All posts by Daniel J. Heisey

Bilbo’s Spoons and American Pickers

In the last chapter of The Hobbit, J. R. R. Tolkien described Bilbo Baggins returning home to the Shire after an absence of more than a year, only to find he had arrived in time to see his possessions being sold at auction because he had been presumed dead.  Bilbo buys back most of his property, but one exception is his set of silver spoons.  Nevertheless, he soon settles back into his familiar routine of churchwarden pipes and two breakfasts.  All the same, he would have liked to have had back those old silver spoons.

In a spiritual context, Bilbo would be told to detach himself from his worldly goods, and in a secular setting, he would be cautioned against hoarding.  While some people pride themselves on an annual purge of all the stuff they think they no longer need, others are aware that the future is uncertain.  More often than not, someone will jettison something that has not been used for months or years, and not too long afterwards is when it will be needed.  True, some can go to extremes, such as the man who is said to have had a shoe box labelled, “Pieces of string too short to use.”

Useless bits of string can safely be thrown away without harming human dignity, what Psalm 8 teaches about man being made a little lower than the angels.  Yet, man was also made to live above the level of a beast of burden.  Beginning around the eighteenth century the West has had a reverence for utility, so that family, friends, neighbors, and even the state consider themselves competent to decide and decree what another person needs.  In a stark utilitarian society, humans would be told they need nothing more than 2000 calories per day, a futon in a boxy apartment building, and the satisfaction of toiling productively for the collective.  Workhorse, here is your stall and your feedbag.

When telling a collector of silver spoons, for example, that he really doesn’t need them and should let go of them, what gets forgotten, paradoxically, is the role of memory.  Bilbo and other hobbits had a keen sense of the past and of the importance of things for connecting the generations.  After all, Tolkien noted Bilbo lending his suit of chain mail to a museum, and it seems too often overlooked that hobbits sustained a museum.

Hobbits can remind humans that it is a seemingly impractical collection of spoons that really makes a house a home.  Those spoons might be reminders of vacations taken, or they may call to mind deceased family members who had enjoyed them in ages past.  Those spoons are all about life itself.

Humans who champion this sentimental and commemorative importance of old stuff are Mike Wolfe and Frank Fritz, hosts of a popular television show, American Pickers.  Since 2010 their show has chronicled their travels searching for what they call “rusty gold,” well-aged and often everyday items found off the beaten path.  For them, looking for antiquated oddities to buy and resell is about more than making a living.  It is about parents, grandparents, and children.

In a book related to their television series, American Pickers Guide to Picking, Wolfe and Fritz conclude by noting how their television show has opened up new worlds to parents and children.  Parents write to Wolfe and Fritz saying that their children have been exploring the grandparents’ attics and sheds for mundane artifacts.  The children learn that, “the real thrill of picking is in the discovery of new ideas and in the connections they make with the people in their family and communities.”

In a companion book, Kid Pickers, Wolfe, as a husband and father, encourages children to find out about family and regional heritage.  He advises them to scrounge around not only at home, but also at yard sales and thrift stores.  From there, they should visit local historical societies and cemeteries to locate long lost relatives.  “Picking,” he concludes, “is all about connecting to the person you are and the people in your life.”

In his own book, How to Pick Vintage Motorcycles, Fritz observed how one generation influences the next.  He explained how his parents instilled in him a strong work ethic, so that his desire for “things like motorcycles, guns, and fishing poles” meant that he had to work and save, leading him to shovel snow in the winter and mow lawns in the summer.  Before long he developed a sixth sense for finding old oil cans and other apparent junk.

In their crisscrossing of the country, Wolfe and Fritz keep an eye out for all manner of usually knocked-about rarities, from metal Lionel train sets to enameled Exide battery signs, from Excelsior motorcycles to silver spoons made by a colonial craftsman.  Along the way they meet an equal number of eccentric characters, such as Ronald Heist, a reclusive salvager in western Pennsylvania who is known as Mole Man.  His nickname derives from his sprawling underground structure, dug out by hand himself, where he keeps a vast collection of tin signs and light fixtures, coffee cans and bathroom plungers.  As the Pickers put it, “very weird, but in a totally cool way.”

And so the two adventurous American Pickers have met someone like Bilbo Baggins in a hole in the ground, “not a nasty, dirty, wet hole,” but a painted warren of rooms and tunnels.  Wolfe and Fritz grew up together near Davenport, Iowa, but they acknowledge in their Guide to Picking that “Pennsylvania is better suited to our particular needs.”  There they find treasure troves in small towns and on family farms, most of the towns and many of the barns being easily a century older than their Midwestern or Western counterparts.

Just as Bilbo, at age fifty setting out on his first-ever adventure, faced peril from trolls and dragons, so too have the Pickers faced danger, some inhospitable property owners having been ready to unleash snarling dogs on them.  It is an attitude going back millennia:  Inside the front door of a house in Pompeii is a mosaic of a dog with a chain and a red collar; even now, it is a resonating image, the caption, Cave Canem, not needing much Latin to translate:  Beware of Dog.  Human nature never changes, and people cherish their stuff and the memories that it holds.

Buster Keaton’s Scenic Realism

In 1925 silent film star Buster Keaton, his wife, and their two sons moved into a new house just off Sunset Boulevard in Beverly Hills, California.  Dubbed the Italian Villa, it sat on three and a half acres, and for Keaton’s wife, glamorous Natalie Talmadge, it was an ideal setting for lavish Hollywood parties.  For Keaton himself, it was the perfect location for an outdoor model railroad.

Railroads were part and parcel of Keaton’s life.  Born Joseph Frank Keaton in 1895 to parents who toured the vaudeville circuit, he grew up catching trains from one town to another.  Keaton’s father, Joe, was a hard-drinking Irish-American who drilled the boy in pratfalls that earned him the nickname Buster, but by 1917 the younger Keaton had enough and moved to California, where he appeared in some slapstick comedy films starring Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle.

Troop trains then became part of Keaton’s experience.  After the United States entered the First World War, Keaton was drafted into the Army, being assigned to the Signal Corps and learning map reading and Morse Code.  In the summer of 1918, he was sent to France, his unit being kept in reserve and never seeing combat.  Along with rain, mud, and monotony, his biggest difficulties were a uniform too big for his sinewy 5’5″ frame and then an ear infection that permanently damaged his hearing.

In 1919, back home from the war, Keaton resumed making movies with Arbuckle.  Before long, Keaton had his own production company, and he developed a persona whereby when he was in public or being filmed, he never smiled, earning him another nickname, the Great Stone Face.

Keaton’s silent films featured him as an earnest if hapless young man stymied by modern technology as he sought the respect of various father figures and above all, sought the affection of a young lady he hoped to marry.  As S. T. Karnick wrote in The Weekly Standard (13 March, 2000), Keaton’s films “support conventional morality against Jazz Age libertinism.”  A recurring theme in his films is Keaton’s character looking for a judge or clergyman in order to marry the girl Keaton has been courting.

