Monday, October 2, 2017

Bells of St. Mary's, The (1945)

Director: Leo McCarey


In March of 1945 at the Academy Awards Leo McCarey and Bing Crosby left the ceremony with Oscars respectively with Best Director and Best Actor awards for their work on the Best Picture winner Going My Way. Perhaps the most delighted person of the night however was Ingrid Bergman, who won Best Actress for her work in the suspense drama Gaslight, because she knew the very next day she would be joining McCarey and Crosby on the set of sequel of Going My Way, which became 1945’s The Bells of St. Mary’s. The picture’s story shares yet another episode of Father O’Malley, portrayed by Crosby, on a second virtuous mission. As a result of the film appeal with its greatly celebrated director and leading stars, it would achieve the title of highest grossing films of 1945 and the most profitable feature in the history of RKO.

The Bells of St. Mary’s is drama of a catholic school of the verge of condemnation and the unconventional priest and conservative nun who hope to save it from the brink. In a way it is a continuation of the tales of Father Chuck O’Malley (Bing Crosby) after the events of Going My Way as he assumes his new appointment as head St. Mary’s parish. Run down and on the threshold of closure, this New York inner-city school led by a group of nuns whose faith lies in that the Lord will provide. During this period the stubborn Sister Mary Benedict (Ingrid Bergman) strives in good faith, but finds herself clashing with the manner O’Malley’s likes handling school matters.

Through O’Malley’s casual manner of communicating he aids the school in gaining a sizable donation of a brand-new building, from the once hardened businessman Horace Bogardus (Henry Travers) for which the school to replace its rotting older structure. This reward of the faith for Sister Mary also begins to sway the manner in which she sees how the school benefits the students with lessons of of the heart and not just from text books. As the school year concludes O’Malley announces his moving on while Sister Benedict unknowingly contracts tuberculosis. By doctor’s orders O’Malley has Sister Mary transferred to a dry climate across the country, which she takes as reprimand for their past conflicts until she is told of her new-found condition and that the move is temporary. With that the Sister is relieved as our story closes with the reward of hard work and strong faith.

The picture is not so much a sequel as it is simply a second tale of Father O’Malley in his journey from parish to parish, helping to make each place better. It is as if he is a priestly James Bond or Indiana Jones without the actual action, adventure, danger, or excitement. He comes, he shakes things up in his quiet manner until he gains respect from the parish conservatives, all the while he helps straighten up the ship, then it is off to his next appointment somewhere else, off into his proverbial religious sunset.

One would not need to know anything from Going My Way to follow The Bells of St. Mary’s as the stories share nothing other than the character of Father O’Malley. In fact, The Bells of St. Mary’s story was concieved by Leo McCarey before the focus of RKO turned the project into Going My Way. The story of The Bells of St. Mary’s was inspired by an aunt of Leo McCarey, the real Sister Mary Benedict, who died or typhoid while serving her parish. With the rousing success of Going My Way, which made McCarey wealthy thanks to sharing in a good chunk of the film’s profits, McCarey under his newly founded production company Rainbow Pictures, would be greenlit by RKO for St. Mary’s.

As mentioned before, the two stars of the picture were Bing Crosby, reprising his Academy Award winning role as Father O’Malley, the relatable priest loved by nearly all, and the recent Oscar winner Ingrid Bergman. By this time Bing Crosby was perhaps the most popular entertainer in the country, as a singer and one of the top grossing actors in Hollywood, he was in the hey days of his career. Bergman too was flying at the peak of her profession coming off of three of the finest years any actress could ask for with her recent Academy Award winning performance in Gaslight in 1944, a nominated performance in 1943’s For Whom the Bell Tolls, and the all-time Hollywood classic Casablanca the year prior in 1942.

Coming into the picture cold, it may be difficult for some to warm up to the idea of Cosby and Bergman as people of the cloth, but as the picture meanders forward both are presented as meek, yet overall lovable characters. Bergman represents the blind faith and innocence of religion while Crosby, bridges the gap of the staunch structure of the church and the humanity of the everyday man. O’Malley represents how the church is not a cut off idea from the rest of the world, but made of real people that can be in touch with popular culture. Both actors would be nominated once again, along with the direction of Leo McCarey, who can be seen as the highest director at this time, with a bank account to prove it.

The lovable Henry Travers appears in the picture as the hard-nosed businessman that is constructing his new building next to St.Mary’s. Of course, with Travers you know he will come around to help the parish, because… well… it is Henry Travers. Who does not like this man? Shortly here after this angel of a performer will make his most transcendent performance as… what else?... an angel, Clarence from the iconic classic It’s a Wonderful Life. Here in The Bells of St. Mary’s, at least for a short while, Travers does deliver the grumpy “old man” sense to his character, but it was only a matter of time when he becomes a bit more bumbling and silly, ultimately become the real hero of the picture, despite the story only glancing over him near the end of the picture. His performance is not at all believable, but he is only there to serve his very simple purpose.

A secondary tale in the film follows the story of Patsy, played by Joan Carroll, a teenage girl first admitted to the school mid year by O’Malley at Sister Mary’s behest. Through this subplot’s tale we observe the eventual softening of Sister Mary’s heart towards the girl who finds troubles focusing on her schoolwork due to trouble in her home life. Carroll, a contract juvenile star for the studio at the age of 14 talented enough to work another few years as a juvenile with a possibility to transition to mature roles. However, after the picture Carroll would retire from acting, distancing herself from her singing and performing career.

With the film’s star power and connection to the previous year’s Best Picture winner The Bells of St. Mary’s quickly become the highest grossing picture of 1945 despite its overly clean story. Its profits were so high that it would become RKO’s highest grossing feature in the studio’s history. The film received generally favorable reviews from critics who even showed signs of being tired of its subject matter, but praised the stars in their believable performances. The film was nominated for an amazing eight Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, and Best Actress, but came away with one win, and that was for Best Sound. With Bing Crosby playing Father O’Malley this would mark the first time any actor was nominated for an Academy Award for portraying a character in a film and its sequel.

The Bells of St. Mary’s was a peek for the players whose names are attached to the picture and remains a quiet classic for this age of Hollywood. Its religious tones are not overly stated, but it does repel its fair share of contemporary viewers from watching it without tinted glasses. Its squeaky clean morals and less than dramatic melodrama makes it bit too sweet for most viewers. Its tale of faith and lesson of how rules do not need to adhered to create necessary growth remains the strong message to this day.

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