Few movies so completely miss their mark as Irving Pichel’s The Miracle of the Bells (1948); a leaden ‘would be’ potboiler that attempts to straddle the chasm between the traditional warm-hearted religious feel-good (a la The Bells of St. Mary’s 1945) and the even more clichéd Hollywood rags to riches – back to rags – story of a virtual unknown who attains stardom and immortality; presumably the only two commodities worth fighting for within the capitalist model of rank success. On this outing, the daydream isn’t quite licked, primarily because our winsome protagonist, Olga Treskovna (Alida Valli) is already dead at the start of the movie; having succumbed to tuberculosis and leaving a very distraught lover, William Dunnigan (Fred MacMurray) to pick up the tattered pieces of their failed romance. Bill’s therapy is the deification of Olga’s memory – chiefly in seeing the movie she made just prior to her death, a badly mangled retread of Joan of Arc, posthumously released theatrically. Curiously, Ingrid Bergman was also shooting Joan of Arc for RKO at the time The Miracle of the Bells had its debut. Neither it nor Bergman’s effort were a success, however.
Bill, a press agent working for movie mogul Marcus Harris (Lee J. Cobb) is certain his boss will comply. But Harris is a dollars and cents man. He knows there is no point in releasing the movie because there is virtually no way to capitalize on a dead star’s stardom after the picture’s debut. So Harris has decided to shelve the picture and recast it at a later date. Dunnigan, however, will not let the matter rest. Returning to Olga’s hometown for her burial, a last request Olga made of Dunnigan before expiring, Bill quickly encounters a lot of small town slum prudery and deceit. He learns that Olga’s father was a drunkard hardly held in high regard and that Olga had sincerely hoped to instill a sense of pride and restore her family’s good name in town by becoming a great star; a beacon to all the other young girls who aspire to be better than just the forlorn daughters of this modest mining community.
Regrettably, the Ben Hecht/Quentin Reynolds/DeWitt Bodeen screenplay, loosely based on Russell Janney’s tear-jerker of a novel is a woefully undernourished claptrap that waffles between the boundaries of the past and present; the flashback device infrequently employed throughout the first third of the movie so awkwardly patched together that it neither manages to establish the character of Olga satisfactorily or create an enduring sense of empathy for her once we have moved forward in the narrative with only Bill’s dower visage and blind determination to see her name and reputation made known to the public through his decidedly ridiculous publicity stunt; hiring all the churches in town to ring their bells for three full days and nights to honor Olga’s memory. The ploy does work the town into a mild frenzy, particularly Father J. Spinksey (Charles Meredith); who oversees the most prosperous church. On the opposite end of the spectrum is Father Paul (Frank Sinatra); a mild-mannered milquetoast whose piety – meant to be legitimate in the film – is so overwrought with a sense of smug self-importance in Sinatra’s performance, that it becomes all but impossible to tolerate or even take at face value.
Until the eleventh hour, Harris remains stubbornly unimpressed by Dunnigan’s devotion to Olga, even ordering him to cease and desist on his ‘miracle of the bells’ that has begun to draw crowds of onlookers to Olga’s modest funeral at St. Michaels. All of this persistent ringing weakens the support beams of the church, enough so that the statues of both the Virgin Mary and St. Michael flanking Olga’s casket suddenly shift and appear to be turning to face her coffin. The crowds who have come either out of devotion, fear or just plain rabid fascination to witness the spectacle suddenly become convinced that divine intervention has caused the statues to move. Father Paul, however, knows better but is convinced by Dunnigan to keep his findings to himself. The miracle will stand, not to lend credence to his publicity stunt (which it does, of course) but as Dunnigan puts it, to give the people hope in their hour of hopelessness, to restore their faith in humanity at large and in miracles in particular, and yes, to give Olga the moment she always wished for but was cruelly denied in life; to be honored for doing her job. Harris finally relents to the fervor of all this press coverage and agrees to release Joan of Arc – a movie that now, even despite the demise of its star, will undoubtedly make him a ton of money.
