. . .Before the talkies, there were few priests or nuns or genuflecting laymen on film, although there were Catholics. Mack Sennett’s Keystone Kops were based upon the myth – or was it the reality? – of the ubiquitous Irish-Catholic cop. But American Catholic moviemaking began in earnest when John Ford (born Sean Aloysius O'Fearna or John Martin Feeney, depending on when you asked him) first started directing silent movies in the Twenties.
But until The Quiet Man, Ford’s work mostly featured Catholic characters but didn’t celebrate Catholic life. The first movies to succeed in that came in two 1938 classics not directed by Ford, Boys Town and Angels with Dirty Faces. The former, directed by Norman Taurog, won Spencer Tracy a Best Actor Oscar, for his portrayal of Father “There’s-no-such-thing-as-a-bad-boy” Flanagan, and was the most celebrated movie of the year. The latter, with James Cagney, Humphrey Bogart, and Pat O’Brien (as Father Connolly), was also a big hit. Angels was directed by the great Michael Curtiz, famous for his work with Erroll Flynn and Bogart in Casablanca. But the point is this: In Angels with Dirty Faces and in Boys Town, the heroes are priests. This was new to American moviegoers and apparently welcome.
[Wayne and McLaglen participated in the greatest, and longest, fist fight in the history of the movies in The Quiet Man. But make sure you see the uncut version.]
And let’s not forget that at about this time, Bishop Sheen’s “Life Is Worth Living” TV series sat atop the Nielsen Ratings.