Another recurring theme is trains.  Throughout his life, Keaton said that if he had received more formal education, he would not have become an actor and director but a civil engineer.  His silent films show a creative mind attracted to challenges posed by physics, architecture, and machines, especially trains, both model and real.  From One Week (1920) to Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928), trains appeared in most of Keaton’s films, and Hard Luck (1921) involved a street car.  Our Hospitality (1923) replicated a Stephenson locomotive from the 1830s, and in The Blacksmith (1922), Keaton used model trains.  Two more examples will suffice.

In The Electric House (1922) Keaton sets up a Standard gauge model train to convey food from the kitchen to the dining room table.  Being a comedy, the arrangement goes not exactly as planned.  With Keaton, the use of model trains became a case of life imitating art:  Whether at the Italian Villa or at a bungalow he owned later in life, Keaton used his model trains to serve food to his guests.

A year after setting up a garden railroad at his Italian Villa, where real trees and flowers and rocks served as scenery, Keaton made one of his most ambitious films.  Based on an actual incident in the American Civil War, The General (released in February, 1927) stars Keaton as a railroad engineer.  Instead of using a model train for various scenes, Keaton used a steam locomotive that was part of a functioning narrow gauge logging railroad near Cottage Grove, Oregon.

One way to look at The General and its realistic setting is Keaton toying with the ultimate outdoor train layout.  Although there is no record of Keaton deliberately crashing his own model trains, in The General he indulged in what seems to be a primordial male instinct:  Boys and their toys, they want to wreck their trains.  The climactic train chase and then wreck in The General has become a classic scene in film history.

Nearly every Keaton silent film included a chase scene, and Keaton did almost all his own stunts.  In The Theater and Cinema of Buster Keaton (1999), Robert Knopf put his finger on Keaton’s art:  “His preference for long shots, long takes, and vast realistic landscapes grounds his chases in strict classical realism,” and yet “the progressively larger and larger number of people, objects, and animals in the chases exceeds any reasonable expectations” and thus becomes like a dream, but “a dream made solid and palpable through Keaton’s meticulous realism.”

While the country plunged into the Great Depression, Keaton’s 1930s were a time of personal depression.  In 1928 he signed a contract with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, giving them artistic control over his future films; in 1932 his marriage broke up.  Frustrated and humiliated, he took to drink.

By the late 1930s, after a second unfortunate marriage, he was in a stable if stagnant period.  Now sober, he had his other hobbies of fishing and duck hunting, playing bridge and reading murder mysteries, and he worked as a gag writer for the Marx Brothers.  However, those masters of zany verbal comedy had little need for the insights of a man noted for silent physical comedy.  “That used to get my goat,” Keaton later admitted.

In 1940 he married a young MGM dancer, Eleanor Norris.  She was 21, he was 44, but they had clicked right away, staying together until his death in 1966.  In 1955 they moved to Woodland Hills in the San Fernando Valley, where the anti-communist but otherwise apolitical Keaton served two terms as honorary mayor.  The Keatons bought a modest bungalow, what he called his ranch, and there Keaton built another outdoor model railroad.

Roger Carp, writing in the May, 2003, issue of Classic Toy Trains, recounted Keaton’s fascination with model trains.  In particular, Carp wrote about Keaton’s outdoor layout at the house in Woodland Hills.  There Keaton enjoyed an S gauge American Flyer 4-6-0 326 Hudson  steam engine looping around ready-built Plasticville structures.

Less common among model railroaders than HO or O gauge, S gauge uses a scale where 3/16 of an inch, or nearly 5 millimeters, equals one foot.  Carp described Keaton’s model train running from the garage to the barbecue area and back again, while his grandchildren and family friends delighted in seeing the train arriving at the picnic table, flat cars carrying hot dogs and gondolas bearing condiments.  As Keaton recalled in his memoir, My Wonderful World of Slapstick (1960), his acre and a quarter ranch had “a miniature railroad that carries peanuts, soda pop, sandwiches, and popcorn to guests.”

According to a documentary, Buster Keaton:  A Hard Act to Follow (1987), another use he had for his model train was more personal.  For much of his life Keaton had been a three or four pack a day cigarette smoker.  In his late sixties he decided to quit smoking, so he would light a cigarette, put it on his train, send the train on its route, and when it returned to him, he would take a puff on the cigarette, put it back on the train, and send it on another round.

In his last years, Keaton suffered from insomnia.  When not playing with his trains, he was playing bridge with Eleanor or was up all hours playing solitaire.  Eleanor Keaton later said that when he died, he had his Rosary in one pocket and a deck of cards in the other.  A few years after he died, she donated his trains to a local children’s hospital.

Father Patrick Peyton’s Family Theater

Born 110 years ago today, Father Patrick Peyton, C. S. C., (1909-1992) went from a small farm in County Mayo, Ireland, to New York and Hollywood and world-wide recognition as “The Rosary Priest.”  Through vast outdoor rallies, as well as radio, film, and television, Peyton promoted the practice of family prayer, especially urging Catholic families to pray the Rosary together every day.  In 2001, the Vatican approved Peyton’s cause for canonization, and in 2017, Pope Francis declared him Venerable.

One aspect of Peyton’s ministry that bears highlighting is one he never expected.  His original idea was a weekly national radio program on the Mutual network; the program would be about the Rosary.  Executives at Mutual rejected the proposal, saying it was too sectarian.  However, they had no objection to a weekly national program with a broader appeal.

Baffled by what seemed to be God closing a door while opening a window, Peyton nevertheless agreed.  Mutual generously donated the air time, but Peyton had to pay all production costs himself.  Moreover, Mutual insisted upon each episode having the highest quality and that each week’s show would feature a famous Hollywood star.

Thus began a nearly ten-year run of Family Theater.  From February, 1947, to July, 1956, it aired as a half-hour radio anthology series, consistently maintaining superior production values and featuring major Hollywood stars.  The show’s 482 episodes are available commercially and on line, and their wholesome, if at times now seemingly corny, nature make them ideal for parents homeschooling their children and looking for a way to engage the kids’ imaginations.

The first episode, “Flight from Home,” set the standard, with a heart-warming drama about a young couple starting out with every dream and opportunity, only to have to learn how to face adversity with faith.  The host was James Stewart, a practicing Presbyterian, and Peyton wrote in his autobiography, All for Her (1967), that “I was particularly happy to have” Stewart as host, “for it was a proclamation to Mutual that I was going to live up to my undertaking to make the program non-sectarian.”  Music for that debut performance was by a well-known radio personality, Meredith Willson, who in 1957 earned lasting fame with his Broadway play, later a popular film, The Music Man.

