Seventy-four years after "Christ is Born" was filmed, Louisiana Public Broadcasting has helped breathe new life into the 22-minute movie made by the First United Methodist Church of Alexandria.
Just as the story of Jesus' birth endures, so do the stories surrounding the making of the church film in 1943 with assistance from the military amid World War II, and with a touch of Hollywood.
Church researchers have spent the past few months digging for all the tidbits they can find on how the film came about, who played in it, where the scenes unfolded and the like.
"They found it again (the film) and they were just too nervous to do anything with it," says Leslie Bourgeois, LPB archivist. "Because they knew they didn't have the right kind of skills to do anything, so they contacted us and we were able to get it transferred for them.
"It turned out to be in pretty good shape. It was 16 millimeter film. I kind of oversaw the process. We had it sent to film experts in Atlanta so they could get it transferred properly. They transferred it to a digital file preservation format for film, and they made a lower-resolution copy that you can watch."
About 350 church members and the general public gathered Dec. 17 for a screening in Alexandria, the first showing of "Christ is Born" since the 1980s. In the audience was Elizabeth Deason Dart, who played baby Jesus in the movie.
"Just the story behind how it got made I find really interesting, that the reverend was like, 'I think we should film an Advent story' and then there were people from Hollywood stationed right at Camp Livingston nearby," Bourgeois says.
The U.S. Army military camp sat on the Rapides-Grant parish line, 12 miles north of Alexandria. Serendipitously, the 7th Signal Corps Photographic Field Laboratory operated from the camp. Col. E.J. Hardy, commanding officer of the lab, provided a director, writer, narrator, cameraman, makeup man and at least one of the actors, Sgt. Don Porter, who portrayed Joseph. Porter went on to become a successful film actor, counting among his roles that of father to Sally Field in the 1965-66 TV series "Gidgit."
Church members, including children, formed the rest of the cast.
George Reech, 92, of Baton Rouge, was 17 at the time of filming and says he does remember being in it but is fuzzy on any details. Other living cast members include Evelyn Delight Baker, also of Baton Rouge, and Bobby Tom Laborde and Joan Tellman Wallace, who live out of state.
The film has a vintage, old Hollywood charm, slightly shaky with the occasional line appearing across the screen. None of the actors speak; the narrator boldly tells the story as church members act out scenes. Adding to the film's character are the minimal sets, homemade-looking costumes and a serious, almost haunting score.
"I was impressed that the soundtrack made it through too, because we just weren't sure there was any sound at all," Bourgeois says.
The actors make their way to Bethlehem on hilly, rugged terrain. Researcher Reba Harrington says these scenes were shot at an area called Sandy Canyons, now the site of the Pineville High School football stadium.
"Quite a few of the people who have seen the movie remember Sandy Canyons as being part of their childhood. And the scenes that were shot inside the Bentley Hotel (as King Herod's palace) were very recognizable to many in the audience," Harrington says.
Harrington and her husband, Dale, have been members of the church since the late 1960s. Her fellow researcher on "Christ is Born," Mary Vizzier and her husband, Dorwin, have been members since the mid-1970s.
Harrington explains that the film has actually been found twice, the first time by the Rev. Larry Norman in 1985. Charles White, who was the innkeeper in the movie, asked the pastor to locate it, and it was shown at the church at that time.
"Then, in the summer of 2017 while cleaning the Archives Room at (First United Methodist), Mary and I found the film again," Harrington says. "Mary was cleaning out some of the bottom cabinets and pulled out the canvas-covered box. Because both of us are retired educators, we know what a 16-millimeter film box looks like.
"We opened the outer case and saw a 16-millimeter tin with the words 'Christ is Born' written on the outside. We also found two Town Talk newspaper articles from 1985 describing how the 'lost film' had been found by Rev. Norman. Our first call was to him to get background information on the film. Next step was to try to determine how the film might be restored and digitized because Larry said that it was in very delicate condition."
The church's research team also included Nanette Walton, Ruth Brooks, Miriam Brown, Lou Fomby, Gloria Shelby and Jenny Royer.
In addition to researching the cast members and their families, they also looked into filming locations, Harrington says. Among those spots were the old jail, the levee, Prescott’s Dairy on Horseshoe Drive, the Masonic Temple and Central Louisiana Hospital.
"Christ had come, and the light of his life shall never dim," the narrator says as the film closes. "He shall be called wonderful, counselor, the mighty God, the everlasting father, the prince of peace, the savior of the world, and of his kingdom, there shall be no end."
The Rev. Ashley McGuire, who's been senior pastor at First United Methodist for 18 months, says the film is "an amazing thing to watch."
"The greatest significance for me is the witness of a people, both military and civilian Christians," McGuire says. "In the face of war, and all the fear, anxiety, and darkness that comes with that kind of horrific conflict, there were people who were willing to sacrifice time, energy and resources to share the greatest story that will ever be told as a light in that darkness."
You can watch the film at ladigitalmedia.org/home/preserving-christ-is-born-1943, the Louisiana Digital Media Archives site run by LPB and the Louisiana Secretary of State's Office. Copies of the film also are available for $20 through the church. Call (318) 443-5696.