Sunday, November 6, 2016

COME TO THE STABLE (2oth Century-Fox 1949) Fox Home Video

Celeste Holm’s movie career has always baffled me. For here was an actress of substance and culture, and of immense patrician beauty in her youth; a fresh and instantly identifiable face in the cinema firmament – and this, within a pantheon of indelibly etched personalities. Holm could hold her own, and did through two undistinguished pictures (1946’s Three Little Girls in Blue and Carnival in Costa Rica) until her wit, charm and personality caught the eye of director, Elia Kazan, who cast her as the savvy sophisticate in Gentleman’s Agreement (1947) for which Holm justly won a Best Supporting Actress Academy Award. It should have been A-list starring vehicles for her from this point on. Yet, the rumor persists that Darryl F. Zanuck, having made a play for his latest ‘discovery’ – and been turned down flat – was to exact a more insidious revenge by relegating Holm to less than stellar parts; penitence for avoiding the casting couch. Truth or fiction? Perhaps we will never know. For certain, Holm very sporadically appeared in high profile movies like The Snake Pit (1948), All About Eve (1950) and High Society (1956), always in support – often marginally, as the proverbial gal on the side; her popularity slipping as she lumped it from project to project; never again to enjoy those heady days of early success in the movies again. In retrospect, Holm as the disembodied, omnipotent voice of a notorious mantrap, unseen in Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s A Letter to Three Wives seems to foreshadow this downward trajectory; the same year she appeared as the benevolent foreigner, Sister Scholastica, handing out St. Jude medals in Henry Koster’s enchanting Come to the Stable (1949).
Come to the Stable is a movie worthy of Holm’s formidable gifts. Indeed, it would earn the actress another Best Supporting Oscar nomination. Yet, Come to the Stable is a film only possible at the tail end of the forties; a decade buffeted by astringent censorship and buoyed by the Catholic League of Decency; a sort of shameless promoter, using Hollywood as its pulpit to launch a string of infectiously stirring hit movies – collectively billed as ‘films of faith’. These, market the Catholic Archdiocese as the saintly purveyors of a pseudo-religious humanitarian philosophy. Movies like Boy’s Town (1938), The Song of Bernadette (1943), Going My Way (1944) and The Bells of St. Mary’s (1945) were wildly successful in their day; keeping Catholicism front and center in the public’s mindset with the church reaping the benefits in parishioner enrollment and sanitized public relations no marketing firm could effectively set a price tag. This formula would endure, though seen less and less (or perhaps, more and more obviously reconstituted as the Bible-fiction epic soon to dot, then clot up the 1950’s cinema landscape); the breakdown of Hollywood’s self-governing body of censorship causing faith to be severely tested by the mid-1960’s as Tinsel Town’s gestalt shifted from a reprieve of saints to the exploitation of all sinners. Today, the movies have inverted this case study with an exaltation of the damned at the expense and debasement of moral fortitude, either depicted as quaintly archaic or the devil incarnate in our topsy-turvy worlds without end. But I digress.
In the aforementioned pantheon of religious-themed pictures, Come to the Stable is actually rather unique. For in its opening moments, Oscar Millard and Sally Benson’s screenplay wastes no time in puncturing the balloons of religious hypocrisy; dispensing with no less an ensconced and time-honored chapter from the Old Testament than ‘the Christmas story’ – as a pair of nuns, newly arrived from France, stumble upon a mockup of this ‘world-influencing’ event (and, in a stable no less); the models, a local family, whose choral of Adeste Fideles is interrupted when one cherub (Teddy Driver) deliberately kicks another (Roddy McCaskill) in the shin.  The quick witted charm of agnostic, Clare Boothe Luce’s poisoned pen, the author of the original story, probably had something to do with this. To be sure, Come to the Stable is grotesquely biased in the nuns’ favor; Sisters Scholastica and Margaret (the latter played to polite perfection by Loretta Young) will not falter in their endeavor to build a children’s hospital on a property belonging to notorious gambler/racketeer, Luigi Rossi (Thomas Gomez), despite the seemingly insurmountable odds set against them.
