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The Bootleg Files: The Lawton Story

BOOTLEG FILES 640: “The Lawton Story” (1949 Christian film).

LAST SEEN: In a March screening at the Vaska Theater in Lawton, Oklahoma.

AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: VHS copies were briefly available in a single Oklahoma store.

REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: It’s complicated.

CHANCES OF SEEING A COMMERCIAL DVD RELEASE: There are too many issues to address.

The first feature-length American production of the sound film era that depicted Jesus Christ as a full-frontal walking, talking central character was not made in Hollywood. Instead, it was shot in an Oklahoma site called Holy City of the Wichitas, located outside of the city of Lawton. In many ways, the back story on the film’s creation is more fascinating than the on-screen presentation, although the film is not without its value.

In 1926, a Congregational minister named Reverend Anthony Mark Wallock originated the Lawton Passion Play, modeled after the famous production staged at Oberammergau, Germany. This annual event was staged at Eastertime in a natural amphitheater within a 150-acre property leased from the federal government, with non-professional actors from Lawton as the cast. The pageant was initially a modest affair, but over the years the size and scope of the effort swelled, and attendance grew into the tens of thousands. In 1934, the Works Progress Administration sent laborers to build the massive stone sets to be used for the Jerusalem setting of Passion Play. To be blunt, the sets bore little resemblance to architecture of ancient Judea, but at least there was a visual backdrop for the sequences set in the Garden of Gethsemane, Pilate’s judgment hall and Herod’s Court.

In 1948, three oilmen from Tulsa created a company called Principle Films Inc. with the goal of making a filmed record of the Passion Play. Harold Daniels, a one-time actor turned B-movie director, was recruited to shoot the Passion Play. The moneybags trio from Tulsa gave Daniels a 16mm camera and a generous amount Cinecolor film stock, plus enough funds to hire Hollywood cinematographer Henry Sharp, who lensed such classics as Douglas Fairbanks’ “The Iron Mask” and the Marx Brothers’ “Duck Soup.” Daniels and Sharp worked with the pageant actors over a period of several months reportedly shot the entire four-hour event.

From here, the story becomes slightly bizarre. News of this production reached Kroger Babb, an exploitation film producer and distributor who scored a surprising box-office bonanza with “Mom and Dad,” a crudely-made film about a young girl who finds herself with an unexpected pregnancy. Babb shrewdly recognized the commercial potential of a film on the life of Jesus – there was no Hollywood production on the subject since Cecil B. DeMille’s “King of Kings” in 1927 – and he established a partnership between Principle Films and his Hallmark Productions.

Incredibly, Babb decided to jettison most of the footage shot by Daniels and Sharp and hired veteran filmmaker William Beaudine to craft new footage. Initially, the plan was to focus on the life of Rev. Wallock, played by longtime Western actor Forrest Taylor. But Babb instead spun a new tale that found the pious Wallock feuding with his unreligious brother (played by character actor Ferris Taylor, no relation to Forrest). The bad blood between brothers would be cleaned up by Rev. Wallock’s granddaughter, played by a six-year-old from Atlanta named Ginger Prince. Babb envisioned Prince as a successor to Shirley Temple and promoted her as “42 inches and 42 pounds of Southern Charm.” To further enhance her cutesy persona, Babb gave her three songs to perform.

The first half of this new film, entitled “The Lawton Story,” focused on the musical melodrama with little Ginger and her dysfunctional clan. After an intermission, the film of the Oklahoma Passion Play is presented. Today, the only surviving copy of “The Lawton Story” runs 72 minutes and consists solely of a brief introduction of the players narrated by radio actor Knox Manning and the Passion Play itself. All of the footage shot for the Ginger Prince segment is considered lost – this will be explained shortly.