As did other radio anthology series of the time, such as Escape or Suspense, Family Theater explored a variety of genres.  Most episodes were dramas written just for the series, such as “Last Run,” first broadcast in June, 1953, and telling the story about a railroad conductor’s last run before retirement.  Other episodes drew upon the lives of famous authors, such as “Once on a Golden Afternoon,” about Lewis Carroll thinking up the story that became Alice in Wonderland.  Science fiction and comedy were also on the bill, respective examples being “UFO” and “The Golden Touch.”  In the latter, Jack Benny played upon his persona as a miser and portrayed King Midas.  History also had a place, and “The Bid Was Four Hearts” related the heroic sacrifice of four United States military chaplains during the Second World War.

Although the host of each program spoke of the importance of prayer, the shows themselves were rarely overtly religious.  Two exceptions are worth noting.  “Curtain Call for Genesius,” starring Tyrone Power, told the story of a fourth-century Christian martyr who became the patron saint of actors.  “The Passion and Death of Christ,” epically reverential, starred Ethel Barrymore; she not only narrated the drama, she spoke the words of Christ, so that in a daring directorial move, Jesus was portrayed by a lady.

For Peyton, producing a weekly radio series posed numerous challenges outside his education and experience.  In All for Her, he said that he began by simply cold calling Hollywood stars, hoping to sell them on the idea of appearing on Family Theater.  As Richard Gribble put it in “The Rosary Priest,” in the March, 2018, issue of Columbia magazine, “At first, he knew virtually no one of significance, but famous personalities, Catholic and non-Catholic alike, soon became captivated by Father Peyton’s charm and total dedication to Mary and family prayer.”  Actors appearing on Family Theater donated their time and talent to the show.

From the start, anybody who was anybody in Hollywood back then wanted to be part of Family Theater.  Many of them were Catholic, such as Fred Allen, Jack Webb, and Loretta Young, while many others were not.  As John Dunning wrote in One the Air (1998), “It can safely be said that no series offered more Hollywood personalities in the same span of time:  Gary Cooper, Gregory Peck, Shirley Temple, Jack Benny, Robert Mitchum—the list, after a while, becomes meaningless.”

Another angle that was new to Peyton was how to market a national radio series.

Advertising executives at the Madison Avenue firm of Young and Rubicam donated their services to create publicity for Family Theater.  Their premise, Peyton wrote, was “if you were going to sell family prayer on radio, you had to use the techniques which had proved successful in this medium for selling soap and automobiles.”  In particular, Al Scalpone, a young copywriter at the firm, came up with three lines to sum up the show.

Each week the host of Family Theater introduced the show and used these three catch phrases:  “More things are wrought by prayer than this world dreams of;” “A world at prayer is a world at peace;” “The family that prays together stays together.”  The first statement came from Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s poem, Idylls of the King (1885), echoing William Shakespeare’s Hamlet telling Horatio, “There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”  As officials at Mutual required, it was a thoroughly non-sectarian sentiment; even Marcus Aurelius or Confucius could have concurred.

The other two lines were coined by Scalpone.  They can become topics for discussion, since skeptics could say that prayer does not necessarily lead to peace.  As Abraham Lincoln pointed out in his Second Inaugural Address (1865), each side in the American Civil War turned to God in prayer:  “Both [sides] read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other.”

A skeptic’s doubts about polished slogans aside, homeschoolers and others can find entertainment and inspiration in Father Patrick Peyton’s unexpected apostolate that was Family Theater.

Let Us Now Praise the Saint

In The Honorary Consul (1973), Graham Greene has one of his characters observe, “There were no detective stories in the age of faith. . . . God used to be the only detective when people believed in Him.  He was law.  He was order.  He was good. . . . It was He who pursued the wicked man for punishment and discovered all.”  That deficiency of detective stories in medieval times has been corrected by the likes of Ellis Peters’ Brother Cadfael and Susanna Gregory’s Matthew Bartholomew.

Since the faith of that so-called Age of Faith survives into our day, there have been fictional twentieth-century detectives who were not only men of faith, but also men of the cloth.  Among the most famous are G. K. Chesterton’s Father Brown and Ralph McInerny’s Father Dowling.  From its invention in the early nineteenth century by Edgar Allan Poe, detective fiction has attracted millions of steadfast adherents, and in the twentieth century there appeared a fictional detective who combined a moral compass with a roguish streak.

In 1928 Leslie Charteris (1907-1993) created Simon Templar, also known as the Saint.  Templar was instantly and intensely popular, featuring in dozens of short stories and novels and also in comic books, radio dramas, theatrical films, and television series.  The books were out of print but have been revived, thanks to the diligent effort of Ian Dickerson.  Just as the books are again in print, some of the movies, radio programs, and television shows are available on-line and commercially.

Templar became known as “the Robin Hood of modern crime.”  A master of disguise and a deft jewel thief, he turned to righting wrongs by developing a skill for, as Charteris put it, “swindling the swindler.”  The stories take Templar from London to New York, Rome to Palm Springs, and show him again and again outwitting the bad guys, dubbed by him “the ungodly.”  Charteris thus adapted the old adage about setting a thief to catch a thief.

Charteris set forth Templar’s creed perhaps most concisely in the story “The Man Who Was Clever,” collected in Enter the Saint (1930):  “We Saints are normally souls of peace and goodwill towards men.  But we don’t like crooks, blood-suckers, traders in vice and damnation, and other verminous excrescences of that type. . . . We are not bothered about the letter of the Law, we act exactly as we please, we inflict what punishments we think suitable, and no one is going to escape us.”

Theologians might question some of Templar’s morality, but in the story “The Blind Spot,” in the collection The Brighter Buccaneer (1933), Charteris noted that everyone has a weakness, an Achilles heel.  “The professor of theology,” he mused, “knows the Saint Saga as well as the Epistle to the Ephesians.”  True it is that, at least in English-speaking lands, theologians and the clergy seem to have a soft spot for detective fiction.  For instance, the Anglican priests and seminarians in P. D. James’ crime novel Death in Holy Orders (2001) are described as being addicted to crime fiction.

As addictions go, it barely rates.  Some years ago, Father Benedict Groeschel told an audience at Cambridge, “It’s only an addiction if it’s life-threatening.”  Probably few cars have been wrecked and fewer marriages ruined by someone hooked on whodunits.  In any case, Simon Templar’s adventures won’t cause cancer or ravage the liver.

More so than in other crime fiction, the exploits of Charteris’ hero (or anti-hero) ripple with humor.  Not surprisingly, an early admirer was P. G. Wodehouse.  Templar could well have been Bertie Wooster’s more energetic (and more clever) kid brother.  At a crucial point in The Saint Plays with Fire (1938), Templar is in Paddington station racing against the clock, and Charteris gives one of the funniest and most accurate descriptions of a man in a hurry trying to get information from a railway official, the sort of oblivious drudge plodding through his daily routine and who couldn’t give a succinct answer to save his life.

