The Bells of St. Mary’s:
a tribute to a classic that humanizes Catholicism
Anyone who has survived Catholic schooling — in my case, eight years of torture by Dominican nuns, then four years of more refined sadism at the hands of Jesuit priests — cannot help watching Leo McCarey’s The Bells of St. Mary’s with deeply mixed emotions. One of Hollywood’s most popular religious movies, a Christmas perennial on television like McCarey’s earlier Going My Way, this 1945 comedy-drama nevertheless is far from being a simple, heartwarming affirmation of all things holy. With surprisingly astringent honesty, Bells addresses such still-vexing issues as celibacy, the church’s sexist attitudes toward women, conflicting philosophies of parochial education, and the omnipresent role of money in religion.
I have to admit, somewhat shamefacedly, that the principal reason I have always been so fascinated with The Bells of St. Mary’s is that it is a barely repressed, unconsummated love story between a nun (Ingrid Bergman) and a priest (Bing Crosby). The radio ads for the film brought those undertones right out into the open: “Ingrid Bergman has never been lovelier, hubba, hubba, hubba!” In The Book of Movie Lists (1998), I put Bergman at the top of my list entitled “Sister Superior: The 10 Sexiest Nuns in Movies.” But there is nothing off-color or indelicate about this mature love story, fraught with believable tensions of all kinds, starting with the formidable barrier of enforced celibacy.
Romantic comedies traditionally employ powerful social obstacles to keep their lovers apart until the issues separating them are resolved. But here we know there can be no such formulaic “happy ending” and the outcome of the love-hate relationship between Father Chuck O’Malley and Sister Mary Benedict remains in suspense until the breathtakingly emotional final scene. That relationship takes precedence over the film’s flimsy plot, which revolves around the nuns’ attempt to save their decrepit school through the combined power of prayer and emotional blackmail. As in all of McCarey’s work, the real interest lies in the director’s wonderfully subtle and naturalistic depiction of people.
The great French filmmaker Jean Renoir once remarked, “McCarey understands people — better perhaps than anyone else in Hollywood.” And yet this Irish-American filmmaker has never received the sustained critical attention paid to such peers as John Ford and Frank Capra. McCarey’s films include several classics that remain mint-fresh today. He directed the best silent films of Laurel and Hardy, as well as the Marx Brothers’ masterpiece, the anarchic antiwar farce Duck Soup. McCarey’s The Awful Truth is among the most imitated of all romantic comedies, as are his Love Affair and its remake, An Affair to Remember. Along with Yasujiro Ozu’s Tokyo Story, McCarey’s little-known 1937 drama Make Way for Tomorrow is one of the two best movies ever made about old age.
Unfortunately, in mid-life McCarey abandoned his fascination with the nuances of human nature and plunged headlong into a fanatical anti-communism that all but destroyed both his art and his career. A prominent member of the right-wing Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals, McCarey became one of the ringleaders of the Hollywood blacklist. In a bizarre exchange while McCarey was serving as a friendly witness in 1947 before the House Committee on Un-American Activities, HUAC’s chief investigator Robert E. Stripling, asked him how Going My Way and The Bells of St. Mary’s performed at the box-office in the Soviet Union.
“We haven’t received one ruble from Russia on either picture,” McCarey replied.
“What is the trouble?”
“Well, I think I have a character in there that they do not like.”
The pre- 1947 McCarey would have understood the absurdity of that scene. His best work stems from his very Irish appreciation of the thin line between the tragic and the ridiculous aspects of life, from his blending of the mundane and the sublime. Orson Welles said that Make Way for Tomorrow would make a stone cry. What’s most remarkable about that film is that it does so largely through the use of comedy, such as when the elderly couple (Beulah Bondi and Victor Moore) relive their honeymoon before being forced to separate forever.
Loosely structured to a fault, Going My Way was a surprise box-office hit and won seven Academy Awards, including the Oscar for best picture. The character of the suave, worldly, straw-hatted priest played by Crosby captivated audiences of all persuasions. Like Make Way for Tomorrow, Going My Way is essentially a film about aging, with an added level of poignancy in dealing with the declining years of a man of the cloth. The drama revolves around Father O’Malley diplomatically maneuvering the doddering old pastor, Father Fitzgibbon (Barry Fitzgerald), into retirement. The scene of Fitzgibbon’s ancient mother (Adeline De Walt Reynolds) arriving from Ireland is one of the all-time great tearjerking moments in movies, and the emotion is fully earned.
After Going My Way, McCarey recalled, “I received letters from all over the country saying that since I had made priests so human and popular, I should do as much for the good sisters.” One reason Bells is that rara avis, a sequel that surpasses the original, is its finely crafted screenplay by Dudley Nichols, best known for his work with John Ford. Based on a story by McCarey, Bells has a more rigorous structure than Going My Way, but as always in the director’s work, some of the most memorable scenes are self-contained set pieces.
The children’s Nativity play, filmed in an improvisatory style (“Every time they do it the dialogue is different,” O’Malley observes), is magical in its simplicity. McCarey’s great love of music (he always kept a piano on the set for noodling between takes) shines forth in a joyous song Sister Benedict sings to the other nuns in her native Swedish. When O’Malley asks what it means, she replies hesitantly, “It’s spring.” In fact, the song is about young lovers in springtime, another instance of the film’s oblique acknowledgment of sexual impulses.
