Watching 1939: The Great Commandment (1939)

In 2011, I announced I was trying to see every film released in 1939. This new series chronicles films released in 1939 as I watch them. As we start out this blog feature, this section may become more concrete as I search for a common thread that runs throughout each film of the year. Right now, that’s difficult.

1939 film:
The Great Commandment (1939)

Release date:
Oct. 2, 1939

Cast:
John Beal, Maurice Moscovitch, Albert Dekker, Marjorie Cooley, Lloyd Corrigan

Studio:
Cathedral Films, Inc.

Director:
Irving Pichel

Plot:
Joel (Beal) is studying the holy text to follow in his father’s (Moscovitch) footsteps and become a rabbi and scribe. Joel is also in love with Tamar (Cooley), who ends up betrothed to his brother (McCollum). When Joel’s village is also terrorized by Roman soldiers, Joel believes they need assistance from the man rumored to be the Messiah.

1939 Notes:
• First film of Marjorie Cooley
• This was Lloyd Corrigan’s first film since 1927.
• The film distribution company, Cathedral Films, Inc. was established in 1939 by the Reverend James K. Friedrich, an Episcopal priest who advocated film as a medium of Christian Education and ministry. The company made films from 1939 to 1968.
• First feature-length film made by Cathedral Films.
• By the numbers:
– John Beal was in two films released in 1939.
– Maurice Moscovitch was in six films releaed in 1939.
– Albert Dekker was in six films released in 1939.
– Lloyd Corrigan was in one film released in 1939.
– Ian Wolfe was in nine films released in 1939.
– Warren McCollum was in five films released in 1939.

great commandment

Other trivia:
• Director Irving Pichel was the off-camera voice of Jesus in the film.
• Working title was “The Good Samaritan.”
• Executive producer Rev. James Friedrich wanted to make a film that gave an accurate depiction of the crucifixion of Christ. However, Joseph Breen in the production code office was concerned about an on-screen depiction of Christ, so we only hear his voice.
• “The Great Commandment” was made without a pre-arranged distribution deal.
• Released nationally in July 1941 by 20th Century Fox, but premiered in 1939 in Joplin, Missouri.

My review: Searching for the “1939 feature”:

While I found this film incredibly dull, the trivia behind it was more interesting.

“The Great Commandment” is a low budget religious film made by the production company, Cathedral Films. The production company was formed in 1939 by Rev. James K. Friedrich, an Episcopal minister who wanted to use film for Christian education.

There a few things that I find interesting about this film. For starters, while it did premiere in 1939 and was later distributed by 20th Century Fox in 1941, there wasn’t a pre-arranged film distribution agreement when it went into production.

So knowing that, I’m intrigued by some of the cast and crew members, such as star John Beal, who previously appeared in Warner Bros. features and director/actor Irving Pichel, who previously directed “The Most Dangerous Game” (1932). I’m curious how they got involved in a production that potentially could not have gone anywhere.

Lastly, while these films were being made for Christian education, that didn’t keep them from undergoing the watchful review of Joseph Breen and the censorship office. While Rev. Friedrich wanted to show the depiction of Christ’s crucifixion, Breen didn’t want to present Jesus on film.

I also didn’t know until researching this film that Lloyd Corrigan’s film career didn’t really take off until 1939, after he co-starred in this film.

The film itself is rather dull and has an overly modern romance between John Beal and Marjorie Cooley.

Overall, if you’re looking for a religious film, I’d recommend Ben-Hur (1959).

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