Colleen Moore: From Flappers to Fairy Tales

“If you believe in your dreams, your dreams will come to life.” ~ Colleen Moore

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On May 7, 2015, the Pickwick Theatre Classic Film Series will conclude its second season with a screening of Why Be Good? (1929) starring Colleen Moore. The event, which has received national coverage through Turner Classic Movies, will have several attractions including a visit from Alice Hargrave, Colleen’s granddaughter. Today, Colleen is probably better-known to the general public for her “Fairy Castle,” which remains one of the most popular exhibits at the Museum of Science & Industry in Chicago. In her day, though, Colleen was one of the biggest stars in Hollywood. She was a woman who came to symbolize the spirit of the Jazz Age. Colleen was the first successful “flapper” in the movies. But that was over ninety years ago, so many will be asking, “Who was Colleen Moore?”

Colleen Moore was born Kathleen Morrison on August 19, 1899, in Port Huron, Michigan. She was the only daughter of Charles and Agnes Morrison. Due to Charles’ various business ventures, the family was often on the move, living in several homes in Michigan. They sometimes summered in Chicago where Kathleen had a favorite aunt. It was during one visit to Chicago around the age of five when Kathleen saw a theatre production of Peter Pan. It would make a lasting impression on her because for the first time she understood what it was like to captivate an audience.

By 1908 the family had relocated to Atlanta, Georgia, before settling in Tampa, Florida, three years later. Her father had a machinery business there. As a young girl in Tampa, she saw many movies and was a fan of the popular stars of the day, especially Lillian Gish. Kathleen always intended not only to be an actress, but to be a star. Her ticket to Hollywood came in 1917 in the form of what she termed a “payoff.” Her influential uncle, Walter Howey, managing editor of the Chicago Examiner, had been instrumental in getting D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation past the Chicago censors. As a return favor to Howey, Griffith invited Kathleen to Hollywood. With her grandmother in tow, Kathleen– renamed Colleen Moore by her uncle– took the train West.

Before coming to Hollywood, Kathleen had a screen test done at the Essanay Studio in Chicago to see how her eyes registered onscreen. Though these were the days before color film when such details would not have been picked up by the camera, Colleen had a unique physical feature called heterochromia: she had one brown eye and one blue eye. She passed the test. (In later years, Moore claimed to have been a background extra in some films made at Essanay. It is possible that this could’ve happened earlier during her frequent stays in Chicago with her Aunt Lib.)

These were the early days when Hollywood was not far removed from the citrus groves that had dominated the landscape. In fact, most of the land was still rural. Only a few years before, Cecil B. DeMille had shot the first movie ever filmed in Hollywood, The Squaw Man. One of the first movie sites Colleen saw was the set of Intolerance, which was still standing. At Griffith’s Triangle-Fine Arts studio, she met some of the major stars of the day and was immediately cast in a film. Colleen cites a movie called Bad Boy (1917) as her first screen credit.

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In those days, many girls were cast for type rather than talent. Young actresses who photographed well often played “adults” even though they themselves were only teenagers. During this time, Colleen learned the rudiments of acting– namely, which angles were to her best advantage and, more importantly,  to never get upstaged by another actor. After appearing in some program films for Griffith, Colleen worked at other studios including Selig and Ince Studio. She learned comic timing on-screen while working for the Christie Film Company. In these early years she appeared with cowboy star Tom Mix, whom she greatly admired. In her estimation, he was a real cowboy hero, and the West was the romantic place in the world.

Despite working at Griffith’s studio, Colleen’s only opportunity to appear in one of his major productions came with a small role in his World War I epic Hearts of the World (1918). Unfortunately, her relatively minor part was left on the cutting room floor. Gradually, her career as an ingenue was boosted towards stardom. She found steady work with directors like Mickey Neilan (Dinty, 1920) and King Vidor (The Sky Pilot, 1921). It was Neilan who introduced Colleen to the man who would become her husband, John McCormick. A press agent at the time, McCormick would later become production head for First National Pictures, which was then a subsidiary of Warner Brothers. When First National went into the business of producing films, McCormick made sure Colleen Moore would be one of the first stars they signed. She appeared in a couple films as the lead, but the upper brass at the studio felt she could not carry a film on her own. It seemed to her as though she would remain a “featured player” but never a star.

