ENTERTAINING ANGELS: The Dorothy Day Story (1996)

Movie Info

Movie Info

Michael Ray Rhodes
Run Time
1 hour

VP Content Ratings

Star Rating
★★★★4 out of 5

Note: Also included are reviews of two pertinent books about this remarkable leader and her work.

Rated PG. Our content advisories (1-10): 1. Running time: 1 hour, 50 min.

Violence 2; Language 1; Sex/Nudity

Our star rating (1-5): 4

Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.

Hebrews 13:2


The story of this great “saint of the streets” is brought to us by the same folk who gave us ROMERO, Fr. Ellwood Kieser and his Paulist Productions. Starring Moira Kelly as Dorothy and Martin Sheen as her mentor Peter Maurin, the film spans the years from 1917 to 1963, but concentrates on the first thirty years of Dorothy’s careers, from her experience as a journalist working for the radical newspaper THE CALL to her years of running a series of food kitchens and dormitories in her home while simultaneously editing the CATHOLIC WORKER. A journal combining muckraking and a concern for spiritual matters, the CATHOLIC WORKER grew from its initial press run of 2500 to a circulation of 150,000 during the Depression. Sold at a penny a copy, the newspaper was read by the homeless and the powerful, giving Dorothy a voice that touched the hearts and minds of a vast, and varied, audience.

Fr. Kieser gathered an excellent team to produce a film with high production values. The myriad period costumes and props, the scenes of teeming city streets, the rich, painter-like lighting — all suggest a film costing far more than it did. The director is Michael Ray Rhodes, best known for his television work Christy (for which he received an Emmy)and episodes of “China Beach,” “Equal Justice,” “In the Heat of the Night,” and more. Writer John Wells, executive producer and writer for the Emmy-winning television series “ER,” has done the seemingly impossible task of condensing Dorothy Day’s amazingly rich and complex life into an all-too short 111 minutes.

Dorothy Day is a woman who started her career as a writer working for radical and Communist journals during World War One, hobnobbed in restaurant-bars with writers like Eugene O’Neill and John Dos Passos, entered into a number of heart-breaking affairs, reluctantly had an abortion, wrote a book and then a screenplay, and thereby was lured to Hollywood by a film studio, marched for practically every socially progressive cause — from the suffragette movement to labor strikes, anti-war and civil rights demonstrations — gave up her common-law mate in order to convert to the Catholic church and have her baby baptized, took into her own apartment the poor and the rejected, fed, clothed and, in many cases, rehabilitated them, spoke at great assemblies and then went to clean toilets, spent months in jails, both to visit the poor and as a prisoner herself! Whew–thus, much of her activities is merely hinted at in the film, or even passed over. (This can be confusing, as in the quick jump from Dorothy’s grief at having an abortion and being abandoned by her lover to her beach-side cottage where she has retreated for solace. Where did this penniless writer get the money for this? See the review of her autobiography for the answer.)

Of course, what we notice the most is the cast, and a good one it is, with Moira Kelly providing just the right blend of naive simplicity, passion and tough resolve, never descending into prayer-card sentimentality or bathos. Martin Sheen, once you get used to his French accent, is excellent as the French peasant-philosopher Peter Maurin, who becomes Dorothy’s demanding mentor, constantly challenging her to trust God in providing money for both their paper and their efforts at caring for the poor. Incredibly, at those crucial times when Dorothy was out of resources, the money did come in!

 Some special teaching/preaching scenes:

1.The young Dorothy searching for meaning: “I want to live fully, to do something no one else has ever done before. I have something to give, but I don’t know what it is — or to whom I’m supposed to give it to.”

2. The excellent transition from Dorothy’s receiving a glowing introduction and standing ovation at a conference to her scrubbing a toilet on her hands and knees.

3. Dorothy confronts power and authority: the Archbishop of New York trying to get her to take “Catholic” out of the name of her newspaper because so many of his wealthy people are upset over her radical views on economics and politics;

4. Dorothy, anguished at being misunderstood by her own rebellious staff and despairing over the suicide of a woman she was trying to help, pours out her heart before a large crucifix in her church, “Where are you? Why don’t you answer me? I need you! These brothers and sisters of yours, the ones you want me to love – Let me tell you something! They have lice and tuberculosis. Am I to find you in them? Well, you’re ugly! You drink. You wet your pants. You vomit. How could anyone ever love you!? (She sobs.) I need you – but you’re not here! You’ve deserted me too — haven’t you? I’m not who you thought I was. I’m sorry.” She walks back down the aisle. The person she turns to is not a priest or associate but her old Communist friend Mike, the newspaper editor for whom she once worked. He reassures her that although his Party has talked about feeding and clothing the poor, she has actually done it.

The Paulists had an uphill battle in distributing ENTERTAINING ANGELS to movie theaters, one commercial distributor telling Fr. Keiser that the film is “too religious.”  Fortunately it is available from Vision Video, P.O. Box 540 | Worcester, PA 19490. (800) 523-0226, [email protected])

 Book Reviews

 THE LONG LONELINESS: The Autobiography of Dorothy Day

This reissue of Dorothy Day’s autobiography, originally published in 1952 when she was in her mid-fifties, came at a good time. Those intrigued by the all too brief film of her life ENTERTAINING ANGELS, will want to delve into this story of this St. Francis of the Twentieth Century. If all you read is Robert Cole’s excellent Introduction to the new edition, you will have gained your money’s worth in the fine summary it contains of Dorothy Day’s philosophy and work. She seemed to have a knack for being at unusual places and meeting unusual people. Born in Brooklyn, she was taken by her parents to San Francisco where her father was a correspondent for a newspaper. They survived the great earthquake of 1905, helping out the victims, but then had to move to the Chicago area because her father’s newspaper was destroyed. Her parents were not churchgoers, but she did have contact from time to time with churches through her friends. At college she read widely, influenced by the articles in the muckraking newspapers on terrible working conditions that her older brother wrote as a reporter. She especially cherished the novels of Dostoevsky and Dickens. At this time she developed a disdain for the church because its members seemed to fawn on the ruthless captains of industry who created the appalling factory conditions of the workers.

