Sequels rarely live up to audiences’ expectations, but this 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 highly sentimentalized Oscar-winner, Going My Way (1944) we are given that rarest of treasure troves in understated melodrama, topped with immeasurable warmth and sincerity – and yes, a second opportunity to revel in a glowing portrait of Catholicism a la Bing Crosby’s smooth-operating priest, Father O’Malley. Crosby was, is and arguably, will forever remain Hollywood’s most readily associated ‘face of Christmas’; the only actor then or now to be immediately and fondly embraced as an integral part of our December 25th holiday. Before continuing, it is, I think, very prudent to pause and recall the autonomy the Catholic Legion of Decency (CLOD) once wielded in the socio-political spheres of then contemporary western civilization. Founded in 1933 by the Archbishop of Cincinnati, John T. McNicholas, CLOD was a direct response to a moral outcry made by apostolic delegate, Archbishop Amleto Giovanni Cicognani, who squarely cited ‘the movies’ as contributing to a cultural degeneration of the nation’s social fabric. Smart man, that Cicognani; for he just may have been on to something. Too often, critics have underestimated the power of the visual image, particularly on young impressionable minds, to sway, lull and convince of a particular mindset, style and way of life. The movies can, and readily do, make virtually any behavior and actions we might otherwise find either repugnant or silly when witnessed in the real world, marginally acceptable to downright appealing. Only in hindsight do these visceral impressions on the big screen act as a sort of cultural template and stimulation, effectively – if very gradually – breaking down barriers and inhibitions, reinventing social mores and manners to suit a particular time and taste.
As with the church’s desire to either control or dismantle the arts during Shakespeare’s time – fearful of their influence on the masses – Archbishop McNicholas’ organization would, at least in the first half of the 20th century, pursue an aggressive campaign in conjunction with Hollywood’s own self-governing body of screen censorship under Will Hayes and, later, Joseph Breen; the two conjointly calling for ‘the purification of the cinema’. The dominance of the Catholic Church, as a cultural touchstone devoted to the betterment of all throughout the 1940’s, added cache with the very real threat the U.S. federal government might get involved to legislate morality if the studios did not immediately take it under advisement to ‘clean up’ their own act. Virtually every studio in Hollywood complied. Thus, the racy ‘pre-code’ era in picture-making, celebrating gangsters, trollops, bootlegging, and, various other sundry forms of steamy sex-laden and ultra-violent behaviors, gave way to several decades devoted to the cause of improving the cultural mindset of moviegoers; this turpitude, ‘the cheap and the tawdry’ replaced by righteousness and self-sacrifice.
In some ways, I would have this time again, as it spoke to a more telescopically focused pursuit towards the nobler pursuits of humanity. Alright: some of it was oppressively heavy-handed, teetering on the brink of ridiculousness. And there have been enough exposés since, about defrocked priests as sex abusers, to illustrate not all who came to their calling were acting out of the purest altruism. Yet, in the end ‘a moral’ to each and every story prevailed. Say what you will, this nevertheless influenced society in ways that did not inspire random shootings inside movie theaters, schoolyards or free clinics. Today, it has become extremely fashionable to downplay and/or downgrade such button-down conservatism as straight-jacketed bowdlerization. How dare anyone impugn any artist’s self-expression?!? And, I would be among the first to suggest not all art need be ‘pretty’ to be impactful. But at its core, art in general, and cinema art in particular, ought to do a great deal more for the audience than merely and collectively assault and/or anesthetize them with its storm of controversies and salacious behaviors, merely put forth for their own sake (because they can with immunity) – because, in these more laissez faire times, anyone can suggest even ‘mild pornography’ to be favoring the ‘arthouse and/or experimental cinema’: Lars ‘Nymphomaniac’ von Tier…are you listening? But I digress.