The Saint’s sense of fun and fair play can get him into unexpected trouble.  In The Saint’s Getaway (1932), Templar is on holiday in Austria, and he and his friend Monty Hayward see a man on a bridge being set upon by some tough-looking characters.  Without further ado, Templar and Hayward rescue the man by chucking the toughs into the river.

Only later do the rescuers realize that by their impulsive chivalry they had got hold of the wrong end of the stick:  the rescued man was one of the ungodly; the toughs were plainclothes policemen trying to arrest him.  The result is one long chase scene, and the suspense is not whether Templar will get out of that mess, but how he will manage it.

Charteris dropped out of Cambridge in order to write, and hitting upon the winning formula of the Saint was on par with Arthur Conan Doyle dreaming up Sherlock Holmes or, later, Ian Fleming making up James Bond.  It makes sense, then, that Holmes and Bond are the only comparable franchises to the Saint.  It may be for that reason Roger Moore was cast to play Bond after portraying Templar.  Regarding Templar’s perennial appeal, Moore said in 2013, “The world needs a Saint.”

While Charteris’ sense of justice drives each of his stories, his political antennae sometimes quiver in mistaken directions.  In the 1930s Templar (and thus Charteris) believed that talk of re-armament merely masked the greed of warmongers and profiteers, but looking back, we must recall that such conventional wisdom, held by the most respectable people, found contradiction by the lone voice in the wilderness that was Winston Churchill.

Nevertheless, one turns to the stories of the Saint for the same reason one turns to the tales of Sherlock Holmes or James Bond, not to mention Father Brown or Brother Cadfael.  Life is short, and one ought to read something interesting.  A slog through the bleak pages of the ponderous Karamazov clan, for example, constitutes a rarefied form of fun.

Instead, if one needs a change of pace from the everyday treadmill, escape can come from the Saint’s escapades.  Some of them may seem dated, but as Charteris said of Saint Overboard (1936), “I think it still stands up as a rattling good adventure, and that should be enough for anybody’s money.”

Making Deductions for Depravity

With renewed debate over who should fill a vacancy on the United States Supreme Court, a letter to the editor in an east coast newspaper stands out.  Written by a Wall Street lawyer who was also an Army officer, it makes some excellent points.

First, he reminds us what role judges play in a free society.  Unlike the executive and legislative branches of government, he writes, the judiciary is “always the least dangerous to the political rights of the Constitution,” because whereas the executive “holds the sword of the community” and the legislature “commands the purse” and also “prescribes the rules by which the duties and rights of every citizen are to be regulated,” judges exercise no such power.  As he puts it, the judiciary has “neither force nor will, but merely judgment.”

That tripartite division of government is at least as old as Saint Thomas Aquinas.  In his Summa theologiae, I-II, 105, 1, c, Aquinas wrote that “the best polity” is one which is “formed by a good mixture of kingship, in the sense that one person is the chief, and aristocracy, in the sense that many men rule according to virtue, and democracy, . . . in the sense that leaders can be elected from among the populace, and further, that the choice of the ruler belongs to the people.”

As he often did, Aquinas drew upon Aristotle, in this case the Politics.  From ancient Greek philosophy Aquinas learned that the soul also has three parts, intellect, will, desire, corresponding to kingship, aristocracy, democracy.  Guiding those parts of the soul, as it does a well-ordered government, is virtue.

Although ancient philosophers knew that the human interior is askew, they could not explain exactly why humanity was less perfect than it had been during a distant Golden Age.  Aquinas and our battle-hardened Wall Street lawyer share the Judaeo-Christian belief that human nature is flawed from a first Fall, an Original Sin.

When our Wall Street letter writer argues that judges must serve for life, lest they be swayed by passing political fancies as they frequently seek re-election or re-appointment, he also notes that “to avoid an arbitrary discretion in the courts, it is indispensable that they should be bound down by strict rules and precedents which serve to define and point out their duty in every particular case that comes before them.”

Probably with memories of his own days studying law, he writes that from “the variety of controversies which grow out of the folly and wickedness of mankind . . . the records of those precedents must unavoidably swell to a very considerable bulk and must demand long and laborious study to acquire a competent knowledge of them.”

That special knowledge, he writes, limits the number of people cut out to serve in the judiciary.  “Hence it is,” he concludes, “that there can be but few men in the society who will have sufficient skill in the laws to qualify them for the stations of judges,” and “making the proper deductions for the ordinary depravity of human nature, the number must still be smaller of those who unite the requisite integrity with the requisite knowledge.”

If one is wondering who writes this way any more in a letter to a newspaper, the cat must be let out of the bag:  The author was Alexander Hamilton, and the letter was Number 78 of The Federalist Papers, first published in 1788.  He was then around thirty-two, and it amusing to consider that by even twice that age none of us will have written anything as useful or enduring.

Ancient, medieval, and eighteenth-century theorists put emphasis on virtue because it is so scarce.  Like gold panned from gravel, it needs to be worked into shape.  Discipline in virtue takes several forms; for Christians like Aquinas and Hamilton, virtue has seven components:  first, from antiquity, prudence, temperance, justice, and courage; then from Christianity, faith, hope, and charity.

For Hamilton, any kind of knowledge combining with integrity rarely occurred in the same person.  Son of an unwed mother, teenage immigrant from one British colony to another (Nevis to New York), survivor of combat military and political, he had seen a lot of bad behavior.  While he did not use that “ordinary depravity of human nature” as an excuse to wallow in self-pity or stay remote from virtue, he was aware of his own failings and knew that not everyone was like his hero, George Washington.

Certainly within the three branches of government, Washingtons would be few and far between.  A search for a good judge, for example, must make “the proper deductions” for standard human depravity, and yet find someone who will be bound by legal precedent and thus be “least dangerous to the political rights of the Constitution.”

Along with James Madison and John Jay, Hamilton wrote The Federalist to persuade people to vote for the new Constitution.  Under the name Publius, they wrote to encourage their fellow Federalists and to engage Anti-Federalists, people skeptical of the proposed Constitution.  Those skeptics foresaw a time when judges became “dangerous to the political rights of the Constitution,” when legislators prescribed rules to curtail the rights and compel the duties of citizens, when the executive wielded its sword against the community.  Why support a new Constitution, asked skeptics in 1788, if human depravity could metamorphose the new government into an enemy of the people?

Skeptics especially feared a national standing army, but Hamilton, in Federalist 29, assured them that the people would have nothing to fear were governmental force and will to break free from the restraints of virtue.  “That army can never be formidable to the liberties of the people,” wrote Hamilton, “while there is a large body of citizens, little, if at all, inferior to them in discipline and the use of arms, who stand ready to defend their own rights and those of their fellow-citizens.  This appears to me the only substitute that can be devised for a standing army, and the best possible security against it, if it should exist.”

