Tuesday, April 23, 2013

This christian's "history of Hollywood" could perhaps use some retakes

[Posted at Bene Diction Blogs On June 30, 2012] Watching The Cry Hollywood on God TV recently, I had thought that it wasn’t necessary to revisit the event. But the misuse of history in the pulpit bothers me, and now that video of the event is now finally online on demand, I fear that I can point to an example of it.

The Cry Hollywood, which I blogged on during the run-up to the event was apparently a success as organizers of the event have been mentioning, both online and in subsequent sermons, how much of a permanent impact it seems to have had.

Most of the attendees and participants would have taken part on the level that you or I might have. Hollywood badly needs Christ and gathering to pray about its issues, talk about what may need to be done and encouraging those who are involved in the industry is central and essential.

I think that is what attracted Ted Baehr to the event. He is the main force behind the Movieline organization and has been trying to do good work, from a conservative Christian standpoint, for 40 years now. He seems to have a good heart and useful skills, and is worthy of respect so I want to be careful to state that up front.

But what was said should perhaps have elicited a cry of “Cut! We need a retake!”

Baehr was invited to spend a few minutes talking about the “history of Hollywood”, and as he was talking I found myself saying “hang on…” And the participants walked away from the rally acting on what I fear is a wrong understanding of what really happened in Hollywood.

You shouldn’t have to read Hollywood history for fun, as I like to do, to avoid pitfalls from the pulpit

. His remarks are in the 4th Vimeo segment of The Cry Hollywood, starting at 30:40, which you can see here.

But I will be quoting extensively in case Baehr’s remarks go pfft, as has been known to happen on the internet.

He begins by noting that Christians have always had an interest in using entertainment for God. But then a counter impulse developed, and Pope Innocent the 3rd “removed the mystery plays”. [Per Wikipedia, that pope banned clergy from acting in them, but that would be much the same thing.]

He continues on for a few minutes, and then at about 33:53 he starts talking about the movies. And, as I am a bit of a silent movie buff, that’s when I started to think to myself, “Hey wait a second…”

The earliest filmmakers were friendly to the Gospel, Baehr says. “They were making movies about faith and values. The first Passion Play [film] was made in 1897. The first nativity story was made in 1898…” he said.

Quite correct, but a reference book I have at hand says that the first hard-core porn movie was made about the same time. Tares were growing among the wheat.

Baehr continues “…and by 1915 60 per cent of the movies were being shown in churches…”

Sixty per cent of the films were being shown in churches? Are there contemporary historical references to that? Are there arguments pro and con from that time about churches being used in that way? Sixty per cent of the box office totals accruing to churches would fly in the face of any Hollywood History I have read,

The next thing that he said stopped me in my tracks. Even if the fact itself is right—which I failed to spot in Terry Ramsaye’s definitive history of early film, A Million and One Nights, which was commissioned by Edison—he is horribly misinterpreting what was supposed to have happened.

He says this:

“Edison tried to give the rights, the [Edison] patents to the motion picture camera to the local presbytery but, Faytene, they didn’t want it. They thought it was a toy. They thought it couldn’t do any good.”

How can anyone who has been in Hollywood as long as he has be unaware of the Motion Picture Patents War?

If you’ve seen the film Nickelodeon, in which the film makers have to head for what would become Hollywood because of Thomas Edison, you might know a little of what I am talking about.

Basically, the invention of movies was very confusing because the film materials required and the technology required came into existence at about the same time. So there are several claimants to be the “inventor of movies”.

I don’t think it was Edison, myself, but he managed to get the American patent for the motion picture camera. But then something interesting happened, Similar but sufficiently different technology was invented so that Independent companies, who weren’t using Edison’s cameras.

What was Edison’s response? He tried to form a monopoly trust resting on his patents, trying to totally control movies for himself and his cronies—the Motion Picture Patents Company.

That’s why so many movies companies came out West, by the way. Far away from lawyers, and bruisers who could break your camera or your head. Nice weather and pretty close to Mexico, just in case.

The Edison trust’s main weapon was the courts. As the above Wikipedia entry notes, it didn’t go well for them. First, in 1913, the need to pay royalties on Edison patents expired. Then in 1915 a US court ruled that the Edison monopoly company was “Going far beyond what was necessary” to protect the use of patents”, giving the independent companies breathing space. This, along with other factors, led the companies involved in the trust to fold after the end of the First World War.

What does all this mean? That what Baehr said about what Edison intended to do seems barely credible.

Is there any evidence that Baehr can point to? I have my doubts, as Edison creating a monopoly and fighting like a tiger to maintain the monopoly are not the actions of someone who would be happy to give his patents away to a church. They are the actions of someone going “Mine! I want all this for myself.”

It could be possible that Edison made the alleged offer to a church after the court decisions that broke his monopoly. If that should be the case, then Edison was offering his rights because they were of no value to him.

