Sequels rarely live up to audience’s expectations. Regrettably, that has never stopped Hollywood from pursuing them to make a fast buck. Yet in the case of Leo McCarey's The Bells of St. Mary’s (1945) a follow up to his Oscar-winning Going My Way (1944) we are given a rare treasure trove of understated spectacle: warmth and sincerity – and yes, a second opportunity to revel in the effortless glowing portrait of Catholicism a la Bing Crosby’s smooth operating priest – easily forgiven in his shameless sentiment that, on occasion, veers dangerously close to maudlin sentimentality. Crosby was, is and arguably, will forever remain Hollywood’s face of Christmas; the only actor then or now to be immediately associated, and fondly embraced as an integral part of the December 25th holiday.
So too must it be pointed out that The Bells of St. Mary’s would be nothing at all without Ingrid Bergman’s luminous sister superior. Bergman imbues her character with all of the fortitude and respect a woman in her chosen profession ought to possess. And yet, we are also treated to a very progressive snapshot, not just of a nun, but a woman who challenges and even defies convention – with kindness when useful, but with equal vigor through a gloved fist when propriety demands. The occasionally toxic, though mostly playful sparring between Bergman’s Sister Benedict and Crosby’s Father O’Malley is really what keeps Dudley Nichols screenplay from sinking into a mishmash of gushy, gooey saccharine or even more painful, into dissolving to a claptrap of quaintly amusing vignettes.
In retrospect, The Bells of St. Mary’s has proven itself to be a more enduring classic than its predecessor, perennially revived around the holidays. This was RKO's big holiday offering for 1944, produced independently by Rainbow Productions. The results could not have been more perfectly timed. RKO’s balance sheet needed a hit and got it with this film. Both Crosby and Bergman are at the pinnacle of their respective careers. Bergman, whose star was ascending more quickly than most, would see her fame abruptly derailed by the exposure of her extramarital affair with Italian film maker Roberto Rossellini in 1951. As for Crosby; his Father O'Malley was so beloved by Academy voters that he was nominated a second time for playing the same role; the only time in Oscar history such an honor has been bestowed. Incidentally, Crosby won Best Actor for Going My Way.
It’s a curious thing to be able to compare Crosby’s O’Malley from both movies side by side. But in The Bells of St. Mary’s the actor seems more comfortable in his cleric’s collar; his cadence more priestly, his demeanor less rigid. He sings - as Der Bingle always did - with that effortless lilt, capable of transforming such time-honored songs as Adeste Fideles and O’Sanctissima into penultimate pop favorites, while warbling the less memorable ‘Aren’t You Glad You’re You’ and ‘In The Land of Beginning Again’ with a lazy aplomb that makes their strained lyrics seem at least pleasurable. This leaves us with the film’s title song, a sumptuous affair diffused from its more stately grandeur by Crosby’s impromptu add on of “Won’t you ring dem bells?” at the end that left Bergman as well as the other costars in the scene affectionately chuckling.
Our story begins with the late night arrival of Father Charles O'Malley (Crosby) to St. Mary's rectory. He is auspiciously greeted by the housekeeper, Mrs. Breen (Una O'Connor) and told in her atypically cryptic fashion how his predecessor, Father Fogerty was driven into early retirement by the sisters in charge of the parochial school. The next day, Father O'Malley meets Sister Benedict (Ingrid Bergman); and although their initial encounter is a cordial one, the two very quickly begin to differ on just about every point of interest that involves St. Mary’s. In truth, the building is in a delicate state of disrepair. Father O'Malley briefly entertains an offer from real estate developer Horace P. Bogartus (Henry Travers) to buy St. Mary's and demolish it to make way for a parking lot that will benefit Bogartus' new corporate offices built adjacent the school’s property.
Sister Benedict confides to O'Malley that she has been praying daily for Bogartus to wake up one morning and find it in his heart to bequeath his building to the church - thereby making it the new St. Mary's. This central plot is fleshed out by several intimate human interest stories; the first involving new student Patricia 'Patsy' Gallagher (Joan Caroll) who has been placed in O'Malley's trust by her wayward mother, Mary (Martha Sleeper). Learning from Mary that Patsy's estranged father is a musician, Father O'Malley sets about to locate the man and reunite him with the daughter he has never known.
In the meantime Mrs. Breen's son, Eddie (Dickie Tyler) loses a schoolyard fight to bully Tommy Smith (Bobby Frasco). In Sister Benedict's eyes, Tommy has needlessly pummeled a fellow human being. Unfortunately, Father O'Malley takes Tommy's side, declaring his admiration for any boy who can 'take care' of himself. O'Malley tells Sister Benedict, “After all, on the outside it’s a man’s world,” to which she glibly replies, “How are they doing, Father?”
Unable to convince O’Malley that men are made of kindness as well as might, and perhaps suspecting that he just might have a point, shortly thereafter Sister Benedict coaches Eddie in the finer points of pugilism, a handsomely crafted bit of comedy that ends when Eddie accidentally strikes Sister Benedict on the chin. A few days later Eddie is prompted by Tommy into having a rematch. O’Malley, who is about to intervene, takes notice of Sister Benedict’s nervous coaching from an open window as Eddie decisively wins the fight. Realizing what Sister Benedict has done, O’Malley remains silent on the matter. The boys reconcile and agree to be friends.