The Miracles of the Bells is a terrible mess; its rank sentiment so transparent and insincere that it seems to hold no distinction other than in being a terrible bastardization of religion for trashy art’s sake. Sinatra is trying much too hard to be the sort of iconic figure of Catholicism exemplified in similar portrayals by Spencer Tracy (Boy’s Town 1938) or Bing Crosby (Going My Way 1944). But Sinatra’s own temperament is ill-suited for this conversion; his Father Paul a cheap mimic of the aforementioned and a terrible flub in his own movie career. When Sinatra speaks his sanctity is subverted by a sense of passionless pontification; his words devolving into platitudes etched out of the cheapest devotion. He speaks with hushed intonations but the reverence is utterly lacking.
Even more of an embarrassment is Alida Valli – an actress of some merit elsewhere – but herein cast as a ‘too good to be true’ ingénue so frightfully dewy-eyed and wet behind the ears, so utterly lacking in the complexities of a grown woman, that she degenerates into a walking cliché of the lamb being led to the slaughter. This incongruous one-dimensionality is compounded by the fact that Valli plays Joan of Arc in the movie within the movie – her self-sacrificing portrait of that peasant girl stirred into battle by Holy visions transgressing into a sort of waxy mannequin performance that is painful to watch. The triumvirate of misguided actors is rounded out by a thoroughly lackluster turn from Fred MacMurray, seemingly incapable of deciding whether his character is part of the crass commercialism and money-driven machinery designed to exploit Olga’s dead memory for its own pure profit, or simply involved in the quest of a distraught nobleman who is operating under more benevolent delusions; unaware that his cheap publicity stunt is not in keeping with the higher moral ideals of his deceased love interest.
The flashback device used in the movie is severely flawed. After a bitter prelude of the action that will take place in the present day, with Dunnigan riding in a hearse to the funeral parlor, we regress to his first ‘cute meet’ with Olga at a rehearsal for a new Broadway show. Dunnigan spares Olga from getting fired with some fast taking and later – much later, so we are told – treats her to a Chinese dinner one snowy night. Again, time passes – a lot of it – and Olga is now a bit player working for Harris who also employs Dunnigan for his publicity. Olga is given her big break in Joan of Arc after Harris’ first choice proves too temperamental. In between these bouts of back story we meet Father Paul. Dunnigan acquires a growing affection for this elfin-like Catholic clergyman, particularly after he refuses to take any sort of payment for providing his services for Olga’s burial. But even the friendship between Father Paul and Dunnigan remains unfulfilling and not fully realized. Far too much time is spent getting Dunnigan’s grand plan – the ringing of the bells – off the ground and even more time squandered on the constant long-distance banter between Dunnigan and Harris; the latter stubbornly refusing to budge on his decision to release Olga’s Joan of Arc to the public.
The film loses sight of its primary objective – to be a life-affirming story about faith – and instead attempts to sit on too many artistic chairs all at once; its melodrama misspent, its absence of pathos or even rank sentimentality leaving the character’s to their own accord – stick figures at best with cardboard cutout motivations; merely bumping into one another and occasionally the furniture with a sort of rank amateurism that is really beneath such fine players. I can’t understand the complete implosion of this movie – so clueless a claptrap of misfires that it loses its ability to captivate or even moderately entertain almost from the moment the main titles have dissolved into the primary action. This is badly done in the extreme. I wouldn’t recommend The Miracle of the Bells even if there was absolutely nothing else to watch on TV after midnight. It’s just that awful!
The efforts put forth by Olive on this Blu-ray are not much better. This single-layered offering exhibits a very thick and occasionally grainy B&W image that really does not favor Robert De Grasse’s cinematography. Age related artifacts are everywhere. The image is neither smooth nor clean, compounding the disappointment already felt by seeing the movie itself. The audio is adequately represented though it too is hardly a miracle of mastering. As with most other movies offered via Olive, this one comes with absolutely nothing in the way of extras. Perhaps it is just as well. I saw nothing in the movie that would have made me want to listen to an audio commentary or sit through even a short featurette on how it was made.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)