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The turning point in her career came with a story called Flaming Youth (1923), which had been a scandalous, best-selling novel about “neckers, petters, white kisses, red kisses, pleasure mad daughters, and sensation craving mothers.” Colleen wanted the role of wild daughter Patricia Frentiss badly, so with the help of her mother (who had since joined her in California), she overhauled her screen image. Gone were the long curls. Afterall, she knew she wouldn’t be another Mary Pickford. The “sweet young thing I was not.” Her mother cut her hair into a Dutch bob. Colleen got the role in Flaming Youth, and with it, she created a new screen type– the emancipated young girl who defies convention. She defined the Roaring Twenties with her bobbed hair, short skirts and rebellious nature. It was Colleen Moore who put this new American type in vogue. As F. Scott Fitzgerald later wrote, “I was the spark that lit up Flaming Youth, Colleen Moore was the torch. What little things we are to have caused all that trouble.”

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Colleen Moore had a wonderfully expressive face that enlivened the movie frame. She was at her best as a comedienne, but she could also handle serious drama as she demonstrated with her performance as Selina in So Big (1924)– her favorite role. Though Barbara Stanwyck would later appear in the remake, author Edna Ferber always believed it was Colleen Moore who did the part justice.

In Silent Star (1968), Colleen’s autobiography, she recalls the early days of Hollywood– the stars she knew and the scandals that were talked about. She also tells of her connection to someone who would go on to become a major star in the 1930s and 1940s: “One day, while I was making a film called Her Wild Oat, I saw among the extras the most beautiful little girl I had ever seen. I suggested we make a test of her. When I saw the test the next day with the studio brass, I was elated. She was even better than her promise. To my shock, the bosses, even John, said, ‘But her teeth stick out in front.’ I said, ‘For heaven’s sake, she’s only fourteen years old. Haven’t you ever heard about braces?’ So they signed her to a contract and sent her to a dentist. Convinced now they had another Corinne Griffith on their hands, the bosses wanted to change her name to something more romantic than her own name Gretchen Young. So I named her– after the most beautiful doll I had ever had, Loretta.”

Colleen’s popularity grew as the decade wore on. By 1926, she was the #1 box office attraction according to an exhibitor’s poll. She was making $12,500 a week. In 1928, she appeared in one of her most famous and prestigious films, Lilac Time, which co-starred a relative newcomer named Gary Cooper. Lilac Time, a drama about World War I pilots, was a huge hit. It was also the first film screened at a theatre newly built in Park Ridge, Illinois, called the Pickwick Theatre.

Colleen with Neil Hamilton in Why Be Good?, a great showcase of Art Deco set design.
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By the late 1920s, sound was changing the face of Hollywood. New technology enabled sound to be recorded on disc. It was then played in sync with the movie as it was being projected. Dialogue and sound effects were being heard for the first time in theatres. But before Colleen made her first all-out “talkie,” she appeared in a Jazz Age comedy called Why Be Good? (1929) directed by William Seiter (who would go on to direct Laurel & Hardy’s best feature comedy, The Sons of the Desert). Similar to her earlier roles, Colleen played a character who was a carefree spirit who dared to ask the tantalizing question, “Why be good when it’s so much more thrilling to be bad?” However, what separated Colleen Moore from others like Clara Bow– her box office competition– was that audiences knew Colleen was a good girl at heart. Not only did Why Be Good? present the 1920s flapper in all her glory, but it also showcased a modern architectural style known as Art Deco. Why Be Good? rivals the modern-looking set designs of other great Art Deco films of the era including MGM’s Our Dancing Daughters (1928) starring Joan Crawford.

Though Colleen found great success on movie screens, personal happiness eluded her. Her troubled marriage to John McCormick was exhausting and took its toll on her. McCormick was an alcoholic who twice tried to kill her while drunk. His bizarre, often erratic behavior eventually led to divorce in 1930. But in the late 1920s, Colleen found a means of escape–a happiness away from home. In 1928, she started creating one of the most enduring aspects of her legacy. A lifelong collector of dollhouses, Colleen set out to build the ultimate “fairy castle.” Though Colleen had been in awe of (William Randolph) Hearst Castle during her many visits to the San Simeon retreat, the idea for the dollhouse came not from the publishing tycoon but from her own father who inspired it. Nevertheless, Colleen insisted her castle would have “the same feeling as San Simeon.”

Her father had conceived it, and with the help of architect Horace Jackson, who designed the floorplan, and decorator Harold Grieve– as well as many others who worked at First National– Colleen’s dream fairy castle became a reality. Cast in aluminum and made up of 200 interlocking parts, the castle was roughly nine feet square (one inch to the foot) with its tallest tower 12 feet high. It was made up of eleven rooms filled with nearly 1,500 objects including miniature books, furniture, and antiques. Every room was inspired by classic fairy tales and legends. Every room told a story. The castle even had its own plumbing and electrical systems. What started out as a hobby became her escape. With the help of friends, the castle grew over the years into a lasting work of art. She finished the castle in 1935. This fantasy world would become more than just a large dollhouse. It not only reflected her persona, but it became a museum unto itself– a repository of art, history, and culture.

