Screened November 28, 2009 on Artisan Entertainment/ Republic Pictures VHS borrowed from the New York Public Library
Leo McCarey’s sequel to Going My Way ruled the 1945 holiday season, outgrossing every film up to that time save Gone With the Wind. Mixing gentle convent comedy, spiritual melodrama, and hints of romance between its megastar leads Bing Crosby and Ingrid Bergman, it was primed to be The All-Time Christmas classic movie. It’s a Wonderful Life has since taken that title, while Bells has receded into pop culture obscurity, considered too square for contemporary tastes. Time Magazine’s Richard Corliss even denounced it as the worst Christmas movie ever, for what he saw as the film’s sanctimonious tone and shamelessly manipulative plot twists.
And yet there are those who consider it one of McCarey’s finest among a body of work that boasts an unparalleled handling of both interpersonal ethics and the blossoming of romantic feelings. The two themes are more deeply interwoven here than perhaps any of his other films: Crosby’s priest and Bergman’s nun develop complex feelings as they shepherd their students, regarding each other with jealousy that shifts imperceptibly into admiration, and possibly more. McCarey’s achievements are especially exquisite given that a) he’s dealing with taboo feelings between a priest and a nun with the utmost below-the-surface delicacy; b) he had to mold emotional subtext into Crosby’s monotonously smug countenance.
The film ambles at an incredibly relaxed pace, resting comfortably in its spaces almost to the point of stasis. I haven’t come across any comparisons between postwar McCarey (An Affair to Remember) and Carl Dreyer (Ordet; Gertrud), but the two seem to have much in common in terms of how they allow complex feelings to unfold over gentle, drawn out dialogues in flat interiors, where space collapses and it’s just people in communion, breathing the same air. Likewise, this is a film that invites you to breathe with it. It benefits greatly from having one of the most open actors in film history embodying its philosophy onscreen. Bergman’s like a child in this film, her presence so organic and unmannered, eyes watching, reacting to lines of dialogue as if hearing them for the first time. The sequence where she teaches a student to defend himself while simultaneously figuring it out herself with a boxing manual is one of the most joyously playful pieces of acting on celluloid. It’s her attentiveness and conviction, not just to who her character is, but to the moment she inhabits – a moment handled like a divine gift in which she can learn, love and grow – that combines the best of what Bergman and McCarey stood for.
WOULD YOU LIKE TO KNOW MORE?The following citations were counted towards the placement of The Bells of St. Mary’s on the TSPDT 1000 Greatest Films:
Antonio Gimenez-Rico, Nickel Odeon (1997)
Luis Maria Delgado, Nickel Odeon (1997)
Manuel Summers, Nickel Odeon (1994)
Danny Peary, Guide for the Film Fanatic: Must-See Films (1987)
Jose Luis Guarner, Genre Favourites: Comedy (1993)
The Bells of St. Mary’s (RKO-Radio) is Author-Director-Producer Leo McCarey’s Ave-singing sequel to his highly successful and heavily Oscared Going My Way. Bells doesn’t ring with quite as true a pitch. Even with Bing Crosby’s lackadaisical agility, Bells somehow lacks its predecessor’s style and grace. Most important missing ingredient: Barry Fitzgerald. Most important compensations: Ingrid Bergman and a five-year-old friend of McCarey’s named Bobby Dolan.
None of the good things in the picture has much to do with the story. The best of them is the children’s Nativity play, in which Bobby Dolan, son of the picture’s musical director, doubles in the roles of St. Joseph and narrator. Bobby, catching his breath with a long wheezing intake, says, “Oh—this is Mary and I’m Joseph. And we came to Bethlehem to see if we can have some place—find some place to stay. And that’s all you have to know really.” In the stable, an angel sits on a ladder and wise men and shepherds stand by and wonder as the Christ Child—an 18-month-old— stands up and waves to the audience from a clothesbasket. The play’s “dialogue” was made up by a group of kindergartners after Director McCarey gave them the rough idea. McCarey claims “it was one of the most difficult sequences” he ever directed. But it was worth the trouble.
