What a time it was to be an American Catholic artist in the 1940s and 50s. Joyfully Catholic films like Leo McCarey’s The Bells of St. Mary’s (1945) won Academy and Golden Globe Awards left and right. Writers as theologically and aesthetically diverse as Thomas Merton and Flannery O’Connor captivated secular and religious audiences alike with their enthralling tales of grace earnestly sought and God arrestingly found.
And straddling both the cinematic and literary worlds was Myles Connolly.
A polymath out of Boston, Connolly was salutatorian of Boston College in 1918. Though he was primed for a career in architecture, a providential encounter led him to journalism. Soon he was editing Columbia, the international journal of the Knights of Columbus, corralling luminaries such as GK Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc into contributing more robustly Catholic articles.
A voracious reader, Connolly apparently had a visceral reaction to F Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (1925). Trading on a reputation as a bad boy Catholic, Fitzgerald had linked the downfall of the American dream with the inadequacy of religion. The only cure for the human condition, Fitzgerald seemed to say, lay in the creation of art for its own sake.
Three years later Connolly published his retort, and it would become the calling card for the rest of his career. Mr Blue, a little novel that has often been called a modern St Francis of Assisi story, both sold and reviewed poorly in 1928. American Catholics were not quite sure what to make of the novel’s eponymous hero, who gives away everything to live in poverty with the lowest of the low in Boston.
Having written the novel at least partly to give Fitzgerald a genuine Catholic answer to the Lost Generation – find yourself by giving yourself away in love to the poor – Connolly shrugged off the lacklustre response to Mr Blue and moved out west to Hollywood.
Over the next few decades he would write and/or produce more than 40 films, working with such visionaries as the aforementioned Leo McCarey and the inimitable Frank Capra.
Though sometimes uncredited for his contributions to films like the perennial favourite It’s a Wonderful Life, Connolly would earn an Academy Award nomination for writing 1944’s Music for Millions and often found both critical and popular success with films like Hans Christian Andersen (1952).
Just as Connolly was making it big in Hollywood by emphasising principles-driven entertainment, a less glitzy but just as attention-drawing crusade was growing back east: Peter Maurin and Dorothy Day’s Catholic Worker Movement. By putting into practice what Connolly had fictionalised in Mr Blue, Day had demonstrated radical obedience to the Gospel injunction of serving the poor. Certainly scores of saints had done just that throughout history, but had they done it in America yet, and on such a grand scale?
As if in approval of Day, Mr Blue started selling, and the publisher commissioned a 25th anniversary introduction from Connolly. By 1954, over half a million copies were in print, and the novel continues to attract much attention to this day.
But that’s just the beginning of Connolly’s literary story. As Mr Blue’s reputation climbed, Connolly began publishing novels again.
The Bump on Brannigan’s Head (1950) tells the tragicomic story of a quick-tempered Irishman who jettisons his lukewarm faith by loving his enemies. It reads like a smoothly polished screenplay you’d expect from a veteran Hollywood writer, and it ranks among Connolly’s most humorous works.
Connolly’s writing did not shy away from humanity’s dark side. Three Who Ventured (1958), a collection of interconnected novellas, offers the reader three very different protagonists from the saintly to the diabolical, all of whom come face to face with the cost of redemption.
Among Connolly aficionados, however, Dan England and the Noonday Devil (1951) stands apart. The novel entrancingly depicts a character in the throes of spiritual sloth (the noonday devil) and offers one of his trademark surprise endings – one that has driven many readers to their knees in prayer.
Amidst the popular sentimentalism and the heady intellectualism that sometimes divided the worlds of cinema and literature in the American Catholic Renaissance of the 1940s and 1950s, Connolly embraced the best of both.
Like the eventual recognition of Mr Blue, perhaps Connolly’s other works, too, will soon enjoy the revival they deserve.
Stephen Mirarchi is Associate Professor of English at Benedictine College in Atchison, Kansas. He is editor of annotated editions of Myles Connolly’s works, published by Cluny Media
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