In any case, for Baehr to say that Edison’s offer was something powerful and a great opportunity that the church frittered away is quite wrong. The twenty year patch of movie history regarding to the fight over patents, which Baehr should have a nodding knowledge of, would prove that any church would Edison’s patents would not have had the commanding, monopoly position that Baehr’s comments imply that they would have had.

I don’t think he intended to mislead his audience, but he did.

After Baehr’s remarks, in Part 5 of the video, the audience went right to prayer with the organizers praying sorrowfully that they repented for giving up the “[Edison] camera.” I found myself talking back to the computer screen: “That’s so wrong…” And I’m not an expert on Hollywood history, but Mr. Baehr is supposed to be.

What else did Mr. Baehr say? Here are some highlights.

He goes on to imply that Christians dropped the ball when it comes to radio in the US too.

“I know the first radio station was done in a church in Pittsburgh by the junior pastor. And the senior pastor thought it was a toy…”

Hmm, KDKA in Pittsburgh is credited with being the world’s first commercial radio station. If we go back to the very beginnings of KDKA, Wikipedia has an entry on the person who basically started the station before it was a full-blown radio station.

Wikipedia says:

““Frank Conrad (1874 – 1941) was a radio broadcasting pioneer who worked as the Assistant Chief Engineer for the Westinghouse Electric Corporation in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania,. He began what are considered the first regular radio broadcasts from his Wilkinsburg, Pennsylvania, garage in 1916, and is responsible for the founding of the first licensed broadcast station in the world: KDKA…..At 23 he began working in the Westinghouse Testing Department, where he developed such inventions as the watt•hour meter. Conrad was awarded more than 200 patents throughout his life."

"Conrad first became interested in radio in 1912 when, in order to settle a bet on the accuracy of a watch, Conrad built a radio in order to hear time signals from the Arlington, Virginia Naval Observatory. He then constructed, in his garage, a new transmitter, licensed in 1916 as 8XK, whose signal could be heard throughout the Pittsburgh area…..”

It’s odd that Baehr goes from an inventor to the operator of the first radio station. Is Marconi not Christian enough for his thesis?

Baehr continues:

“Television was invented by a Christian up in Idaho just be watching the mowing of the fields.”

[Although Philo Farnsworth only invented many parts of the first TVs this seems correct.]

“I don’t believe that they invented any of this” added Baehr “I believe God gave it to them to ‘take ever thought captive’ for Him, and to worship through the power of creativity and of entertainment.”

God would certainly want these things used to bless and bring people to him, but I’d like to think that he doesn’t mind sharing. Taking “every though captive” may have dominionist overtones, depending how you interpret it.

He returns to the history of movies.

“So in 1915, the movie theaters said ‘if you’re going to show movies in churches, we’re not going to let you show them in theaters…”

I think that what Baehr is getting at that the film companies were insisting that churches buy a license to show films, as happens today..

“And then you got into the Roaring 20s Robert, things got really debauched and Hedy Lamarr did 13 minutes of nudity in Ecstasy…”

Readers of Kenneth Anger’s Hollywood Babylon might agree with Baehr here. Ecstasy, however, was released overseas in 1933 and the Hays office successfully prevented it from being widely released in the United States at that time. The author of the Wikipedia piece on the film didn’t watch it with a stopwatch, so I don’t know if “13 minutes” is correct.

“I skipped one thing, when they started Hollywood as a Christian retreat. You all know that, right?

” Could be true, but Wikipedia doesn’t seem to know that either.

He then begins to talk about he cities as the positive influence of the Hays office, Joseph Breen and other influences such as the Protestant Film Office and the Catholic Legion of Decency.

His nod to Christian filmmakers of the past is apt, although I would have mentioned C.O.Baptista in addition to the Palists and Cathedral Films. An interesting page at the A.V. Geeks website tells us in more detail about the history of Christian filmmaking that Baehr alludes to

. He then refers to various Hollywood personalities who were Christians. His dad, as Robert “Tex” Allen, was a Hollywood star known for westerns, as he states. Although I do wonder what Ted Baehr thinks of his dad’s role in Raiders of the Living Dead. See Ted Baehr’s dad in the US edition of Naked Evil! :)

The Sixties were bad for Hollywood, Baehr believes. Progressive Christians might in turn argue that the increased freedom and liberty of that era in films was a much needed thing, but what Baehr says is an article of faith with conservative American Christians, so I’ll look at what he says.

I’ll quote this at some length:

“In 1966, the Protestant Film Office shut down. You went from 100 per cent what would be family oriented—every filom could be seen by anybody. It didn’t say that you couldn’t do violence, but you justwouldn’t do violence in a way that would lead Jason [there] to go around and copy the violence. Or you couldn’t say that you couldn’t do romance, but you wouldn’t do romance in such a way that would cause susceptible youth to go off the tracks. What’s wrong with that?...It wasn’t salacious, it wasn’t pornographic. It didn’t capture your essence and turn you into somebody who wanted to become violent.”

