As with Christmas, Easter brings certain films that are played (and replayed) on various movie channels. Henry Koster's hilarious Harvey is often among them, partly because of the association of rabbits with the holiday … and who can ever forget Jimmy Stewart's imaginary six-foot rabbit of that classic comedy?

Koster made films that Christians embrace

Koster made films that Christians embrace

There's a bit of irony that a Jewish director's film would be associated with a holiday associated with Christ's death and resurrection. But while Harvey has nothing to do with the Christian faith, several of Koster's other films do—including The Bishop's Wife, A Man Called Peter, and The Robe.

So, how did a Jew who lived in Nazi Germany end up making movies embraced by Christians? Let's follow his story …

Grew up in the cinema

Born Herman Kosterlitz in Germany shortly after the turn of the century, Koster grew up in the cinema, literally, as his mother played the piano to accompany the silent films in his uncle's pioneering movie house. Koster cut his teeth as a writer and director working for years at the legendary UFA in Berlin, even making an anti-abortion film for the man who would become Pope Pius, his first foray into religious film subjects.

Koster, as with many Jews in 1930s Germany, was subject to the anti-Semitic zeitgeist of the day. "My parents were not very good Jews," Koster told an interviewer. "I never realized I was Jewish until Hitler came in. That was my luck that I was Jewish. I got to Hollywood, while the others were killed at Stalingrad, the ones who were with me in school."

"Dad had a bad temper," Koster's son, Robert, says, "He was directing a movie in Berlin in 1933 when a Nazi SS officer said some very silly things relating to Dad's family and heritage. Dad knocked him out, and was forced to leave the country during his lunch hour."

Three Smart Girls

Three Smart Girls

Koster signed on with Universal, a studio facing bankruptcy at the time. Despite not knowing a word of English, he molded soprano Deanna Durbin into a child star in his first studio film Three Smart Girls (1936), which, against the studio heads' predictions, proved to be a smash hit, single-handedly saving Universal. Their next picture, One Hundred Men and a Girl (1937), made Universal the top studio again and cemented Koster's position as a musical and comedy director. (It also featured the famous musical conductor Leopold Stokowski as an actor, a role he would replay later in Fantasia.)

Even with his success, Koster was considered an "enemy alien," until he had lived here for five years. He was befriended by actor Charles Laughton, who would come over and read to him in English to teach him about the language.

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Koster made four more pictures with Durbin and comedies with other young female stars like Margaret O'Brien.

A light touch

Koster is remembered for his light touch. Without Koster, we might never have known the genius of Abbott and Costello. He discovered them in a New York nightclub and gave them their break in One Night in the Tropics, featuring their famous "Who's On First?" routine.

While with Universal, Koster met his second wife, Peggy Moran, who remains famous as the damsel in distress in the classic horror film The Mummy's Hand. Koster vowed to put Moran in all his remaining films. He did: but as a statue—usually a bust on a piano, a mantle or a desk.

This light touch was as important behind the camera as well: Koster encouraged a relaxed and warm atmosphere on his sets, in contrast to many other German é migré directors. "I found out that the best acting comes out of complete relaxation, not out of complete tension," he told an interviewer.

After working with Betty Grable (Wabash Avenue, My Blue Heaven) and Danny Kaye (The Inspector General), Koster's next film, Harvey, was an even bigger success than the Durbin musicals. He said the story was "right up my alley. There was so much whimsy, so much fairytale, so much deep thought, so much decency in people. I loved it."

In Harvey, Jimmy Stewart's character Elwood P. Dowd is spirited: he tends to drink, and he tends to see things that others cannot, particularly a six-foot white rabbit. "Well, I've wrestled with reality for thirty-five years, Doctor," Dowd tells a psychiatrist, "and I'm happy to state I finally won out over it." When Elwood's socially conscious sister has him committed to an insane asylum, the troubles start to multiply like, well, rabbits.

Koster would work with Stewart four more times, with fond memories of each film. Koster's comedies encouraged a nostalgic feel for his audience, an escape for a world weary of war, a yearning for simpler times and innocence lost.

