How do you like to relax on a lazy Sunday evening? If you're anything like Jack Benny, you invite your A-list showbiz pals over to listen to a priest lecture about fighting communism. At least if You Can Change the World is to be believed.
Part anti-Commie tract, part do-gooder message, the 30-minute short You Can Change the World was produced by the Christophers, the Catholic organization founded a few years earlier by Father James Keller.
You wouldn't know any of that by looking at the poster. In fact, the real star, Father Keller, isn't even mentioned. People expecting a mini-musical comedy were probably in for a shock five minutes in.
|Father Keller takes the |
film noir approach
on the set.
|Rochester is baffled that his Jewish|
boss insists on entertaining Catholic priests in his home.
|"Hi, this is Bob 'Where the Hell|
Are My Hookers' Hope."
Due to the nature of the movie, McCarey's direction is pretty static. In trying to create some action mid-way through by having Jack Benny and Paul Douglas walk behind Father Keller, McCarey only makes them look like they're playing Follow the Leader. The others remain sitting on or standing behind a couch, reciting their sparse dialogue with the passion of a steamed clam.
|Too hip for the room.|
And as for his musical talent, any song sung by Bing in his prime is worth hearing... except the one written for this movie, "Early American." (It's about American ideals, not the Ethan Allen furniture chain.) As with many songs of its type, the message doesn't exactly make for snappy lyrics:
The dream I'm building is Early American,Something that won't go out of style.
It makes you feel that life's worth living,
The way they must have felt that first Thanksgiving...
No "Swinging on a Star," this.
|The cast follows Leo McCarey's|
direction to look constipated.
And for a movement that's all about "the little people," it's interesting that Rochester -- you know, the black servant -- isn't allowed to listen to Father Keller's homily. Make of that what you will. At least he gets his revenge in the opening credits, where his real name, Eddie Anderson, comes first alphabetically.
|Between takes, Father Keller weeps as Jack Benny insists on telling yet another story about the good old days of vaudeville.|
|Leo McCarey and Father Keller: "Look, I directed Crosby|
as a priest twice so I know what I'm talking about, goddammit!"
Over time, however, McCarey's oeuvre took a sentimental turn -- Make Way for Tomorrow (a slash-your-wrists depressing movie about aging) and Love Affair. Sentiment became intertwined with religion in Going my Way and The Bells of St. Mary's. Religion then got mixed-up with a decidedly conservative political view in Satan Never Sleeps, the infamous My Son John and, of course, You Can Change the World. You'd never know this was the same person who, in 1929, dreamed up the gag of a live crab falling down the front of Stan Laurel's pants.
|The cast can't wait for Father Keller to leave so the orgy can start.|
Father Keller, however, had more faith in his fellow man. A 1950 Boston Globe article states that future Christopher productions included Secretarial Work With a Purpose. You can bet when that movie was shot, William Holden was at the nearest bar with the purpose of getting pie-eyed.
Oh heck, why am I being so cynical? The Christophers are all about religious tolerance and good deeds, things everyone can get behind. Father Keller seems to be a fine, sincere fellow. And unlike the religious leaders in today's mega-churches, there's nothing slick about him. He's awkward and nervous. In other words, he's real. Call me a sentimental old dishrag, but I liked the guy. He even gets off a couple of laughs during his brief comedic moments with Jack Benny.
|Hey -- they found the lost speech!|
And boy, does he love the Declaration of Independence! So much so that, near the end of You Can Change the World, he gives Jack a copy of "Lincoln's lost speech" from 1858 regarding the Declaration, from which Jack reads aloud. It's quite a passage -- poetic, spiritual and patriotic all at once. Extraordinarily well-written even for its time. You can't help be moved.
Yet something bothered me. If this was supposed to be a lost speech, how the heck could anyone quote from it? A little research gave me the answer: they couldn't. Even though it had been circulating for close to a century by then, it was a fraud. Lincoln's son and private secretary said so, as have researchers ever since. Nobody knows what Lincoln said that night in 1858. That's why they call it a lost speech!
Historian: now there's a job with a purpose.