Bing Crosby’s portrait of piety in both Going My Way and The Bells of St. Mary’s is deceptively humanistic; rife with frank, yet educational humor, and, Der Bingle’s own preferred brand of laid back congeniality. Again, this is only a representation; as there have been several biographies to suggest Crosby - in private - was not always the most forgiving or loving family man. Yet herein, it is the impression that counts. The liberal left would call it ‘the lie’, I suppose. But art should always be separate from the artist. Art, if done correctly, is a perfect reflection of the world as we would wish it to be. An artist is merely the flesh and blood tool by which such lofty aspirations are permitted their momentary – if fundamentally flawed – expression. Indeed, Crosby’s Father O’Malley is the sort of spiritual advisor we would all wish for in our lives; one unencumbered by a staunch adherence to the moral rigidities preached by the church; clear-eyed and able to wangle his way through the catechisms, making their time-honored teachings relevant to world-weary parishioners he so clearly serves with dignity, decorum and an innate compassion for all human fallibility.
So too must it be pointed out The Bells of St. Mary’s would be nothing at all without Ingrid Bergman’s luminous Sister Superior. Bergman, loaned out from under her ironclad contract to David O. Selznick, imbues her nun with all the saintly fortitude a woman in her chosen profession ought to possess. And yet, we are also treated to a very progressive abbess; one not above tempting or even defying convention – with charisma and kindness when useful, but also employing stubbornness and vigor in her subtle exploitation of feminine wiles - even 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 for The Bells of St. Mary’s from sinking into gushy-gooey saccharine. Bergman was, and is, – of course – one of the most luminous stars to ever appear on camera; her presence, easily lending itself to virtue; her stunning handsomeness unimpeded, even by a wimple. It is perhaps unusual (teetering on sacrilege) to consider nuns as sexual creatures. Yet Bergman manages more than a whiff of female desirability throughout this movie while exuding an aura of godliness; no small feat and one of the most infectiously appealing balancing acts. That Bergman was to disappoint her fans by shattering this idyllic portrait with a very public scandal, affair and finally marriage to (and divorce from) Italian neo-realist director, Roberto Rossellini, in retrospect solidifies the two-headed coin of the realm she occupied for movie fans; on the one side, sultry ex-patriot and former lover of a cynical saloon keeper in Casablanca (1942), and, on the other, the lost girl in a woman’s body, perhaps best typified by her performance in Anastasia (1956); the movie that re-introduced Bergman to American audiences, forgave her these sins, and, won her the Best Actress Academy Award besides.
In retrospect, The Bells of St. Mary’s has proven itself to be a much more enduring classic than its predecessor, perennially revived at Christmas time. It was, in fact, RKO's big holiday offering for 1944, produced independently by McCarey’s Rainbow Productions. The results could not have been more perfectly timed. The in-joke around Hollywood during WWII was, in case of a bombing raid take cover at RKO “they haven’t had a ‘hit’ in years!” However, The Bells of St. Mary’s changed RKO’s prospects for the better. In retrospect, Bells is the pluperfect example of the Hollywood melodrama; fairly dripping with sentiment veering dangerously close to the maudlin, yet without ever careening over this precipice. At managed intervals, the picture both warms and breaks our hearts, giving audiences the opportunity for the ‘good cry’ and crowd-pleasing, broad and adoring smile with good cheer. The crux of the movie – that which makes it intimately ‘click’ on all levels - is the ‘pertly romantic’ chemistry between its two stars. Broken down, The Bells of St. Mary’s is rather episodic; Dudley Nichols’ screenplay tripping lightly from vignette to vignette; the daily machinations and struggles of a parochial school and parish on the verge of being closed down, really taking a backseat to the wry repartee and sparring between Father O’Malley and Sister Benedict. Both Crosby and Bergman are at the pinnacle of their respective careers. Bergman, whose star had ascended meteorically, would see her fame abruptly derailed by the exposure of the aforementioned extramarital affair. As for Crosby; his Father O'Malley was so beloved by Academy voters, he was Oscar-nominated again for playing the same role; the only time in Academy history such an honor was bestowed. Incidentally, Crosby won his Best Actor statuette for Going My Way, but lost it in this movie to Ray Milland’s formidable portrait of a raging alcoholic in The Lost Weekend.
