Growing up in the 1950s in the Philippines, I remember Good Fridays being especially sad and mournful, not because Jesus died a horrible death on the cross on this particular day, but because it was the only day of the year when most of the movie houses in Manila were sanctimoniously dark, and the few which dared to be open for business did so only because they were showing “religious” movies.
Five of these movies are forever etched in my memory because I don’t remember now how many Good Fridays they flickered through my consciousness for lack of any other diversion other than sermons on how the Roman soldiers nailed Him on the cross at 9 in the morning, and it took Him all of six hours to die. Speaking of which, it’s now nearly 3 in the afternoon as I’m writing this.
Of the five movies which were shown without fail on Good Friday in the Philippines, the most popular is, of course, The Ten Commandments (1956), never mind that the Egyptian pharoah’s palace is full of scantily-clad dancing girls, because the only thing anyone wants to see is Charlton Heston waving his impressive rod as he gets ready to part the Red Sea.
Other films they show on Good Friday back in my day in Manila are—Come to the Stable (1952), based on a story by Catholic-convert Claire Booth Luce, featuring Loretta Young and Celeste Holm as two nuns from the Order of Holy Endeavor in France who arrive in a small New England town with plans to build a children’s hospital; The Miracle of Our Lady of Fatima (1952), about three Portuguese children who, in 1917, had visions of the Blessed Virgin Mary dressed in blue and white, floating on top of a bush; Marcelino Pan y Vino (1955), a Spanish-language film about a poor orphan in a monastery offering his only piece of bread to an old wooden figure of Jesus, who not only accepts the bread but actually eats it in front of the hungry boy.
But, my own special favorite among the Good Friday offerings of my youth is The Song of Bernadette (1943), based on the novel by Franz Werfel, in which Jennifer Jones plays the sickly French girl in 1858 who claims to have seen “a beautiful lady” at least 18 times near her home in Lourdes, and who didn’t mind it when the BVM never cured her of her asthma.
In subsequent years, Jennifer Jones would go on to appear in Love Letters (1945), as an amnesiac who doesn’t remember that she stabbed her husband to death; in Cluny Brown (1949), as an amateur plumber who tries to keep at arms length two men (Charles Boyer and Richard Haydn) who are actually more interested in her own plumbing; with two other men in Duel in the Sun (1946), as a Mexican half-breed torn between rival siblings Joseph Cotten and Gregory Peck; in Madame Bovary (1949), where she actually betrays her husband and has an affair with Louis Jourdan before committing suicide; in Ruby Gentry (also 1952), wherein she marries Karl Malden but has the hots for Charlton Heston before he turned into Moses; and, most scandalous of all, in Indiscretion of an American Wife (1953), as a married American woman visiting relatives in Rome, who ends up with Montgomery Clift as her lover in a train station in Rome while her small son (played by Richard Beymer, who will himself grow up to woo Natalie Wood in West Side Story) tries to amuse himself elsewhere in the station.
But, sinful as she is in all her later movies, I forgive Jennifer Jones all her cinematic trespasses because, on Good Friday every year, she is once again my beatific Bernadette; even now, in 2011 in Lawrence, Kansas, as I get ready to have my afternoon snack of hot cross buns from Wheatfield’s Bakery, to be washed down with my favorite cocktail for the day—3/4 oz. Scotch whiskey and 3/4 oz. Drambuie, over rocks in a pre-chilled old-fashioned glass—which, according to Playboy’s Bar Guide, is also called a Rusty Nail.
Come Easter Sunday, there will be other movies to watch, no shortage of gilded lilies. And my favorite among those is Shanghai Express (1932), wherein Marlene Dietrich utters that memorable line: “It took more than one man to change my name to Shanghai Lily.”