Wednesday, December 26, 2012


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.
The bulk of the movie consists of Father Keller explaining the Christophers' mission: getting "the little people" involved in education, government, writing and the like, to counteract those in the same professions who have been trying to tear down the USA. From a teacher to "one young Negro student," Father Keller gives example after example of how people's seemingly insignificant acts can change the world for the better. All the while, he stresses the influence that God had on the Founding Fathers when writing the Declaration of Independence. And that's pretty much it.

Rochester is baffled that his Jewish
boss insists on entertaining Catholic priests in his home.
Now, if you think this would make a pleasant but dull half-hour of celluloid, you weren't alone, which is why director Leo McCarey, a friend of Keller's, rounded up a bunch of his friends to jazz things up. In fact, the short is book-ended in such a way to make it resemble an episode of The Jack Benny Program, right down to the "Love in Bloom" theme and the "cheap" jokes, which are actually pretty funny. (Jack almost has a stroke when Father Keller uses his phone to make a long distance call to Bob Hope in Texas.)

"Hi, this is Bob 'Where the Hell
Are My Hookers' Hope."
Hope, too, gets in a few good lines before turning serious (always a deadly thing): "Seems you don't hear much about the Declaration. All you hear about is the Constitution and the Bill of Rights" -- you know, those pissant papers that he claims "don't add up to much without the Declaration" -- twice neglecting to add the words "of Independence."  One wonders if there's some other agenda going on there. (You Can Change the World lacks a writing credit, but Leo McCarey is said to be one of the three scribes behind it.)

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.
Bing Crosby shows up late, presumably having dawdled a little too long at the 19th hole. As usual, however, he takes immediate command of the screen, his ultra-cool manner making it clear why bandleader Artie Shaw referred to him "the first hip white man" born in America. 

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.
Come to think of it, I wonder if Father Keller is aware of the company he's keeping. William Holden was a drunk. Loretta Young was the mother of a bastard daughter by Clark Gable. Songwriter Jimmy Van Heusen was a notorious whoremonger. And Bob Hope probably couldn't show up in person because he was schtupping one of the dozens of doxys he had stashed around the country. It makes Keller's observation to the Boston Globe -- "I've always felt that there is a lot of goodness here [in Hollywood]. You hear about the freaks, but the majority are good people" -- seem charmingly naive. After all, Hollywood is filled with actors who are acting.

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!"
Distributed to church groups in 1950 and television shortly thereafter, You Can Change the World marked a further aesthetic change for Leo McCarey. One of Hal Roach's greatest finds, McCarey was credited with teaming Stan Laurel with Oliver Hardy, along with directing their best silents. (Coincidentally or not, You Can Change the World was shot on the Roach lot.) During the talkie area, he was responsible for the Marx Brothers' most anarchic movie, Duck Soup, as well as W.C. Fields' wacky Six of a Kind.

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.

Still, only an unrepentant cynic would disagree with Father Keller's desire of encouraging "more good, decent, normal people to take up careers" to positively affect the country -- or as he calls it, finding "a job with a purpose." I have no idea how successful You Can Change the World was, though, as far as, well, changing the world. It seems to me that the handbasket addressed to hell was successfully FedExed some time ago. 

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.


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