Saturday, December 11, 2021

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

Watched:  12/11/2021
Format:  VOD from TCM
Viewing:  Unknown
Decade:  1940's
Director:  Leo McCarey

I don't watch The Bells of St. Mary's (1945) every year - and it's been a while - but when I do, I'm weirdly weepy through the whole thing.  And I do not know why.  Ingrid Bergman smiling in soft lighting in close-up is certainly part of it.  But... I'm not Catholic.  I've only spoken to like one or two nuns in my life.  

The message of the film is not as on the nose as It's a Wonderful Life or a Pixar film where you more or less get why you're having the feels.  But who can argue with the kind of belief in people's better natures, that kindness is its own reward and the value of good cheer that the movie puts forward?  And, for those of you so inclined, it's a look at faith and service that's remarkable.

The Bells of St. Mary's is considered a Christmas movie, and it... is not.  It has exactly one sequence of a movie that takes place over an academic year that takes place anywhere around Christmas.  That scene is a banger, but it barely even advances the plot.  The original release date - Dec. 6th, 1945 - fell in the holiday season (it's on the marquee at the Bedford Falls cinema as George Bailey runs down Main Street), and paired with the song becoming not exactly a staple, but a bit of a standard, of holiday music - it's locked in.  

The film of course stars Ingrid Bergman as Sister Mary Benedict, the head of a parochial school and leader of a gang of nuns,* and Bing Crosby as Father Chuck O'Malley, reprising his role from the Oscar-winning Going My Way.  This time, O'Malley is sent to the parochial school/ church to run the show, but meets his match in the rule-bound Sister Benedict.

St. Mary's is a decent school, but it's in an older building, and many parents have begun to send their kids to a different, more modern school, and it's possible that St. Mary's may (a) close, (b) be bulldozed into a parking lot by Horace P. Bogardus (the always terrific Henry Travers), a tycoon building a new structure just nextdoor, who thinks the school's footprint looks like a great place for a parking lot.

The movie is not devoid of conflict, but it is soft conflict for the most part.  Crosby and Bergman disagree on some strategy with a student.  A young girl struggles with her home life.  But, mostly we see the total dedication Bergman's Sister Benedict has to the life she's been chosen to lead - and in the final reel when we learn she has to be sent away for her own health, and Father O'Malley is told to withhold the information about why - man, that scene as played by Bergman is a master class.  

And, of course, the softening of Henry Travers' character from hardnosed businessman to a man of generosity.

Audiences can read this as O'Malley and Benedict reaching Bogardus, but it's also a suggestion of the power of prayer and how God speaks to people and guides them.  And, of course, it offers the audience a chance to see the power and impact of charity - something very much in the hearts of Americans in December of 1945.

I guess it's that the movie understands the world we're in - Patsy's mom and dad's situation doesn't feel imported from another film, it's what people are actually dealing with.  And it's one of the few films I can think of where nuns and priests aren't treated as bullies, out-of-touch, etc... They're within the world but separate and mission-oriented.  And here to help out the Patsy's.  Heck, O'Malley gives a speech (which is cat interrupted) about this being thankless work they're doing gladly.  

And - it's not the first picture with a platonic working relationship between a man and woman, but the arc of the friendship and realization of shared aims between O'Malley and Benedict, which goes mostly unspoken, that's really remarkable and sticks the landing of the film's last moments.

Anyway - maybe not a Christmas movie, but a great movie to watch during the holiday season.

Now, here's the version of the song put out by Bob B. Soxx and the Blue Jeans (produced by Phil Spector):

*I am sure a group of nuns is not officially a "gang", but I'm not looking it up.

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