As Larry Schweikart and Michael Allen observed in A Patriot’s History of the United States (2004), “The Federalists . . . brilliantly sidestepped the question of state-versus-federal sovereignty by arguing that the Constitution made the people sovereign, not the state or federal government.”  Popular sovereignty, Hamilton promised, survives when free people bear arms.

Wimsey’s Maker’s Mind

It was at an Open Day at the Oxford and Cambridge Club in London, and as often happens with such jolly events, I had soon reached my limit of fun.  A glance at my wristwatch confirmed my sense that I had sufficiently mixed and mingled, and so, adjusting my collar, I drifted towards the door of the room, with its high ceiling and oil portraits of Prime Ministers, and made an unobtrusive exit.

As also often happens at such events, upon my exit I made a wrong turn and realized I was wandering down the wrong corridor only when I was several yards along it.  At the end of the dim corridor was an open door.  Even more encouraging than this light at the end of the tunnel, from beyond the door was the sound of porcelain, of cup and saucer, to be precise.

Inside the room sat a blond, clean-shaven man of about forty; he was alone at a small table by a window overlooking Marlborough House.  He was elegantly turned out, a crisp grey Savile Row suit, summer tie, and cuff links bearing a heraldic device I could not quite make out.  He adjusted his monocle and fixed me with an appraising eye.

“You look as though you could do with a spot of tea, Padre,” he said, indicating a chair and pouring me a cup.  “Earl Grey.  The tea, not me, don’t you know, what?”

After introducing myself, he said he was frightfully sorry and from then on called me Dom.  Smoothing over his understandable faux pas, he changed the subject:  “Dashed fine place, though not my usual haunt.  Still, in my day, no women allowed.  Awkward, that, especially since my wife was up at Oxford as well.  Shrewsbury.  Balliol man, myself.  Then there’s dear Dorothy, who was at Somerville.  I dare say, not to go in for melodrama, but I don’t know where my wife and I would be without her.”

And so it was from him that I learned about a theological book by Dorothy L. Sayers, his “dear Dorothy,” The Mind of the Maker (1941).  “She made much the same point,” he added, “the next year in a talk she gave, ‘Creative Mind,’ then published it in a clever collection of essays called Unpopular Opinions.”

Her point was that we can get a glimpse into the Trinity by using the analogy of a creative writer, say, a writer of detective fiction.  She proposed, for the sake of argument, using the terms Idea, Energy, and Power.  As a thought experiment it unclouded our considerations of any difficulty we might have with the biblical terminology of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Liturgically, she would have sharply rejected the politically correct substitution of Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier.

Keeping in mind that analogies limp, for the writer of a crime story, the story begins in the writer’s mind as an Idea; the writing of the story is the Energy; the story’s full force or Power comes only when someone else reads it, interacts with it.  How she related that literary analogy to God creating the world is God having the Idea of creation, then the act or Energy of creation, and then His creatures powerfully interacting with Him in prayer and interacting with each other to continue His creation.

“For me,” he said, “an example closer to home might do.  I’d say it’s like this tea.  One has an Idea of a good cuppa; one then expends the Energy to make the tea; but tea isn’t tea unless someone drinks it, giving it its full Power, even if it’s the caffeine, what?”

Of course, I mused, we’re limited because we can think of something, have an Idea or ideal, only because we’ve already had an experience of it.  We can have an Idea of a good cup of tea because we’ve had good cups of tea.  We’ve also had bad cups of tea, thus sharpening our appreciation of what makes a good cup of tea good.  God has no such limitation; as the Bible says, He created the world out of nothing.

“Just so,” he agreed, adding, “and God’s got a perfect understanding of all His creations or creatures, whichever word one prefers, whereas the writer of detective fiction might not always understand her own creations or creatures.  To take an example from The Mind of the Maker, where she so kindly mentions me a time or two, she describes me as ‘an eighteenth-century Whig gentleman, born a little out of his time.’  Well, as I told my sister, Mary, when she dragged me into that business about Uncle Meleager’s will, ‘I’m a Tory if anything.’  All the same, I suppose it’s best to leave it to others to decide if I have more in common with Edmund Burke or Sir Roger de Coverley.”

Preferring not to adjudicate in his presence which eighteenth-century Whig or Tory he most resembled, I noted instead that the point about us creatures co-operating in God’s creation was worth pursuing.  After all, I said, God declared, “Let there be light,” and there was light.  When we say, “Let’s have some tea,” behind those simple monosyllables looms a vast array of people.

For us to have tea there in that room, we were dependent most obviously on the club’s staff, but also on the building’s architects, masons, and carpenters.  Then on the people who cultivated and harvested the tea; the people who shipped it and stored it, packed and sold it.  The packing and selling called to mind a host of artists and advertisers, accountants and attorneys, as well as the people who made and sold tea pots and tea cups.

“The same is true with prayer,” he said.  “Even sitting at home with one’s Prayer Book, there were the typesetters, bookbinders, booksellers, and all the rest, not to mention old Cranmer himself all those years ago, translating it from Latin.  It’s why I told my man, Bunter, when we had that bit of bother in the fen country, ‘Where there is a church, there is civilization’.”

Mention of prayer reminded me I could probably get to Ealing Abbey for Compline.  A discreet glance at my wristwatch, and looking back up, I suddenly saw that I was alone.  Yet, in a way, communing even with a literary creature and his maker, one is never really alone.

R.I.P., Gunny

R. Lee Ermey, who has died at age 74, was a national treasure. He gained undying fame as U. S. Marine Gunnery Sergeant Hartman in Stanley Kubrick’s film, Full Metal Jacket (1987). Nine years later, Alan Bennett watched the movie and wrote in his diary, later published in Untold Stories (2005), “It’s remarkable chiefly for the language of the Marine instructor, a wonderfully written and terrible part, which takes language into areas certainly undescribed in 1987, . . . and not often since.”

Hartman’s, and Ermey’s, way with words keeps them from being printed in all religious, and most secular, venues.  Still, taking profanity into the realm of poetry was not being vulgar for its own sake.  Ermey spent eleven years in the U. S. Marines, part of that time as a drill instructor, and he re-wrote Hartman’s lines based upon his own experience of having a limited amount of time for whipping eighteen and nineteen year-old draftees into fighting shape.

Whether in his work with the Marine Corps’ Toys for Tots program or as spokesman for Glock firearms or Tru-Spec gear, Ermey became known simply as “the Gunny,” or more often just “Gunny.”  In 1972 he retired as a staff sergeant after injuring his shoulder in Vietnam, but in 2002 the Commandant of the Marine Corps recognized Ermey’s ongoing and loyal support of the Marines by making him an honorary gunnery sergeant.

