Billy Graham hosted a Hollywood Bowl capacity 25,000 people, including Cecil B. DeMille, to premiere his venture into feature films — “Mr. Texas” — on Oct. 1, 1951.
Twenty-five searchlights crisscrossed the sky, “outdoing anything the film capital had seen before,” Graham wrote in his 1997 autobiography, “Just As I Am.”
The spirited evangelist, then 32, had touted “Mr. Texas” as “the first Christian Western,” nudging a bronc-riding rodeo star-turned-fortune seeker into the domain of cowboy characters played by such luminaries as Roy Rogers, Gene Autry and John Wayne.
Traffic was snarled entering the famed venue. As “Mr. Texas” began, it was inaudible in parts of the audience, and the 47-foot screen wasn’t in sync with the sound at the top-tier seats and for 5,000 others on the hillside.
Then the projector broke down.
“I wanted the earth to open up and swallow me, I was so embarrassed!” Graham wrote of “our brazenness … at the extent to which our youthful zeal sometimes outraced our knowledge” in producing a film.
Graham gathered his cohort for prayer; five minutes later “Mr. Texas” resumed without incident, capping a 16-day evangelistic crusade in Tinseltown. Thus, 70 years ago, Christian cinema was born as a way of spreading the faith.
Influenced current day filmmakers
Graham’s enterprise, boldly named “World Wide Pictures,” bucked notions that moviemaking was of the devil, producing more than 30 feature films from 1951 to 2004 — and spawning the current crop of Christian filmmakers, most notably Alex and Stephen Kendrick and Jon and Andy Erwin.
“Mr. Texas” met with disdain from critics. Variety called it an “amateurish” production that will be confined to “the religious circuit and even there may be limited to Billy Graham converts,” as recounted in the 1966 McGraw-Hill book, “Billy Graham: The Authorized Biography” by an Anglican rector-turned-biographer, John Pollock.
Graham, however, was undaunted: “To my utter amazement, when I gave the invitation at the end of the film, 500 people responded,” which he interpreted as “God’s seal of approval on our weak and faltering beginning in making dramatic motion pictures.” To reach “the vast pagan masses of America, our methods are going to have to change while our message remains Christ and him crucified,” he asserted, noting that “thousands of unconverted will come to a film that would never hear a preacher.”
Silent film stirs young Graham
Cecil B. DeMille’s 1927 “The King of Kings” had touched Graham’s adolescent spirit while growing up on a North Carolina dairy farm. DeMille’s silent epic “probably taught me more about the life of Christ,” Graham once said, “than did a great deal of the Sunday School training I had as a boy,” leading up to the 1934 revival meeting when evangelist Mordecai Ham’s preaching stirred him to faith in Christ.
“The King of Kings,” one of the most popular films of the silent era, reflected DeMille’s penchant for flamboyant films conveying biblical stories and morality tales. DeMille’s father, an Episcopal lay minister and playwright, read Scripture to him and his older brother every night, starting with a story from the Old Testament, then one from the New Testament.
Graham extolled DeMille as a “great Bible student” and “prophet in celluloid,” having met the movie mogul during the evangelist’s meteoric rise to national prominence after a 1949 Los Angeles crusade stretched into eight weeks — fueled in part by William Randolph Hearst’s “puff Graham” directive to his newspaper empire. As a student at the Chicago-area Wheaton College in the early 1940s, he wrote in his autobiography, “I had thought someone ought to make evangelistic motion pictures.”
Connection to Hollywood elite
Graham’s director-screenwriter, Dick Ross, had filmed a documentary, “The Portland Story,” based on the evangelist’s 1950 crusade there. For “Mr. Texas,” Texas natives Redd Harper and Cindy Walker were enlisted as the lead characters. Both were involved in the Hollywood Christian Group, formed in the late 1940s, initially meeting in the home of Henrietta Mears, the prominent Christian education director at First Presbyterian Church in Hollywood. The group included Jane Russell, Roy Rogers, Dale Evans and Ronald Reagan at various times.
Redd Harper and Cindy Walker played brother-sister Jim and Kay Tyler, heirs of a cattle ranch near Fort Worth. Harper, who was in his late 40s, had hosted a country music radio program but turned his energy toward evangelism after the film. Walker, in her early 30s, already had a song recorded by Bing Crosby. Her induction into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1997 capped a prolific songwriting career spanning five decades.
Musically, “Mr. Texas” was the first film score for Ralph Carmichael, who already was garnering attention in his mid-20s for infusing a contemporary sound into church music as a choir director. Sometimes called “the father of contemporary Christian music,” Carmichael’s vast number of big band and pop-style collaborations and recordings over the years led to his induction into the Gospel Music Hall of Fame in 1985. His career also had a wide-ranging secular side, including musical director for Nat King Cole’s recordings and road shows for several years.
To read more about the work Ross, Harper, Walker and Carmichael did to help create, “Mr. Texas,” click here.
