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The Bells of St. Mary’s

by Glenn Erickson Nov 26, 2019

One of America’s favorite holiday movies plays strangely today, and despite being one of the most popular pictures of its year, really should have disturbed people when it was new as well. Director Leo McCarey and his glowing stars Bing Crosby and Ingrid Bergman do remarkable work, and the show has its heart in the right place… but the values built into the story are painfully wrong-headed. We don’t expect ’40s films to adhere to today’s so-called enlightened PC values, but some of the attitudes in this one make us want to throw things at the screen. Taken from a beautifully remastered new restoration, Olive’s Signature Edition is flawless.

 

The Bells of St. Mary’s
Blu-ray
Olive Signature
1945 / B&W / 1:37 flat Academy / 126 min. / Street Date November 26, 2019 / available through the Olive Signature website / 39.95
Starring: Bing Crosby, Ingrid Bergman, Henry Travers, William Gargan, Ruth Donnelly, Joan Carroll, Martha Sleeper, Rhys Williams, Richard Tyler, Una O’Connor, Minerva Urecal.
Cinematography: George Barnes
Film Editor: Harry Marker
Original Music: Robert Emmett Dolan
Written by Dudley Nichols
Produced and Directed by
Leo McCarey

 

Talk about an old movie that’s the equivalent of a minefield for this reviewer … The potential audience for Leo McCarey’s The Bells of St. Mary’s is split between true believers for whom it walks on water, and other audiences not likely to sit through ten minutes of its old-fashioned drama. If you love the movie and don’t want to read any discouraging words about it, clear this from your screen. It’s an extremely well-made show, but an equally troubling experience.

I’m as big a Leo McCarey fan as anyone, but I have to tell you I was dismayed by Joseph McBride’s quote from 1973: “If you don’t cry when Bing Crosby tells Ingrid Bergman she has tuberculosis, I never want to meet you, and that’s that.”  McBride is a film culture god to this humble reviewer, but that quote slays me — is he so smitten by Crosby’s spouting some Gaelic that nothing else matters?  The on-screen business of Father O’Malley FINALLY telling Sister Benedict about her true state of health is infuriating.

McCarey’s monster hit and Best Picture winner Going My Way seems to have known how badly America in 1944 wanted reassurance and comfort against the enormous evil in the world at large, revealed by the war experience. The country’s gentle and faithful folk likely wished they could erase reality and return to the pre-war state of ignorant innocence. The tale of a young priest’s positive relationship between young and old priests was two-plus hours of calm and relaxation. Realizing that he’d struck a nerve, writer-director McCarey bounced back with a similar entertainment. By including nuns in his story he enabled the casting of the beloved Ingrid Bergman opposite America’s favorite crooner Crosby. Their potential chemistry was unlimited. Curiosity about the film invariably went to the notion of a possible priest-nun romance … I imagine Tex Avery could repeat his Red Hot Riding Hood joke, ‘something new has been added… sex!’  The film’s promotion does cheat a bit in that direction — although Crosby and Bergman stay at a discreet distance one from another, advertising stills cut & pasted their images together as if they were a couple, an item.

That’s not an issue in the movie, which doubtlessly charmed folks of faith of all denominations — the relationship between the hipster-lite Father O’Malley (he wears a straw hat ‘skimmer’) and the incredibly intuitive and sensitive Sister Benedict couldn’t have been better formulated.

 

That’s probably the only aspect of Bells that escapes values that should have seemed wrong in 1945 … or in 1900, for that matter. Leo McCarey, we should remember, made Make Way for Tomorrow, one of the most beautifully humanistic, socially sensitive pictures ever made. They say that WW2 radically changed the careers of several established comedy directors, most notably Frank Capra and George Stevens. Leo McCarey didn’t get more serious or conflicted… he just went slightly crazy in the head, starting with this crowd-pleaser.