“When the church left we went from the Sound of Music in 1966 to the first X-rated film in 1969….when the Church shut down the Protestant Film Office, within the first si=x months, the Church of Satan set up a film office in Hollywood.”

So, Baehr, for the purposes of appealing to an idyllic Hollywood past that we can all perhaps return to again and even perhaps, makes his case.

Some observations:

My progressive friends might want to point out that movies of that time might appear squeaky clean, but at the same time were racist, or sexist and such.

100 per cent of films were family friendly. Really?

This might be apocryphal, but one thing that used to be done in Hollywood, is to have the stars of the movie confront, or participate in all sorts of evil or horrible things, and then turn to the sided of good in the last reel, getting a vicarious pleasure from it all and repenting just in time. A good moral lesson, perhaps, but a crafty move by the film maker.

Baehr would be aghast to remember Christians who washed their hands of Hollywood, but they did exist. They provide an interesting point of view.

I own a 1940 book by Lester Sumrall called Worshipers of the Silver Screen, which has a much different perspective than the "wasn’t Hollywood swell" perspective that Baehr offers.

The forward is by Edith Mae Pennington, who flirted with pursuing a film career before becoming an Assemblies of God evangelist and pastor.

Whatever she experienced in 1920s Hollywood, she felt very convicted by what was happening to her. She writes in the forward: “But when I was introduced to Hollywood’s inner life, my modest sensibilities were shocked to the extreme. I was deeply horrified by the apparent immorality on every side.”

Lester Sumrall himself opens with his being told by an unnamed Hollywood employee giving him a tour: “Now you are to witness the world’s biggest sham!”

Family-friendly? Sumrall quotes unnamed people who worried that children were being exposed, by movies, to matters more suited to adults. Sumrall worried about the corrupting effect of profit-making on films and how they are made, its catering to extremes in the portrayal of people as characters which encouraged people to follow suit. Full of Christian values? Rather, Sumrall argues, “Hollywooditis” catered to the lowest common denominator.

I’m not a fan of Sumrall’s anonymous quoting, but he does cite a telling quote he found in a New Orleans newspaper by actress and writer Cornelia Otis Skinner. She reportedly said: “Hollywood is cheap and tawdry. It’s wicked. It’s a place where you have to drop your real sense of values. People in power are common and unscrupulous, and you can’t call your soul your own. In fact, the people in power are so horrible that my friends, men and women who speak my language are miserably unhappy there.”

What do I think? Well, I think that if you look from movies from Baehr’s conservative standpoint, movies generically were “better than movies are now, generically. Further, I would heartily agree that Christians have been salt and light in Hollywood and need to be encouraged to continue to do so. Baehr is right there

. But I also know that the kinds of thoughts expressed by Pennington and Sumrall were representative of the views of many Christians in the past. Rightly, or wrongly, Hollywood was viewed as uniformly a bad thing. And now we have Baehr talking about the same Hollywood of the Pennington and Sumrall eras as uniformly good and “family friendly”.

Could one extreme be as bad as the other? And the audience at The Cry Hollywood—which I suspect was mostly young—would have had no idea that there was another historical point of view—which perhaps needed to be refuted. But if Baehr doesn’t reference it, as I did above, so much the better for his own argument.

In a “whaa?” moment in the midst of his conclusion, Baehr adds, “Actually The Blob is a Biblical allegory.” I may have seen too many cheesy sci-fi movies, but I think I know why!

Baehr ends his remarks with an exhortation for Christians to not turn their backs on Hollywood and, instead, seek to help and bless what God might be doing there. That is all good, all wise and all prudent.

But there are brief snippets that make me wonder if a dog whistle is in play. “We have to take the territory,” Baehr says. There is also a need to “take every thought captive.” I’d like a development of what he means by that.

I’ve been making these points in order to make this one.

Looking back over my various posts here, I’m seeing a recurring thread. Some Christians may be increasingly more likely to misuse history when they speak.

In the case of Mr. Baehr, he does this flagrantly in the example of Edison and the alleged gift of his patents to a church. If this did happen, there was no way, as history panned out that Christians could have had the whole of the movie industry and preserved it as a gift in the service of the Lord.

Had I been at The Cry Hollywood, I would have been thinking this to myself as the other people repented of not taking the gift of the [Edison] camera.

They would have been weeping over a sin that they did not commit, and historically could not have been held responsible for, because someone--who should have perhaps known better--implied that they should do so.

And that is wrong. Sermon-like remarks should carefully checked to make sure they are right before being delivered...

All the more reason to “be a Berean” when you listen. More so than ever.