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Film Review: Marjoe

Marjoe (1972; Directed by Howard Smith and Sarah Kernochan)

As his father relates in a later portion of this documentary film, Marjoe Gortner comes from a long line of preachers. But merely continuing the family business does not have quite enough aura to it. No, Gortner, Sr. tells a prayer meeting crowd that his prized preaching son was singled out by the Lord himself (while taking a bath, no less) to save souls as a Pentecostal revival preacher. He was chosen, and at the tender age of 3 ½ years.

Chosen he may have been, but as Marjoe (his odd name is a portmanteau of Mary and Joseph, the mortal parents of Jesus) tells it in the Best Documentary Feature of 1972 (per the Academy), there was nothing divine about his being marked for this calling. Famous in the late 1940s and early 1950s as a child preacher whose flamboyant verbosity in the name of Jesus belied his kindergartener appearance, Marjoe raked in what he estimates to be $3 million for his parents (who never gave him any of it, he claims) from gullible believers.

The boy evidently never believed a word of the fire-and-brimstone nonsense he had been drilled by his ambitious and pious parents to memorize, and rebelled against their vision for him in his late teens (the act’s novelty had also begun to dry up, and the meeting bookings did as well). The Marjoe Gortner who speaks to the production crew in a hotel room at the beginning of the film comes across as a standard hippie golden-boy, his curly blond locks, beanpole frame, and handsome confidence suggesting both a lankier Owen Wilson and Roger Daltrey in the Tommy film era.

Like Tommy, Marjoe offers a critique of charismatic religious leaders, but does so from the inside. Struggling in other career efforts as a young adult, Marjoe returns to the ministry in order to make money. The money, he finds, is pretty good; the Pentecostal faithful are quite willing to part with their dollar bills (and their $10s and $20s and higher denominations, too) for a preacher of any skill, and the skilled Gortner (who steals hip-jabbing stage moves from Mick Jagger) giddily counts out a pile of cash in a hotel room for the camera. Smith and Kernochan’s lens is repeatedly drawn to other preachers and ministry functionaries with fistfuls of dollars as well; subtle, it ain’t, but there’s little question that, to whatever extent it is or isn’t about the faith, the business is certainly about the money.

That the film shows all of this should make it pretty clear that Marjoe Gortner is not long for the Pentecostal ministry circuit. Indeed, Marjoe is his kiss-off exposé of what he views as the disingenuous crookedness and greed of this influential corner of American religion at the very least. If we are more familiar now with the racket that is evangelical revivalism, then it’s because a new generation of oily televangelist salesman have been busted with a hand in the holy cookie jar (or worse, in some cases). Marjoe offers what must have been a striking glimpse into a then-largely-unknown and little understood subculture. With the relentless sermons on salvation and damnation, the speaking in tongues, and the hand-laying healing of believers, it’s a bizarre portrait, even if we feel like we know it all well enough by now.

But Marjoe is not just a depiction of the Pentecostal faith; it’s a depiction of a well-paid conman in its midst. It is possible, with a comfortable acceptance of cognitively dissonance, to find the terms and the expression of belief in the ministry to be fantastically wacko while also feeling a little uncomfortable with how Marjoe Gortner exploits that wacko nature for his own financial gain.

Marjoe himself was quite uncomfortable with it, to be fair, which is why he decided to get out, and with this parting bang of a documentary, too. Exposing his deceitful career in the ministry was no guarantee of other such shysters being likewise exposed, nor of the basis of belief in the church being undermined. No one can begrudge his decision to end the charade and get out (although his father does not seem aware of his son’s lack of religious dedication when he introduces him at the aforementioned meeting). But one can begrudge Marjoe Gortner’s willingness to carry the charade on in the first place, and this can be the source of some viewer discomfort in what is otherwise a fascinating and insightful document of an enthusiastic religious movement.

Note: Russian subtitles aside, this is the full film on Youtube, with sound in English.

Categories: Film, Religion, Reviews
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  1. June 24, 2015 at 2:33 pm

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