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How Christ the King arrived in Hollywood right on cue

Christ the King in Hollywood

Walter Cicchetti | Shutterstock | Cbl62 at English Wikipedia | Collage by Aleteia

Mary Claire Kendall - published on 04/24/24

In Los Angeles for the TCM Film Festival, Mary Claire Kendall reflects on how sin and redemption have long played a part in the history of Tinseltown.

After seven years away from Hollywood, the sense of drama is as palpable as ever.

I came to soak in the TCM Classic Film Festival which shines a bright light on some of America’s greatest cinema. There is also lots of oohing and aahing over such ephemera as Gary Cooper’s tuxedo displayed in a nearby Hollywood museum. But amid the glamor, something rings hollow.

Now, don’t get me wrong, Gary Cooper was gorgeous in a tuxedo.  

And John Travolta, who rejoined the cast of Pulp Fiction opening night of the fest for its 30th anniversary has a still-pulsating electric presence. Clearly the old magic is still there.  He showed up with his daughter Ella, who radiated loveliness. Definitely her father’s daughter, Ella gave his dance floor twists a big thumb’s up.

John Travolta and daughter Emma at the 2024 TCM Film Festival in Hollywood.
John Travolta and daughter Emma at the TCM Film Festival in Hollywood, April 18, 2024

A spiritual shadow

Yet there is a huge shadow cast over this town, and it is spiritual.  Founded as a Christian enclave in 1887 by Harvey Wilcox, west of “the City of Angels,” Hollywood has drifted far from its original vision. The spiritual hunger is palpable. You can see it in everyone’s eyes, including the celebrities.

The beauty of the town, with its breathtaking views — the Pacific Ocean on the approach to LA and the undulating hills with their yucca and palm trees — all seem to cry out to the Divine. So what happened?

Human nature, clearly. One particularly big inflection point came over a hundred years ago when Mary Pickford, for whom the word “star” was coined, and Douglas Fairbanks fell in love. Unfortunately, they were both married to other people and chose to ignore Christ’s teachings on the indissolubility of marriage.

Quickie divorces and moral passes

After a quickie Nevada divorce, Pickford and Fairbanks were married on March 28, 1920. Meanwhile Nevada contested the divorce until 1922 as fans, captivated by their storied lives, gave them a moral pass. “Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks,” writes Jeanine Basinger in Silent Stars, “represent the birth of superstar celebrity; their success, their talent, and their marriage to each other made them the first King and Queen of Hollywood, and they have never been superseded.” Not everyone cheered their union, however.

Baptist minister J. Whitcomb Brougher, who married the celebrity couple, was publicly chastised for playing a role in the ceremony. Archbishop John J. Cantwell of the Catholic diocese of Monterey and Los Angeles responded by issuing a statement on divorce, calling it “the greatest of all modern evils.”

Christ the King arrives

Archbishop Cantwell also made his own dramatic gesture. On October 31, 1926, on the Feast of Christ the King –the second year that the feast was observed — the archdiocese founded Christ the King Roman Catholic Church right next to Mary Pickford’s home studio, Paramount Pictures. The gesture was intended to convey to Pickford and the rest of Hollywood who truly reigned as king. Message received: The following year Cecil B. DeMille made The King of Kings.

The film has faded, but the parish remains a vital part of this community. Outside the parish there is an impressive statue of Christ the King, wearing a crown and holding a scepter and orb. Inside the doors of the ornate church, sacraments are administered, and spiritual guidance offered. The church serves as the Divine Mercy Shrine for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. Since 1958 there has also been a Catholic elementary school, Christ the King School, attached to the parish.

Christ the King Roman Catholic Church in Hollywood, California
Christ the King Roman Catholic Church in Hollywood, California

An unhappy ending

Alas, Mary Pickford might have been happier if she had resisted the urge to dump her first spouse, the Irish actor Owen Moore. The Pickford-Fairbanks union soon hit turbulence when his wandering eye alighted on another beautiful actress for a time. Pickford had warmed to the attentions of fellow actor Buddy Rogers who was her co-star in My Best Girl. They kept their affair secret for many years but were married by the time Douglas Fairbanks died in 1939. Poignantly, Pickford’s first husband Moore died some six months before Fairbanks.

Mary Pickford was still deeply in love with Douglas Fairbanks at his death. That’s the way it generally happens in Hollywood. Human nature, so dramatically expressed in artful scenes on the big screen, is in reality weak. We need the grace of God to say no to our worst selves and become more like Christ who came to redeem us. Which is exactly why Christ the King Church remains such an important presence in this land of dreams.

Here at the TCM Festival, I could not help but notice that Pulp Fiction is a tale of redemption. Vincent Vega, played by Travolta, is a hitman with a sense of right and wrong, evident when he demurs on killing his boss’ wife Mia Wallace, played by Uma Thurman.

Christ the King shows the way.

Catholic historyCultureMovies
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