Father Chuck O’Malley (Crosby) reports to take on his new assignment as the priest in charge of the nun-schoolteachers at St. Mary’s. His predecessor had a nervous breakdown, or so reports his landlady Mrs. Breen (Una O’Connor, nicely subdued). O’Malley meets the nuns, most particularly Sister Mary Benedict (Bergman), who is in charge. Their styles of leadership-in-Faith conflict slightly, as problems arise. Chuck doesn’t break up a fight between two boys, but congratulates the winner; Sister Benedict takes on the task of teaching the loser Eddie Breen (Dickie Tyler) some boxing skills. Chuck accepts a new student, Patsy Gallagher (Joan Carroll of Primrose Path) when her mother Mary (Martha Sleeper) makes a personal appeal; Mary want Patsy to board because her home life is ‘unsavory.’ Chuck then goes looking for the missing father (William Gargan).

St. Mary’s most pressing problem is one of real estate. They’ve already lost their playing field to a new building erected by developer Horace P. Bogardus (Henry Travers, ‘Clarence’ of It’s a Wonderful Life). Bogardus wants to buy St. Mary’s to give his building a parking lot. He counsels Chuck that the building is slated to be condemned anyway — and he leads the council that will make the decision. Chuck has a tough nut to crack — Sister Benedict and her nuns are already praying that Bogardus will deed his building to the school out of the goodness of his heart. In figuring a way to make this miracle happen, Chuck befriends Bogardus’s doctor, McKay (Rhys Williams), who also happens to be Sr. Benedict’s doctor.

The Bells of St. Mary’s is an ultra-lite drama about the adversarial relationship of a priest and a nun, both of whom approach their callings in different ways. We of course know that the big-deal issue will be saving the school from destruction, and it’s no crime that the pro-Catholic show places a high value on prayer. Frankly, if Ingrid Bergman prayed for fire and brimstone to rain down on her enemies, we’d be in her corner… in or out of a nun’s habit, she radiates virtue and integrity.

Did audiences use the same yardstick in turning off their brains with this show?  Is it like going to church, when there’s a tacit agreement to accept the authoritative wisdom coming from the pulpit?  McCarey and his writer Dudley Nichols’ vision of Catholic harmony is untroubled by such things.

 

Father O’Malley is warned that the sisters are going to be unmanageable, like the cat that interrupts his first speech to the school staff. But the nuns offer no real resistance, mainly because there’s no conflict. In fact, the 2+ hours of movie are devoted to only three issues, two of which mostly self-heal. Non-conflict #1 is the fighting between the boys. Chuck all but encourages it, and instead of objecting to such a basic thing, Sister Benedict coaches the loser. Leo McCarey was the king of cutesy comedy — he teamed up Laurel & Hardy, we’re told — but most of the cute set-pieces here aim really low. Sister Benedict demos a proper book-taught uppercut, and gets popped on the chin for her trouble. Bergman makes it funny, but it only reminds us how bad the ‘boys must fight’ ethos always was. It was never indulged by any church people of any faith that I knew.

It’s easy to resolve such matters when the school’s students are such little angels. One fisticuffs exchange later, Eddie and his nemesis are good buddies. The idea that schoolyard bullying leads to good friendships is a cruel myth. Nichols and McCarey challenge several assumptions, and come down on the wrong side of every issue.

We don’t mind reality being tweaked a bit, but the wrong-headedness continues. Reviewers assume that Mary Gallagher is a prostitute, when the only evidence we have of any funny business is that she’s raising a daughter without a father in the house, and isn’t saying how she makes a living. Gallagher fronts zero low-life attributes, and her apartment is nicer than what an average inner-city family might have. Did I miss hints that she’s a kept woman of some kind?  The inference is that Patsy’s life will be ruined because she has nobody to call her father.

Perhaps the clue to mom’s apparent lapse of decency is hinted at when we first meet Patsy. Without asking permission or even explaining what he’s going to do, Father O’Malley rubs off Patsy’s makeup — which in his eyes turns her back into a sweet little girl again. Patsy consents to this treatment without protest. Speaking for myself, I was raised to respect all adult authority, which I now think was not always a good thing. The fact that Patsy doesn’t resist all but proves that she’s a good little girl, not the tough offspring of a fallen woman.