Movie storyline features rodeo star finding Christ
Encumbered by stilted acting and crude technical quality, “Mr. Texas” has never been digitized for release. It opens with the cowboy’s joy of the “Wide Rollin’ Plains” sung by the Sons of the Pioneers, a top western singing group founded by Roy Rogers in the mid-1930s and later featured in many of his movies. The Cindy Walker version of “Wide Rollin’ Plains,” however, was never released as a record.
The storyline moves to a point when rodeo star Jim Tyler declares a new direction for his life: to forgo bronc-riding excitement for Texas-style ambition. “One of these days,” he tells his sister, “people are going to say, ‘See that cowboy over there? That’s Jim Tyler, Mr. Texas himself.’”
Years later when a Billy Graham crusade comes to Fort Worth’s Will Rogers Coliseum in 1951, Kay Tyler attends and tells her brother the next day, “I took the most important step in my life. I accepted Christ as my personal Savior.”
She then gives a pointed exhortation to her brother: “Jim, I’ve seen you get what you went after time after time. You weren’t satisfied ’til you got to the top, whether it was ridin’, raisin’ cattle, promoting [live]stock or wildcatting in the oil fields. I suppose you figure you don’t need a thing. … Well, Mr. Texas, there’s one thing you don’t have. … You don’t know the meaning of real peace of mind and heart. You don’t know what it’s like to lie down at night and know that all’s right with your maker.”
A perturbed Jim Tyler leaves the room, mounts a bronc to the delight of ranch hands but is thrown off the horse and seriously injured.
Wrapped in bandages in the hospital, Jim listens when Kay tunes the radio to Graham’s message at the crusade that evening: “God may use a tragic experience. He may use a mother’s prayers. He may use a thousand and one things to bring about conviction in your heart. … You may be laying on a hospital bed. You may be sitting in your living room. But right now wherever you are, whoever you are, rich, poor, black, white … you can say yes to our Lord Jesus Christ and you can have peace of soul and peace of conscience and know if you died you’d go to heaven.”
Jim nods that he has embraced Christ and tells Kay, “All my life, I’ve been riding the wrong trail. Now, Mr. Texas, he can go on, but Jim Tyler … I’m turning back. I’m going God’s way. I think it’s going to be a wonderful ride.”
Fundraising effort for production expenses
In 1950, a financial boost for Graham’s World Wide Pictures came from Houston, where the movie company, which budgeted $25,000 for “Mr. Texas,” was planning another feature film based on an upcoming crusade there in 1952. Baptist layman Stewart Morris, head of a real estate services company, committed to help raise $75,000 — the equivalent of more than $750,000 in today’s dollars.
Convening a group of 15 people, including his mother and brother, and a local bank president at the Houston Club, Morris recounted, “The actors came in and told the story of [‘Mr. Texas’]. I said, ‘Each one of you present is going to sign a guarantee of $5,000 apiece, and we’re going to have the bank lend $75,000 … with an agreement with Billy Graham that at every showing of the film, they’ll take up a collection. And then all the money collected goes to the bank to pay back the loan.’”
After its Hollywood premiere, “Mr. Texas” became a well-traveled facet of Graham’s ministry in the United States and abroad, being shown in churches, auditoriums, schools, military bases and prisons. Redd Harper, who adopted “Mr. Texas” as his nickname, often was on hand. “He would sing a little and give his testimony,” a Graham staffer recounted, “then we’d take an offering, show the film and give the invitation.”
Subsequent Graham films were used in similar fashion until 1965 when “The Restless Ones” became World Wide Pictures’ first release to reach into theaters, dealing with juvenile delinquency, teen pregnancy and other social issues. The movie company operated its own sound stages and post-production studios a couple of blocks from Walt Disney’s studios for about 25 years. Two of its most enduring releases are “The Hiding Place” (1975) about the concentration camp horrors endured by Corrie ten Boom and “Joni” (1979) about the physical and spiritual challenges Joni Eareckson Tada endured after a diving accident rendered her a quadriplegic. As the ministry moved toward films by independent producers for TV and video, the studio was sold in 1988. World Wide Pictures’ final release was “The Last Flight Out” in 2004. A list of Graham’s feature films can be found here.
‘Left a mark’ on Alex Kendrick
Alex Kendrick, one of today’s leading Christian filmmakers with his brother Stephen, was born 19 years after the “Mr. Texas” premiere. But in his pre-teen years, World Wide Pictures’ “Joni” played a part in his journey into moviemaking.
“I remember being moved that she had to go through the tragedy of paralysis and learning to adapt to that, and asking the hard questions — ‘God, where are you in this?’ and ‘Why did you allow this to happen?’
“I don’t know whether that film in particular was what motivated me to make movies, but I at least saw that type of movie could minister to people and tell a story that would make them want to understand their faith or draw closer to God,” said Kendrick, whose latest Kendrick Brothers projects, “Show Me the Father,” releases in a few days (mid-September) and “Courageous Legacy,” an updated version of their 2011 hit, releases Sept. 24.
“It certainly left a mark on me because I still have images in my head of that film.”