When I look back on memories of Easter through the years, I often recall the smorgasbord of religious movies that are a constant on Easter Sunday: King of Kings, Ben-Hur, The Greatest Story Ever Told, and Quo Vadis, to name just a few. Another film is The Robe, which I saw once again on Christmas Day last year. This got me to thinking about the author of the book the movie was based on and his role in American popular culture.
It’s tempting to say that minister and novelist Lloyd C. Douglas is a largely forgotten and obscure figure. But a search of the Internet will inform anyone curious about him that people are still reading the man’s works sixty-three years after his death in Los Angeles, particularly The Robe, The Big Fisherman, and his first novel, Magnificent Obsession, which was published in 1929 and filmed twice.
Lloyd Cassel Douglas was born on August 27, 1877 in Columbia City, Indiana, the son of a Lutheran pastor. Like a lot of clergymen’s children, he grew up in various towns as his father moved from one congregation to another. Douglas grew up in Monroeville and Wilmot, Indiana and also Florence, Kentucky, which is just a short distance from Cincinnati. He followed his father into the ministry. He attended Wittenberg College (now Wittenberg University) in Springfield, Ohio, where he received an A.M. degree in 1900 and graduated from Wittenberg’s Hamma Divinity School in 1903. For a couple of summers during his college years he worked as a sports and police reporter for a local newspaper.
Following divinity school graduation he was ordained a Lutheran minister, and married Bessie Porch, a minister’s daughter. They had two daughters named Bessie and Virginia. Douglas’ career took him to North Manchester, Indiana, Lancaster, Ohio and Washington D.C. Douglas resigned his position in Washington, apparently out frustration with certain aspects of Lutheran dogma and the deep conservatism of some members of his congregation.
He then took a position as director of religious work at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana, and when he returned to the pulpit it was as a Congregational minister, serving first in Ann Arbor, Michigan, then Akron, Ohio, Los Angeles, California, and finally Montreal, Quebec. Douglas began writing and publishing essays, but felt he could make more of an impact if he shared his ideas through stories.
His first novel, Magnificent Obsession, told the story of a self-centered young man named Robert Merrick whose careless behavior damages the people around him, culminating in the loss of a dedicated doctor who has a fatal heart attack while helping Merrick after a speedboat accident. Merrick decides to devote his life to service and becomes a doctor as well. The book became popular through word of mouth, eventually becoming a bestseller. It was filmed twice. The 1935 release starred Irene Dunne and Robert Taylor, and the 1954 version starred Rock Hudson and Jane Wyman, the former wife of future President Ronald Reagan.
A succession of other novels followed, among them Precious Jeopardy (1933), Green Light (1935), White Banners (1936) and Disputed Passage (1939). Like many successful authors, Douglas received fan mail. Hazel McCann, a woman from Ohio, wrote to Douglas and asked him what had become of Jesus’ garments after his crucifixion. Douglas was inspired by her question to write The Robe, and he dedicated the book to her. It appeared in 1942 and was a best seller. His last novel, The Big Fisherman, appeared in 1948 and told the story of St. Peter. It was also made into a motion picture.
Douglas would die before seeing The Robe made into a film, which was released in 1953. The film stars Richard Burton as the young Roman tribune Marcellus who wins Christ’s robes after the Roman centurions on Golgotha cast dice to see who will win Jesus’ garments. Marcellus is bothered by what happened to Jesus and begins to have nightmares about what happened to Christ. His slave, Demetrius, portrayed by Victor Mature, had been drawn to Jesus before the crucifixion and has the robe. When Marcellus later touches the robe, he feels a deep peace and begins to seek out more knowledge of Christ. One aspect of the film often noted by both critics and everyday viewers is that Richard Burton, so distinguished for his acting gifts, seems stiff in the part, while Victor Mature, better known for playing action hero roles, gives a strong performance.
Lloyd Douglas died on February 13, 1951 in Los Angeles, California. He published the first volume of his autobiography, Time To Remember in 1951. His daughters continued his story in The Shape of Sunday published one year later. A collection of sermons, The Living Faith, appeared in 1955.
There are many once “popular” novelists whose works are truly forgotten, and if read at all it is by a small audience of scholars. Sixty-three years after his death, Lloyd C. Douglas still has readers, and film versions of his books keep those works and his name alive. Maybe we could say that inspiration of the kind he provided never really goes out of style.