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Lloyd C(assell) Douglas (1877-1951)

 

American writer who published popular novels about religious and moral issues. Douglas produced his first novel, Magnificent Obsession (1929), at the age of 52. It was a huge success, although the work had been rejected by two major publishers, Harper & Brothers and Doubleday. Issued by a small religious publishing house of Willett, Clark and Colby, Magnificent Obsession sold in a few years three million copies. In the 1930s, Douglas was one of the most popular novelist in the United States. His other novels include The Robe (1942), which was made into a lavish Technicolor film in 1953, starring Richard Burton, Jean Simmons, and Victor Mature. It received five Academy Award nominations and won two. The novel remained at the head of the bestseller list for nine months.

"Most of the people they knew were in a constant dither about their slaves; buying and selling and exchanging. It wasn't often that Father disposed of one; and when, rarely, he had done so, it was because the slave had mistreated another over whom he has some small authority. They had lost an excellent cook that way, about a year ago. Minna had grown crusty and cruel toward the kitchen crew, scolding then loudly and knocking them about, She had been warned a few times. Then, one day, Minna had slapped Tertia. Lucia wondered, briefly, where Minna was now. She certainly did know how to bake honey cakes." (from The Robe)

Lloyd Cassell Douglas was born in Columbia City, Indiana, the son of Alexander Jacson Douglas, a Lutheran clergyman, and Sarah Jane (Cassel) Douglas. He was educated as a minister at Wittenberg Seminary in Springfield, Ohio. After his ordination, he served as pastor in North Manchester, Indiana. In 1904, he married Bessie Porch, a minister's daughter. They two daughters, Besse and Virginia, who later published a biography on their parents.

In 1905, Douglas moved to Lancaster, Ohio, and in 1908 to Washington, D.C. From 1911 to 1915, he was chaplain and director of religious work at the University of Illinois. Later Douglas became a pastor of First Congretional Church in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Many of the students from nearby University of Michigan attended his sermons, famous for the lively narrative style. After living in college towns, Douglas spent many years as the pastor of churches in Akron, Montreal, and Los Angeles. Much of the knowledge of medical terminology and procedures of his books, Douglas picked up while conducting pastoral care visits to patients at Midwestern teaching hospitals.

Douglas finished Magnificent Obsession while he was living in Los Angeles and it came out just after the market crash of 1929. After 45 printings, Willett, Clark, and Colby sold their right to Houghton Mifflin. In 1931, the work reached the bestseller list. Upon its success, Douglas retired from the ministry, to write more novels. During his new career, Douglas formed his own notions of the craft, such as: "Never start a chapter with conversation. Always start a new page with some care. Start with a paragraph of three or four lines without conversation. Minor characters must be endeared at once ..." ('Lloyd C. Douglas: Best-selling author of The Robe, Green Light, Magnificent Obsession is a specialist in miracles whose own career is a major literary miracle' by Noel F. Busch, Time, May 27, 1946.) Douglas usually wrote 3,000 words a day, of which 1,500 were often rewrite of the previous day's chore.

In spite of public's enthusiasm, Magnificent Obsession received mixed reviews in literary journals. Edmund Wilson said that "Instead of the usual trash aimed at Hollywood and streamlined for the popular magazines, one is confronted with something that resembles an old-fashioned novel for young people." The novel introduced themes that constantly appeared in the author's books – a medical setting, the wealthy background, the conversion of the atheist hero to a practicing Christian due to feelings of guilt – and in this particular story, when Robert Merrick, a rich playboy, causes the death of an eminent brain surgeon, Wayne Hudson. He is a genius, who believes that if man harbors any sort of fear, no matter how benign and apparently harmless, it percolates through all his thinking and damages his personality. One of the characters says, "whoever loveth a genius is out of luck with his devotion except he beareth all things, endureth all things, suffered long and is kind." Doctor Hudson's Secret Journal (1939) was a prequel to the story. Forgive Us Our Trespasses (1932), a bildungsroman of a young man, had "better treatment at the hand of the critics than I deserved or expected," said Douglas in The Shape of Sunday (1952).  

Several of Douglas's books have been adapted to screen, Magnificent Obsession twice. Green Light (1935) was filmed in 1936, starring Errol Flynn. After Captain Blood (1935) and The Charge of the Light Brigade (1936), Flynn was labelled a swashbuckler, but in Green Light he was a dedicated doctor, who gives up his practice when a patient dies. The Robe (1942), written in the tradition of Ben Hur (1880) by Lew Wallace and Quo Vadis by Henryk Sienkiewicz (1896), has sold over six million copies. The idea for the novel came from a woman in Ohio, who asked Douglas if he had ever heard the legend of the Roman soldier, who won Jesus' robe through a dice game after the crucifixion. "It set me think and I decided to do a little story about it."

The Robe gained also a wide audience as the first film in Cinemascope. Douglas had sold the screen right in 1942, while still working on the novel, but it took 11 years before the film was ready for public viewing. The title of the book refers to the crusifixion garment worn by Jesus. The protagonist of the story is a young Roman soldier, Marcellus, in charge of the Crusifixion, who wins in a dice game Christ's robe. Marcellus then starts to his quest to find the truth about Jesus, and eventually becomes a convert and a martyr in Colosseum to the new religion. Richard Burton, acting as Tribune Marcellus Gallio in the film version – in a short Roman mini skirt – was in his first great role; Jay Robins was Galicula. Albert Maltz, who wrote the original screenplay, was blacklisted by Hollywood studios, and his name was removed from the script. Maltz's credits were not restored until the 1990s.