Films of the faithful

But it was the films of faithful, and usually Christian, individuals that sets Koster's career apart from many of his peers. "I did stories about Catholics, Protestants and Jews," he proclaimed proudly. "I always was very much interested in religion, and I still am. I'm the only Jew, I think, who goes regularly to church. I've never been to temples, but them I wasn't brought up that way."

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"I like stories that are a little pixie-ish, a little fairytale-like, and tell a truth," Koster said. "I like to have that family feeling. I have never been too much involved in love stories of young men and women, but always with parents and children, or friends. I don't know. It must be in me, something that I feel very strong about family, about religion. These are things I believe in."

Koster's first foray into studio spirituality was The Bishop's Wife (1947), for which he was nominated for a directorial Oscar (he never won one, though he directed six Oscar-winning actors). Despite not wanting to play in the role, Cary Grant glows as an angel sent to help an Episcopalian bishop (played by David Niven) and his wife, played by Loretta Young, who falls for the angel (unaware of his supernatural advantage). Koster's restraint from showing any supernatural miracles (as, say, deMille would have done) add to the humanity of the angel character, as well as to the nobility of the human characters.

Come to the Stable (1949), one of Koster's favorite films, featured nuns who enlist a gang of unlikely volunteers to help build a children's hospital. The star, Loretta Young, was a devout Catholic, who one day brought a "cuss box" to the set, charging a quarter for every "darn" and more for words of greater obscenity, the proceeds of which would go to her favorite charity. Koster chuckled and put two dollars in the box as credit for the day.

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In 1952, Koster made history, helming the first widescreen CinemaScope film, The Robe, which still makes lists of all-time box office record setters. Though a difficult film to shoot (many shots had to be done twice to be re-framed for the non-widescreen television version), Koster made his masterpiece with The Robe. Starring Richard Burton in his prime, the story concerns the tribune Marcellus, assigned to crucify Jesus, who wins Christ's robes in a drunken game of chance. He is tormented by what he has done and learns more about the man he killed, eventually converting to Christianity himself, and becoming a willing martyr for the cause.

Nominated for a Best Picture Oscar, The Robe is similar to Ben-Hur and Barabbas as films centered around characters peripheral to the gospel story, allowing for more invention on the part of the filmmaker as compared with using a story straight out of Scripture (yet see The Story of Ruth, below). Though dated in many ways, The Robe still holds up among its peers as a watershed example of the Hollywood studio epic of the '50s.

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A Man Called Peter

A Man Called Peter

Koster called A Man Called Peter (1955) the happiest picture he ever made. A biopic of Peter Marshall, the Scotsman who became Chaplain of the U.S. Senate, A Man Called Peter was written by Marshall's wife Catherine (also the author of Christie), and deftly portrays a man of faith with the courage to live by his convictions. Other than living next door to Ronald Reagan in later years, this was as close as Koster came to politics.

After shifting gears to direct costume dramas with the likes of Marlon Brando (Desiree), Bette Davis (The Virgin Queen) and Ava Gardner (The Naked Maja), Koster made the bblical epic The Story of Ruth (1960), which takes the four brief chapters from the Tanakh and elaborates dramatically on them. This is no swords and sandals saga, but rather a reverent treatment of religious differences from a Jewish perspective—Koster reminds us clearly that Ruth was a Moabite who converted to the Israelite faith.

After a few more comedies (The Flower Drum Song, Mr. Hobbs Takes A Vacation), Koster's wrapped up his career with one last entry into the faith-filled character genre with The Singing Nun (1966). His difficulties with the star Debbie Reynolds led him to retire from filmmaking altogether. "I had had it," he said.

The end of Koster's career coincided with the demise of the studio system, and with the rise of television. He worked on only one pilot (with Pat Boone, incidentally), and then left the world of moving images for the rest of his life. He took up painting, rendering the portraits of many of the stars he had worked with throughout his career.

Koster died in California in 1988, still happily married to Peggy Moran. Their grandchildren are now forging careers in the entertainment industry.