Monday morning, March 16, 2009
It’s not common for a mainline denominational pastor to be a hero in an academy award winning film, but that’s what happened this year. What’s even better is that the real life character that inspired the screen actor is grandfather to two friends of mine (they are cousins).
This preacher feared no one. In the roaring twenties, when the consumption of alcohol was a violation of federal law and Al Capone ran Chicago and the Patrick J. Kennedy ran Boston, Los Angeles kept pace with the other major cities in America. Crime went unchecked. Guns and grit controlled the streets. These were the days of economic boom. Values were high. The stock market made millionaires. Unemployment was virtually non-existent. Parties were extravagant and frequent. Some consider it a period of moral and ethical anarchy.
“Fighting Bob Shuler,” pastored the largest Methodist Church in Los Angeles. His technical guys set up a broadcasting tower on the roof of the church and secured a clear channel on the radio. Shuler’s people, like all Angelinos, suffered at the cruel hands of a get-tough police force that commonly shot first and questioned later. On-the-spot justice was commonplace. Some called them massacres. All this covered up corruption at the highest levels. It pulled all of Shuler’s prophetic triggers. The episodes of people in high places breaching the public trust unleashed a barrage of sermonic condemnations from the pulpit and over the air. It was the lax attitude toward illegal drinking at the highest levels of government. But lawlessness went far beyond illegal consumption of alcohol. There were generous bribes; the courts were for sale to the highest bidder; a good-old boy network left the people of Los Angeles vulnerable to the whims of the underground. Organized crime grew as fast as the stock market and the gross national product. Young J. Edgar Hoover began his career in the rough and tumble era of the Twenties.
When the good reverend caught the chief of police red-handed walking out of a speakeasy, clearly stone drunk, with two equally inebriated women, one on each arm, neither one his wife, he went directly to his microphone to report the sighting to the entire city. That put the preacher at odds with the powers that be. It landed him in a jail cell for a few days. The entire episode only made him more credible to his listeners and his parishioners. He is a legend of ecclesiastical history in the City of the Angels.
The film chose to use the name of Shuler’s colleague in the cause and fellow Angelino clergyman for the feature length film. Reverend Gustav Briegleb, a Presbyterian, became the screenplay’s character for the film. The well-known and loved actor, John Malkovich, plays the role. Ron Howard directed the movie until he ran into a scheduling conflict (the production of Frost/Nixon). The script was so interesting and so talked about in Hollywood that Howard convinced another high profile friend into taking his place as director – Clint Eastwood.
I suppose another draw for Eastwood was the main character of the film, Angelina Jolie (Christina Collins). Eastwood dropped whatever else he was doing and showed up. He jumped right into Ron Howard’s spot, and completed the film.
I’ve speculated with my friends Ed and Bob (Shuler). Perhaps the reason their grand-father’s name didn’t make it into the film is because of potential confusion with the well-known pastor of the Crystal Cathedral (their names are spelled differently). The moviemakers went with the Presbyterian. But Fighting Bob Shuler was the man.
The film is disturbing. And powerful. Christine Collins (Jolie) is an ordinary woman whose husband left her and her eight-year-old son alone to fend for themselves. She is a telephone operator supervisor on roller skates whose work kept her away long enough for her son to disappear without explanation one work-day. Her loss draws her into the blatant corruption of the city at every level. Her primary advocate is the good reverend.
The screenplay, written by newcomer J. Michael Straczynsk, came to light as a true story because the archives surrounding one of the city’s worst serial murder cases in history were about to be destroyed. Straczynsk recognized immediately the potential of the true story and took a full year to uncover the detail. Christine Collins emerged as an extraordinary woman who, in the aftermath of losing her boy one ordinary day, survived the tactics of a corrupt and cruel department to silence her. She objected because they gave her the wrong boy and called it a triumph. Their response included a blatant attempt to put her away for good in a “psychopathic ward.” The preacher and his friends helped her cope. And overcome.
It’s a riveting piece of story-telling. A period piece. The Changeling is a story of triumph and hope in the face of cruel odds. Justice prevails. I would have liked the film even without the personal connection. But the portrayal of my friends’ grandfather added a strong element of interest – calling us back to a time when a pastor was both shepherd and guardian.
It’s Monday morning. You are a leader. The link between 2009 and 1929 seems to grow stronger by the day. Stories of corruption in the first decade of the new millennium emerge regularly in the headlines that rival those of the Roaring Twenties when Model T Fords carried guys with big lapelled suits and hats up and down the streets late at night with their machine guns at the ready and fear reigned supreme. Then one fateful day in 1929, the bottom fell out.
We’re still in something of a freefall ourselves in 2009. But Fighting Bob Shuler is an inspiration, along with his pal Gustav Briegleb. It was a righteous indignation that called a city back to its biblical foundation, calling its leaders to account.
And hope made a comeback.
Copyright Kenneth E Kemp 2009