Colleen’s Fairy Castle at the Museum of Science & Industry, Chicago. (photo courtesy of MSI)
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By the mid-1930s, Colleen’s career would be finished as well. She had made a handful of sound films, but her favorite was always The Power and the Glory (1933) with Spencer Tracy. She felt Tracy was the finest actor she had ever worked with. It was a dramatic role for her, and though it received critical praise, the public did not accept her in this type of role. Colleen had no desire to return to what she had once been in the 1920s and so bowed out of Hollywood.

After a short-lived marriage to a good friend of hers, Albert Parker Scott, Colleen finally found marital happiness when she met Chicago stockbroker Homer Hargrave in 1936. Homer was a widower with two children whom Colleen accepted as her own: Judy and Homer, Jr. She was introduced to Homer while she was on tour with her dollhouse to raise money for crippled children. At many city department stores across the nation, her castle became a great attraction. The tour eventually raised over $600,000. Colleen married Homer in 1937. As a pre-honeymoon trip, Homer took her to Riverview Amusement Park.

Colleen considered The Power and the Glory her finest film.
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It was during her years away from Hollywood that Colleen developed a greater sense of community. She became what she called a “private” person– that is, a person from the private sector outside of Hollywood. Over the years, Colleen remained active. Having wisely invested her money, she wrote a book called, How Women Can Make Money in the Stock Market (1969). She also helped found the first Chicago International Film Festival. Colleen remained married to Homer until his death in 1964. In 1983, she married a building contractor, Paul Maginot. They would remain together until her death from cancer in 1988.

Colleen Moore didn’t have the erotic charge of Louise Brooks, another flapper icon who has attained cult status, but Colleen was a bigger star in America than Brooks ever was, and she defined the look of the flapper well before Brooks. Colleen dosen’t have the name recognition of Clara Bow, the “It” girl whose affairs and controversial behavior off-screen added to the public’s fascination with her. Colleen, by contrast, led a scandal-free life, proving that not every star in Hollywood was without values. Though Colleen was the prototypical Jazz Age heroine who broke from conformity in order to have fun, her characters were never decadent. In fact, she always kept her old-fashioned decency in the end. Her sin was of the synthetic variety.

Colleen with Lloyd Hughes in Ella Cinders, 1926.
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Due to her immense popularity in the 1920s, Colleen was a trend-setter who shaped fashions and hairstyles. But beyond the iconic look, she was an actress of great energy, humor, and heart. Most importantly, Colleen was a wonderful person in real life who was motivated by charity and who gave back to the community.

With so many of her films out of circulation– only Why Be Good? is commercially available now while some titles exist in lesser-quality dvds– it might seem a daunting task to generate a demand for Colleen Moore. Added to this is the fact that many of her films are simply lost. (Due to the carelessness of a staffer at the Museum of Modern Art, some of her films deteriorated beyond repair.) But there is hope that Colleen will be more than a mere footnote in film history books. Some of her films are surfacing while others exist partially. More recently, the Vitaphone Project has restored and released her last two silent films (with the original Vitaphone sound): Synthetic Sin and, of course, Why Be Good? With the goal of continued preservation as well as proper exposure of those films that do exist, Colleen Moore can again be recognized as one of the great stars in the Age of Silence. We hope that our screening, along with others across the country, will lead to what Alice Hargrave has called a new wave of Colleen Moore interest.

For more about Colleen Moore, please visit the website:


“Here was a chance for a girl who had straight hair, who was not buxom and not a great beauty. A new type was born– the American girl.” ~ Colleen Moore
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The Colleen Moore Event

“I was the spark that lit up Flaming Youth, Colleen Moore was the torch. What little things we are to have caused all that trouble.” ~ F. Scott Fitzgerald

What: Why Be Good? (1929) DCP restoration
Jay Warren of the SFSC will provide the organ accompaniment!
When: May 7, 2015   7:30 PM
Where: Pickwick Theatre, Park Ridge, IL
Who: Special Guests: Alice Hargrave & the Colleen Moore family!
And The Chicago Art Deco Society!

Silent star Colleen Moore opened the Pickwick Theatre in 1928 with a showing of Lilac Time, but now she’s back to close out our second season of the Pickwick Theatre Classic Film Series. Why Be Good? (1929) played last October at the Chicago International Film Festival, and now this wonderful Jazz Age comedy comes to the suburbs!

Alice Hargrave, Colleen’s granddaughter, will be our special guest along with other members of Moore’s family. Alice will introduce the film and be available for a Q&A after the feature presentation.