So, what can we say about “The Lawton Story” as a seminal moment in Christian cinema? Well, it depends on the viewer’s ability to cut huge swaths of slack. In fairness, it was never intended to a professional production, but the camera magnifies the non-professional cast’s lack of dramatic ability. Line readings are mostly delivered in a flat manner, with a heavy Oklahoma twang that gives Biblical dialogue an unusual country flavor, and a few crude special visual effects signifying holy happenings are added that further enhances the oddness of the proceedings. The costuming is also quite a sight. If one accepts Biblical history from “The Lawton Story,” the Jerusalemites of Jesus’ day wore vibrant pastel robes – except, of course, for Jesus (who dresses in white) and Judas (who is the man in black). The Three Kings were also a strange trio, with their paper crowns and Santa Claus beards, although the infant Jesus (played by the newborn son of one of the cast) stole the Nativity scene with his natural charisma.

One of the most notorious aspects of “The Lawton Story” involves the procession to Calvary. The Holy City of the Wichitas is surrounded by poles and wiring that supplies power to the region. These modern-day structures are visible on screen, which creates a distracting anachronism during the film’s greatest dramatic moments.

However, it is impossible to dislike “The Lawton Story” and it is cruel to laugh at its shortcomings. The sincerity of the players shines from start to finish, and the utter lack of pretension reaffirms the genuine love of the subject carried by all involved. Millard Coody, a Lawton banker, was a physically commanding presence – a tall and thin man with a stern expression, he looked like an Eastern Orthodox icon that towered over those around him. And even with his Oklahoma drawl, his recitation of Jesus’ teachings is presented with a sense of compassionate authority.

“The Lawton Story” premiered on April 1, 1949, at two theaters in Lawton and one in nearby Fort Still. Babb flew in a couple of minor Hollywood stars, comic Hugh Herbert and sexpot Lynn Bari, plus little Ginger Prince for the premiere. The audiences reportedly loved it.

But there was less love when Babb tried to take the film to other markets. The cast’s accents created confusion and derision among audiences, and the title was meaningless to anyone outside of Oklahoma. Babb retitled the film “The Prince of Peace” and hired radio actors to dub the soundtrack. This version received a road show release that lasted years and became a financial hit; it even became a popular film in jaded New York City, much to Babb’s happy surprise. However, critics expressed displeasure at Ginger Prince’s treacly antics, preferring the Passion Play to the would-be Shirley Temple.

After the theatrical run came to an end, Babb was supposed to transfer the rights to the film plus the original material to the Wichita Mountains Easter Pageant Association, which is responsible for the annual Passion Play. The association was supposed to receive $100,000 from Babb, too. But Babb did not live up to his side of the agreement, and a lengthy legal battle transpired. Babb eventually sent the film back to Oklahoma, but it was chopped into small pieces; the $100,000 was never transferred.

The surviving footage was painstakingly reassembled by Lewis T. Philips, a Florida man who learned of the film’s fate and sought to (pardon the expression) resurrect it. VHS video copies of the film were briefly on sale at a gift store in the Holy City of the Wichitas, but to date there has never been a proper DVD or Blu-ray release. Instead, a dubious DVD that looks like a second-generation dupe of the VHS video has been available in bootleg channels. The packaging of this DVD is particularly strange: it includes the credits and publicity stills from the now-lost Ginger Prince sequences, and it is billed as a “K. Gordon Murray Presents” offering, even though that individual –a celebrated exploitation distributor of the Babb school – had no connection with the film’s creation.

“The Lawton Story” occasionally gets shown in Lawton at the historic Vaska Theater, with the most recent screening last March, and audience reaction has been respectfully positive. With luck, the film will someday get seen and appreciated by a wider audience. If “The Lawton Story” was not an artistically perfect film, it was clearly a labor of love – and, in this case, love is more impressive than artistic perfection.

IMPORTANT NOTICE: While this weekly column acknowledges the presence of rare film and television productions through the so-called collector-to-collector market, this should not be seen as encouraging or condoning the unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either through DVDs or Blu-ray discs or through postings on Internet video sites.

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