What does his Holiness the Dalai Lama have to do with moral panics over “marihuana,” a backwoodsman becoming an unlikely political hero, noir skulduggery in wartime San Francisco, Ronald Reagan, a resurrected Egyptian mummy, and a giant reptile terrorizing Japan? Quite a lot, as it turns out.
Several years ago, someone told me about a reference to the Dalai Lama that had appeared in fake (prop) newspapers in two old Hollywood movies: “Reefer Madness” and “Mr Smith Goes to Washington.” (Unfortunately it’s so long ago I’ve forgotten who it was that told me about this, and even a search of my emails has failed to turn up any clue.)
The newspaper story has the title, “New ‘Living Buddha’ Reported Discovered.” This seems to be a reference to the discovery of the Dalai Lama’s “tulku” — his new incarnation — in Tibet in 1936.
I have to say I was a little skeptical when this was brought to my attention. I’d assumed that the prop newspapers used in old movies were entirely fake. My understanding was that to avoid incurring licensing fees, any prop newspaper used in a film would contain stories that were entirely invented. That turns out not to have been the case in the early days of cinema, because at least some of the stories were genuine — including the one about the Dalai Lama.
You can see this headline — just, if you screw up your eyes very hard and look sideways at just the right phase of the moon — in the image above, which is from “Reefer Madness.” The main story is “Harper Verdict Expected Tonight.” This is a reference to the plot of the movie. Underneath that is the rather improbable, “Dick Tracy, G-Man, In Sensational Raid.” And tucked under that, you can just about make out, in the blur of a low-resolution image taken from a TV scan of an already low-resolution celluloid film, “New ‘Living Buddha’ Reported Discovered.”
You can see the headline much more clearly in the image below, which is from “Mr Smith Goes to Washington,” starring an improbably young Jimmy Stewart. Here I don’t even have to circle the headline. In fact you can almost make out the subheading.
This is from the pivotal moment in the film when Governor Hubert “Happy” Hopper tosses a coin to decide whether to replace a deceased senator with either a political stooge or a naive local hero. The tossed coin ends up beside this newspaper, helping him to make his decision.
“New ‘Living Buddha’ Reported Discovered” and “36 Mexican Rebels Killed by Soldiers” are the filler stories.
I later discovered that His Holiness shows up in a number of other films as well.
These include “This Gun For Hire,” where our “New ‘Living Buddha’ Reported Discovered” appears below the main story, “Chemist and Woman Murdered.”
Also (and thanks to the blog, “And you call yourself a scientist!?” for this) it’s in “Gigantis, The Fire Monster.”
And also on “Girls On Probation” (1938), which stars Ronald Reagan, and “The Mummy’s Tomb” (1942).
The Dalai Lama gets around!
I can’t say for sure who originated these newspapers, but it’s likely to have been The Earl Hays Press, which has been supplying props to Hollywood for more than a hundred years.
But is this “Living Buddha” story really about the Dalai Lama? And is it based on a story that actually appeared in real newspapers.
The answers are “yes” and “yes.”
On Wednesday, 27 May 1936, an Associated Press story with the title “New ‘Living Buddha’ Reported Discovered” was published on page 25 of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. The same story was also published in other outlets under different headlines, such as “New ‘Living Buddha’ Discovered After Two- Year Search in Tibet,” in The Atlanta Journal, on the same date.
Here for the sake of completeness is the entire article, in case you were curious about what was behind the blur:
NEW ‘LIVING BUDDHA’ REPORTED DISCOVERED
Two-Year Quest Ends After Tibetan Priests Study Surface of Sacred Lake.
By the Associated Press.
SHANGHAI, May 27. Dispatches from the forbidden kingdom of Tibet reported today a new Dalai Lama, or “Living Buddha,” was discovered in the Han Jen district, northeast of Lhasa, after a search of more than two years.
The new Buddha was believed, the Tibetan advices [sic] said, to be a reincarnation of the thirteenth Dalai Lama, who died Dec. 17, 1933.
The Dalai Lama is the spiritual and temporal ruler of Tibet. Tibetans believe their “living god” is immortal and that when he dies, his attributes are handed down to a child born about the time of his death.
Tibetan monks and professional “diviners” have been searching for the reincarnated Dalai Lama ever since the death of the previous ruler. Reports received earlier from Lhasa said the omens were favorable for an early finding of the new “Living Buddha.”
The Tibetan new year began in February under auspicious circumstances, reports said. Spiritual authorities sent a deputation of high priests, sages, monks and philosophers to the sacred Chugkhorgyae Lake, east of Lhasa, near which the first Dalai Lama was born, to contemplate images reflected on the surface.
The lake gazers were reported successful in their quest for indications which might lead to discovery of a new Pontiff. Visions of a house wearing the mysterious words “a ka ma” appeared, thought to bear some relation to the name of the parents of the future Dalai Lama.
The populace was instructed then to join in the search for the house and the child.
The present spiritual leader of Tibet, the Panchen Lama, has been living in exile in China for the last 12 years.
He would be unable to go back. to assume his duties as tutor to his reported new “reincarnated brother” because no invitation has been extended to him.
Since the death of the late Dalai Lama under mysterious circumstances at Lhasa, affairs of state have been in the hands of the temporal regent, Jechen Hutukehtu.
Some of the other stories, such as “36 Mexican Rebels Killed by Soldiers” and “Fire Destroys State Arsenal,” were also taken from real newspapers.
Anyway, there we have it: The Dalai Lama made appearances in a number of films, from the classic “Mr Smith Goes to Washington” to the risible — “Gigantis” and Reefer Madness.” No doubt he was in many more as well. If you notice any others, please let me know!