For decades, Why Be Good? had been considered a lost film until a recent restoration by the Vitaphone Project preserved it for future generations. Not only is Why Be Good? a great comedy revealing its star at her best, but it’s also a terrific showcase of Art Deco set design. Due to the connection to Screen Deco, we’ve also invited the Chicago Art Deco Society to join us this evening.

Don’t miss our last show of the season! This will be a fun event for the community and we’d love to have you there. (1920s “flapper” costume optional.)

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10 Reasons Not To Miss Ben-Hur (1959)

Coming April 1 to the Pickwick Theatre!
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1. Big screen! We will be presenting this spectacular movie on the big screen– the way it was meant to be seen. Regardless of what size TV you may have hanging on your wall at home these days, nothing compares to experiencing it in an awe-inspiring theatre filled with hundreds of people.
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2. Charlton Heston. Heston is one of the great movie legends whose films ranged from Touch of Evil (1958) to Planet of the Apes (1968). But he is best known for the many epics he starred in. Heston was an almost mythic figure on the screen, so there was no one better suited for roles like Moses in The Ten Commandments (1956). Today’s historical concoctions (Pompeii, Son of God, et al.) often feature modern-looking actors who appear to have been pulled from the pages of GQ magazine. But Heston belonged to the pages of history.
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3. Chariot Race. Judah Ben-Hur’s horse race against his old friend, Messala (Stephen Boyd), remains one of the greatest actions sequences in film. It can be argued that it is the greatest sequence ever edited together. (Sorry, Battleship Potempkin.) Legendary stuntman Yakima Canutt and Andrew Marton directed this second-unit sequence in which Charlton Heston trained for weeks in order to properly drive a chariot.
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4. Music. The score by Miklos Rozsa is considered his finest composition and won him an Academy Award. Anyone who has seen the movie before or owns an album or cd of this amazing score can appreciate its grandeur and sweep.

5. Sets. Everything about Ben-Hur looks epic. It was the most expensive movie made up until that time, costing MGM $15 million dollars. The most famous set is the Circus Maximus arena in which the chariots race. It is astounding what Hollywood craftsmanship could build and accomplish (aided by some brilliant matte paintings). Today’s epics, by contrast, rely heavily on CG effects where most of the action is in a computer. But nothing can replace the realism of actual recreations. Sets and location work add to the actor’s performance, creating an element he or she would not feel if acting in front of a green screen.

6. William Wyler. Wyler was at the helm of some of the finest productions to come out of Hollywood including Wuthering Heights (1939) and The Best Years of Our Lives (1946). Wyler wanted to out-DeMille DeMille and succeeded in making an intimate epic that didn’t allow the scale to dwarf the characters.
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7. Best Picture. Ben-Hur won 11 Academy Awards including the Oscar for Best Picture. It’s been noted that Ben-Hur ushered in a modern-style of filmmaking, breaking away from conventions associated with the studio system. Ben-Hur‘s visual compositions and lighting (photographed by Robert L. Surtees in the new “MGM Camera 65″ process)– as well as its editing– set it apart from most of what 1950s Hollywood was releasing at that time.

8. Great epic. There were many epics made in the 1950s and 1960s, many of which dealt with religious or Biblical storylines. Though the main plot follows the relationship of a Jew and a Roman, the film is also A Tale of the Christ.  The story of Jesus is dramatically and reverently interwoven with the life of the (historically) fictitious Ben-Hur. The film not only deals with the tension between Romans and Jews but also covers the last days of Christ. Like other epics, it is filled with majesty and spectacle, but it is a testament to the filmmakers that such a large-scale production could be made with such intimate detail and nuance.
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9. Comparison to 2016 remake. Next year will see the release of another Hollywood remake of a classic film. Afterall, the chariot race would be so much better if it were computer-generated, right? (Why doesn’t Hollywood remake the failures like The Silver Chalice instead?) We can’t call the new Ben-Hur lackluster until it comes out, but we doubt it will measure up to the 1925 version much less the ’59 one.

10. Transcendent viewing experience. One of the most rewarding theatre experiences I’ve had in recent years was seeing a 35mm presentation of The Ten Commandments (1956) at the Portage Theatre (sponsored by the Northwest Chicago Film Society). Though our presentation is a DCP (digital) restoration, the image will look beautiful. Not every movie we see in a theatre is an “event” movie, but Ben-Hur is surely one of them. Once in a blue moon it will be screened in a theatre, and when it does we should take advantage of the opportunity. Ben-Hur is a work of great power that has influenced filmmakers and inspired audiences for 50+ years. It is a special experience one will not soon forget.