After the success and acclaim of Full Metal Jacket, Ermey’s shrewdness and sense of humor allowed him to make a career tapping into Sergeant Hartman’s character, sometimes, critics thought, to the point of self-parody.  As a character actor, he staked out realistic territory for himself:  His film and television roles ranged from Marines to sheriffs, from a blacksmith to the voice of a green plastic soldier in Toy Story.

In 2010, Ermey appeared in a television advertisement for Geico, and the variation on the company’s opening rhetorical question was, “Can switching to Geico really save you 15% or more on car insurance?  Does a former drill sergeant make a terrible therapist?”  Next we see a young man on the psychologist’s couch as he concludes a personal story, “‘And that’s why yellow makes me sad, I think’.” Ermey’s verbally explosive reaction culminates with calling the patient a “crybaby.”

For those of us who grew up around men who had been in the military, Ermey’s style of therapy seems thoroughly familiar and perfectly understandable.  While the precise vocabulary used by Hartman and Ermey (as implied above, after a time, they became publicly interchangeable) might not have been deployed, versions of it sufficed to convey clearly and emphatically various life lessons.  Growing up in such an environment let one know where one stood, and one rarely made the same mistake twice.

While still trading on his crusty persona, Ermey could lower his voice and use words of more than four letters.  Late in life, he became a history instructor, appearing in two series on the History Channel, Mail Call (2002-2009) and Lock n’ Load (2009).  In each series he visited battlefields and military bases and explained the function and development of a wide variety of weapons, from Samurai swords to the Jeep, from medieval longbows to modern attack helicopters.  Both series became available on DVD, and from Mail Call Ermey and his assistants culled dozens of topics into a handy book of the same name.

In 2013 Ermey distilled his wisdom in another book, Gunny’s Rules.  It combined autobiographical anecdotes with cultural and political perspectives best summed up by saying that one of his friends he liked to go shooting with was Donald Trump, Jr.  Gunny’s Rules also offered unambiguous insights on personal responsibility, self-discipline, and leadership.  Ermey was aware that “some people just work and perform better when following orders instead of giving them,” and so not everyone is cut out to lead.  Ermey admired someone for whom “giving your 120 percent in your current job, in which you feel comfortable and competent, brings you self-worth, happiness, respect, and fulfillment.”

Nevertheless, Ermey believed that leaders evolve; according to him, no one is a “born leader.”  Someone’s innate qualities can be cultivated, he wrote, but doing so takes time and the discerning eye of other leaders.  In Full Metal Jacket, Sergeant Hartman asked Private Joker if he believed in the Virgin Mary.  When the private said no and stuck to his answer, despite duress from his sergeant, Hartman saw in him the makings of a squad leader:  “He’s got guts,” Hartman explained, “and guts is enough.”

A Marine drill instructor invoking the Virgin Mary opens one to see Ermey’s approach complementing guidance from a great saint of the twentieth century.  In The Way, Saint Josemaría Escrivá exhorted his reader, presumably a young male, Esto vir!, “Be a man!”  It is not far-fetched to imagine Ermey concurring, and then to see Ermey sharing Saint Josemaría’s preference for “a rough, wrought-iron figure of Christ to those colored, plaster statues that look as if they were made of sugar candy.”

Like Ermey, Saint Josemaría could be laconic, but he noted occasions requiring blunt speech and even salty verbiage.  When stuck in bad company whose heckling of Christian values cannot be deflected by politeness or prayer, Saint Josemaría recommended what he called “the strong language apostolate,” and added, “When I see you, I’ll tell you—privately—some useful expressions.”  Such useful expressions can also be learned from Ermey.

Both The Way and Gunny’s Rules serve as resources for someone who is expected to fill the role of father figure.  Needless to say, whereas Saint Josemaría encouraged strength of character in order to grow in holiness, Ermey encouraged it in order to grow up and avoid a “major malfunction.”  For modern Christians, these books can go together in much the same way that medieval monks would put side by side Saint Benedict’s Rule and Seneca’s Letters.

Strengthened by no-nonsense Stoic virtues, it was an eventful life for R. Lee Ermey, from a farm in Kansas to the jungles of Vietnam to the movie studios of Hollywood.  In an interview in the July, 2014, issue of Guns & Ammo, Ermey said he had few regrets.  As an example, he said he wished he had quit smoking cigarettes sooner, but in a whimsical reference to reincarnation, he quipped, “When I die, I want to come back as me.”


Maundy Money

In the 1973 Disney cartoon film Robin Hood, King John is depicted as a lion surrounded by sacks of gold coins.  Those money bags represent the king’s excessive taxation of his people, an unjust burden Robin Hood seeks to redress.  In historical reality, King John is associated with the special coins known as Maundy Money, their annual distribution by the monarch to certain poor folk being known as the Royal Maundy.

In 1213, two years before barons and bishops forced him to consent to Magna Carta, King John observed Maundy Thursday by giving thirteen pence to thirteen poor men in Rochester.  As Brian Robinson pointed out in his history of the Royal Maundy, Silver Pennies and Linen Towels (1992), King John was in the thirteenth year of his reign, but the thirteen pence for thirteen poor men in the king’s thirteenth year of reigning was a happy coincidence of thirteens:  in 1210, King John marked Maundy Thursday by giving gifts of knives and belts to thirteen poor men in Yorkshire.  The number thirteen, then, symbolized the thirteen who were at the Last Supper, the Twelve Apostles and Christ himself.

Whatever else can be said about medieval English kings, they were Christians.  Their coronation liturgy included a bishop anointing them with holy oil, and their regalia, from crown to sceptre to coat of arms, all bore crosses and lions and other Christian symbols.  These kings seem to have taken seriously Christ’s mandatum, given on the first Holy Thursday, that His disciples must serve others just as He has served them.  For that reason, several medieval and early modern kings observed Maundy Thursday by washing the feet of selected poor people.

As King John understood, however profound the symbolism may be of a Christian king imitating Christ the King by kneeling down in what today is called “servant leadership” to wash other men’s feet, people appreciate tangible reminders of a great occasion.  Gifts of knives or clothing soon became more portable in the form of coins.  Even royal generosity has its limits, and more than a century after King John, in 1363, King Edward III began a custom still followed, that the number of coins handed out by the king was equal to the number of years he had been alive.

Initially, the coins given by the king at the Royal Maundy were ordinary coins of the realm, but in 1662, King Charles II, “the merry monarch,” ordered the minting of special silver coins just for the Royal Maundy.  To look at it another way, beginning when William Penn was eighteen, English monarchs have issued special coins for the Royal Maundy.  From that day to the present, Maundy coins have been collector’s items.

