The Bells of St Mary’s (1945)

I have a bunch of films waiting at home to be watched, and (uncharacteristically indecisive), I’ve been see-sawing between Wait until Dark, The Maltese Falcon, and It Happened One Night. What I ended up seeing was this: a sweet, poignant, sometimes overly optimistic film with some lovely music and a memorable performance from the matchless Ingrid Bergman.

Ingrid Bergman in The Bells of St Mary's

To attempt a story-based review of The Bells of St Mary’s would be a brief affair, but let’s give it a try. A priest, Father O’Malley (Bing Crosby) takes over the supervision of a school called St Mary’s, run by a group of nuns headed by a Sister Superior, Mary Benedict (Ingrid Bergman). Although they’re both most polite—even friendly—to each other, Sister Benedict and Father O’Malley have their differences.

Father O'Malley and Sister Mary Benedict run up against each other

She, for instance, prays fervently that business tycoon Horace Bogardus (Henry Travers), who’s just finished constructing a huge building opposite St Mary’s, will donate the building to them to house the school. The nuns have been forced to sell the school playground to Mr Bogardus because they needed the money for urgent repairs to the school building—which, by the looks of if it, is coming apart at the seams anyway.

St Mary's - and the building opposite

While Sister Benedict is praying for the new building, Father O’Malley sees no other option but to shut down St Mary’s and sell the plot to Mr Bogardus, who wants to turn it into a parking lot. The children can then go to a much more posh school a little way off.

Father O'Malley discusses St Mary's with Mr Bogardus

Then there’s the question of schoolyard fights. The local bully, Tommy, picks fights with the other boys. With Eddie (Richard Tyler), he draws blood. Father O’Malley sees Tommy winning a fight and declares him “the winner!” Sister Benedict, on the contrary, patches up Eddie and praises him for turning the other cheek—even though that cheek is now marked by a bleeding graze.

Sister Benedict attends to a battered Eddie

…And then there’s the case of Patricia `Patsy’ Gallagher (Joan Carroll). Patsy’s mother (Martha Sleeper) comes to meet Father O’Malley one day to pour out her soul. Her husband, a pianist with whom she’d eloped, left her shortly after the wedding and has been missing ever since. Although Mrs Gallagher doesn’t say it in so many words, it appears she’s keeping body and soul together by selling the former—at any rate, she wants Patsy to be a boarder at St Mary’s.

Mrs Gallagher talks to Father O'Malley about Patsy

Father O’Malley is sympathetic. Sister Benedict is kind enough to not raise any objections, but then she’s also strict enough to not let Patsy take her studies lightly, something Father O’Malley is inclined to allow just because Patsy’s come from a disturbed home.

Father O'Malley talks to Sister Benedict about Patsy

That, really, is the crux of the plot: Sister Benedict versus Father O’Malley on discipline, St Mary’s future, and how the school should be run. It’s a civilised tussle, even at times lightened with tongue-in-cheek humour:
Sister Benedict: “Is there anything—anything that I should know—that would help?”
Father O’Malley: “Well, no. No, that’s all that I…uh…”
Sister Benedict: “…care to tell?”
Father O’Malley: “Well, yes.”

Father O'Malley and Sister Benedict

What happens to Patsy and her mother? Do Sister Benedict and Father O’Malley get around to resolving their differences? What about the school building and Mr Bogardus’s impending purchase of it—or, if the nuns’ prayers are effective, a possible miracle? There are just a few questions that need answering, but that’s not the reason why I’d recommend this film to anyone. I’d recommend it simply because of the characters themselves.

Joan Carroll as Patsy, for instance, first arrives at St Mary’s dressed up to the nines because she’s trying to pretend she’s older than she is—and that’s because she’s been looking for a job. Actually a sweet, intelligent child, but forced by circumstances to grow up before her time and face things a child should probably be blissfully unaware of.

Patsy arrives at St Mary's

Then there’s Mr Bogardus, very fond of his money but also eventually soft-hearted enough to help an old lady onto a bus, give money to a blind beggar, and rescue a mutt from being run over.

Mr Bogardus and the dog he saved

And Father O’Malley himself, a maverick who inadvertently does his bit to tear St Mary’s discipline to shreds. And he’s a maverick (his method of getting Bogardus to change his mind is interesting!). But he’s also other things: understanding, gentle, forgiving, and a superb singer.

Bing Crosby singing Adeste Fideles in The Bells of St Mary's

But my favourite is Ingrid Bergman as Sister Benedict: a woman with so many layers in her character. First she applauds Eddie for not fighting Tommy; then, when she realises the injustice of it all, she’s the one who buys a book on boxing and coaches Eddie, teaching him how to use his feet and his fists.

Sister Benedict teaches Eddie boxing

She’s the one to whom Patsy turns when things look suddenly unbearably bleak…

...and comforts Patsy

… and she’s the one who helps the older girls dress for their graduation, and learn how to swing a baseball bat correctly.

And teaches the girls baseball

All through it, her calm wisdom, sense of humour, deep faith and inherent goodness shine through. She has, and I know I’m being unforgivably clichéd here, a lot of inner beauty. It shines through in every scene: almost mesmerising.

