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The First Legion  /  Journey Into Light

The First Legion (1951)
March 14, 2015 - 7:30 pm

Restored by UCLA Film & Television Archive with funding provided by The Louis B. Mayer Foundation and The Carl David Memorial Fund for Film Preservation

The First Legion  (1951)

All is not well in the hushed spaces of Jesuit Saint Gregory’s Seminary.  Dominated by conservative older men, the institution is sometimes suffocating to younger initiates such as Father John Fulton (Wesley Addy), whose spirituality is stimulated more by music concerts outside of the walls than by prayer and study within.  Even a seasoned professional like Father Arnoux (Charles Boyer), a former lawyer and writer of searching, philosophical articles, chafes within the small community of leaders who resist introspection and change, and obsess over seeing their founding figure, “Blessed Joseph,” canonized by the Roman church.  Salty Monsignor Carey (William Demarest) from the local Catholic parish is a frequent, friendly scold: admiring the Jesuits’ mission work and determination, while needling them for their backwardness.

A new wind blasts through the stalwart institution when aged Father Sierra (H. B. Warner), who has been bedridden and failing for several years, stands and walks after envisioning Blessed Joseph.  Suddenly, all are animated by the apparent presence of a miracle—from young priests who have sought a sense of spiritual meaning, to older ones who see an opportunity to advance the cause of canonization.  The public is likewise energized, as pilgrims flock to the lure of healing power.  All of this is to the great chagrin of Doctor Peter Morell (Lyle Bettger), who treated Father Sierra and looks upon the topic of “miracles” with derision.  He is especially sorry to see his young friend Terry Gilmartin (Barbara Rush), a socialite crippled in a riding accident, joining the pilgrims.  Morell’s disgust moves him to confide to Father Arnoux that things are not as they seem in Father Sierra’s recovery—threatening the hopes of thousands, including those of the small religious community.

Trafficking in the parochial concerns of a complex subculture, director Douglas Sirk evokes powerful, universal emotions with this fascinating independent production, completed before his celebrated, decade-long run as a director of melodramas at Universal Pictures.  Here, the question of openings and dead ends that occur in both scientific pursuits and faith journeys is made remarkably compelling, and all the more fascinating as enacted by a sterling cast headed by Boyer and Bettger—each man seeking a way to live a principled life that accommodates both common sense and hope.  —Shannon Kelley

Director: Douglas Sirk.  Production: Sedif Pictures Corp.  Distribution: United Artists Corp.  Producer: Douglas Sirk.  Screenwriter: Emmet Lavery.  Based on the play The First Legion by Emmet Lavery.  Cinematographer: Robert de Grasse.  Music: Hans Sommer.  Cast: Charles Boyer, William Demarest, Lyle Bettger, Barbara Rush, Leo G. Carroll.  35mm, b/w, 86 min.

Restored from a 35mm acetate fine grain master and two 35mm acetate prints.   Laboratory services by Fotokem, Film Technology Company, Chace Audio by Deluxe.  Special thanks to: Tracy Lavery.

Restored by UCLA Film & Television Archive with funding provided by The Hollywood Foreign Press Association and The Film Foundation

Journey Into Light  (1951)

John Barrows, a New England clergyman, loses his faith when his alcoholic wife commits suicide.  Despondent, he moves to Los Angeles, where he begins drinking heavily—ending up on skid row and eventually in the drunk tank.  However, a mission preacher and his blind daughter decide to save him.  German émigré actor Ludwig Donath, who would became famous on television in Italian Swiss Colony wine commercials as “the little old winemaker me,” co-stars with Viveca Lindfors and Sterling Hayden.  Produced independently by Joseph Bernard Productions, Journey into Light is one of Hollywood’s rare forays into religious filmmaking.  The reasons for this hesitancy are complex, but have to do with the Production Code Administration and with Hollywood producers wishing to make films for the broadest audience possible, regardless of ethnicity or religious persuasion.  Interestingly, with the breakdown of the studio system in the post World War II period, individual producers began tackling this kind of subject matter more often, including director Douglas Sirk’s The First Legion (1951).

Production began in early 1951 at the Motion Picture Center Studios in Hollywood.  The film’s working titles were Skid Row and What Is My Sin?  Portions of the film were shot on location “on skid row” in downtown Los Angeles and the Lutheran Church in Santa Monica.  The famous street crime photographer, Weegee (née Arthur Fellig), was hired as a technical consultant for the skid row scenes (his regular beat), and the Reverend J. Herbert Smith for the religious aspects.  Production was briefly interrupted when actor Sterling Hayden was subpoenaed to appear before the House Committee on Un-American Activities.  Worried that his career might be over, Hayden became a “friendly” witness and was not blacklisted, unlike his fellow unfriendly witnesses.  Testifying that he had been a member of the Communist Party in 1946, Hayden named three individuals as fellow Communists, earning him the praise of a committee member who called him “an intensely loyal American citizen.”  He was able to return to the film’s production and continue his career.  In his 1964 autobiography, Wanderer, he regretted his testimony and added, “not often does a man find himself eulogized for having behaved in a manner that he himself despises.”  —Jan-Christopher Horak

Director: Stuart Heisler.  Production: Bernhard Productions, Inc.  Distribution: 20th Century-Fox.  Producer: Joseph Bernhard.  Screenwriters: Stephanie Nordli, Irving Shulman.  Cinematographer: Elwood Bredell.  Editor: Terry Morse.  Music: Paul Dunlap, Emil Newman.  Cast: Sterling Hayden, Viveca Lindfors, Thomas Mitchell, Ludwig Donath, H. B. Warner.  35mm, b/w, 87 min.

Restored from the 35mm acetate and nitrate original camera negative, and the 35mm acetate track negative.  Laboratory services by Fotokem, Audio Mechanics, DJ Audio, Simon Daniel Sound.  Special thanks to: CBS and Jeffrey Nemerovski.