So far I’d avoided the two holiday classics that star Bing Crosby: 1944’s Going My Way and 1945’s The Bells of St. Mary’s. I’ve probably admitted this elsewhere, but Crosby’s smugness (and off-screen issues) have always kept me removed from liking his work. That and he always felt like he was a 50-year-old man when he was meant to be playing younger.
But finally watching The Bells of St. Mary’s, isolated from its original feature, showed where a man like Crosby could excel. Recently released on a gorgeous Blu-ray by Olive Films, The Bells of St. Mary’s shows how director Leo McCarey used actors to great effect, taking individual personas to tell a sweetly simple tale of dreams and personal ambitions.
Crosby returns to the screen as Father Chuck O’Malley who has transferred to St. Mary’s School where the previous Father left for nervous exhaustion. As Father O’Malley gains his bearings with the children he must also contend with the nuns, particularly Sister Mary Benedict (Ingrid Bergman) whose methods of teaching are different from his.
I want to thank writer Abbey Bender, who pens the essay that accompanies Olive Films and whose words will pop up in this review. I call Leo McCarey “depressing Frank Capra” because his films often show the quiet and, at times, harsh realities. Capra had a political message, but McCarey showed us humanity, for good and ill. So watching this makes you think of the tragic love of both Love Affair (1939) and its remake, 1957’s An Affair to Remember.
Or, if you want to swing right to existential sadness, you can think of the elderly couple, forced to separate in McCarey’s Make Way for Tomorrow (1937). As Bender says, there’s a conservatism in The Bells of St. Mary’s, where bullying is resolved amicably and a greedy industrialist (played by Henry Travers pre-Clarence) can have a change of heart by meeting a dog and a nun.
But what keeps The Bells of St. Mary’s ringing (pun totally intended) is often what makes all of McCarey’s features work: the dialogue and the characters’ humanity. Crosby, whose crooner personality can give him a too-cool-for-school vibe, balances that aura with actually playing a character. His Father O’Malley is certainly very Crosby: he’s got a spring in his step with his straw boater hat perpetually cocked on his head and his treatment of the kids is to let them all pass and have fun. But, simultaneously, he uses that persona to show what Father O’Mally is specifically all about. He understands life is already hard enough, let alone having to endure that as a child.
He’s drawn to the young Patricia “Patsy” Gallagher (a post-Meet Me in St. Louis Joan Carroll) who was born out of wedlock. Patsy’s life is already difficult considering her upbringing and yet she comes alive at St. Mary’s. It’s a place for her to come into her own. What McCarey does is illustrate the effect that a sense of place can have on a person. Sister Benedict certainly loves the school as it is, but when she sees the parcel of land developer Travers’ Horace Bogardus owns, she imagines children playing on basketball courts and how much grander it can be.
Unlike other movies, most specifically The Bishop’s Wife (1947), there’s nothing supernatural or otherworldly about the parsonage and its ambitions. They want to own Bogardus’ building and are praying that he’ll give it to them. For those who believe, their prayers work, and for others, it plays as narrative convenience, neither side is wrong, per se.
But more than Crosby’s blending of character and persona, Ingrid Bergman does the same thing. Within just a few years the idea of Bergman playing a nun would become laughable as she was mired in a scandal with director Roberto Rossellini. Bergman’s always at her greatest when she shows she wasn’t a prim and virginal Swede (a great example is her work in Cactus Flower).
It would seem that Bergman playing a nun would be perfect, especially considering her role as the perfect woman in Casablanca (1944), but as Sister Benedict, she goes through the greatest transformation in the feature. She finds Father O’Malley to be unorthodox yet finds herself taking his advice, like teaching a young boy how to box. The two characters clash, but they’re always working towards helping prepare the children they teach, they just have different ideas of what the kids should walk away with.
I also want to point out how excellent young Joan Carroll is in this movie as Patsy. If you’ve only seen Carroll in Meet Me in St. Louis this is more of a starring role outside of her bratty middle-sister character. As Patsy, she’s a young girl who doesn’t really understand what’s going on in her life. Her mother feels shame at Patsy not having a father, so she responds by sending her away. When Patsy discovers her father has returned, McCarey’s camera captures her fear, hesitation, and anger in such a brilliant way.
I’m surprised by how much I’ve written about The Bells of St. Mary’s, but that’s the power of McCarey. Because his features deal with the complexity of human emotion they’re perfect character studies to deconstruct. If you’ve been distanced from Crosby or Bergman this is worth watching. As far as being a Christmas film, outside of one humorous sequence with children telling the Nativity story (McCarey loves scenes with kids), there isn’t a huge emphasis on the holiday, so if that factors in be prepared.
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A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.