Blues Bros., Catholic movie?

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cab.jpgI’m totally cool with any fan of The Blues Brothers, so if Osservatore Romano wants to claim it as a “Catholic classic,” who am I to cavil?

No question, Elrod’s and Jake’s encounter with the Penguin (Sr. Mary Stigmata) is one of the great scenes of Hollywood Catholicism. The premise–how to save the orphanage–is an homage to the The Bells of Saint Mary’s. (And the scene with Curtis (Cab Calloway) in the basement is an homage to the basement scene in Elmer Gantry, where Burt Lancaster gets a meal from a black pastor.)

That said, it’s not the spiritually dessicated, guilt-based Catholicism but the ecstatic black church that provides the movie’s spiritual oomph:

Curtis: Well, the Sister was right. You boys could use a little
churching up. Slide on down to the Triple Rock, and catch Rev. Cleophus.
You boys listen to what he’s got to say!
Jake: Curtis, I don’t want to listen to no jive-ass preacher talking
to me about Heaven and Hell!
Curtis: Jake, you get wise! You get to church!

Rev. Cleophus is, of course, James Brown, and what follows is the all-time send-up of movieland African-American worship. Jake does see the light–“The Band…The Band.” He’ll save the orphanage by reconstituting their blues band.

If The Blues Brothers is a Catholic classic, it’s by way of celebrating an ethno-religious urban culture peculiar to mid-20th-century Chicago, in which white Catholic immigrants from Europe met black Protestant immigrants from Mississippi. In no other city in America is it possible to imagine a couple of white kids raised in a Catholic orphanage becoming enchanted with the blues the African Americans brought north, and sallying forth to save the orphanage by playing it themselves.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    The problem is that so many Americans (both Protestant and Catholic) have only been exposed to Irish-English colorless, drab, puritanical,never-a-good-day-for-a fiesta Catholicism.
    But some of the most famous Catholic converts –like St. Elizabeth Ann Seton–were attracted to the Church by its “joy of life” constantly being celebrated in Catholic countries like Spain or Italy or Poland. I can still remember seeing my first Italian fiesta in Boston’s North End. As a typical Anglo-Irish Catholic I was dumbfounded–even shocked. 6 or 8 powerful men were carrying a huge statue of Our Blessed Mother down the streets, bobbing and weaving to bring her to 2nd and 3rd story windows where women were leaning out to pin money (for the poor) to her robe. A band was playing–not religious hymns, but polkas and pop tunes. Children were in the procession laughing and jumping about. But sometimes the procession would halt and prayers were said. Maybe all this is why– according to one historian–the first thing the Reformation outlawed was religious processions. It all can seem oh-so-pagan.
    All the Catholic churches’ doors were open and families were streaming in and out to light forests of gloriously blazing candles. Food and drink were for sale everywhere along the sidewalks. Groups of other people were saying Our Lady’s rosary in Church gardens.
    The sweet smell of incense, candles, and savory food seemed everywhere. Maybe all this is why either Hillaire Belloc or G.K. Chesterton (a Catholic convert) said that the way you tell a Catholic country from a Protestant country is that Catholics know how to celebrate “joy de vivre.” I have not seen the Blue Brothers movie (but now it is a priority for me). But from what I read here about the movie, I am not surprised an Italian-Vatican newspaper would call it very Catholic.