Faith – so we are led to believe – is more resilient than any of our antagonists might first suspect. Ironically, like many religious-themed movies from this period, the biggest obstacle before the sisters is not external; but contrived as resistance from the Catholic Church, herein represented by the Bishop (Basil Ruysdael) and his assistant, Monsignor Talbot (Regis Toomey). The Bishop is sympathetic to the sisters, even in awe of the enormity of their task, though nevertheless unwilling to spare them the necessary funds needed to carry out their good works. Undaunted, Scholastica and Margaret befriend – occasionally, annoy – though ultimately, corral their disciples from the simple folk of Bethlehem, Connecticut; beginning with local artist, Amelia Potts (Elsa Lanchester) whose religious paintings, though expertly crafted, have thus far failed to sell for what they are worth. In short order, the sisters convince an affluent songwriter, Robert Masen (Hugh Marlowe) to also pitch in, and, even more miraculously, they manage the coup of appealing to Luigi Rossi’s heart; a man more noted for his steely-eyed resolve.
Through it all, Come to the Stable retains its elusive, ethereal quality – infectious as it stirs even the most secular among us to reconsider the strength of its Bible-taught convictions. Celeste Holm and Loretta Young make for a disarming twosome – coconspirators, actually – to whom the outside world’s rules need not apply. Whether or not the sisters are even aware of any rubric that does not derive from ‘…in the beginning God created the heaven and the earth’ is open for discussion, though Sister Margaret’s youthful upbringing in Chicago must have taught her a thing or two before entering the nunnery. Whether recklessly driving their borrowed jeep, loaded with fine wines and a terrified delivery man, Anthony James (Dooley Wilson) in tow; or transforming Amelia Potts stable/artist’s studio into a hostel without her consent for their visiting priest, Father Barraud (Henri Letondal) and a gaggle of devoted French nuns (Pati Behrs, Nan Boardman, Louise Colombet, Georgette Duane and Yvette Reynard) fixing to stay; or, tearing up a parking ticket on the misguided assumption it is an advertisement; Sisters Scholastica and Margaret are a very hearty duo; headstrong do-gooders who will not take ‘no’ or even ‘maybe’ for an answer.
Our story begins on a cold winter’s night; the sisters solitary trek across the frozen land interrupted by a sign post pointing the way to Bethlehem, Connecticut, and eventually, to the stable of artist, Amelia Potts. Sister Margaret, a Chicagoan by birth, explains to Miss Potts how she and Sister Scholastica have traveled a great distance to fulfill a promise each made to God. It seems while serving at the children’s hospital in Normandy during the war their small town fell under siege; the German’s using it for an outpost against the allied invasion. Unable to move the sick, Scholastica and Margaret prayed for a miracle to spare the hospital from mortar attacks. While the rest of the town was virtually leveled, the hospital remained untouched by this deluge, although at a cost of many American lives. In gratitude for sparing these children from the horrors of war, the sisters made a benediction to God to build another hospital in the United States.  In choosing Bethlehem as their site Margaret was inspired by a postcard depicting a reproduction of Amelia Pott’s nativity, entitled ‘Come to the Stable’. Amelia is sincerely touched by their story, though quite unprepared for what comes next; Sisters Scholastica and Margaret basically inviting themselves to stay on at Miss Pott’s small farmhouse; ground zero as they embark on their plan of action. In sampling some of the freshly painted canvasses in Amelia’s studio, the sisters concur that a hillside just beyond the farm would be ideal to break ground on their hospital. Amelia informs Scholastica and Margaret she is merely a tenant rather than the land owner, pointing them to the home of composer, Bob Masen.
Inconspicuously, they meet Masen on the snowy hillside the next morn; momentarily accosted by Masen’s overly friendly Great Dane - Arson. Masen informs the nuns he does not own the land in question either. Rather, it belongs to Luigi Rossi – a smalltime underworld operator in downtown Manhattan who has plans to build his own palatial estate on the property for his retirement from a life of crime. Undaunted, Sisters Scholastica and Margaret make ready to depart for Manhattan, borrowing Masen’s jeep and pausing a moment to visit the cathedral. They also encounter Monsignor Talbot, who informs them the Bishop is a very busy man. Indeed, while the Bishop is immediately struck by the resolute and ambitious scope of their project, he can offer nothing in the way of financial support. His best effort is to provide Scholastica and Margaret with $50 – for basic expenses – and afford them a month’s grace in which to launch their enterprise. If they cannot make a go of it in thirty days, the nuns agree to return to France.
