' ' Cinema Romantico: Friday's Old Fashioned: The Bells of St. Mary's

Friday, December 16, 2011

Friday's Old Fashioned: The Bells of St. Mary's

You know you're really in for it when a nun at the inner city Catholic school you've been assigned to run advises you the moment you show up that the previous priest in charge wound up being sent up the river to the nuthouse. Except as we will soon see the kids at St. Mary's don't really seem all that bad. Oh sure, they're precocious and rambunctious and maybe even a little mischievous but, heck, when two of 'em get in a fist-fight they conclude by shaking hands and agreeing to get two scoops of ice cream! This isn't Julia Stiles wading into uncharted waters in "Save The Last Dance"! Nevertheless...

Bing Crosby is Father O'Malley, reprising his Oscar winning role from "Going My Way" (1944), who turns up at St. Mary's with the thought that the down-on-its-luck school should be closed and the kids moved to a better building. Ah, but Sister Benedict (her majesty Ingrid Bergman) is having none of it. She and her fellow Sisters are praying that the state-of-the-art building next door will be selflessly donated to them by its owner. This, however, seems ridiculous. The owner is the requisite Scrooge-ish businessman Horace P. Bogardus (Henry Travers) who likes kids as much Sister Benedict likes Father O'Malley on his first day at the job letting all the kids go home early on "holiday."

See, O'Malley and Benedict have different ideas about how things should be done, illustrated through the plights of two students, Patsy (Joan Carroll) whose single mother presses O'Malley to let attend St. Mary's and Eddie (Richard Tyler) whose good heart makes him the target of bullies. In his original review for the esteemed New York Times way back in December 1945 the eternally irritable Bosley Crowther seemed untaken with the scene in which Sister Benedict teaches Eddie how to be a pugilist but I found it entirely amusing - grand dame Ingrid bobbing and weaving and throwing jabs and uppercuts without a hint of self-awareness. In theory the scene is ludicrous, yes, but she proves the theory false. (She also sings. And, of course, so does Crosby. Multiple times. All of which I personally found unnecessary and distracting.)

Patsy is a more serious matter, her pourous grades leading to a decisive moment between our two leads as to whether or not this student will pass or fail. O'Malley thinks she's made progress both emotionally and educationally and too prevent her from graduating might might render all that progress mute. Benedict is understanding but not moved. You can almost sense her dreading a future where scores of soccer (football) games aren't kept so "everyone wins!" and where A's are doled out incessantly for nothing more than "effort!" The sugary sweet handling of this scene by director Leo McCarey belies a very understated but distinct toughness, a toughness that exposes the majority of latter-day "Lean On Me"-esque movies as the clumsy showboating shenanigans they are.

Sadly, that scene's toughness is undercut later when the movie conveniently lets Patsy off the hook (which I suppose is good for Patsy) and undercut even more when Horace P. Bogardus decides to offer his building as a gift to Sister Benedict. Now you knew that "twist" was coming from a few light years away, sure, but that's not the problem. The problem is his transition from sinner to saint happens instantaneously and for no good reason, especially when there is a moment between O'Malley and Bogardus that suggest O'Malley - a man of the cloth! - might just be attempting to manipulate Bogardus into offering the building as a gift. Man, would that have been something. Alas.

"The Bells of St. Mary's" then morphs into a Disease Movie for its final act as a doctor explains to O'Malley that Benedict has contracated tuberculosis - whoops! Excuse me! I meant to say, a "touch" of tuberculosis. Yes. Just a "touch." Can't get too down in the dumps, can we? And the doctor explains to O'Malley it would be in Benedict's best interests to be transferred to a place with a warmer climate but not to tell her of the disease as that might dampen her all-important spirit. Perhaps it seems massively unbelievable that a doctor would refrain from providing a patient her diagnosis but this glaring happenstance allows the film to have a most delicate sledgehammer of an ending.

What's worse? Disease? Or being lied to by someone you thought you could trust?


Sam Fragoso said...

I saw this on Netflix ... sounds fascinating.

Nick Prigge said...

It really does do some interesting things and if you're an Ingrid Bergman fan it's just that much better.

Thanks for reading, Sam!