Medieval kings were itinerant, riding an annual circuit around their kingdoms.  King John’s Royal Maundy ceremonies took place at various locations, but more often than not, the Royal Maundy ceremony occurred in London, usually at Westminster Abbey or Saint Paul’s Cathedral.  Under the current monarch, the older practice has returned, the Royal Maundy having become again a moveable commemoration, perambulating year by year from one cathedral to another.

In terms of its traditional choreography, the Royal Maundy ritual contains certain essential elements.  In addition to the monarch, there is the Lord High Almoner, who is a bishop, and there is the local bishop.  Needless to say, all these dignitaries have assistants and entourages, and Yeomen of the Guard carry the coins in special red or white leather pouches.  Meanwhile, a choir from the hosting cathedral sings Handel’s “Zadok the Priest” and the national anthem.  Everyone is in his or her finery, and at every turn people, including the king or queen, carry small bouquets of flowers, called nosegays.

Christopher Howse, writing in The Daily Telegraph (2 April, 2015), noted the archaic and even pompous aspects of the ritual surrounding Maundy Money, but weighed in the balance, he found it all worthwhile.  “There may be an air about the Royal Maundy service,” he wrote, “of prelates and posies, copes and choristers, but it seems to me a welcome change from personalised rituals like Red Nose Day.”  He explained:  “The Queen and Yeomen and Almoner will go about their arcane tasks solemnly, not joshing to the camera.”

When a numismatist collects or catalogues Maundy Money, each coin is like the top of a pyramid.  Part of the pleasure of collecting coins, or any other man-made thing, is the contemplative practice of becoming aware of the vast network of people and the continuity of millennia that array behind every single coin.  To mine the silver, to transport it, to design the coins, to mint them, to guard them, to schedule the Royal Maundy event, from the florists to the tailors, from the chauffeurs to the person who makes sure there is plenty of tea on hand, all that and more gleams back at someone who is admiring one of those little silver coins.

What remains to be considered is a spiritual commemoration being famous for its money.  A cynic could complain that once again grubby materialism spoils a religious occasion, or more to the point, that in the end, religion is all about money.  Even a religious person must note the uncomfortable fact that among Christ and His disciples, the money box was kept by Judas.

In itself, money is neither good nor bad; it is greed for gain that brings the ruin of sin.  Like the pagan Roman emperors before him, Constantine the Great, the first Christian emperor of Rome, issued coins bearing his image.  During those early centuries of her history, the Church in a sense baptized numerous features of ancient culture from before the time of Christ, whether architecture or literature or coinage.  Coins and Christianity have long gone hand in hand.

This Christian adaptation of an existing culture relates directly to the Incarnation and Christ being fully human and fully divine.  He knew well the use of coins, whether a coin of Caesar used by Pharisees to test Him, or a Temple coin used by a poor widow.  He used coins to pay His taxes, and, without intending any irreverence, when He told Saint Peter to catch a fish and take the coin out of it, Christ seems to be saying what every coin collector knows, that often the coin one has been looking for turns up in the unlikeliest place.

Seeking Jesus with Greeks

The Gospel for the Fifth Sunday of Lent in Cycle B is according to Saint John (12:20-33), and it contains sayings by Jesus that preachers from the days of the Church Fathers until the present have found important for their homilies.  There is Jesus saying that unless a grain of wheat dies in the soil, it cannot live again; later on, Jesus says that when He is raised up, He will draw everyone to Himself.

In the late seventh and early eighth centuries, this text from Saint John, evoking John 3:14-15, had special significance for the Venerable Bede and his brother Benedictines of the abbey of Saint Paul’s, Jarrow.  In his history of the abbots of his monastery, Bede recorded that their founder abbot, Benedict Biscop, returning from his fifth trip to Rome, brought back books and paintings.  While the books were for the monastic library, the paintings were for the church.

Those paintings were in pairs, one depicting a scene from the Old Testament, the other depicting a corresponding scene from the New Testament.  One pair, said Bede, was of the brazen serpent raised on a pole, its parallel being Jesus raised on the Cross.  Thus, the visual arts adorning their abbey’s church reinforced for those monks what they had learned from reading Saint Augustine:  “The New Testament is hidden in the Old, the Old is made manifest in the New.”

It is an exegetical approach the Church still maintains as not only valid, but essential.  In the Catechism of the Catholic Church, Section 117, it states, “We can acquire a more profound understanding of [biblical] events by recognizing their significance in Christ.”  As for these signs and symbols, commentators like to point out that the serpent and the lion are the only animals in the Bible that stand both for Christ and for Satan, since evil is not a separate creation, but a perversion of the good.

In a monastic context, this passage from Saint John’s Gospel offers a rich source for meditation upon a monastic commitment to seek Christ, and in so doing, to seek God’s grace for pursuing the monastic vow of ongoing conversion.  What follows are suggestions for how to begin that sort of meditation upon this part of the holy Gospel.  If these remarks can help someone who lives outside the walls of a monastery, so much the better.

At the start of this text, Saint John said that at Passover some Greeks were in Jerusalem, and they asked Philip if they could see Jesus.  Church Fathers such as Saint Cyril of Alexandria and Saint Augustine of Hippo took these Greeks to have been Gentiles, since the word used by Saint John, Hellenes, refers simply to Greeks, not to Hellenistai (as in Acts 6:1), Hellenized Jews.  In the twentieth century, this nuance was understood by Scripture scholars such as William Barclay and Raymond Brown.

These Greeks are part of a pattern that occurs elsewhere in the Gospel.  Saint Matthew recounted how Wise Men from the East, Magi, that is to say, Gentiles, sought out the Christ child.  Like the Greeks in this passage from Saint John’s Gospel, they had to ask someone else to show them where Jesus is.  When we seek Jesus, we need the help of others.  In that search, God’s mysterious providence can use either a saint like Philip or a sinner like Herod.

It is worth noticing that these Greeks who approached Philip, like the Magi before them, were on a spiritual journey seeking Jesus.  Lost sheep notwithstanding, Jesus was not out searching for them.  Whether as a baby in a cradle or as an adult in the Temple, Jesus was the fixed point to which they must go.

Here what Saint John related connects with one of the most disturbing scenes in the Gospel.  According to Saint Mark (1:30-45), after a leper in Galilee had come to Jesus for healing, and Jesus healed him, Jesus could not come to where people lived:  “But he [the healed leper] went out and began to talk freely about it, and to spread the news, so that Jesus could no longer openly enter a town, but was out in the country; and people came to Him from every quarter.”

It is chilling to consider that all our chattering about Jesus keeps Him from coming to people.  After all, a lot of times when we are so eager to talk about what Jesus has done for us, it is really yet another way for us to talk about ourselves.  A lesson comes from Philip.  When the Greeks asked him to see Jesus, he took them to Andrew, who then took them to Jesus.  It was a role Andrew had played before, taking his brother, Simon Peter, to meet Jesus.

