Celluloid Christmas: Holy Hollywood! "The Bells of St. Mary's"
With Christmas Eve 11 days away, it is the perfect time to share my gift of film fandom and Christmas mania. I love movies and I adore the magic of the holiday season. What better way to commemorate the two than by combining them for some "reel-life" Noel celebrating. Today's movie choice is 1945's "The Bells of St. Mary's."
Technically, this is NOT a Christmas film. However, it always aired on WPIX for the holiday season, and it's been solidified in my mind as such since childhood. I'm not alone with this connection between "The Bells of St. Mary's" and December 25. In "It's a Wonderful Life," the granddaddy of all Christmas flicks, the movie's title is emblazoned across a cinema marquee in Bedford Falls. (Incidentally, the guardian angel from "Wonderful Life," actor Henry Travers, costars in "St. Mary's," too.)
You even see "The Bells of St. Mary's" making a cameo appearance in the godfather of all Mafia movies, "The Godfather." When Michael (Al Pacino) and Kay (Diane Keaton) go on a date to Radio City Music Hall, that's the film that the landmark movie palace is showing. So, I'm not alone with honoring the ties between this film and Christmas, and I'm happy to be in the company of Frank Capra and Francis Ford Coppola.
The premise of "The Bells of St. Mary's" is the clashing of wills. In this case, it's a showdown between a "cool as a cucumber" and "jazz hipster" priest, played by Bing Crosby, and a more conservative, by-the-book nun (Ingrid Bergman). Crosby is reviving his Oscar-winning role of Father O'Malley. We know, of course, that he is just one of the guys, because he goes by the first name "Chuck," not the formal one "Charles."
Bergman's portrayal of Sister Mary Benedict is the more difficult role. She has to appear both stubborn and saintly, devout and domineering. Bergman's acting was so incredible that many young female moviegoers considered entering the convent because of Bergman's persuasive onscreen ways. (Her offscreen ways were an entirely different matter! Her extramarital affair and out-of-wedlock baby would earn her condemnation by the Church and the U.S. Congress in 1950!)
The parish of St. Mary's is a downtrodden one, and the church elders have sent O'Malley to scout whether the parochial school can and should be saved. It has seen better days, but the student body is loved and tended by their nun faculty. A school Christmas pageant is shown with a motley crew of participants, and "Adestes Fideles" ("O, Come All Ye Faithful" for non-Latin speakers) is crooned by Crosby and a children's choir.
This movie is fascinating to me because it could not be made today. Or, if it was, it would be radically changed. In a modern version, a feisty lay teacher would crash into the parish, upending the complacent and controlling religious instructors. If it was based in today's real-world situation, there would be only one or two nuns on the school property. Both of them, if in their sixties or seventies, might be entrusted with minimal educational duties. Otherwise, they would be confined to the convent, out of sight and out of mind.
The film was produced not even 75 years ago, but the perception of nuns and priests has changed dramatically. In 2019, a nun in a film signifies dogmatic thinking and fevered, frenzied, frightening adherence to the Scripture. A priest? As a Mafia extra from "The Godfather" might say, "Fuhgeddabouttit." If a priest is given lengthy screen time, it's because he's about to be unveiled as a pedophile, predator, sadist, or perhaps all three.
"The Bells of St. Mary's" was made when the world had witnessed a global war. Real evil had been set loose on the planet, and America and her allies had seemingly set the world right. Optimism was the course of the day, and endless possibilities seemed to be what Americans were feasting on. If Sister Benedict held out hope against hope that a millionaire (Henry Travers's character) would donate his newly built construction to her parish, we weren't meant to deride or mock her. If she had the faith and the will to conceive of the impossible, then perhaps it would come true. (And, of course, since this was a movie made by Leo McCarey and his Rainbow Productions, a sunny forecast was almost always decreed.)
This is a movie that doesn't get as much attention as other post-WW II movies. Perhaps the overt homage to the goodness and morality of the clergy prevents it from getting its due. It flies in the face of recent headlines, lawsuits, and innuendoes. Producers today are more comfortable with films like 2015's "Spotlight" about the Catholic Church and its sex-abuse cover-ups. Not many people saw that movie Stateside (it did better overseas), but it went on to win the Academy Award for Best Picture of the Year.
Interestingly, I saw a very raunchy, yet emotionally rich, comedy written by and starring Charles Busch called "The Divine Sister" a few years past. Many moments from that hilarious evening were mined from this Bergman-Crosby picture. A female illusionist, Busch wasn't bashing or lambasting the nuns of yore. He was gifting them with a Valentine of wistfulness and nostalgia. If imitation is the highest form of flattery, then that stage play offered it in a shiny package with a big red Christmas bow on top.
If TCM airs this movie, I recommend you catch it. It has pathos and laughs, tears and victories. "The Bells of St. Mary's" really reverberates with anyone who has attended parochial school, loves classic black-and-white cinematography, and wants to see two of the biggest movie stars of their time lovingly play men and women of the cloth. That qualifies as a Hollywood miracle, especially because five years later, Bergman would be pushed from this pedestal of honorary sainthood. Still, this movie stands out because it paints a priest and a nun as flesh-and-blood people percolating with pride, jealousy, ego, good intentions, and doubts. It's actress Ingrid Bergman's misfortune that five years later she ended up revealing a bit too much "flesh and blood" for 1950s America's mind-set.