Bells of St. Mary's, The (Blu-ray Review)18 Nov, 2013 By: Mike Clark
$19.95 DVD, $29.95 Blu-ray
Stars Bing Crosby, Ingrid Bergman, Henry Travers.
Leo McCarey’s Oscar-winning Going My Way for Paramount was the most popular movie released during all of World War II, and this all but immediate sequel — sold from the get-go by McCarey and his production company to RKO — became the biggest box office movie in RKO history. This goes a long way to explain why Bing Crosby, whose film career was arguably subordinate to his Decca waxings, was easily the show biz figure from the first half of the 20th century. Though this said, co-star Ingrid Bergman was also at the peak of her career and, in fact, both performers had just won Oscars for major hits (respectively, Going and Gaslight).
A movie about a progressive priest named “Chuck” O’Malley that at least this McCarey lover has always preferred to its predecessor, I first saw Bells theatrically as a grade-schooler in a c.1958 triple bill, sandwiched between Stanley Donen’s Fearless Fagan and Bob Hope’s The 7 Little Foys (those were the days). Its trademark filmmaker sentimentality, which McCarey managed to keep in check until it exploded somewhat grotesquely later in his career, so affected me as an already lapsed Presbyterian that I was powerless to resist misty feelings toward Father Chuck and an overwhelmingly warm nun colleague played brilliantly by Bergman in what is still my favorite performance by her. Then, on the Tuesday after that Saturday when I first saw Bells, I was up at the shopping center being a drugstore cowboy with my elementary school buds — and witnessed a nun hauling off and whacking a kid from the nearby Catholic school for some mild (in the great scheme of things) mouth-off. Oh, well: this is why we go to the movies.
In an oft-quoted remark, the great Jean Renoir himself said that McCarey understood people better than any other Hollywood director, but here the latter even manages to get a great performance out of a cat in the first of many great scenes this successfully episodic delight has to offer. Later, there’s a children’s Christmas pageant (in rehearsal) that is still one of the damndest things I’ve ever seen on screen; one gets the impression that McCarey just elected to let kids be kids and told cinematographer George Barnes (also of Rebecca and the gloriously Technicolored Frenchman’s Creek) to roll it. At least it plays that way — and if this isn’t the way it happened, we’re looking at an historical pinnacle of so-called “invisible direction.”
There’s been a lot written over the years about how the borderline prickly relationship between Crosby and Bergman evolves into something like a chaste version of repressed love, an issue addressed in some nice accompanying program notes by film historian R. Emmet Sweeney (though in the kind of brain freeze I know too well myself, he mistakes featured player Una O’Connor for Beluah Bondi). Sweeney notes that, as a joke during the final days of filming, an ornery Bergman kissed Crosby on the lips to louse up a take for fun — a filmic coup he compares to the Holy Grail-ish missing footage from Orson Welles’ The Magnificent Ambersons (I wish more film historians had senses of humor). I always had a feeling that the viciousness with which the press and many members of the public turned on Bergman after her scandalous romance/marriage/childbirth with Italy’s Roberto Rossellini had more than a little to do with how perfectly she’d portrayed this dream of a nun.
These are immensely likable characters: Bergman teaches a kid how to box in one of the movie’s most memorable setpieces, and I recall a scene or perhaps a still photo from Going where Crosby’s Father O’Malley is wearing an old St. Louis Browns T-shirt — an exercise in futility that suggests a level of empathy for human imperfection and the downtrodden that any priest ought to have (even if the wartime Browns did make it to the 1944 World Series for a quickly extinguished blaze of glory). Even the movie’s nominal villain — a next-door developer whose large business-oriented building the fantasizing nuns would like to see become their new school — is, one senses, a closet pussycat. Playing him is the great Henry Travers, still a year away from being cast as angel Clarence in Frank Capra’s perennial It’s a Wonderful Life. Audiences in 1945, of course, wouldn’t have seen that movie yet, but anyone diving into Bells from the period beginning shortly thereafter has always made that instant casting association.
Olive’s print is much heavier on grain than I’m accustomed to seeing in their black-and-white releases. Maybe, if you sit further away from your screen than the layout of my basement allows me to do, this vivifies the image — but otherwise, this strikes me as miscalculated as the over-application of grain steroids on Criterion’s Blu-ray of The Third Man. But I’m delighted that Sweeney’s essay, quoting the boxofficemojo.com website, notes that adjusting for inflation, Bells made more money at the box office than The Dark Knight Rises. I wish this kind of anti-cheerleading for recent movies were a bigger part of box office reportage, where lack-of-perspective hackery is often at its most rampant when it comes to modern-day movie journalism.