That O’Malley retrieves Mary’s long-lost husband — un-asked — is less offensive, perhaps because it was assumed back in the day that reuniting any family is a good thing. But it’s pretty funny when Chuck simply springs the chastened Joe Gallagher on Mary, with no real warning. How does Chuck know that SHE REALLY WANTS HIM BACK?  As it turns out, Mr. and Mrs. Gallagher had no real differences and have been pining to reunite. Hipster Chuck looks musician Joe up through his union, and all is settled with no effort at all. Gee, those priests have a knack for solving the toughest problems.

Have values changed all that much?  Bells doubles down on the awful charity-logic seen in MGM’s Boys Town (1938), when Spencer Tracy leans on businessmen to fund his progressive community for problem boys. Tracy’s priest repeatedly uses holy extortion to obtain the cold cash he needs. His faux-pious statements and proclamations never stop — whatever Father Flanagan wants, Father Flanagan gets.

 

1945 audiences must have thought it ‘cute’ when Crosby’s Father O’Malley uses a similar full court press on Bogardus the developer. Again, it’s no contest and no conflict. It’s hard to believe that Bogardus could run a candy store, let alone construct a multi-story office building — which is somehow PERFECTLY suited to be re-purposed as a parochial school. The old fuddy-duddy has the will and drive of a cup of tapioca. Chuck isn’t troubled to see his schoolboys risking life and limb climbing on the developer’s construction site. After one gutless ‘get off my lawn’ speech, the simpering Bogardus caves in to every suggestion. Chuck shamelessly drives two wedges into the old man. Number one is that he’s an unloved old curmudgeon who can gain love and respect by giving away everything he’s built. The second is that tempis fugit, you old dotard — you haven’t long to live, you’ll be dust again, so why are you being such a crabapple?  Of course, the church would LOVE to help you with your mortality issues.

Chuck gets conspiratorial aid from Bogardus’s doctor, who thinks the guy should retire and take it easy anyway — he does have some health issues. McCarey and Nichols turn this into a terrific sick joke… immediately after the ‘reborn’ Bogardus makes his charitable decision, he walks off-screen and we hear the brakes of a large truck!  Will Bogardus croak before Sister Benedict can get his signature on the deed to his building?

What did Bogardus plan to use his building for in the first place?  We see not one attorney or associate that might voice an objection. I’m almost surprised that Chuck didn’t obtain the building through direct blackmail. Bogardus offers to buy St. Mary’s while saying that, if the church doesn’t sell, he’ll use his civic office to see that the property is condemned. Wow, that’s direct extortion. Does Ukraine figure into this anywhere?

Before I continue, it’s important to stress how charming most of this show is, and how tasteful. Crosby and Bergman put the seal of Good Housekeeping on every scene. Nothing is harsh, or rushed. McCarey works in bits of cutesy business that can’t be faulted, even when the child actors seem a little stilted. McCarey’s most original scene shows some pretty small tykes carrying off their own rehearsal of a nativity scene, which qualifies Bells as a Christmas movie. It’s a little awkward — in a good way — and impressively natural-looking. We’re told that McCarey just directed the kids to rehearse on their own, and had his cameras roll after he left the room, so as not to intimidate his pint-sized performers. We believe the story, even if there are too many angles to get the scene in one go — there must have been some significant pickup shots.

Other ‘natural’ moments among the kiddies are anything but. The girls rehearse in their graduation gowns, letting McCarey have fun with their shaky footing on high heels. The tension here is seeing the nuns serve as guides for deportment in feminine style and behavior. After seeing Patsy get all the attention as well as the standout graduation dress, another student causes NEGATIVE VIBES by implying that Patsy is a teacher’s pet. Well, duh. Sister Benedict lets this minor ‘disturbance in The Force’ pass without comment. Bergman could announce that all firstborn children were being shipped to the glue factory, and we’d nod in approval.