Providence, however, does seem to be on Scholastica and Margaret’s side; forging their way beyond the bum’s rush given by Luigi Rossi’s thug muscle, Rosey (John Bliefer) and Whitey (Edwin Max); also, the casual brush off from his private bodyguard, Sam (Mike Muzurki, who specialized in such obtuse, but lovable goons).  Rossi is perturbed by Scholastica and Margaret’s impromptu visit for no more than a moment, his demeanor softening after Margaret notices a portrait of Rossi’s son – Luigi Jr. – in uniform. Learning of the sisters’ plan to establish a hospital, Rossi does an about face and offers them his land on one condition; a special wing be named after Luigi Jr. who is missing in action overseas.  Buoyed by their impossibly good fortune, Scholastica and Margaret return to Bethlehem to share their news with Masen – also, to thank him for the use of his jeep. Masen is in the middle of entertaining his agent, Howard Shelton (Wally Brown) and his girlfriend, Kitty Blaine (Dorothy Patrick); the two engaged in some playful tickling. Good fortune seems to have smiled all around as Masen tells the sisters he has been assigned to underscore a picture in Hollywood.  The next day, Scholastica and Margaret spy a ‘for sale’ sign going up on the property adjacent their newly acquired land; an old witch-hazel bottling plant now being sold by local realtor, Claude Jarmin (Walter Baldwin). Naïve in the ways of business, the sisters acquire a $5,000 three month ‘option’ on the plant. They plan to use it as their fundraising headquarters for the hospital. However, when the Bishop looks over their legal papers he discovers the actual purchase price is $25,000 – the sister’s merely having acquired a mortgage they will likely be unable to pay on time.  
It is a heartbreaking blow, somewhat softened with the arrival of Father Barraud and the sisters from France whom Margaret has sent for to assist in their fund-raising efforts. Miss Potts is momentarily overwhelmed at discovering her peaceful abode overrun by these new arrivals. And although it was his initial intent to stop Scholastica and Margaret’s efforts, in the face of their wide-eyed optimism the Bishop sheepishly agrees to reserve his final judgment for one month. Above board, the Bishop is gentle but firm. But later in private he tells Monsignor Talbot he believes strange and unstoppable forces are at work in Bethlehem. Sisters Scholastica and Margaret fly on the side of the angels. When Masen returns from Hollywood he learns from his hired man, Anthony James, the sisters are now indulging in a highly lucrative produce and art sale held in Miss Potts’ front yard. The enterprise has proven so successful Scholastica and Margaret have almost reached their fundraising goal. Miffed by his loss of privacy, Masen demands Potts expel the nuns at once. That evening, Masen hosts a party for his guests, the highlight of the evening: Kitty performing his latest song. Alas, Masen’s exuberance turns rancid when the sound of the sisters singing in their makeshift chapel rings ominously similar. Masen attempts to quell the specter of plagiarism by insisting his song was conceived months earlier. Alas, Masen’s melody is identified as a 2000 year old Gregorian chant by noted music critic, Al Newman (Louis Jean Heydt cast as the inside joke – nee tribute to 2oth Century-Fox’s in-house film composer extraordinaire, ‘Alfred Newman’). 
To add insult to injury, Sister Scholastica accidentally drives a stake through Masen’s water line while building her shrine. Out of spite, Masen quietly arranges to buy back the witch-hazel plant from Jarmin. Without a place of operation the nuns will have to pack up and leave Bethlehem. To raise the necessary $500 to complete their bid for the property, Sister Margaret wagers on a mixed double tennis match, Sister Scholastica partnering with Al Newman. Although a former tennis champion, Scholastica loses the match, much to Masen’s relief.  However, Masen is about to have his own moment of reckoning with a higher authority; sheepish and ashamed of his callousness after realizing his actions will likely ship the nuns back to Normandy where he was stationed during the war.  Asked to pray with them for their safe return, Masen instead experiences his own conversion; the movie ending with the sisters holding mass at the bottling plant with Masen, Kitty, Anthony, Miss Potts, Mr. Rossi and the Bishop all in attendance and moved to mark the unofficial inauguration of the hospital of St. Jude.
