New life for church’s 1943 Christmas film
Baby Jesus was a girl.
That’s among the facts unearthed by two women at First United Methodist in Alexandria, Louisiana, about “Christ Is Born,” a feature film the church made in 1943 with movie-industry professionals stationed at nearby Camp Livingston.
Reba Harrington and Mary Vizzier, retired educators, were trying to straighten up the church archives when they found a worn case holding a copy of the nearly forgotten, 16-milimeter film.
That was last May, and ever since they’ve been researching “Christ Is Born” and the World War II-era collaboration between their church and the Army Signal Corps.
“We say we’re obsessed and possessed,” Harrington said.
Their work has sparked new interest in the 22-minute film, as well as restoration and digitization of it, courtesy of Louisiana Public Broadcasting.
First United Methodist of Alexandria will screen the restored “Christ Is Born” on Sunday evening, Dec. 17, as part of Christmas observances.
Representatives of the Signal Corps, now part of Fort Gordon in Georgia, are expected to attend. Also planning to come is Beth Deason Dart, who played Baby Jesus all those years ago.
Vizzier and Harrington tracked her down in Fort Worth, Texas.
“I told them, ʻHow did you find me?’ … The research they’ve done is amazing,” Dart said.
In 1943, as World War II ground on, some 200,000 military personnel were at bases in Central Louisiana. When soldiers could get a weekend pass, local churches welcomed them for worship, meals and socials.
The Rev. B.C. Taylor of First Methodist Church in Alexandria enlisted Col. E.J. Hardy, of the Signal Corps Field Photographic Laboratory at Camp Livingston, in making a Christmas film about Jesus’ birth.
Hardy allowed Sgt. Don Porter to star as Joseph. Porter would go on to a long career in films and TV, but even then had made movies, including one — “Keep ‘Em Slugging” — that showed in Alexandria while he was stationed nearby.
A video still from the 1943 film, “Christ Is Born,” made by First Methodist Church of Alexandria, Louisiana, features a girl as Baby Jesus. This year, Reba Harrington and Mary Vizzier located Beth Deason Dart, who played Baby Jesus, in Fort Worth, Texas. Photo courtesy the Louisiana, Conference.
The Louisiana Conference communications director, Todd Rossnagel, has done a video about the rediscovery and restoration of “Christ Is Born.” It’s called “Finding Jesus.” There’s an accompanying article. Find both here.
Sgt. Matty Kemp, another film actor, directed “Christ Is Born.” Other soldiers with movie experience handled screenwriting, camera work and makeup.
The film was shot in Technicolor during spring of 1943, in and around Alexandria, with church members doing all the roles except Porter’s. By December, “Christ Is Born” was being shown in churches, military bases and USOs.
Over time the film fell into obscurity. In 1985, the Rev. Larry Norman, then serving First Alexandria, found a copy in the church archives and arranged for a showing. There was some local newspaper coverage, but the film went back into the archives and again was pretty much forgotten.
Fast-forward 32 years, and Vizzier and Harrington are in the church archives, trying to restore order to what had essentially become a storage room. They discover not only the film but also some articles offering background about it.
“We ran into our minister’s office yelling, ʻYou’re not going to believe what we found!’” Harrington recalled.
The women got in touch with Norman, who added some background information and warned them that the church’s copy of “Christ Is Born” was fragile.
First Alexander’s current pastor, the Rev. Ashley McGuire, was bent on showing the film again this Christmas, so Vizzier and Harrington began to look into getting it restored and digitized.
Harrington reached a former student of hers, who helped get Louisiana Public Broadcasting on board. But Vizzier and Harrington wouldn’t mail the precious canister to the broadcaster.
“Mary and I went to Baton Rouge,” Harrington said. “We wanted to hand deliver it.”
While the film was being restored, the women plugged away at research. They led the way, but recruited a few other women from the church.
One goal was to track down living cast members, as well as family members of cast members who had died. That had the team spending many hours on the internet, scouring newspapers.com for leads in old wedding notices and obituaries, as well as digging into records at the Rapides Parish Library, talking to a local funeral home director and working the phones.
They found six original cast members, all of whom played children in the film. They located more than 50 family members of cast members.
One of the biggest finds was Deason. Vizzier called her in Fort Worth, but got an answering machine.
Vizzier began to leave a message.
“I said ʽBeth I need to talk to you about a film that was made at First Methodist of Alexandria in 1943,’” Vizzier said. “She immediately picks up and says, ʽMy momma always said I was Baby Jesus!’”
Vizzier and Harrington have been all over the Alexandria area researching locations where the film was shot, including the Hotel Bentley (Herod’s palace), a Masonic lodge and a dairy. They’ve been in touch with military historians and archivists, and they’ve built a relationship with the Signal Corps.
Their pastor has supported them the whole way.
“What speaks to me is the story that’s told in the film, and the way it came about, the story of the soldiers and the church coming together, and then the stories that Reba and Mary have found that bring everything full circle,” McGuire told the Louisiana Conference for a website article.
Vizzier and Harrington expect three cast members to attend Sunday’s event, as well as various family members and the Signal Corps representatives. DVDs of the film will go on sale then, and the Louisiana Conference plans to offer the film for viewing on its Facebook page on Christmas Eve and Christmas.
Vizzier and Harrington have put on hold their plans for straightening the archives so they can go on researching “Christ Is Born.” But they’ll pause long enough to enjoy Sunday’s screening.
“I’m so excited I almost can’t stand myself,” Harrington said.
Hodges, a United Methodist News Service writer, lives in Dallas. Contact him at (615) 742-5470 or email@example.com. To read more United Methodist news, subscribe to the free Daily or Weekly Digests.