Douglas once said in an interviews, that "If my novels are entertaining I am glad, but they are not written so much for the purpose of entertainment as of inspiration." His last novel, The Big Fisherman (1948), shared the same New Testament world of Palestine and Rome and focused on Jesus, Peter, and a pair of young lovers, Esther and Voldi. The Roman world of the early Christian Church is carefully drawn. For a modern reader, the style is perhaps too tendentious. Douglas's main purpose was to present a Christian thesis in the form of a novel and include in the gospel narratives the aspect of human interest. On the other hand, his works were not overly didactic and his Midwestern characters value common sense and practical experience.

After the death of his wife in 1944, Douglas moved from Bel-Air, California, to the wing of a house belonging to his daughter Betty and her husband, on the outskirts Las Vegas, Nevada. Unhappy with the production of The Robe, Douglas did not allow this sequel to be made into a motion picture during his lifetime. However, it was filmed in 1959 by Frank Borzage. Douglas's autobiography Time To Remember (1951), which also contained much of his philosophy, was continued by his two daughters in The Shape of Sunday (1952). Douglas died of a heart ailment in Los Angeles, on February 13, 1951. His last words were, "I'm happy." Douglas was buried in the Sanctuarity of the Good Shepherd at Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale, California.

For further reading: The Shape of the Sunday: An Intimate Biography of Lloyd C. Douglas by V.D. Dawson and B.D. Wilson (1952); Seventy Years of Best Sellers by A.P. Hackett (1967); Twentieth-Century Romance & Historical Writers, ed. by Aruna Vasudevan (1994); Whitley County and Its Families: 1835-1995 by Turner Publishing (1995); Dictionary of Midwestern Literature: Volume One: The Authors, ed. by Philip A. Greasley (2001) Other priests and ministers, who were also writers: Jonathan Swift (however, he did not gain fame with religious novels); Ralph Waldo Emerson (Unitarian ministry)

Selected works:

  • The Fate of the Limited, 1919
  • Wanted: A Congregation , 1920
  • An Affair of the Heart, 1922
  • The Minister's Everyday Life, 1924
  • These Sayings of Mine: An Interpretation of the Teachings of Jesus, 1926
  • Those Disturbing Miracles, 1927
  • Magnificent Obsession, 1929
    - Avaa ovesi kirkkauteen (suom. Jouko Linturi, 1948) / Lääkärin omatunto (suom. Jouko Linturi, 1958)
    - films: 1935, dir. by John M. Stahl, screenplay by Sarah Y. Mason, Victor Heerman and George O’Neil, starring Irene Dunne, Robert Taylor, Charles Butterworth; 1954, dir. by Douglas Sirk, starring Jane Wyman, Rock Hudson; Sublime Obsessão, 1958 (TV series), prod. TV Tupi (Brazil), dir. Dionísio Azevedo. The romantic story deals with a playboy, who is half-responsible for the death of a woman's husband and for her own blindness. Tormented by this he becomes a surgeon and cures her. "Once you find the way, you'll be bound. It will obsess you, but believe me, it will be a magnificent obsession."
  • Forgive Us Our Trespasses, 1932
    - Anne meille syntimme anteeksi (suom. Hertta Tiitta, 1961)
  • Precious Jeopardy: A Christmas Story, 1933
  • The College Student Facing a Muddled World, 1933
  • Green Light, 1935
    - Kirkkautta kohti (suom. Jouko Linturi, 1953)
    - films: 1936, dir. by Frank Borzage, screenplay by Milton Krims, starring Errol Flynn, Anita Louise, Margaret Lindsay; Luz da Esperança, 1956 (TV series), prod. TV Paulista (Brazil).
  • White Banners, 1936
    - Voittoisa sydän (suom. Inkeri Hämäläinen, 1954)
    - film 1938, dir. by Edmund Goulding, screenplay by Lenore J. Coffee, starring Claude Rains, Fay Bainter, Jackie Cooper.
  • Home for Christmas, 1937
  • Doctor Hudson's Secret Journal, 1939
  • Disputed Passage, 1939
    - Suuri parantaja (suom. Pekka Häkli, 1951)
    - film 1939, dir. Frank Borzage, screenplay by Sheridan Gibney, starring Dorothy Lamour, Akim Tamiroff, John Howard.
  • IInvitation To Live, 1940
    - Kutsu elämään (suom. Pekka Häkli, 1960)
  • The Robe, 1942
    - Näin hänen kuolevan (suom. Pekka Häkli, 1953)
    - film 1953, dir. by Henry Koster, starring Richard Burton, Jean Simmons, Victor Mature. "Rome. Master of the Earth, in the eighteenth year of the Emperor Tiberius, our legions stand guard on the boundaries of civilization... we have reached the point where there are more slaves in Rome than citizens..." (from the opening narration of the 20th Century-Fox film The Robe). The story is set in the ancient Rome and deals with the events following the Crusifixion of Jesus. The followers and opponents of Jesus are affected by the robe handed down by him at his crusifixion. "When it comes, this is how it will start - some obscure martyr in some forgotten province" says the Emperor Tiberius as a Roman centurion (Richard Burton) is converted to Christianity for the sake of a childhood sweetheart (Jean Simmons). The sequel, Demetrius and the Gladiators, directed by Delmer Daves and starring Victor Mature and Susan Hayward, was made in 1954.
  • The Big Fisherman, 1949
    - Suuri kalamies (suom. Jouko Linturi, 1949)
    - film 1959, dir. Frank Borzage, screenplay by Howard Estabrook, starring Howard Keel, Susan Kohner, John Saxon, Martha Hyer, Herbert Lom.
  • Time To Remember, 1951
  • The Living Faith: Selected Sermons, 1955


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