Come to the Stable is endearing on several levels, not the least in its ability to elevate the human spirit, while simultaneously renewing our faith in humanity itself. Movies in general – and ‘films of faith’ in particular – used to appeal to this higher moral compass. Times have changed considerable since. And yet, the basic fundamentals of human compassion endure. Occasionally, present day film scholarship poo-poos the studio system for making movies of this particular ilk; homogenized and meant to appeal to mass blocks of the Judeo-Christian faith; the inference being today’s film makers somehow create more intimate stories. Personal? – perhaps. Intimate?!? – hardly. For there is nothing to touch the warm, fuzzy feeling any number of movies from the 1930’s and 40’s manage to retain despite – or rather – in spite of Hollywood’s present day diametric opposition to these kind-hearted family fare.
Personally, I grow increasingly frustrated with the popularized notion anyone attempting to make a film like Come to the Stable today wouldn’t make any money. The argument is moot; first and foremost, because the talents required for such effervescence on the screen are gone from the creative realm that once was Hollywood – and second; because even our present-day cynicism has been powerless to render films like Come to the Stable obsolete when perennially revived on television. If the truest definition of a movie classic is ‘true yesterday, true today and true tomorrow’ then Come to the Stable wears its mantel of quality unabashedly and with great sincerity and heart. The audience has not changed – not really. Solidly crafted entertainment is still in vogue. It always will be. What has been corrupted over time is the system itself – without its core of moguls to reign in the creatives and the money men; also, minus the watchdog of film censorship to ensure certain levels of quality are – dare we say - ‘religiously’ adhered to. Let us be fair and frank, when suggesting even a movie like Come to the Stable has its subtext. But Come to the Stable judiciously endeavors to tug at our heartstrings first; a perennial soft spot no matter the age, the time or the place. Humanity survives on reality. But it thrives on the prospect of attaining something finer in an afterlife. Movies like this have proven to have a very genuine afterlife indeed; long outliving the creatives who toiled to make it in the first place.
The comedic elements are undeniably holdovers from Clare Booth Luce’s original story; Sister Margaret’s deft, though perilous handling of the jeep on slippery roads, as example, bordering on joyous screwball.  Such moments intercede and help to diffuse the religiosity of this piece. Come to the Stable is, after all, a sort of quaint variation on the Biblical story of David vs. Goliath; of impossible odds overcome in the most unlikely – and arguably, incongruously optimistic ways. But such moments also humanize the sisters’ holy quest – also, to make subtle jabs and social critiques about then contemporary society’s growing cynicism challenging faith even then, yet strangely powerless to eclipse its gentle precepts and reminders.  Sisters Scholastica and Margaret succeed in their task, not so much because they learn how to cope and eventually cooperate within the context of this unimaginably pessimistic ambit of non-believers, but rather because they manage to sway even the most unworthy and/or unlikely to their way of thinking – with a little help from God, of course.  Have a little faith, why don’t yah, then and Come to the Stable: pure religious pulp swimmingly marketed as the gospel.
Were that Fox Home Video had provided us with a quality transfer of this undeniably quality-made product. But alas, Come to the Stable arrives on DVD via Fox’s Cinema Archive in a musty/dusty and poorly contrasted print. This one is in terrible need of an upgrade/restoration. Age-related damage (tears, scratches, gate weave, etc.) are ever-present and fairly distracting. The blown out contrast results in Casper-like visages and a loss of mid-range tonality and fine detail. The image is thick, grain unnaturally reproduced either as noisy grit or, in a few scenes, nonexistent to the point where DNR is highly suspect.  We also get minute edge effects – annoying, though not as distracting as one might expect. At least there is no chroma bleeding this time around. Fox’s B&W Cinema Archive transfers tend to suffer greatly from rainbow hued/strobe-like video noise. Audio is basic Dolby mono and experiences considerable hiss and minor pop throughout. As with other Fox Cinema Archive titles this one has NO extras. Bottom line: great film/crummy transfer. Not recommended…unless, of course, you simply have to have it. Dear executive brain trust at Fox – we will pray for your forgiveness.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)


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