s home where Father Keller explains his objective. The women are dressed to the nines (as shown here), with Dunne and Young swathed in furs and seemingly ill equipped to make varied sacrifices advocated by their priestly visitor. Mostly the stars nod in agreement as Father Keller rattles off ways and means we can serve humanity and resist negative forces, as in that one-percent he identifies as Communist moles within civic and government offices. All of this is played straight. No levity other than Benny reverting to shtick when the Father asks to make a long distance call (to Bob Hope) on his telephone. Midway through the lecture, Bing Crosby arrives to perform a Johnny Burke-Jimmy VanHeusen tune especially written for You Can Change The World.

So just how did one Catholic priest come by all this juice? A partial explanation might be found in a promotional blitz the industry mounted for the 1951-52 movie season. Movietime, USA was PR designed to get customers away from their televisions and back into theatres. Among plans embraced by major circuits was one which encouraged youngsters to attend Sunday school and church. Ages five to twelve were specifically targeted. Local Rotary Clubs participated, calling this the Moral Citizens Development Operation, which among other things, rewarded perfect Sunday attendance with free ducats to the following Saturday shows at local theatres. You had to show up for a literal month of Sundays, four or five depending on how many fell in a given calendar. It was against this background that You Can Change The World appeared, so obviously timing was crucial and as things turned out, ideal. The Christophers website indicates that You Change The World was initially shown on television in 1952, with no mention of a theatrical run. I couldn’t find any reference to it on release charts for that period, but there are one-sheets in collector circulation, as shown here, and they do promote it as an Extra Added Attraction, so I’d have to assume it played commercially. 16mm prints would be available from a number of rental houses, and one of them was used in a DVD compilation entitled Patriotism (though shorn of Crosby’s segment). The subject does not appear to have been registered for copyright, although there was a new notice filed for a 1996 reprint of Father Keller’s book. You Can Change The World was syndicated for television along with other half-hour Christophers programming. As a group, they are fascinating examples of religious programming from the fifties and sixties. I recall seeing an episode with James Cagney entitled A Link In The Chain (1957) on a Sunday morning back in the seventies. Others are elusive, but sound compelling. Consider Tips For The Homemaker, a 1960 offering with Basil Rathbone and J. Carroll Naish, or Washington Speaks For Himself, in which Fred Allen made his final appearance (1956). There were more --- how many I’m not sure --- as they were produced erratically and shown primarily as time fillers. Guests were numerous and prominent. Fred MacMurray, Barbara Stanwyck, Joe E. Brown, Don Ameche, Bing Crosby, Tex Ritter --- all did Christophers shows. A DVD collection of these would be well worth exploring.


Anonymous Griff said...

Thanks for this. I ran into an image of the poster for this short not long ago and was genuinely curious about it.

Another superb -- and unique -- Greenbriar post.

1:09 PM  
Blogger East Side said...

Man, I remember reading listings for the Christophers and Lamp Unto my Feet in TV Guide every Sunday when I was a kid -- why the heck didn't I tune in?

3:55 PM  
Blogger Michael said...

Did you just see this at Cinesation? It was interesting... he said diplomatically...

4:37 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Michael, I saw where they showed "You Can Change the World" at Cinesation, but I wasn't there to see it. Must have been quite something with a modern-day audience.

Thanks, Griff. That poster is an eternal mystery for me too. Have you ever seen an ad for a theatre that played it?

East Side, I imagine our Sunday TV Guides were about the same, as those programs certainly played here in NC.

5:29 PM  
Blogger Ivan G. Shreve, Jr. said...

John, I don't know whether you're aware of this or not but You Can Change the World is also on a Best of Jack Benny boxset just released by Mill Creek Entertainment. I haven't watched it yet, so I don't know if it contains the Crosby sequence or not.

8:21 PM  
Blogger Michael said...

It's sociologically interesting but pretty much a stiff to sit through-- the priest (whose scenes seem filmed separately) tends to go into a rant about the Declaration of Independence PROVING we're a religious nation which would be more convincing if he wasn't trying so hard to convince us, and the use of the stars is pretty dire and unbelievable (Paul Douglas reciting chunks of the Constitution by heart as if he sat around memorizing it on the set, while Irene Dunne pats him on the head like a puppy). And the Burke-Van Heusen song is, well, not exactly "High Hopes." Anyway, it didn't get derisive laughs, much, but the audience sat there fairly unappreciative of its indigestible sales pitch; I have to think the dramatic ones play better as straightforward dramas.

12:31 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Thanks for the tip concerning the Benny boxset, Ivan. I wasn't aware it included "You Can Change The World". Love your "Thrilling Days Of Yesteryear" site, by the way.

Michael, I agree with you as to this being a hard subject to get through. Without the star power, it would be downright intolerable, but I'd still love to see those other "Christophers" episodes!

1:43 PM  
Blogger David said...

Thanks for the post John. I'll look into carrying the Fatoma release on our site.


9:01 PM  

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