Although I wasn't quite aware of it at the time, television and I grew up together. As a response to tv, 1950's Hollywood dusted off the idea of widescreen and begat Cinemascope with the release of "The Robe", a biblical epic. It was a huge box office success. Therefore, more widescreen movies followed, and in true Hollywood fashion, when they didn't really know what to do, they made something similar, except bigger and more expensive. It was a whole new era of the cinema spectacular - this time in widescreen, technicolor, and stereophonic multi-channel sound. And I loved it.
I can't swear that the Jesus movies and sundry biblical epics all came out around Easter, but it sure seems that way in memory. Easter back then started with a new suit and shoes. Suits were partially tailored then, they weren't off the rack. In late winter we'd go off to Woodstown for the annual trip to Spinozi's. The elder Mr. Spinozi would always hang his tape measure around his neck, and as he began the yearly renovation process with a shoe measurement, would note that I would be taller if they hadn't tucked so much under. This was his one joke every year. And every year we politely laughed at it. The get up would always make its debut at Easter service at Bethesda Methodist Church. Since I was in the youth choir, it was always covered by a red robe.
Somewhere around the Easter holiday (at least in memory) would be a trip to the movies. It would be off to Camden, or Philadelphia, to one of those huge movie palaces where "first run" films were to be seen. As I was closing in on the entry into my teen years, the picture I remember best was "King of Kings". As I later learned, out in Hollywood it was known as "I Was a Teen Age Jesus" due to the youthful appearance of its leading man, Jeffrey Hunter (yes, he was already immortal years before he became Captain Pike). It was directed by Nicholas Ray, who had directed James Dean's best known film, "Rebel Without a Cause".
When it was released, there was a story (probably apocryphal) that as the Sermon on the Mount was prepared for filming in the Spanish countryside, the thousands of extras were readied; the cameras began to roll, and Jeffrey Hunter entered the scene from over a hilltop. The extras were so shocked to see Jesus Christ in their midst that most fell to their knees and began making the sign of the cross. They had to re-shoot the scene. It's one of my favorite Jesus movies to this day - and it has a great Miklos Roza score!
As I was soon to learn, King of Kings was sort of a remake. The original was a silent movie, directed by Cecil B. DeMille, who made 'de movies for de millions'. Demille's films had been taught and tawdry melodramas which had been heavily criticized for immorality. So DeMille began filming Bible stories - with a lot of sex thrown in, often via a then modern story which illustrated the wages of ignoring Biblical injunctions.
Toward the end of the silent era, DeMille made "King of Kings". Its premiere was the debut film of Grauman's Chinese Theatre in Hollywood. It was a huge success.
Jesus movies started at the birth of the movies themselves. One of the earliest films exhibited was a series of tableaux which was supposed to be a filming (it wasn't) of the once every ten years presentation of the Obergammergau Passion Play. One of the first feature films was D. W. Griffith's 1914 "Judith of Bethulia", clocking in at 61 minutes. It told the story of a slave girl in old Babylon, had an orgy scene, and a scene in which the heroine beheaded an enemy. Griffith revisited Babylon as one of the four stories told in "Intolerance", his can you top this follow up to "Birth of a Nation". One of the other stories was the story of the Christ. The actor who played Jesus was originally uncredited, not due to religious reticence, but allegedly due to his affair with a 14 year old girl who was an extra in the film.
In the early days of cinema, there was a great deal of concern about portraying the Christ onscreen. One film got around this by only showing His shadow. It was DeMille who came up with the best Jesus cinematic entrance. Here, from my private files, the un-restored scene as I first saw it on television in the early 1960s:
Hey, I was impressed. The silent King of Kings started DeMille on straight out bible story telling. No modern story here - his financing came from a wealthy more conservative religious gentleman. After the initial engagements, the film was cut for general release. DeMille oversaw further work on the picture when it was re-released with the addition of a newfangled soundtrack in 1931. That's the version which was seen by millions. Literally. Missionaries were said to lug 16mm prints and projectors with them into jungles to use the film in converting the heathen. The original version had long been thought lost, but turned up a few years back and was released on DVD in a Criterion edition - which also included a copy of the early sound version. It's quite a giddy experience at times. The first scene, which turned out to be in two strip technicolor, involved wealthy bad girl Mary Magdalene having a hissy fit because her favorite beau, Judas Iscariot was off following a carpenter. A carpenter! She resolved to correct the situation in one of my all time favorite title cards:
DeMille, of course, was happy to illustrate the scene:
After her exit, the film changed to black and white as Mark, writer of a Gospel, is introduced as a lame kid who was healed and who leads the blind girl into the house where Jesus is holding forth. The rest of the film is in black and white - until the Easter morning Resurrection, when color returns to Oz. I mean Jerusalem. It's a great moment, and wowed my 11 (or so) year old self.
I spent years trying to see the DeMille version again. I'd love to see it on a big screen; the earthquake/wrath of God stuff at the crucifixion is pretty spectacular even today. It's a fun movie, and, together with Jeffrey Hunter and a cast of thousands started a long affair between myself and Hollywood epics.
Whether you celebrate Easter, Passover, or just the arrival of Spring, happy whatever. And there is probably a Hollywood Epic waiting out there for you. And these days, who knows what you'll find. Especially now that we have the internet, where the strangest things turn up. Here's one just for Austanspace, who is making me dinner. It's a still from the peeps version of Game of Thrones: