Fearful of being discredited in the eyes of the public, L.A. Police Captain J. J. Jones brushed aside Collins’ objections as signs of a confused woman out of touch with reality. Pressured by him, she took the boy home, but continued to protest the mistaken identity.
The captain then had Collins arrested and committed to the psychiatric ward of L.A. General Hospital where her treatment was anything but gentle or understanding. Although one examining physician declared her normal, and a woman who had taken care of Walter also said the boy claiming to be him was an imposter, the captain continued to assert that Collins was delusional.
Neither of the foregoing is depicted in the film, no doubt due to time constraints — the film runs two hours and twenty minutes. Also left out of the film version of the story are the series of stormy hearings of the Police Board and the trial of the kidnapper.
In the film, several real life characters are merged for the sake of the story. In the film Briegleb is depicted as a radio preacher, though none of the 176 times mentions of him between 1921 and 1943 in the Los Angeles Times cite that ministry. Briegleb was a colleague and friend of Methodist minister R.P. Shuler, who did conduct a radio ministry.
Briegleb and Shuler were community activists and partners in challenging the vice and crime of the city and the corruption of the police and city officials.
In the film, Briegleb is first seen preaching to his St. Paul’s Presbyterian Church congregation about the kidnapping of Walter, mentioning that he has kept the distraught mother and her boy in his prayers. The scene is in keeping with several reports during the twenties of the pastor discussing current crimes, especially in his Sunday night sermons — yes, Presbyterians
were expected to attend services twice a Sunday in those days.
Briegleb tells the congregation that although he is sure that the police are doing all that they can to find the boy, he does not have much confidence that they will do so — the LAPD “being the most, violent, corrupt, and incompetent police force this side of the Rocky Mountains.”
During the five months following the abduction of her son the anxious mother struggles to keep her hope alive for Walter’s welfare. A single mother (her husband had been in prison for a number of years), she works as a supervisor at the telephone company, where she moves up and down on roller skates to assist the line of operators with problem callers.
Collins is overjoyed when the police call to tell her that they have received a message from the sheriff’s office in DeKalb, Ill., that a boy claiming to be Walter has been found and will be sent to Los Angeles (at her expense).
Her dismay is barely concealed when she looks at the boy and exclaims that he is not her Walter. Captain Jones, with Police Chief Davis close by to soak up the public acclaim over the boy’s return, browbeats her, telling her to “try him out for a couple of weeks.”
Out of desperation to resume the search for Walter, Collins repeatedly calls and visits Captain Jones’ office, but he refuses to listen to her arguments that her son was three inches taller than this boy and, unlike the imposter, had
not been vaccinated (the filmmakers change vaccination to circumcision).
Lashing out at her, the officer shouts, “What are you trying to do, make a lot of fools out of us all? Are you trying to shirk your duty as a mother and have the State provide for your son? You are just a fool.” He then has her arrested and committed to a psychiatric ward without a warrant.
John Malkovich accurately portrays the minister as a forceful personality who knows his way around police stations and law courts as much as he does around a pulpit and church sanctuary. It is his championing of her cause that arouses the public to demand justice for the oppressed woman.
He brings a top-notch lawyer, who agrees to work pro bono, to take up her case against Captain Jones and the Police Department. It is eventually revealed that the imposter is 12-year-old Arthur Hutchens from Iowa, a runaway who, having heard about the Collins kidnapping, fooled the authorities into believing that he was the missing boy so that he could get a free ride to California in the hope of meeting his hero, the movie western star Tom Mix.
Late in the film when a sex addict is caught and convicted of murdering a number of boys, probably including Walter, and burying their bodies on his chicken farm, Briegleb counsels the distraught mother. Even though the kidnaper has been caught and it turns out that Walter was probably one of his victims, Collins continues to believe that he is alive and will eventually be reunited with her.
Her false hope is cruelly fostered by the killer, who during her visit with him just before his execution, refuses to say one way or another if her son was one of those whose bodies were dug up near the chicken coop where the boys had had been imprisoned.
The minister gently suggests that she should move on with her life. At that point the pastor drops from sight as the film deals with the last years of Collins’ life, during which she continues to hope that her son is alive somewhere.
Briegleb almost seems like a character conjured up by some Hollywood scriptwriter, though he was obviously a prominent religious figure in Los Angeles for more than 20 years until his death in 1943. Ordained into the Congregational Church in 1905, he became a Presbyterian either while serving a church in Philadelphia or when he was called to pastor Westlake Presbyterian Church of Los Angeles in 1917.
A few years later he is in the news for leading a campaign against a notorious dance club called “The Pink Rat.” Later he and his friend Shuler made news as they personally led a raid on a gambling operation in a circus tent. Fortunately the police were with them and saved them from the wrath of
the patrons who were massing to attack the pair.
Relentlessly campaigning against lewd dancing and gambling, the two ministers at times were called to be witnesses in court trials. They also got into serious legal difficulties when Shuler criticized a judge on his radio program. The judge cited both ministers for contempt of court, and Shuler served some jail time.
This was the heyday of the infamous Fatty Arbuckle scandal — a young starlet died in his hotel room after a sexual escapade — and Briegleb vociferously attacked Hollywood morality.
At the 1921 Presbyterian General Assembly in Des Moines, Briegleb accused cowboy movie star William Hart and other moviemakers of ridiculing Protestant ministers because the latter were leading campaigns to censor movies. (Hart had written a screenplay in which a minister robs a stagecoach in order to finish paying for the building of his church.)
Briegleb’s censorship efforts revealed a somewhat darker side — that he was anti-Semitic. During a meeting of the Ministers’ Union, which he chaired, he accused movie producers of making immoral movies because “85% of the industry is controlled chiefly by Jews and that some of the latter care only for the money and not the moral effect of their pictures.”
But in other areas, Briegleb was ahead of his time. His first evening sermon at St. Paul’s Presbyterian Church in 1926 was entitled “Three Wise Women and their Fool Male Friends.” The Times (reporting on a sermon!) remarked: “’The beautiful-but-dumb’ idea of womankind is not shared by Dr. Briegleb, who deprecates the attempt of the ‘lords of creation’ to belittle the intelligence and judgment of their sisters.”
Briegleb also took part in the Fundamentalist controversy that wracked the Presbyterian Church during the Thirties. Speaking in Cleveland at the 1934 General Assembly, he rejected the Independent Board for Foreign Presbyterian Missions that the schismatic, the Rev. J. Gresham Machen had set up to rival the denomination’s official board.
Though he died at age 61, Briegleb, with his passion for justice and coming to the aid of the underdog, made his mark on a city in which official corruption was running rampant.
J. Michael Straczynski has written of his Changeling screenplay: “My intention was very simple: to honor what Christine Collins did. My job was to tell the story as honestly as I could and honor the fight she waged and how she never once lost faith and kept looking for her son. …”
In the process, Straczynski has also honored a courageous Presbyterian minister who also deserves to be remembered.
ED McNULTY is editor of Visual Parables [www.visualparables.net] and author of three film books published by Westminster John Knox Press, including his latest book, Faith and Films. His review of the Changeling is available on the Presbyterians Today Web site [www.pcusa.org/today/media/index.htm].