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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
…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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
She’s the one to whom Patsy turns when things look suddenly unbearably bleak…
… and she’s the one who helps the older girls dress for their graduation, and learn how to swing a baseball bat correctly.
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).
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?
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.