Watch the movie trailer HERE.
Throughly Catholic in theology and incarnational is this 1936 film which I just watched on Turner Classic Movies for the first time. It was wildly popular in 1936 with both black and white audiences although civil rights leaders would condemn the stereotypically way simple blacks of that period were depicted. However simple southern whites would have been depicted in a similar stereotypical way at that time too.
But the movie is enduring and I would recommend viewing it for its Catholic theology about God and suffering leading to faith and the grand finale of this motion picture.
Let's step back into time and read the New York Times 1936 review of this wonderful motion picture:
'The Green Pastures' at Last Seen in Film at Music Hall -- Rex Ingram as De Lawd.
That disturbance in and around the Music Hall yesterday was the noise of shuffling queues in Sixth Avenue and the sound of motion-picture critics dancing in the street. The occasion was the coming at last to the screen of Marc Connelly's naïve, ludicrous, sublime and heartbreaking masterpiece of American folk drama, "The Green Pastures." And the direct exciting cause was the fact that no profane hands have been allowed, in the words of the Second Cleaning Angel, to "gold up" its marvelous and unforgettable felicities. It still has the rough beauty of homespun, the irresistible compulsion of simple faith.
As if all this were not enough, however, there are a few amusing touches of pure cinema, such as the luxurious overstuffed clouds in mid-empyrean that the angels fish from, and an exhaustive circus menagerie of animals caught in the historical act of being loaded into an absurdly inadequate, picture-bookish Noah's Ark. The film also has the advantage of being able to open with a long shot of a peaceful, churchgoing Negro community, and there could be no pleasanter music to clear the imagination for the experience of Mr. Deshee's Sunday School class than the lone-some bell of a little back-country church house, and the sight of pious townsfolk going along to meeting.
We have to thank Oscar Polk for an interesting personification of the Angel Gabriel—not only for the tall, Afro-Gothic of his figure, with its robe of monumental descending folds—but for the fact that he is a pretty subtle Gabriel who depends for his effects on a sort of cumulative understatement—a Gabriel who grows on you.
Oscar's main stylistic device seems to be an epic fatigue—the result, apparently, of contemplating for aeon after aeon the ageless unresting energy of de Lawd, and of trying to keep up with him. Any actor who could deliberately under-play the famous line, "Gangway for de Lawd God Jehovah," as though it were merely another chore in an eternity of such annunciation, is a formidable artist.
Perhaps a confirmed monotheist can accept only one Lawd in his time, and that is why—in a vague, uneasy, self-reproachful sort of way—we are of two minds about Rex Ingram's interpretation of this most grandiose of contemporary rôles. Perhaps the memory of the late Richard B. Harrison is too recent to be effaced altogether by a Lawd, however beautifully made up, however luminous of physiognomy and imbued with the mystical consciousness of his deistic heritage, as the obviously younger, springier Lawd of Rex Ingram. We've tried a hundred ways to forget the strength of character combined with native dignity and sweetness of the septuagenarian Lawd of the stage play, but we just can't. He's still de Lawd, as far as we are concerned.
Barring this purely sentimental reservation, we feel that inasmuch as Ingram also was asked to play Adam and "Hezdrel" he has done infinitely better than any one had the right to expect, even of a one-man stock company. He commands a physical presence to which Harrison never pretended and there are scenes which he plays in so exquisite a manner that not even Harrison could excel them. He never seems to be spiritually or emotionally out of touch with any of his rôles, and he has the technical advantage, when he decides to r'ar back and past a miracle, that we are permitted to see the miracle—the churning cosmos, the new world spinning in the void. In cases like this the experts are allowed to pull a few inoffensive rabbits out of the hat.
But not enough to become a bore. When de Lawd decides to visit the earth, for instance, he simply takes his hat and cane, informs Gabe that he will be back Saddy, and dignifiedly walks as though down a little staircase out of sight. This is as satisfactory a transition from eternity into time as any. Similarly, the moment of thunder and the play of revelatory lightning on the face of Noah at the dinner table when de Lawd makes himself known was already the most dramatic incident in the play, just as the speech, "I shoulda known you, Lawd; I shoulda seen de glory," is the most profoundly moving bit of text.
It ought not to be necessary to repeat the high-lights of a story which is changeless and eternal. A few chosen at random would be the scene when Eddie Anderson's superb Noah feels a twitch of his "buck aguer" and sure enough it turns out to be a sign of rain; when de Lawd tenderly leads the aged and dying Moses upward into a land "a million times nicer dan de land of Cane-yan," and when, after renouncing his people in wrath, he is won back by the wheedling of "de Delegation" (Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Moses) combined with the strange prayers of the apochryphal Hezdrel addressed to the new God of Mercy.
Of such stuff is compounded not only the "divine comedy of the modern theatre" but something of the faith that moves mountains. It is, Indeed, hard not to like the simple and gratifying theology of "The Green Pastures" as much as anything about it. It has concreteness and gives one a nostalgic feeling that it ought to be true and that if it isn't we are all, somehow, obscurely the worst for it. Rex Ingram, Oscar Polk, Eddie Anderson, Hank Wilson, Ernest Whitman, George Reed and the others move against a rich background of spirituals sung by the Hall Johnson choir.