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Christmas Watch: The Bells of St. Mary's (1945)

It's time for holly berries, cinnamon, listening to Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby, and Elvis, and snuggling up under a thick blanket to watch great old movies together. Join us once again for our annual Christmas Watch.

RODNEY BOWCOCK: Is this the “biggest” classic movie that we’ve reviewed on this blog? I think it just might be. The Bells of St. Mary’s (1945) is one of those classic movies that people who don’t really know classic movies know of, and that puts it in the camp of the kind of film that we eschew around here, but I confess that I haven’t seen a lot of those popular favorites, so I was glad to have the opportunity to sit down with this film and see what all of the hubbub is about.

SAMANTHA GLASSER: I hadn't seen it before either. I think that movies featuring religious institutions used to be a lot more popular in the days when such places were an important presence in most people's lives. I've seen local churches close in my lifetime, and it is much rarer to see nuns in the flesh than it was even a generation ago.

RB: I have not seen Going My Way, the film which this is a sequel to (I know…I know…), but fortunately for

me that did not seem to matter as we were introduced to Bing Crosby’s Father O’Malley character from the start as he takes over as a priest at a run-down parish school.

SG: I haven't seen Going My Way either, but I recognized the name of the character. I need to remedy that. Film Bulletin called Bergman's role comparable to Barry Fitzgerald's in the first movie, and said she was prettier too.

RB: St. Mary’s has lots of problems, to the point where the last priest left due to nervous exhaustion. A new office building is being built next door and is butted up against the school playground. There are conflicts between O’Malley’s easy-going methods and the stricter rules of the nuns, particularly Sister Mary Benedict (Ingrid Bergman), and multiple conflicts among the students. Through it all, O’Malley makes his way through these incidents with an affable charm and (naturally) with a song in his throat.

SG: What exactly does Father O'Malley do other than walking around offering advice and accepting more work for the nuns to do? I know he is the hero of the story, but I couldn't help but feel he was meddling and superfluous.

Also, maybe it is in disrepair, but St. Mary's is much more beautiful than that big sterile building next door. It has warmth and charm.

RB: The film is beautifully acted and staged, with supreme credit to be given to Leo McCarey’s impeccable direction. Bergman in particular as Sister Mary Benedict is wonderful, bringing a tender charm to the proceedings, in a string of notable roles (and her third Academy Award nomination in a row). She’s both delicate and firm in a beautiful contradiction of styles that cannot be disputed.

SG: Her face is very beautiful, a simple elegant face that is emphasized by the plainness of her habit. Her giddiness when she reveals her hope that Mr. Bogardus (Henry Travers) will donate his new office building to the parish is childlike and sweet. It annoyed me to read that the studio wanted Bergman to lose weight and was happy she could hide her body under her habit. They paid Selznick $175,000 to rent her services. To prepare for the role she studied with McCarey's aunt who was a nun in Los Angeles, and she came away wanting to emphasize the nun's devotion to hard work rather than playing the role as an idealized angelic stereotype.

RB: In just a few years, Bergman would find herself embroiled in a scandal that is barely understandable today, as she became pregnant with the child of director Roberto Rossellini, an act that actually caused her to be denounced on the floor of the United States Senate for (in the words of Senator Edwin C. Johnson) “perpetrating an assault upon the institution of marriage,” and continuing that Bergman herself was “a powerful influence for evil”. She did eventually recover commercially and found work in good films in the US again in the 60’s, but without getting on a soapbox, I fear for a time when this sort of nonsense and puritanical handwringing could take place again.

SG: She was in a bad marriage with a dominating husband. Though her relationship with Rossellini didn't follow the rules, it seemed to make her happy for a time. She had spunk. The lyrics to the Swedish song she sings in this film are somewhat suggestive, but she got away with it because they were in a different language. She also played a prank while shooting her last scene with Crosby. For most of the shoot, there was a priest on the set to verify authenticity. When she says goodbye to Father O'Malley, Bergman hesitated then swept in and planted a passionate kiss on Crosby, much to the shock and consternation of the priest.

Though she liked working with him, Crosby was enigmatic. "Bing Crosby was one of the most charming, most relaxed persons I have ever worked with, but I never knew him-- or his wife and children," Bergman said.

Interesting that Clarence the Angel from Christmas classic It's a Wonderful Life is the villain (if there is a villain) in this movie. He performs with a benign frantic quality that makes it difficult to dislike him.

Ruth Donnelly, my birthday twin, is Sister Mary Benedict's sidekick Sister Michael, a spunky nun that reminds me of a few characters in a much later movie I grew up watching over and over again, Sister Act.

RB: The kids are lovely, Joan Carroll in particular as Patsy, a young girl embarrassed of the fact that her mother has no husband. When O’Malley finds her husband (a piano player that had absconded to Cincinnati), the family rejoins each other quickly with little to no explanation, which does bring up what I feel is the main flaw in the film. Many of the plot points take place in episodes; there is an episode where Benedict teaches a child being bullied how to box, an episode where the children put on an (adorable) Christmas play, and a scene where Benedict becomes ill and her doctor confides her condition to O’Malley (so much for HIPAA laws…) among several others. These episodes rarely cross over into each other leaving the plot to seem a bit threadbare at times, coasting by on the pure charm of the cast. Still, a minor criticism for a film that runs over two hours long and is so easy and agreeable to watch.

SG: William Gargan, who plays the musician, played a piano player who left his family again in Miracle in the Rain in 1956. Is it possibly to be typecast in such a niche type of role? His wife is played by Martha Sleeper in her last screen role. Hal Roach fans know her from many silent comedies. She is very earnest and expressive in this movie.

The education approaches depicted are interesting to me. Sister Mary Benedict sticks to the strict numerical grading to determine if a student passes or fails. She works after class to help struggling students, but if they don't meet the standard, they don't pass. Father O'Malley believes in softer standards. He says building a child's confidence is sometimes more important than instilling the rote facts. Although I think I fall somewhere in between, local schools have seen the consequences of simply passing students who don't meet the standards to avoid pulling them out of their peer group. Some students can hardly read at the high school level and their writing skills are subpar. Habitually passing them without addressing underlying issues hurts the students in the long run. I wonder how the perspectives of these two would be depicted in a modern environment.

RB: The film was a wild success, being held over for over a month in the large first-run downtown movie houses. Most everyone had seen it who wanted to by the time it hit the neighborhood houses, but it still generally went over well. “Used as a single feature bill with selected shorts. Business exceptionally good for four days,” reported George O. Wiggin of the Maplewood Theater in Malden, Mass. “Just

played Bells seven days. Each day was capacity or close to it. Could have held it seven more days,”

praised John Woytinek of the Gayble Theatre in North Judson, Indiana. And on and on. Nary a less than

glowing review to be found.

SG: "There is nothing lavish about the production; it is straightforward and simple, honestly entertaining dispensing good cheer, heart-throbs, common-sense philosophy in perfectly balanced proportion," wrote Film Bulletin.

RB: Though episodic in nature, the charm and natural ability of the leads and supporting cast made this film a pleasure to spend a couple of hours with. Four stars.

SG: The movie is glossy and charming, a comforting movie to give you an excuse to relax for two hours. Is it a perennial Christmas movie? No. Is it something I'll likely watch again? No. Three stars.

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