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A Hard Day’s Night (1964)

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Park Ridge came together on March 19 for another big event at the Pickwick Theatre.  We had a crowd of 613 patrons for our Beatles Night. Everyone who came out to support us had a great time– and got their money’s worth. We had two guests, a cover band, a raffle, and a book-signing.

Thank you to Beatles author Robert Rodriguez, who not only performed in the pre-show music onstage but did a book signing after the show. Thank you to all the members of the band The Time Bandits (Mike, Dennis, Tony, and Robert) for a great performance. We’d also like to thank Chicago Tribune entertainment reporter Mark Caro. Mark introduced A Hard Day’s Night with Robert, and he also did a Q&A with the audience after the movie.

We are extremely grateful to Jared at Allegro Music Center in Park Ridge for doing the (emergency) set-up on the stage.

The Time Bandits perform before the film screening…
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Robert Rodriguez
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Mark Caro
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The trailer to Yellow Submarine made a surprise appearance…
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The winner of our Beatles basket, Noreen Gallagher!
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Program Host Matthew Hoffman with Movie Hostess Allison
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With the Classic Film Series staff…
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Visit our Photo Archive for more great images from this night!

Ben-Hur (1959)

What: Ben-Hur (1959) DCP presentation
When: April 1 (Wednesday), 2015   7:00 PM
Where: Pickwick Theatre, Park Ridge, IL
What Else: Prelude music by organist Jay Warren at 6:30 PM
Screening as part of the Cinema of Transcendence film program.

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The Beatles Are Coming!

WHAT: A Hard Day’s Night (1964) DCP presentation
WHEN: March 19, 2015   7:30 PM
WHERE: Pickwick Theatre, Park Ridge, IL
WHO: Beatles author Robert Rodriguez* will join us to introduce A Hard Day’s Night. His band, “The Time Bandits,” will perform onstage from 7:00 to 7:30 PM!
Chicago Tribune entertainment reporter Mark Caro will also join us to lead a Beatles Q&A after the movie.
WHAT ELSE: We will raffle off a Beatles-themed prize basket! (Raffle tickets are only $1/5 for $4. )

*Robert Rodriguez is the award-winning author of five books on The Beatles, including the acclaimed Revolver; How The Beatles Re-Imagined Rock ‘n’ Roll. Along with British journalist Richard Buskin, he is the co-host of the podcast, Something About The Beatles. He appears regularly at the annual Fest for Beatles Fans in Rosemont as well as fan gatherings around the country and local libraries, presenting three separate audio-visual programs on their history.

His website:

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Faith in Film

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“Remember, as was once told me, ‘Life is to give, not to take.’” ~Fredric March as Jean Valjean in Les Miserables (1935)

In 2015, we look beyond the veil of our existence as we take a spiritual journey through the movies. Cinema of Transcendence is an original program that explores the role of spirituality and faith in classic Hollywood. When audiences think of the image of God on film, they might recall directors like Cecil B. DeMille, who was famous for the Bible stories he brought to the screen. Others might remember composers like Miklos Rozsa, whose musical scores brought a spiritual power to many epics from the 1950s.

In a modern age that is often cynical and skeptic, Cinema of Transcendence seeks to uplift and inspire with a positive image of religion. These films reflect the exalted virtues of love, forgiveness– and the kind of courage born in Heaven. They project a translation of God’s Word through a Hollywood perspective. If these films have historical shortcomings, they nevertheless remain faithful to the spirit of the Word.

Movies inspired by the Holy Bible go back to the very early days of the silent cinema. At the turn of the 20th century, several short films depicted the passion play. The biggest commercial and artistic successes, though, were made by filmmakers like Cecil B. DeMille, whose 1927 version of The King of Kings remains one of the great triumphs of religious storytelling. DeMille also made the 1923 version of The Ten Commandments (a film he would remake in 1956.) Other directors with notable contributions to the subject include D.W. Griffith (Intolerance, 1916) and Fred Niblo (Ben-Hur, 1925). Michael Curtiz’s Noah’s Ark (1928) was a “part-talkie” disaster film produced by the Warner Bros. studio.

H.B. Warner as Jesus in the most reverent and beautiful screen version of Christ in DeMille’s The King of Kings (1927).
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Films that touched upon the Divine were evident during Hollywood’s “pre-Code” era of the early 1930s when adult subjects were treated with a frankness that shocked the general public. The moral outrage of various civic and church organizations would force Hollywood’s Production Code to be enforced in 1934. But before that time, there were many films that mixed religion with vice. The Sign of the Cross (1932) is a notorious example of Cecil B. DeMille shocking his audiences with sexual imagery. But the sin depicted was in equal parts balanced with a powerful message about faith and pure love. Other pre-Code films of the era with spiritual themes and motifs include Safe in Hell (1931) and Gabriel Over the White House (1933).