Sister Benedict’s all-healing serenity can’t compensate for some weird story developments. Nobody has BOTHERED TO TELL Patsy that the man hanging around her mother is her estranged father, a sweetheart. This so confuses Patsy that she purposely flunks her classes so she can avoid going home. Father O’Malley seriously tells Sister Benedict that she should pass EVERYBODY, cause, gee, the discouragement of flunking might hurt the kids’ self-image in later life. Ever even-tempered, Ingrid Bergman doesn’t throw her grade book against the wall. She instead grants Chuck the right to butt in with unproductive pedagogical meddling of this kind. True, some progressive teaching situations now take special steps to remove ‘grade stigma,’ but it just doesn’t add up here.

(Spoiler). As in the laziest confected melodramas with non-conflicts, the worst things happen when people choose to withhold vital information ‘for somebody’s own good.’ Chuck’s paternalistic secrecy encourages Patsy’s dangerously self-destructive thoughts about her mother and herself. In the crowning ethical outrage, Chuck listens to the pea-brained doctor. He believes that Sister Benedict will fare better if she’s kept unaware of her serious illness — ‘it might have an adverse emotional effect.’ So Chuck breaks Sister Benedict’s heart by telling her she’s being replaced and shipped off to a distant diocese, for no reason at all. Although she’s too submissive and gracious to react, Benedict is clearly shattered to think that she’s failed so badly, failed the school and failed in Father O’Malley’s eyes.

 

When O’Malley finds he can’t go through with his deception, we get the scene that Joseph McBride found so emotionally affecting. To each his own, but the dictates of my own moral-fairness compass make it just another outrage. Sister Benedict immediately lights up, as if the weight of the world is off her shoulders — like O’Malley did a good thing, which is absurd. Chuck thus earns credit for ‘curing’ a toxic situation that HE HIMSELF CREATED. Chuck can now go forward, free of any self-doubt. Hopefully, the Chuck-inflicted depression hasn’t aggravated Benedict’s illness too much. Depressed people do indeed get sicker, Chuck.

Yes, this is an idealized 1945 fantasy, that skims across real-life problems in a lightweight but heartwarming way. We remind ourselves that St. Mary’s students are all white and all assimilated English speakers; that there are no gangs, no drugs, no excessive poverty, no ethnic or racial enmities. We only meet nice people. The kids are already dignified little ladies and gentlemen. Una O’Connor’s landlady is a marvelously discreet gossip. The nuns are a mostly silent group, after enjoying a good snicker at the spectacle of a kitten upstaging the new Priest in the building. The only one with more than one line of dialogue is the wonderful Ruth Donnelly. Fifteen years before, Donnelly was the queen of pre-Code sex comedies — always the office girl reacting to risqué situations: “Woo Hoo!”

I think I’ve already given Bing Crosby and Ingrid Bergman’s work sufficient praise. Did memories of her inspired, pious performance here make Bergman’s fans feel doubly betrayed, when her affair with Roberto Rossellini prompted the media hate-mongers to burn her at the stake?

Martha Sleeper, William Gargan, Rhys Williams are all standouts, and Henry Travers does what might be his best bit of screen acting, preventing Horace Bogardus from becoming a bad joke. Little Joan Carroll is good when portraying a disturbed teenager — just as she was impressive as a precociously immoral, obnoxious tyke in Gregory La Cava’s eye-opening drama Primrose Path. Young Eddie is played by Dickie Tyler, and his schoolyard fight results in convincing cuts and a bloody nose. As the adult actor Richard Tyler, he took even worse punishment. In 1960’s The Atomic Submarine, Tyler is bisected by a wicked iris-doorway in an alien flying saucer, a scene that scared the Dickens out of kids in the matinee audience. See, all movies lead to science-fiction.


 

Olive Signature’s Blu-ray of The Bells of St. Mary’s applies a heck of an upgrade to Olive’s earlier no-frills disc. I wish all my B&W favorites of the ’40s could be given this kind of restoration attention. The image is immaculate (to coin a phrase) with beautifully-graded images; even the dissolves are as clean as a parson’s whistle. George Barnes’ cinematography shines; he and McCarey mostly allow shots to play wide, knowing that our interest in the characters is so great, giant close-ups can be saved for key moments. The image is beautifully detailed: several artful matte shots establishing St. Mary’s are revealed to be little more than pencil sketches — that work just fine.