And a fine lesson in acting.

What I liked about this film:

After my harping on and on about Sister Benedict, need I say more? See this film for Ingrid Bergman: she won an Oscar nomination for the role, and is absolutely wonderful. She made me forget after a while that this was the gorgeous Bergman I was watching; all I could see was a warm, loving and very wise nun.
The songs. Well, with Bing Crosby in it, The Bells of St Mary’s had to have music in it, right? The title song is very good, and there’s Bing’s famous Adeste Fideles too. I’ve been listening to that on LP record, tape and CD ever since I was a kid, and only now discovered it on film.
The nativity play scene. It’s supposed to be staged by first graders, with all props, costumes, direction, dialogues—and extras—provided by them. Jesus, enacted by someone’s baby brother, is a sweetie! (And the shepherds’ crooks are golf clubs).

The first graders' nativity play: adorable!

What I didn’t like:
Till about midway, the film’s just too fluffily sweet. Everything is too tickety-boo to be of much substance. I found myself thinking oh no, this is too syrupy for me. Then it suddenly starts getting serious, and falls into place. It never gets depressing, fortunately.
There are a couple of holes in the plot—for example, Eddie’s mother (who’s Father O’Malley’s housekeeper) gives him very ominous warnings about the nuns. She tells him that his predecessor was taken away in a wheelchair mumbling to himself, because he’d been “neck deep in nuns”. The nuns seem to me, one and all, to be a sweet lot and not at all the sort to warrant such dire warnings.
And Patsy’s mother, considering the fact that her husband was a well-known (in some circles) pianist, doesn’t appear to have done anything to try and find him. Then…

(Spoiler coming up!)

…when Father O’Malley finds the man and brings him to her, she’s almost deliriously happy. This man left her without a word 13 years back, and she doesn’t resent it at all?

(Spoiler ends)

But. Despite that, this is a great film. A feel-good film of the It’s a Wonderful World style: warm and lovely. It made me laugh, it made me smile, and (I don’t cry easily) it gave me a lump in the throat.

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20 thoughts on “The Bells of St Mary’s (1945)

  1. Ingrid Bergman was sooooo awesome. So spunky and yet the ever proper nun! Bing Crosby was also great – he did another “Father O’Malley” film (Going My Way) that I’ve always wanted to see after this one. My one regret after watching was that inspite of the great chemistry between Bergman and Crosby, there isnt a romance (I know its impossible in the characters’ circumstances, but still, such a waste of chemistry!).

    And whats with all the Irish priests in movies. Even Spencer Tracey did quite a few of them – its like if you were a Catholic priest in US of A you had to be of Irish descent!

  2. Yes, I believe this one was a sequel to Going My Way – I must look out for that too! And I agree completely about the missing romance being a waste of chemistry, but this didn’t bother me as much here as in Heaven Knows, Mr Allison: that had awesome chemistry, and an unspoken (at least on the part of Deborah Kerr) romance, but – poof! Nothing. I loved that film, and hated it.

    I suppose the Irish were among the largest groups of Catholics in the US for some time; so maybe that’s why so many Irish priests in films… BTW, have you seen The Left Hand of God? Humphrey Bogart as a priest in China, but a priest with an interesting secret of his own that does allow him to romance a girl…

  3. I’d never heard of Left Hand of God – it sounds absolutely my kind of movie – romance and deadly secrets!!! :-D Now if I could only replace Bogey with someone who looked a bit more hero-like (Mitchum/Peck/James Garner? Got it – ROCK HUDSON!)… And you’re absolutely right about Heaven Knows, Mr Allison – I kept hoping they would stay on the deserted island and live happily-ever-after! ;-)

  4. Although my favorite B&W actor is Gregory Peck (both in looks and acting) I feel like Bogart is too easily dismissed here. I liked the way he managed to act with his eyes.

  5. Pingback: The Bells of St. Mary’s (1945) | Old Old Films

            • Answer: yes. Answer: I sent to St. Mary’s College and the Bells of St. Mary’s was a song we always sang after games. Was thinking of grammar school and I started looking for things and people from my youth. Your name popped into my head (I remembered seeing a movie you were in with Spike and the Bells site came up with your name.
              I have been racking my brain to remember the name of the boy who died .. would have been summer 1958. He lived just down the street from you…towards Olympic…George something. I can’t remember his name and it is driving me nuts as I feel sad that I don’t remember. I was a pall bearer for him and when I lived in CA I would visit the cemetery (my parents are buried there) and would always drive by the part of the cemetery where George is buried and say a prayer for him. Do you know who I am talking about?
              That being said, my email is dvdevargas@yahoo.com and if you want to continue talking just drop me a note.
              Thanks for responding. I am wondering where life led you and what you are doing now.
              Looking forward to hearing from you.
              Vince (I took that name after high school)

              • WOW!!!!! Great little big story. Love it.
                I was looking around for Fr Fasco who tried to enter Australia in 1949 – 1950 along with displaced people from WW2 but was rejected.
                The internet found Fr & Fasco on this page but it’s the wrong Fasco.
                Cheers

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