Some of the best literary translations in the mid-1930s featured strong themes about redemption and noble sacrifice (A Tale of Two Cities, 1935) as well as forgiveness and charity (Les Miserables, 1935). Dante’s Inferno (1935) tells a modern day parable with a recreation of the Hell from Dante’s famous poem, The Divine Comedy. The nightmarish imagery from this largely overlooked film is an impressive achievement in art direction.

A vision of Hell from Dante’s Inferno (1935).
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The Word of God has been told using legend (the Holy Grail in The Light in the Dark aka The Light of Faith, 1922), allegory, (The Passing of the Third Floor Back, 1935 (UK), Strange Cargo, 1940), history (Last Days of Pompeii, 1935, The Crusades, 1935, Joan of Arc, 1948), and through films dealing with visions and miracles (The Song of Bernadette, 1943).

Many films in the 1930s and 1940s offered positive images of church clergymen and priests. Spencer Tracy in Boys Town (1938) and Bing Crosby in Going My Way (1944) are just two of the many fine examples of how Hollywood defined the priesthood.

One of the most remarkable films of the 1940s is One Foot in Heaven (1941) starring Fredric March as a Methodist minister in early 20th century America. This is one of the most intelligent and uplifting family films from Hollywood’s golden age. One Foot In Heaven remains the primary source of inspiration for Cinema of Transcendence.

Fredric March in One Foot in Heaven (1941).
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Other films that have glimpsed the eternal include Frank Capra’s Lost Horizon (1937), which sought an earthly transcendence for society itself. Though not an overtly religious film, Lost Horizon is one of the most soulful films to come out of Hollywood. The Razor’s Edge (1946) presented the main character of Larry Darrell (Tyrone Power) on a spiritual search for the meaning of life. These films and others have featured characters seeking a mental and spiritual transcendence. Society and the individual could reach beyond and become something far more than what we are now.

A subcategory of spirituality is a group of films that could be classified as angels and demons. Movies like The Devil and Daniel Webster (1941) and It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) featured strong religious elements even though the films themselves were not directly about religion. Several fantasy films offered a more playful take on religious concepts. Actor Claude Rains managed to play an angel in Here Comes Mr. Jordan (1941) and a devil in Angel on My Shoulder (1946).

Spirituality onscreen permeated many genres, from horror (The Bride of Frankenstein, 1935, and The Walking Dead, 1936) to Westerns like 1950’s Stars in My Crown. Actors one might not normally associate with religion appeared in some very unusual but remarkable films including Douglas Fairbanks, Sr. (The Gaucho, 1927), Boris Karloff (The Walking Dead, 1936), and even Errol Flynn in The Green Light (1937), a melodrama based on a novel by Lutheran minister Lloyd C. Douglas, author of Magnificent Obsession (1935).

But it was the 1950s that saw the greatest stories ever told on movie screens. Audiences could now witness the exodus of the Jews from Egypt and the birth of Jesus Christ not only in color– but in widescreen. In an effort to bring audiences back to theatres—and away from television—many new widescreen formats such as CinemaScope turned the movies into spectacles.

Charlton Heston as Moses in The Ten Commandments (1956).
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Two of the most popular films from the 1950s are The Ten Commandments (1956) and Ben-Hur (1959). The Ten Commandments, DeMille’s final film, has become a television tradition with its perennial showing every Easter. The force of the film’s storytelling and the strength of its convictions have towered above every version made since. Ben-Hur, based on Lew Wallace’s 1880 novel Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ, was a remake of the famous silent film and contains the most spectacular horse race in film history. Ben-Hur would also become the most honored Biblical epic with 11 Oscar wins.

Other important Christian films from the 1950s and 1960s include Quo Vadis (1951), The Robe (1953), The Big Fisherman (1959), King of Kings (1961), and The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965). Two of which, The Robe and The Big Fisherman, were the works of author Lloyd C. Douglas.

Throughout the history of religious cinema, there have been many that have challenged our beliefs and notions of holiness. Frank Capra’s The Miracle Woman (1931) features Barbara Stanwyck as a fake evangelist milking the multitudes. It also offers a powerful indictment of the hypocrisy that can be found in any local congregation. Night of the Hunter (1955), now recognized as a masterpiece in visual storytelling, presented a murderous preacher (Robert Mitchum) whose religious fanaticism is counterbalanced by the genuinely spiritual presence of Lillian Gish. These films as well as others like Elmer Gantry (1960) present a darker vision of faith based on the wayward motivations of its practitioners.

