Thursday, December 22, 2011

The Bells of St. Mary's (1945)

The Bells of St. Mary's is often referred to as the film which most exemplifies the mythological Church of pre-Vatican II days, the Church That Never Was, so to say. It is seen as idealizing priests and nuns and parish life when in reality, as we are continually being told, priests were abusive monsters and nuns were shrewish old hags. However, every time I see The Bells of St. Mary's I am struck by how many things about the film resonate with my own experience of Catholicism over four and a half decades. The nun friends that I have had laughed together just like those in the film, especially in the scene when the cat got inside Fr. O'Malley's hat on the mantelpiece. And the striving of the parish to keep the school open is not unreal either.

Here is one brief synopsis:
Produced in 1945, “The Bells of St. Mary’s” is the sequel to the 1944 Academy Award winning Best Picture “Going My Way.” Bing Crosby returns to his role of Father Chuck O’Malley. Father O’Malley has just been transferred to a new church, St. Mary’s. St. Mary’s is a church and school in disarray and without enough funds to even make basic repairs. In fact the parish is in serious danger of being shut down. While at St. Mary’s, Father O’Malley comes in to constant conflict with the school’s head nun, Sister Benedict, played by Ingrid Berman. He thinks she is too tough on the kids, she thinks he is too soft.
Making matters worse is crotchety, old Mr. Bogardus (Henry Travers) who is building a nice new office building next door to St. Mary’s and would like to see the parish torn down as the eye sore it is and turned into a parking lot for his new building. But Sister Benedict and the other nuns pray each day for Mr. Bogardus to somehow give the new building over to St. Mary’s so they may have a new place for their school. Father O’Malley thinks the nuns are wasting their time until of course the miracle of all miracles rewards the sisters’ faith.
It is always surprising how familiar some of the characters in the film are to me. Yes, when I went to parochial school there were some cranky old nuns. My husband has stories of his school days and encounters with grouchy teaching sisters that make one's hair stand on end. All the same, over the years I have known several nuns like Sr. Benedict, energetic, cheerful, and beautiful in every way. I have certainly encountered priests of the Fr. O'Malley variety, full of blarney at times, but able to connect with people from all walks of life. And what rectory does not have the occasional eccentric characters associated with it, such as the St. Mary's housekeeper Mrs. Breen, played to the hilt by the pixillated Una O'Connor. "You don't know what it's like to be up to your neck in nuns," she warns Fr. O'Malley, as he readies himself to embark on one of the most famous power struggles in filmdom.

Bing Crosby is not half so annoying as he was in Going My Way, the prequel of Bells. The fact that Ingrid Bergman was not a raised a Catholic and was not an especially devout person is testimony to her superb acting ability. Her composed deportment is right on target, restrained without being stiff. Sr. Benedict is able to gently impose a sense of discipline and order on the children while at the same time letting them know that they are loved unconditionally. I have known nuns just like her. She is based upon director Leo McCarey's aunt, a nun who helped to build Hollywood's Immaculate Heart Convent before dying of typhoid fever.

Sr. Benedict and Fr. O'Malley, like so many dedicated religious and clergy with whom I have been acquainted, interact with a variety of people with a plethora of problems, from the troubled young girl to the cranky old Bogardus. The story is fictional, meant to be entertaining and light-hearted but it touches upon very real quandaries. Sr. Benedict, who after overcoming many obstacles saves the school, has to lose it by going away. She is heartbroken and finds it hard to give up her own will, thinking that Fr. O'Malley has arranged her transfer on purpose. Discovering the truth at last helps her to accept everything that has happened in a spirit of faith. The look she gives Fr. O'Malley before walking away, eyes full of tears but radiant with peace, contains in it an ocean of sacrifice. In that sense, The Bells of St. Mary's is not only about the Church that was, it is about the Church that is, and that ever will be. Share


Anonymous said...

I love this movie and your insights are right on the mark! Thanks for sharing...

Young fogey emeritus said...

Great post. Like 'Going My Way', it's also good because it was something you wouldn't see today: Hollywood, mainstream America, doing a tribute to the church! (Back when Spencer Tracy and Pat O'Brien portrayed lovable priests.) Something you saw as late as the '60s with 'The Sound of Music' and the silly 'Flying Nun'. These films and shows said next to nothing about the faith such as about Jesus (but Hollywood made religious films then too like 'The Robe' and 'Quo Vadis?') but they were a good sign that, by time 'Going My Way' was made in 1944, Catholics had arrived in American society and were almost entirely accepted. (Partly how JFK, such as he was, could get elected in ’60.) Pleasing Catholics was good box-office. (Back when Jewish families still owned a lot of the studios!) And it was great PR, spreading goodwill among non-Catholics. Then Vatican II went and ruined everything, the same time the larger culture was going to hell.

Anonymous said...

Fogey, good point: in those days pleasing Catholics was good box office business.

EMV, terrific overview of the movie. I havent seen it for some years. It's time to rent it again.

You know what I did manage to watch for the first time (which you have probably reviewed on your blog)-- another nun film, "Lilies of the Field" with Sidney Poitier. I tuned in with the intention of watching only a few minutes; but I was mesmerized, and I simply had to watch it to the end. Not only were the characters and story very interesting, but the historical aspect to it was intriguing to me. I had just never imagined missionary sisters coming to America from Germany without command of the English language, and "roughing it" as they did, not more than 50 years ago! If not for the cars and Sidney Poitier's character, it could have easily been set in the 1860s rather than the 1960s. Or at least that is how it seemed to my uninformed self!

And, I wish you a WONDERFUL Christmas to you and your family, dear EMV!

Unknown said...

Wouldn't we be celebrating a much different Christmas in 2020 if our country would have kept the values, accountability and 10 Commandments as a way of raising children instead of making the rich richer by spoiling with material items, making excuses for their inexcusable behavior. Heck maybe Covid would not have been able to take such a toll as we would have listened to the leaders worn masks, stayed distant from each other and lived the way of our Lord. A very clear message in the movie.