Easter traditions, like the movie ‘King of Kings’ (1961)
It is funny how a few random details, repeated together over time, can solidify into a ritual which becomes essential to your psychological comfort. This is one of mine — the 1961 movie King of Kings and its main theme music, written by Miklós Rózsa.
I grew up Catholic, and Easter was a fairly big deal in my family.
For one thing, Easter required new clothes, which usually meant a Lenten trip down to the Marshall Field’s State Street store in Chicago, where my parents would buy me some sort of jacket, tie, and trousers combination and pick out four matching dresses and hats for my sisters, all younger than me.
Palm Sunday was usually kind of fun, because the routine of church was broken somewhat by the novelty of everyone receiving small bunches of palm leaves, and waving them as part of a humble procession. I understood that the palms had been blessed, and so they were more special than ordinary leaves, but beyond waving them around a little, I didn’t know what to do with them. We carefully took them home and tucked them behind Jesus’s head on the big, metal crucifix that hung on our living room wall, where they stayed for the rest of the year. Amy tells me that in her family, they would weave the leaves together into little creations.
The next four days of Holy Week were a time of vague anticipation and foreboding which slowly built. There would be some housecleaning and some grocery shopping and another visit to St. Mark’s for confession, but the whole week was ominously shaded by the knowledge that an abysmal tragedy was coming at noon on Friday.
Good Friday, confusingly-named to begin with, was a self-imposed afternoon nightmare. While everyone would pretend to go about their ordinary lives during the morning, the hours between noon and three were the exact hours that Jesus Christ died on the cross, and were to be spent in quiet contemplation of his torture. Many local businesses closed, and my recollection is that every single year on that day, the morning sun was blotted out at noon by dark clouds, which developed into windy rain, often thunder and lightning, and occasionally a tornado — all of it clearing again shortly after three.
In our house, the atmosphere was muted. If the TV was on at all, it was tuned to WGN-TV, where some sort of somber religious programming would air. My mom would typically have her rosary out, and she would try to lead us through the fourteen Stations of the Cross, but certain details would always distract me and cause my mind to wander away from the sequence.
Chief among these was Number Six of the fourteen, in which Veronica photocopies the face of Jesus. According to this legend, told to us as gospel even though it is nowhere in the Bible, Saint Veronica wiped the face of the suffering savior with her veil, and his image was transferred to the cloth. That one always got me. I was familiar with iron-on transfers, but I could not for the life of me understand how this could work from skin to silk, or whether the image quality would be any good.
This, in turn, would start me paging through the illustrations in a book my mother owned, A Doctor at Calvary: The Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ As Described by a Surgeon, by Pierre Barbet. The book included a number of photos of the Shroud of Turin in positive and negative, as well as a slew of X-ray pictures of spikes going through the bones of hands and feet.
Only just now, adding that link, did I discover that “Pierre Barbet” was not his real name, and that he was a science-fiction writer who also wrote about Napoleonic soldiers kidnapped by aliens. As a kid, though, I felt that I was studying sacred radiology.
Eventually, the three hours would be up, and we could start looking forward to Easter Sunday. It was somewhere in this period, amid egg coloring and food preparation and long distance calls to my grandparents, who would soon be visiting, that King of Kings would be shown on TV. Its key melody was reprised again and again throughout the solemn, plodding two hours and 48 minutes, plus commercials, narrated by Kenosha-born Orson Welles.
Looking back at it now, the film is a very peculiar, Hollywood-inflected take on ancient times and sacred stories. I may not have understood exactly what was going on when Brigid Bazlen (born in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin, daughter of Chicago columnist Maggie Daly) did her famous dance as Solome, but it certainly was intriguing. So too was her request for the head of John the Baptist on a silver platter. Nowadays, beheadings are routine in our daily news, but back then, the thought was gruesome and outlandish.
There are plenty of Jesus movies, and almost of all them are fairly cheesy, but King of Kings was my cheesy Jesus movie.
Its official authorization was passed down by my mom, who felt that its star, Jeffrey Hunter, had some very handsome blue eyes. The other thing she always noted about Jeffrey Hunter, post-1969, was that he died after falling down the stairs and cracking his skull. Looking at his biography now, I am just learning that he grew up in Milwaukee as Henry “Hank” Herman McKinnies, Jr., served in the U.S. Navy at Naval Station Great Lakes, and attended Northwestern University in Evanston.
My dad served in the navy, in the South Pacific during World War II. He trained for that at Great Lakes. Back home, after marrying my mom and adding me, he moved to Kenosha to manage the Ace Hardware store there on 75th Street. He built it into the top-selling Ace Hardware store in the United States.
His Ace was much more like an early Wal-Mart than just a hardware store. Leading up to Easter, they carried Easter lilies. There was a long row of them in pots all along the front window, and they were also in other spots throughout the store.
On Holy Saturday, he would take me there in his station wagon, and we would back up to the loading dock, where his employees would bring any unsold plants, and I would load them into the car. We then drove to St. Joseph’s Home for the Aged on the south end of town, and donated them for the residents’ rooms.
Another part of this arrangement was that we would return on Saturday night for the old folks home’s Easter Mass — which, given the age of its few attendees, was extremely early and lightning-fast. My dad, a varsity altar boy as a youth, had no interest in any two-hour, full choir, midnight extravaganzas. He simply wanted to fulfill the obligation, leaving Easter Sunday free and clear for brunch, cocktails, and anxiety with the in-laws.
As Catholics, although we owned a large, heavy Bible with a red synthetic cover, a thumb index, and gilt-edged pages, we did not study it with any regularity. Instead, priests would read very brief passages during Mass, then sermonize about them monotonously for 20 minutes, usually forcing an analogy with some hip, contemporary parallel, like maybe a Peanuts cartoon. This taught us that, despite its beheadings and torture and questionable legal system, the Bible was still relevant to modern life.
King of Kings was, in fact, my primary biographical source for the life of Jesus Christ through my youth. When Sister Alfreda, the nun who taught my first grade class, asked us about the temptation of Christ, it was King of Kings dialog that I quoted back to her, beginning with, “Man does not live by bread alone …” When I got my very first cassette recorder one Christmas, I used it the following Easter to record all of King of Kings, cutting the commercials at the same time. Later in life, I did this again on VHS.
It was a startling revelation when, as an adult, I began to seriously read and study the Bible and it dawned on me that the Last Supper was actually a Passover Seder; that the bread Jesus broke was matza, and that the wine which was his blood is also the common blood shared by any family gathered around a table to celebrate being delivered out of slavery, or simply making it though another winter.
My dad has long since died, and a couple of my sisters have moved to other parts of the country. I am no longer a churchgoer, Kenosha’s Ace Hardware is no longer an Ace Hardware, and Marshall Field’s is no longer Marshall Field’s. To this day, though, when the grass turns green again and the weather begins to brighten, I still smell the vinegar we used when coloring eggs, and I still start humming that King of Kings theme.
Maybe this is how we have all ended up celebrating this season with its peculiar combination of chocolate and jelly beans and eggs and a giant bunny — plus a savior who died for three days, bread that had no time to rise, and certain epic movies reverentially depicting these events. Maybe part of the satisfaction of repeating these things comes from repeating whatever connects you to this point in previous years, and to your family and your extended people, past and present.
After all, look at how much is connected for me to one old movie melody.
King of Kings will run again this Easter Sunday on Turner Classic Movies at 9 p.m. Eastern / 8 p.m. Central.