This time, Father O’Malley’s role as a clandestine diocesan troubleshooter places him in conflict with the sisters’ somewhat unworldly idealism. Unlike the eminently practical priest, they have little trouble believing that they can persuade a crotchety old businessman (Henry Travers, who later played the angel Clarence in Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life) to donate a building for their new school. When O’Malley tells Sister Benedict late in the film that she has to face facts, she responds with a small laugh, “We’ve tried so hard not to face facts.”
Bergman’s multifaceted performance blends a desperate gaiety with an overly strict approach toward pedagogy, mirroring her own emotional repression. She displays a powerful struggle to repress her anger toward her subordinate status in the church hierarchy. But she is strong-willed and more than a match for the smugly complacent O’Malley. She grows in his respect even as their power struggle brings them into seemingly irreconcilable conflict.
Underneath that power struggle is the sub-text of sexual tension. The two are constantly sizing each other up, jockeying for advantage, trying to score philosophical and emotional points, alternating between flirtation and asperity. Sister Benedict is a working woman with a position of authority, but one that is severely circumscribed, as is her body by the black habit and starchy white wimple she wears. The abstraction of her figure (which Bergman found liberating, because she didn’t have to worry about her weight during the filming) throws all the attention on her luminous facial expressions. Bergman is rapturously lit by George Barnes, one of Hollywood’s greatest glamour cinematographers.
Reviewing the film in The Nation, James Agee found much to take offense at, including the way Bergman “comes painfully close to twittering her eyes in scenes with Crosby…. I find very objectionable the movie’s increasing recognition of the romantic-commercial values of celibacy. I like hardly better a little boxing lesson in which Mother Bergman shows one of the schoolboys how not to lead with the other cheek. I am just plain horrified by the way in which the sisters hound an old nabob into beneficence.”
I’ve had an aversion to Agee’s criticism ever since reading his complaint in The Nation about Ford’s 1948 Western Fort Apache, that “there is enough Irish comedy to make me wish Cromwell had done a more thorough job.” Perhaps it’s the difference in our religious and cultural backgrounds, but what Agee finds scandalous about The Bells of St. Mary’s is what I value most about the film. I find refreshing McCarey’s frank exploration of the notion that priests and nuns are human beings with feelings and frailties, and I am amused by the filmmaker’s unsentimental recognition that a large part of running a religious institution is raising money, sometimes even in unscrupulous ways.
Fittingly, the fiercest battleground between Father O’Malley and Sister Benedict in their “marriage of opposites” is over the raising of children. With pleasing asymmetry, the script gives the priest a surrogate “daughter” and the nun a surrogate “son.”
The great French filmmaker Jean Renoir once remarked, “McCarey understands people – better perhaps than anyone else in Hollywood.”
Joan Carroll is startlingly real in her rawly emotional performance as Patsy Gallagher, the troubled teenager mentored by O’Malley. When the priest reunites Patsy’s mother (the delectable, aptly named Martha Sleeper) with her long-estranged husband, a musician (William Gargan), Patsy blurts out in one of the film’s most moving frissons, “Is this my real daddy?” But the “fallen woman” stereotype is turned on its head by the tolerant O’Malley, who clearly has known women in his life and is not in the habit of judging them by rigid moralistic standards. Nevertheless, his combative attitude toward Sister Benedict suggests a certain residual bitterness toward the opposite sex beneath his amiable facade.
Sister Benedict, who disapproves of O’Malley’s indulgence toward Patsy, exercises her unorthodox parenting skills on a scruffy parish kid named Eddie (Dickie Tyler). O’Malley’s view of Eddie demonstrates that the priest’s attitude toward manhood is much less enlightened than his views of womanhood. He thinks the nun is turning Eddie into a “sissy” by teaching him the Christian virtue of turning the other cheek. Not without misgivings, the sister teaches Eddie to box in a delightfully improvisatory scene. When Eddie hits her a staggering blow, it is a delicious violation of taboo as well as a sudden demonstration of the nun’s corporeality.
On a deeper level, what soon emerges is her human vulnerability. Like a Camille of the sisterhood, she is suffering from tuberculosis, but because of the paternalism of doctors and the Church in that era, she is not told what is wrong with her or why she is being sent away from St. Mary’s. Father O’Malley allows her to think he is having her banished to end their rivalry, and she directs withering looks of silent anger at the priest even while saying, “It’s going to be difficult to leave St. Mary’s, but we shouldn’t become too attached to any one place.” Privately, in some of the most beautiful close-ups of Bergman’s career, Sister Benedict prays to God to “remove all bitterness from my heart” and allow her to accept the transitory nature of religious life.
The film’s climax is filmed with all the emotional intensity of a romantic love scene. Father O’Malley virtually croons as he tells her, “You know when Dr. McKay said you were perfect, he was right, for that’s what you are. But he didn’t mean physically. Because, sister, you have a touch of tuberculosis.” Sister Benedict reacts with an unexpectedly radiant smile. “Thank you, father,” she says. “Thank you. You’ve made me very happy.”
There is a revealing footnote to this scene. After shooting it, Bergman asked McCarey for a retake. Crosby said his lines again, and this time Bergman threw her arms around him and gave him a passionate kiss on the mouth. The priest serving as a consultant to the film came running up, objecting in horror as the subtext of The Bells of St. Mary’s erupted into full, glorious view.
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in the August / September 2000 issue of Irish America.
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