Films with religious themes continue to be popular to this day, even against the forces of modernity. However, most of these faith-based efforts are artistic failures. What Christian cinema markets today, both theatrically and on cable, is often condescending and simplistic. In addition, modern reinterpretations of the Bible– as well as satirical religious films– have only widened the gap between the reverence of the past and the irrelevant present. Nonetheless, the values and teachings of the Judeo-Christian faith have had great success manifesting more subtly in unlikely places. Themes of temptation and redemption– and an all-powerful guiding force– have surfaced in many genres, from children’s fantasy to popular science fiction.

Cinema of Transcendence is a series about discovery, revelation and, we hope… illumination.

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Cinema of Transcendence runs from March 5 to June 4 at the Park Ridge Public Library. To learn more about the spring series and to see the complete schedule of films, please visit the official series blog: Cinema of Transcendence.

As Time Goes By: The Casablanca Screening

Once again, the line to get in stretched down the block…
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“Welcome back to the fight. This time, I know our side will win.” ~ Victor Laszlo (Paul Henreid) to Rick (Humphrey Bogart) in Casablanca (1942).

We had 695 patrons join us on February 10, 2015, for our screening of Casablanca at the Pickwick Theatre. This was our second-largest turnout behind Gone With the Wind, which we had screened in December. As a result of playing two of the most popular films ever made back-to-back, our last two shows have brought in 1400+ people. We are extremely grateful to all our supporters.  Everybody comes to the Pickwick Theatre… and two of our dearest regulars even brought their “letters of transit.” (Thank you, Bobbie & Jimmii.)

We had the theatre lobby decorated in honor of the film and to celebrate Valentine’s Day. Jay Warren performed the pre-show music on the theatre’s Mighty Wurlitzer organ. He ended at 7:30 with a memorable rendition of “As Time Goes By,” the theme song from Casablanca. One of our assistants, Elizabeth, took the time to set up a “baby monitor” in the lobby so that those filing in could hear Jay performing in the auditorium.

Onstage we took a poll to see how many people had seen Casablanca before. Several dozen were seeing the film for the first time while most had seen it many times before. It was a mixture of young and old in attendance, and not one of them was disappointed. Casablanca truly is a perfect film. When the movie was over, you could hear the audience applause from where we were standing in the foyer.

For us, the highlight of our presentation was a special written introduction prepared by Monika Henreid, daughter of  actor Paul Henreid. For those unable to attend our event, we’d like to share with you Monika’s words about her father.

*            *            *


CASABLANCA was only my father’s third film in Hollywood. His stories and memories were mostly about how badly Michael Curtiz behaved toward the extras and supporting players…people my father admired and many of whom he knew from their already well established careers in Europe.

He very much enjoyed playing chess with Bogie. As a matter of fact, he and Bogie would leave the set and go to his dressing room and play during any number of Curtiz’ tirades … with Claude Rains coming along to kibitz

The beginning of many beautiful friendships, possibly no film has been more dissected, analyzed, studied and admired.

Everyone has their own relationship with CASABLANCA…and relationships have developed because of it. The romance, humor, dialog, and honor have all become a part of Classic cinema history but more importantly have become a part of our lives. The characters have become our friends.

I have introduced this film numerous times at film festivals and am always surprised and delighted by the interaction of the audience. I enjoy that they can be split half and half with fans who have seen it ‘a million times’ and those who are ‘newbies’ becoming the next generations of fans and friends. (Matthew – Please ask your audience by a show of hands, who have seen it a ‘million times’ and who are ‘newbies.’)

The film was populated by actors who were real life immigrants who had just experienced what their characters are going through. I believe this is what gives it such great authenticity… something you couldn’t find at Central Casting.

My father was one of those … although he was well into his career as a matinee idol, he left Austria because he had been blacklisted by Goebbels for refusing to sign the Nazi film union contract and because he was an outspoken anti-Nazi. Then after starting a successful stage and film career in England, he was blacklisted for assumed pro-Nazi leanings. That is, he was an Austrian and after the occupation, a German, and by extension a Nazi.

Wrong! They couldn’t have been more wrong. But it was the War and he was about to be separated from my mother and deported. So he and Victor Laszlo were not so far apart.

And even though he was blacklisted again – in Hollywood this time – during the McCarthy/HUAC era, his story does have a pretty happy ending. He did get the girl – my mother, continued acting and was able to parlay his career into directing and producing.