It is a curious thing to be able to compare Crosby’s O’Malley from both movies, for they are quite different. In Going My Way, Crosby’s cleric is more reserved and appropriately sex-less; Crosby’s own personality preventing the character from becoming artificially saintly or antiseptic. But in The Bells of St. Mary’s Crosby is decidedly more comfortable in his cleric’s collar; his cadence priestly; his demeanor, more favorably the ‘every man’ who just happens to know his Bible backwards and forwards. He sings - as Der Bingle always did - with effortless, inimitable magic, capable of transforming such time-honored hymns as Adeste Fideles and O’Sanctissima into pop standards, while warbling the less memorable ‘Aren’t You Glad You’re You’ and ‘In The Land of Beginning Again’ with lazy aplomb to make even their strained lyrics pleasurably palpable. This leaves us with the film’s title song, a sumptuously romanticized anthem to academics, diffused from its more stately grandeur by Crosby’s impromptu add-on, “Won’t you ring dem bells?” at the end. This left Bergman as well as the other costars in the scene affectionately and genuinely 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 in Father O'Malley 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 point 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 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 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 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, as much a concern to Father O'Malley as 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 she so desperately craves, the joy of this family reunion is temporarily averted when Patsy accidentally sees Joe leaving her mother's apartment. Assuming her mother has taken up with 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 whom he does not recognize as such.
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 one true friend. However, unbeknownst to Patsy, Sister Benedict has fallen ill with tuberculosis. In a moment so unbearably designed to extract tears from a stone, Patsy confides in Sister Benedict; that she failed her examinations on purpose, declaring with panged adolescence a fervent desire to become a nun. Seeing, but moreover understanding, the sincere depth of Patsy’s extreme loneliness for the first time, Sister Benedict decides to overlook her grades – 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 to Patsy, “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 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 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 in Sister Benedict the real reason for her reassignment. Her burdens, doubts and resentments lifted, Sister Benedict realizes 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 un-apologetically a pro-Catholic propaganda piece. Yet, it never becomes preachy in its quest for attained enlightenment, very deftly handled by Leo McCarey's with his usual light touch and inspired interjection of humor. Crosby’s Father O'Malley is a priest of the highest virtues. But he is not above the very human enterprise of telling ‘little white lies’ when necessary. And there is something rather insidiously perverse about the way both his Father O’Malley and Sister Benedict systematically wear down Horace Bogartus’ resolve with their daily hymnals; O’Malley arriving at a particularly fragile moment (Horace on the verge of suffering a nervous breakdown as a result of their angelic badgering), only to serenade him with a few majestic bars of ‘O Sanctissima’. This scene generally elicits laughs from the audience, as there is something genuinely comical about O'Malley's disregard for Horace's sanity - his interests realigned with Sister Benedict's nagging vision 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 classic because the performances in it are just very good; beloved and beguiling – but mostly, and like a lasso – able to hug and tug at our hearts.
Olive’s resurrection of The Bells of St. Mary’s in hi-def leaves something to be desired. The good news is this 1080p transfer has eradicated a good deal, if not all, of the egregious edge enhancements that plagued the DVD put out repeatedly by Maple Home Video; a direct import of the very flawed presentation first made available through Republic/Artisan Home Entertainment some year’s earlier. On Blu-ray The Bells of St. Mary’s continues to suffer from weaker than anticipated contrast levels. There are no true blacks or pristine whites, but varying tonalities of middling gray; George Barnes’ cinematography distilled with a rather unimpressive lack of depth or, at times, even clarity. Things do tighten up, but not nearly to the level they ought. That said, once one accepts this, it is rather easy to be absorbed by the performances and quietly forget this isn’t an optimal digital rendering of this time-honored classic. The audio is an unprepossessing DTS mono, adequate but unremarkable and modestly cleaned up. Shamefully, there are no extras.
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. But moments into this credit, an ill-fitting gray bar suddenly appears over this acknowledgement, remaining steadfast across the screen, temporarily obstructing our view of the names of other cast members as the credits progress. It is unclear when this gray bar was added. Clearly, it was not a part of Bells original theatrical release print and it would have been prudent of Olive to pursue an original print without its annoying inclusion to reinstate into these opening credits. That said, I’m going to recommend this Blu-ray for two reasons: first, because we finally have a transfer that is generally smooth and unimpeded by edge effects, but moreover because the movie is a poignant holiday masterpiece that deserves to be seen, re-seen and treasured. The Bells of St. Mary’s does what it was intended to do; warm the heart, the mind and ultimately, the soul. God bless, keep safe and Merry Christmas!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)