Those Greeks were not seeking Philip or Andrew, they were seeking Jesus.  Both Philip and Andrew were wise enough to know that their role was as a guide or an usher, or like a butler answering the door.  No one makes vows to seek Philip or Andrew or us; a Christian’s vow is to seek Christ.  Our own testimony is best kept in silence as we lead others to our Lord.

By the grace of God, though, our inadvertent, self-absorbed blocking of Jesus from going to other people does not stop them from seeking Him.  When the Greeks that Saint John recorded do meet Jesus, He tells them, “He who loves his life loses it, and he who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life.  If any one serves me, he must follow me; . . . if any one serves me, the Father will honor him.”

When our seeking finally brings us to Jesus, His message to us is not a bear hug and the exclamation, “Dude, welcome to my awesome ministry!”  Instead, Jesus cuts right to the heart of our quest:  Get over yourself, and follow me, which means becoming God’s servant, like a butler answering the door.

There we encounter true Lenten austerity and asceticism.  Forty days in the wilderness of Lent, a long desert sojourn seeking Jesus, leads us to the fixed point where He is raised up, raised up first by us men in torture and death on a cross, then raised up by the Father from the death that by our sins we rightly deserve.

Seventy Years Calling Northside 777

Before joining in March, 1941, as a private in the United States Army Air Corps, James Stewart had made his name in Hollywood with several wholesome films, his name becoming a byword for the amiable and earnest young man who shows what is really important in life.  After two years training stateside and then two years flying twenty bombing missions over National Socialist Germany, Stewart, by then a highly decorated colonel, celebrated the end of the war, joined what eventually became the Air Force Reserve, and returned to Hollywood.

Before long, director Frank Capra asked Stewart to star in what would be Stewart’s first film since the war, and 1946’s It’s a Wonderful Life was right in line with heart-warming pre-war fare by Capra and Stewart, their award-winning You Can’t Take It with You and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.  By then, however, Stewart was almost forty and wanted to try more dramatic roles.

His chance came in 1947, making Call Northside 777.  It began a new phase of his career, showing a tougher, darker side; soon would follow suspense films with Alfred Hitchcock and Westerns with John Wayne.  Stewart would still make light-hearted motion pictures, such as Harvey and Bell, Book, and Candle, but he would also star in more serious films, such as Anatomy of a Murder and Strategic Air Command.  Stark and taut, Call Northside 777, directed by Henry Hathaway, has become a classic in the genre of film noir.

In February, 1948, Call Northside 777 had its theatrical release.  Along with Stewart, it starred Lee J. Cobb and Richard Conte.  In the days before television, movies were abridged for radio, and in December, 1949, Stewart reprised his role in a half-hour adaptation for a weekly radio program, Screen Directors’ Playhouse.  In that version, Stewart was joined by radio greats William Conrad and Paul Frees.

As Hathaway had done in The House on 92nd Street (1945), here he based his film on actual events and used what was called a “documentary style,” with voice-over narration and filming on location.  The House on 92nd Street starred Lloyd Nolan and depicted an FBI investigation of a Nazi spy ring operating from an otherwise respectable townhouse in New York City.  Call Northside 777 presented a slightly fictional version of the case of Joseph M. Majczek, a young man arrested in December, 1932, in Chicago and convicted for shooting and killing William D. Lundy, an off-duty policeman.

The catalyst for Call Northside 777 came in October, 1944, from a small advertisement placed in a newspaper, the Chicago Daily Times:  “$5,000 reward for killers of Officer Lundy on Dec. 9, 1932.  Call GRO 1758, 12-7 p. m.”  An editor at the paper saw the advertisement and assigned a reporter, James McGuire, to look into it.  Deeply skeptical of any convict’s claim to be innocent, let alone a convicted cop killer, McGuire grudgingly investigated, and what he found made him doubt his skepticism.

Identified by witnesses and tripped up by inconsistencies in his own testimony, twenty-one year-old Joe Majczek had been sentenced to ninety-nine years in state prison, and with his consent, his wife divorced him and remarried so that their son would grow up in a stable family.  All the while, Joe Majczek’s mother, Tillie, knew she had raised her son better and that he could not have killed a man.

In its issue of 27 August, 1945, Time magazine featured the story.  Here was an intriguing case from a notoriously corrupt city, where a son of Polish immigrants had his life ruined by police eager to catch the man who had gunned down one of their own.  Now, his widowed mother was offering a reward, saved from money she earned scrubbing floors for eleven years, and a tenacious reporter was seeking to clear the prisoner’s name.

In the film, along with the telephone number, the names changed, so that, for example, Joe Majczek became Frank Wiecek, and James McGuire became P. J. McNeal.  Without giving too much away, let it suffice to say that what got Wiecek released from prison was not so much new evidence as old evidence seen in a new way.

In its review of the film, Time magazine said, “the players try to be as true to life as the living city.”  Bosley Crowther, in his review for The New York Times, called the film “a slick piece of modern melodrama” that “combines a suspenseful mystery story with a vivid, realistic pictorial style.”

Urban realism is central to making this movie mark a development in Stewart’s career.  Jonathan Coe, in his Jimmy Stewart:  A Wonderful Life (1994), noted the film’s “dingy realism and low-life characters.”  The police offices and the state penitentiary, the smoke-filled bars and dirty alleys of Chicago’s ethnic neighborhoods were all a far cry from the glossy Wall Street office of You Can’t Take It with You or the small-town coziness of Bedford Falls in It’s a Wonderful Life.

One aspect of the film meant to give it greater verisimilitude was casting Leonarde Keeler, inventor of the polygraph, to portray himself and give Wiecek a lie detector test.  The only time the machine indicated Wiecek was lying was when Keeler asked him if he was married, and Wiecek said no.  “He’s a Catholic,” Keeler later explained to McNeal, “and he still thinks he’s married, and he feels within himself that he’s married.”

In his recent biography of Henry Hathaway, Harold N. Pomainville pointed out a more subtle aspect of the film’s realism.  By using authentic locations associated with the Majczek case, Chicago itself became one of the film’s characters.  Moreover, according to Pomainville, Hathaway, a pioneer in what today is called docudrama, urged Stewart to move beyond where he felt comfortable as an actor, coaching him to control his characteristic stammer by using the authoritative voice he had developed as a commanding officer.

Like Stewart, Hathaway was a patriotic man, and the unlikely resolution of Majczek’s story proved again for both men how the United States stands distinct from a lot of other nations.  Call Northside 777 is about family and faith, law and justice, and it is also about Americans at their best.  “It’s a big thing when a sovereign state admits an error,” McNeal told Wiecek, and he added, “Remember this:  there aren’t many governments in the world that would do it.”