Little Hollywood on the Prairie

Was Wheaton, IL once a headquarters for cinema in the Midwest? Well, perhaps not quite. But it is true that in the middle decades of the 20th century, Wheaton was the center for the regular production of dozens of films, pioneered by the Scriptures Visualized Institute, also know as the C. O. Baptista Film Mission and C. O. Baptista Films, among other names.

Embracing their central slogan, “The Old Gospel in Modern Technique,” C.O. Baptista films represented one effort among many by Christians in the 20th century to use the possibilities of ever advancing new technologies – from recorded sound on wax cylinders to instantaneous communication via the internet – as new channels for the gospel.

The records of the Baptista Film Mission, including selections of its film catalog, are available and open for research at the Wheaton College Billy Graham Center Archives.

Baptista Family, 1908
Baptista Family in Venezuela, 1908, with Carlos on far left. Photo File: Baptista, C. O.

Scriptures Visualized Institute began with Carlos (or Charles) Octavia Baptista, who was born in San Cristóbal, Venezuela in 1895. By 1914, Baptista had immigrated to Chicago and was working on commission for a piano company, selling their product by mail in Latin America. As he later wrote, it was a job that taught patience and trust in God, a lesson he would return to throughout his life.

When the Great Depression began in the United States, overseas piano sales fell drastically. In 1932, after a long illness, Baptista went into business selling movie projectors in Latin America which his partner manufactured. Then he gradually became owner of a film laboratory in Chicago.

Many Christian denominations had long condemned the way commercial films often glamorized sin and crime, similar to the tradition complaints made against the theater. But by the 1940s cinema was so much a part of the general culture in America that some Christians began using it as a means of presenting Christian beliefs and values.

Baptista article "Shall We Use Motion Pictures in the Church"
Christian Life and Times, May 1946. (CN 225, Folder 2-1)

One of the first such pioneers was Rev. James Friedrich, an Episcopal priest who founded Church-Craft Pictures (later known as Cathedral Films) in 1940. But by then, Baptista had already begun his own film production work.

Through his projectors and film laboratory businesses, Baptista was already familiar with some aspects of film production. In 1939 the popularity of a Sunday school lesson in which he used an everyday object to symbolize the Christian life encouraged him to try telling the story with film. He and his staff used stop motion animation to create The Story of a Fountain Pen, comparing the redemption of a pen from a pawn show with the redemption of the soul by Christ.

The company Baptista led eventually included sound technician Maxwell Kerr, animator Severi Anderson, director Myron Carlson and cameraman Bob Schaub, among others. Together they made more than 100 films during the next two decades.

C.O. Baptista leads staff devotions at Baptista Film Mission offices, 1943. Photo File: Baptista Film Mission

The creative aspect of writing and directing was largely left to others, while Baptista handled business and administration. However, the overall emphasis of the films was centered on Baptista’s interest, not in making cinematic gems, but in producing films that gave a straightforward Gospel message that would lead people to make a decision for Christ or encourage them in their Christian life.

Many early Baptista productions were simply filmed sermons, using such popular Fundamentalist minsters as H. A. Ironside, Oswald Smith, Walter Wilson and W. B. Riley. However, this strong central mission did not mean that Baptista shied away from variety or innovation.

When Baptista filmed From Confucius to Christ, the personal testimony of Chinese evangelist Leland Wang, he made both an English and a Chinese version. He also produced many musical programs, with Christian artists such as George Beverly Shea and Hawaiian guitarist Sol Hoopii. Other films showed the activities of various ministries like The Evangelical Alliance Mission (TEAM), Youth for Christ, and Airmail from God. Some of his movies were dramatic tales of conversion, such as The Man Who Forgot God (1943) and Captured by the Indians (1950) or stories on the end times and the second coming of Christ, like The Rapture (1941).

While C.O. Baptista Films produced many film projects of a wide variety of Christian subjects and genres, the company is probably best remembered for two things – a machine and a cartoon.

A Miracle Projector
A Miracle Projector. Photo File: Baptista Film Mission

The intended audience for Baptista Film was the congregations of Christian churches. These churches needed a light weight, sturdy projector for 16mm film that could survive handling by amateur projectionists. Baptista’s staff engineered one in 1944 that was less than half the weight of its nearest competitor and named it “The Miracle Projector.”

It became known not just for its weight but for its promise, proudly included with every model:

“We unconditionally guarantee the Miracle Projector…against any defects whatsoever in the quality of its materials or workmanship, from the date it is purchased until the return of the Lord Jesus Christ. The Miracle Protector was developed and manufactured at the direction and leading of God. It is not an ordinary projector made to sell and compete commercially. It is a machine made for a specific purpose: to glorify God and help spread the Gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ. We believe the Miracles will continue to perform efficiently after the Christians are taken away to meet the Lord in the air, an event commonly known as the rapture of the church, but they will not then be operated by our own people but by non-Christians. These Miracles may not need servicing during the seven years of the tribulation, the period when Christians will be away from the earth with the Lord.”

Collection 225, Folder 2-2

Cartoons were another Baptista innovation. The technicians at Baptista Films developed special cameras for stop motion photography and animation. This lead to the release in 1950 of what is probably the first feature length Evangelical cartoon, an adaption of John Bunyan’s, The Pilgrim’s Progress. The staff had worked on it for four and a half years and created over 100,000 individual cells for a film that was 55 minutes long.

The advertisement for the film proclaimed, “Real thrills await you…as you follow Pilgrim through the Slough of Despond, his meeting Mr. Worldly Wiseman…. And what a joy when he loses is heavy load at the foot of the cross! Many adventures follow and after Christian receives his armor at the Palace Beautiful he has that breathtaking life and death battle with Apollyon.”

Despite many enthusiastic letters from people who were converted or inspired by his films, Baptista faced a steadily worsening financial situation.

To save money on film production costs and draw new churches to the catalog of Baptista Films, the company developed a film strip projector with a synchronized tape player in the 1950s called Tel-N-See and adapted many of its films to filmstrips. But in the end the Tel-n-See did not improve business enough to save the company and in 1964 Baptista had to declare bankruptcy.

(Collection 225, Folder 2-6)

Although the company’s film production ended, the legacy of the Scriptures Visualized Institute continued. Reflecting on his work with Baptista, Maxwell Kerr said in an oral history interview in 1982, “One of the biggest things that Baptista Films did for us was inspire us and train us in that field. It was really a training ground, as well as an encouragement for the use of films in evangelistic fields.”

The Wheaton College Billy Graham Center Archives, thanks to generous donations from the Baptista family and Maxwell Kerr, among others, holds not only dozens of Baptista films and filmstrips, but also two boxes of documents, including correspondence, catalogs, scripts, newsletters and magazine and newspaper articles. To review the full list of films and other materials available at the Archives, see the guide for Collection 225: Records of Baptista Film Mission.

One thought on “Little Hollywood on the Prairie

  1. Hollywood’s taking another shot at turning the literary luminaries of the prairie into stars of the silver screen. The private ranch has been a prominent spot amongst Hollywood filmmakers. Most recently, the science fiction television series, ‘Westworld’ used.

    Like

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