Saturday Night Cinema: Bells of St. Mary


Tonight’s Saturday Night Cinema is a Christmas classic is a kick-off to the Christmas season. And while I am not a Bing fan, Bergman, on the other hand, is always spectacular. As Sister Benedict, Ingrid Bergman combines beauty, great good humor and saintly dignity, “even while swinging a baseball bat.”

Before singing nuns, there were singing priests, such as Bing Crosby as Father O’Malley in Leo McCarey’s charming sequel that’s better (and was more popular at the box-office) than the original, the 1944 Oscar-winner Going My Way.

Published: December 7, 1945

If anyone had any wonder as to where Father Chuck O’Malley went when he walked off into the night-time at the end of “Going My Way,” they need not wonder any longer. He went on to Project No. 2 in his series career of spreading sunshine which has been recorded for all the world to see. That project consists in bringing affluence to a failing parochial school which is run by a sister superior who is nobler than she is worldly wise; in comforting this sister in illness and setting matters straight in several tattered lives. And it is imaged with humor and sentiment in “The Bells of St. Mary’s,” at the Music Hall.

In planning this project, however, Leo McCarey, who also planned “Going My Way,” yielded too much to the temptation of trying to copy a success. He followed too closely the pattern of his previous delightful film, with the basic exception of including a character of genuine scope. Father O’Malley is generally consistent (and played by Bing Crosby, what else could he be?) but Sister Benedict has not the veracity of her counterpart character which was played by Barry Fitzgerald. She is much too precisely sugar-coated, too eagerly contrived, and she goes in for certain gymnastics which are just on the edge of being cheap. As a consequence, “The Bells of St. Mary’s,” although a plenteous and sometimes winning show, lacks the charm of its predecessor—and that comparison cannot be escaped.

When Father Chuck is settling at St. Mary’s to assume the vacant pastorate, there is humor and promise in his gentle and sly tiffs with Sister Benedict. There is sympathy in his patient guidance of a small girl who is put in the school by a suspiciously wayward mother, and there is warmth in his singing of some songs. (“Adeste Fidelis,” once over lightly, is the best and most seasonal of the lot.) There is likewise a cunning little episode—and the whole film is episodic, by the way—in which the children of Grade 1 put on their own Nativity play.

But a sequence in which Sister Benedict teaches a turn-the-other-cheek lad to box is purely contrived theatrics, uncomfortably close to burlesque—as, indeed, are all the obvious sight-gags which fetch their laughs from the incongruity of an athletic nun. And the whole story-line developed toward the wheedling of a building for the school, with Henry Travers as the landlord who is wheedled, is unconvincing and vaguely immoral. The way that poor landlord is “pressured” into giving up his building is some stunt!

In the role of Sister Benedict, Ingrid Bergman is exquisitely serene, radiantly beautiful and soft-spoken—the perfect picture of an idealized nun. And there are moments (NOT the close-up shot of her praying) in which she glows with a tenderness and warmth. But—more the script’s fault than Miss Bergman’s—her holiness smacks of Hollywood, and certainly she seems much too youthful to be the head of a parochial school.

As Father Chuck, Mr. Crosby is—well, you know—the same easy, confident Bing, tossing off slangy jokes and soft-soap with the sincerity of a practiced hand. His penchant for gags in this picture—snappy sayings—is a little more pronounced. Maybe his truck with Tin Pan Alley, after writing that hit song, is to blame. It is noticeable that he hovers in the background a little more than he did in “Going My Way.” Mr. Travers is not well provided with a true role, and thus is under par, while Joan Carroll, Martha Sleeper and Ruth Donnelly are adequate in other parts.

Considering the film’s sectarian nature, the most amusing and critically pertinent remark is passed by Father O’Malley when a student named Luther is introduced to him. “Luther?” remarks the startled father, “How did he get in here?” Somehow that innocent question struck us as being quite acute.

THE BELLS OF ST. MARY’S, screen play by Dudley Nichols; directed and produced by Leo McCarey for RKO-Radio. At the Radio City Music Hall.
Father O’Malley . . . . . Bing Crosby
Sister Benedict . . . . . Ingrid Bergman
Mr. Bogardus . . . . . Henry Travers
Patsy . . . . . Joan Carroll
Patsy’s mother . . . . . Martha Sleeper
Patsy’s father . . . . . William Gargan
Sister Michael . . . . . Ruth Donnelly
Dr. McKay . . . . . Rhys Williams
Eddie . . . . . Dickie Tyler
Mrs. Breen . . . . . Una O’Connor

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