So please enjoy this classic of all classic films. I only wish I was there with you. If you would like to know more or engage in conversation please join me at:

Humphrey Bogart and Paul Henreid
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Program host Matthew Hoffman with Movie Hostess Allison.
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Allison reading Monika Henreid’s introduction…
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Shannon, Matthew, Elizabeth, and Allison…
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The Pickwick Theatre Classic Film Series: where every screening becomes an event, and where every movie is celebrated.
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Casablanca (1942) at the Pickwick Theatre

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What: Casablanca (1942) film screening
Also: “Our Wife” (1931) starring Laurel & Hardy
When: February 10, 2015  7:30 PM
Where: Pickwick Theatre, Park Ridge, IL
Who: Jay Warren performing pre-show music at 7:00 PM
Why: A DCP (digitally restored) presentation of the classic film voted #1 screen romance by our fans.

“Casablanca has been called a perfect film, capturing the spirit of romance, patriotism, intrigue, and idealism with artistic integrity and honesty that is rarely found in film. I tend to agree.” ~ Lauren Bacall

Join us for an early Valentine’s Day treat when we present a film that is not only one of the great screen romances, but is considered to be the greatest studio film ever made. Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman– along with an outstanding supporting cast– star in this World War II story of love and intrigue in Morocco.

Casablanca was a winner of three Academy Awards including Best Picture. It was honored in its day and it continues to be honored today. The film is often listed near the top of most lists devoted to the greatest films ever made. (The AFI lists it as #2 behind Citizen Kane.) The film’s screenplay also won an Academy Award. This comes as no surprise since so many of the film’s lines are instantly recognized and quoted– seventy-three years later.

Casablanca remains one of the finest examples of studio filmmaking starring some of the best actors of its time– names like Bogart, Bergman, Rains, Veidt… It was directed by one of the most proficient craftsman in Hollywood, Michael Curtiz, whose films are noted for their fluid camerawork, lighting, and story pacing. Curtiz embodied the studio system, and under it, he made dozens of classic motion pictures.

But beyond all its many fine technical merits, Casablanca is a film that reaches its audience– then and now. There is truth that viewers recognize and respond to. It is a story of redemption and sacrifice. Its images and words have become iconic, and it is part of American movie mythology.

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PRPL Classic Film Series Feedback

With our Gone With the Wind screening over– and no Pickwick Theatre show until February 10– our attention has shifted back to the upcoming film program at the Park Ridge Public Library. The Classic Film Series is set to return in the spring. For those only familiar with the theatre series, we cordially invite you to attend the library program beginning in March 2015.

The following is a very kind letter written by one of our series regulars, Karen Nagel. We are grateful to patrons like her for their continued support of our film study program.

One of our favorite programs to attend as a family was the Park Ridge Classic Film Series. Since its inception we were thrilled by the outstanding collection of films, shorts, cartoons, and lectures. Not only has the series provided us with the opportunity to see beloved films again, we were also introduced to some other movies that proved to be equally a pleasure. These classic films have depth, substance, and represent an overlooked art form. The Series provides a much-needed respite from the mundane banality of what passes for entertainment today, and we are a better community for having such a program.

For us, the best part of the Classic Film Series has been the erudite insight offered by Matthew Hoffman. Mr. Hoffman’s delightful introductions into each movie’s history are informative, and brimming with a rich imagery that leaves us wanting to know more. Through his lectures, we are offered a compelling peek into the fascinating private world of the classic films and the people who made them great. As the Library’s resident film historian, Mr. Hoffman has the ability to take complex artistic themes and present them in a way that engages and enlightens his audience. Like the elegant prose of a well-crafted preface to a literary masterpiece, his introductions offer an enticing combination of historical fact, keen analysis, and the personal stories of the people who gave life to the magic of cinema. Thus, the Park Ridge Classic Film Series is not just a collection of old movies; it is a tribute to a cultural legacy. We loved the Film Series so much we made it a tradition. It was wonderful having an activity we could enjoy on a regular basis as a family.

After my father passed away, my mother and I found it difficult to feel social as we worked through our grief. Once again, the Park Ridge Public Library helped us by offering a warm, welcoming place where we could start to participate in activities again. Our experiences at the Library have always been positive, and it seemed natural to go to a place where we had spent so many pleasant hours as a family. We associate the Library with such good memories! When we started to slowly ease back into social events, the Library was the place we chose to go. Our familiarity with the Library’s many programs and services made it seem natural for us. We started by attending the Classic Film Series again. For a few hours each week, my Mom and I were transported to another time and place so we could forget our pain. It helped. When we left the movie, we would always talk about how my father would have enjoyed that night’s selection. We found solace in these evenings at the Library, and a comfort that allowed us to start moving past our grief and enjoying life again.