So far The Bells of St. Mary’s has been beautifully crafted, with sweeping narrative arcs to suggest a polite struggle of wills between its two central protagonists. But from here on in the narrative becomes increasingly more episodic. We shift focus to Patsy's failing marks that are as much a concern to Father O'Malley as they are Sister Benedict. O'Malley reunites Patsy's mother with her now middle aged lover, Joe (William Gargan). Although it is obvious the two will continue their relationship as husband and wife, thus giving Patsy the stable home life she so desperately craves and genuinely deserves, the joy of this family reunion is temporarily averted when Patsy accidentally sees Joe leaving her mother's apartment. Assuming that her mother has taken a boyfriend in her absence, Patsy rushes into the elevator to escape being seen, only to have Joe join her on the flight down to ground level. This scene is heartrending as Joe attempts an awkward conversation with his own child who is just a stranger to him at this point.
Patsy returns to St. Mary's forlorn. Her grades plummet and she deliberately fails her final exam in order to remain behind with Sister Benedict whom she now regards as her only true friend. However, unbeknownst to Patsy, Sister Benedict has fallen ill with tuberculosis. In a moment so unbearably heartrending that it is virtually impossible to get through without shedding a few tears, Patsy confides in Sister Benedict the truth of her examination failure, declaring that she wants to be a nun. Seeing, and moreover understanding, the sincere depth of Patsy’s extreme loneliness for the first time, Sister Benedict decides to pass her anyway – something she earlier told Father O’Malley she would not consider. “You don’t become a nun because you’ve lost something,” Sister Benedict confides, “It’s because you’ve found something.”
In the meantime Dr. McKay (Rhys Williams) encourages Father O'Malley to keep the severity of Sister Benedict’s condition from her in order to help her maintain a positive attitude. Reluctantly, Father O'Malley agrees, writing Mother General for Sister Benedict's reassignment to an infirmary in Arizona where her condition may improve. On graduation day Patsy is tearfully reunited with Joe and told that he is her real father. Afterward, Sister Benedict learns of her reassignment, not to another school as she might have hoped, but to a convalescence home far removed from the rest of society. Assuming that Father O'Malley has merely been spiteful in his plotting to rid St. Mary's of her constant interventions, Sister Benedict harbors a strong resentment toward him as she packs her bags.
Horace bequeaths his building to the church for the new St. Mary's while Sister Benedict retires to the old chapel to pray for God to remove all bitterness from her heart. Sensing how detrimental withholding the truth from her has been, at the last possible moment Father O'Malley has a change of heart. He confides to Sister Benedict the real reason for her reassignment. Her burdens, doubts and resentments lifted, Sister Benedict realizes that Father O'Malley has been her sincere friend all along. She bids him and St. Mary's a fond goodbye, her faith in humanity restored.
The Bells of St. Mary's is so obviously a pro-Catholic propaganda piece. Yet it never quite veers into extolling misguided piety; the subliminal message of attained enlightenment through the stringency of religious order - thankfully – and very deftly handled by Leo McCarey's light touch and inspired interjection of humor. Father O'Malley is a priest of the highest order to be sure. Yet he is not above the very human enterprise of telling little white lies when necessary. And there is something rather perverse about the way O’Malley, Sister Benedict and the nuns wear down Horace Bogartus’ resolve with their daily hymnals; O’Malley arriving at a particularly crucial moment when it seems Horace may suffer a nervous breakdown as a result of their saintly badgering, only to serenade him and Dr. McKay with a few majestic bars of ‘O Sanctissima’.
This scene generally elicits laughs from the audience, for there is something genuinely comical in O'Malley's disregard for Horace's sanity - his interests realigned with Sister Benedict's nagging quest to relieve Horace of his building. McCarey's gentle touch is never too far behind the ultra-sugary sweetness that skillfully avoids becoming heavy treacle. In the final analysis, The Bells of St. Mary’s remains a charming classic because the performances in it throughout are just that good; beloved and beguiling – but mostly like a lasso – able to hug our hearts.
Maple Home Video has decided on a direct import of the very flawed DVD presentation first made available through Republic/Artisan Home Entertainment some year’s earlier. Though the film's gray scale is rather nicely rendered, with only some minor contrast boosting, the image is severely marred by an excess of edge enhancement, pixelization and shimmering of fine details. Certain scenes are relatively free of these digital anomalies, but most exhibit their distractions in one form or another. This is hardly the way to preserve a wonderful classic for future generations. The audio is mono as originally recorded but nicely represented and modestly cleaned up for this presentation. Shamefully, there are no extra features.
One final curiosity to note: the opening title bears a personal credit of thanks to producer David O. Selznick for his loan out of Ingrid Bergman to co-star in this film. Bergman was under contract to Selznick during this time, so no great perplexing there. But moments into this credit, an ill-fitting gray bar suddenly appears over the acknowledgement, remaining steadfast across the screen, temporarily obstructing our view of names of other cast members as the credits progress. With so many other holiday classics making the leap to Blu-Ray disc (It's A Wonderful Life, White Christmas, Miracle on 34th Street), one can perhaps wait in prayer that Maple or another distribution company will remaster the film in 1080p. No such miracle for this season’s stocking stuffer. Regrets!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)