After two years of college Dorothy dropped out and moved to New York City, where she landed a reporting job on the Socialist newspaper THE CALL. Everyone, she says, was working on a novel, play or poem, so their after hours spent at local pubs were times of heady discussions. Eugene O’Neill, Don Dos Passos, and many others who were to ascend to fame and glory were part of her group. She entered into a number of love affairs, the last one, her common law marriage with Forster Batterham producing her only child, Tamara (her book does not mention the abortion barely depicted in the film). When Dorothy decides to join the Roman Catholic Church her cross is having to part from her militantly atheist lover. Soon she is in the thick of demonstrating for justice for the poor, her strongly held views leading her beyond merely writing about them.

It was her meeting with Peter Maurin, a French peasant and former Christian Brother, that led to her life-long work of living with the poor. Drawn by her writings, Peter, who lived on the streets in order to best help the oppressed, convinced her to start a newspaper as well as to take the poor into her own apartment. Scraping together the little money that she and her married sister Tessie and her husband had, the first issue of THE CATHOLIC WORKER was produced, most of the 2500 copies given away on the streets. Within a few months it grew to 25,000, and at the height of the Depression, reached a circulation of 150,000. The squatters in her home soon outstripped the facilities, so larger quarters were found, thus beginning a series of soup kitchen and shelters that grew to 200, scattered around the country.

Dorothy Day tells this story, part biography, part confession, in such an inspiring way that one feels compelled to keep on reading as if it were a summer novel.  Much that had to be left out of the move is explained, such as the mystery of how Dorothy went from her penniless condition of despair, following her abortion and abandonment by her lover, to suddenly owning a lovely beachside cottage on Staten island — the answer is that she received $5000 as an advance for a novel and a play, even spending several dreary months in Hollywood working on other’s screenplays, before going to Mexico (and Europe I seem to recall), and then returning to New York and purchasing her refuge.

The meaning of the book’s title, and of her life, are well summed up by Ms. Day in the “Postscript of her book:

“The most significant thing about the CATHOLIC WORKER is poverty, some say.

The most significant thing is community, others say. We are not alone any more.

But the final word is love. At times it has been, in the words of Father Zossina, a harsh and dreadful thing, and our very faith in love has been tried through fire.

We cannot love God unless we love each other, and to love we must know each other. We know Him in the breaking of bread, and we know each other in the breaking of bread, and we are not alone any more. Heaven is a banquet and life is a banquet, too, even with a crust, where there is companionship.

We have all known the long loneliness and we have learned that the only solution is love and that love comes with community.”

 THE LONG LONELINESS: The Autobiography of Dorothy Day. pb., 281 pages. Harper Collins, $14.00.


I was sorry that ENTERTAINING ANGELS did not cover the time period when Dorothy Day and the artist met at a conference. Mr. Eichenberg, well known for his striking woodcuts for Dostoevsky’s and Dicken’s novels, went to the conference because a friend, who wanted to bring the two together, told him that the great social activist would be there. Dorothy, also a devotee of Dostoevsky’s novels, had admired the artist’s work, and soon asked if he could contribute some work to her CATHOLIC WORKER — for free. He immediately agreed, and thus began a long and mutually cherished collaboration between a former Jew converted to the Quaker faith and a Catholic activist, resulting in some of the artist’s most inspiring works. This book is a beautiful tribute and memorial, both to Mr. Eichenberg and the social activist.

Gracing the dust jacket is the moving “Christ of the Breadlines” — a line of ill-clad derelicts wait patiently for their rations, and in the middle of them is a silhouetted Christ. There are finely wrought “Scenes From the Old Testament,” many from the Life of Christ and of the saints (including the Hindu advocate of non-violence, Gandhi), as well as prints that, Hogarth-like, comment on human need and neglect. I have always treasured a MOTIVE Magazine with a crucifixion depicting Christ as a black man; here we see that it first saw the light of day on the May, 1962 cover of the CATHOLIC WORKER. Also very moving is a “Christmas (1954)” print, one of a series that the artist would send out as his greetings to friends. In it a sleeping mother and child are surrounded by adoring street people on the left, Joseph with a lantern on the right, and the stable animals gazing over a wooden fence, behind which is an urban skyline, and above it a graceful angel strumming a mandolin. Still timely is the 1982 “Christ of the Homeless,” showing Christ huddled with his arms around an older homeless couple beneath a street sign forming a cross.

Terrible to look at is “Crucifixion” from “The Dance of Death” series, in which a Jew hangs lifeless on a cross behind a barbed wire fence upon which is a sign including the names of eleven death camps, and before which an officer in a Nazi uniform stands, his face a skull. Part of the barbed wire forms an aureole around the head of the dead man, marking him as Christ. In contrast are several interpretations of “The Peaceable Kingdom” and of Francis of Assisi.

We learn a great deal about Dorothy Day and the artist from the Preface and the Introduction, from Mr. Eichenberg essay “Homage to Dorothy Day,” and an “Interview With Fritz Eichenberg.” A generous selection of quotations from Ms. Day’s writings accompanies many of the prints. I have turned to the book for inspiration and for use in numerous classes. It is one to treasure through the years, especially by those concerned for social justice.

Hardback,, large format,  109 pages. Available from Orbis Books, Maryknoll, NY 10545.

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