Bells was originally released through RKO but is once again studio-aligned with the original Going My Way, which was released by Paramount, the licensee for this disc edition. The heightened disc quality is due to an improved source — previous releases were from a TV license dupe, which wiped out mention of RKO in the opening credits. The TV prints for RKO films routinely obliterated ending logos, ruining the fade-outs of great pictures like The Big Sky.

Gary Giddins announces the restoration of the original credits in his commentary, not realizing that the RKO radio tower logo would be dropped from this edition!  Since Bells was Leo McCarey’s fully independent production, the music score didn’t overlap RKO’s logo, so is not cut off. The ending card just says ‘The End’ without the RKO shield. Mr. Gidden’s commentary skills are as good as ever. He’s a biographer of Bing Crosby so much of his talk centers on the star, or to be more accurate, the superstar singer & entertainer.

Olive’s special signature edition’s three new featurettes ought to please fans too. Sister Rose Pacatte offers a nice talk about that’s realistic about the picture’s moral messages. She praises the fact that its heart is in the right place, but puts forward her own mild protest about the paternalistic inaccuracies in the parochial school setup, what with Father O’Malley having the power to run the school, make changes, order nuns around directly, etc.. She also calls out the screaming wrongness of withholding from Sister Benedict her own health condition, bless her. Sister Pacatte has diplomatic skills I do not — she still endorses the movie wholeheartedly.

Steve Massa’s longer featurette gives a thorough if softened rundown on Leo McCarey’s impressive career. He calls it simply ‘uneven’ and dodges the off-the-cliff politics of most of McCarey’s postwar pictures. He refers to Red China as ‘Indo-China’ several times.

Finally, Emily Carman gives a full discussion of sequels in old Hollywood. She says that The Bride of Frankenstein is an early example, and maybe she’s right. Old studios mostly did unofficial sequels — ‘more of the same only different’ — and instead re-made pictures just as often as we do now.

There must have been gold in this property, as two separate radio adaptations are included, both featuring main stars from the film. Knocking the show down to one hour for the radio would not have been difficult. Olive’s insert sheet has a friendly essay – introduction for Bells by Audrey Bender.

Up top I said Leo McCarey ‘went crazy in the head,’ which seems terribly unfair to the maker of the sublime Duck Soup, Ruggles of Red Gap, Make Way for Tomorrow, The Awful Truth, Love Affair, and An Affair to Remember. McCarey’s unhinged movies, and not just politically, are the bizarre Good Sam, and a deranged religious-anticommunist propaganda trio: You Can Change the World, My Son John and Satan Never Sleeps.

By the way, The Bells of St. Mary’s was made before the Pledge of Allegiance was altered in 1954, to add the phrase ‘Under God,’ which inadvertently cues some to claim that we’re running a Christian nation here, by golly. The Catholic schoolchildren recite the secular version early in the picture.

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson


The Bells of St. Mary’s
Olive Signature Blu-ray rates:
Movie: Very Good … maybe
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Audio commentary by Gary Giddins; Featurettes:Faith and Film with Sister Rose Pacatte; Human Nature with Steve Massa on Leo McCarey; Before Sequel-itis with Professor Emily Carman. Screen Guild Theater radio adaptations; insert essay by cultural critic Abbey Bender.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed November 23, 2019
(6140bell)

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About Glenn Erickson

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Glenn Erickson left a small town for UCLA film school, where his spooky student movie about a haunted window landed him a job on the CLOSE ENCOUNTERS effects crew. He’s a writer and a film editor experienced in features, TV commercials, Cannon movie trailers, special montages and disc docus. But he’s most proud of finding the lost ending for a famous film noir, that few people knew was missing. Glenn is grateful for Trailers From Hell’s generous offer of a guest reviewing haven for CineSavant.