Good shots: Bergman teaching a small boy to box; Crosby adding to his singing repertory of Latin with O Sanctissima, and embellishing the nuns’ dingdong chorus of The Bells of St. Mary’s with a low-down “Ring dem bells!”
– Time Magazine, December 10, 1945
Since I’m playing Scrooge with this list, I’d better begin with a declaration: I love Christmas, the idea of it, and Christmas movies too — the good ones. But some holiday-themed films take advantage of our better nature, and one is director Leo McCarey’s officially-loved sequel to his Oscar-winning Going My Way. This time easy-going Father O’Malley is assigned to a school run by severe, skeptical Sister Mary Benedict, and they clash over the priest’s liberal handling of the students. It’s basically the current movie Doubt, but with Bing Crosby and Ingrid Bergman in the Philip Seymour Hoffman and Meryl Streep roles, and without the accusations of pedophilia. Bells escalates from religious sanctimoniousness to emotional blackmail — a climax at least one notable reviewer finds a litmus test for critics’ humanity. “If you don’t cry when Bing Crosby tells Ingrid Bergman she has tuberculosis,” Joseph McBride wrote in 1973, “I never want to meet you, and that’s that.” I’ve met Joe McBride, and I respect the heck out of him; but nothing in this treacle pudding of a film makes me cry, except in despair, and that’s that.
– Richard Corliss, “Top 10 Worst Christmas Movies”, Time Magazine, December 23 2008
Going My Way is probably the worst of McCarey’s major films—obvious, coy, fearsomely sentimental—but Bells is one of his finest, a film so subtle in its romantic exposition that it’s halfway over before you realize what it’s about: a priest in love with a nun. Seldom has a sequel so completely transcended its predecessor: McCarey’s invisible hand, nudging the narrative more than directing it, turns looming cliches into the most refined, elusive feeling.
– Dave Kehr, The Chicago Reader
The Bells of St. Mary’s works much better for its battle of wills between a parish priest and a head nun than the dopey musical interludes that pepper it, but Bells is still a winning, emotionally satisfying film. This sequel to Going My Way has Father O’Malley (Bing Crosby) taking over the St. Mary’s parochial school and finding himself at loggerheads with Sister Benedict (Ingrid Bergman, looking gorgeous even in a habit). There’s a wonderful balance to all of this: O’Malley takes a more worldly approach to administration and is wrong just as many times as the nun is when she insists on a more biblical approach. About four subplots suffuse the film, including the story of a young charge from the wrong side of the tracks, and the deteriorating state of St. Mary’s in the shadow of a brand-new building (the owner is played by the avuncular Henry Travers). A dear film.
—Keith Simanton, Amazon.com
Does The Bells of St. Mary’s still work?: Not really. Watching the film again, the two words that kept springing to mind were “quaint” and “cornball.” The Bells of St. Mary’s is so committed to making the audience feel good- whether it’s through gentle laughter or easy tears- that the film never has any edge to it. At the beginning of the film, O’Malley is warned about the strong-willed nuns, but aside from a few heated discussions over how the school is run, little becomes of this. Likewise, the episodic nature of the story isn’t a problem, except that all of the subplots are resolved in the easiest and most predictable way possible.
Consider the story of Horace P. Bogardus (Henry Travers), the rich man and city bigwig who is erecting an office building next to St. Mary’s. Bogardus, like so many other rich men in movies, only seems to think about money, while the nuns pray in the hope that he’ll turn over the building to them to use as their new school. So O’Malley does a little scheming, and after Bogardus falls ill, the nuns’ prayers are answered, with Bogardus requiring surprisingly little convincing to make a gift of his not-inexpensive new property. This wouldn’t be so bad except that every subplot in the film is resolved in much the same way.
In addition, the film’s characterizations are almost distractingly thin. O’Malley doesn’t play any notes that he hadn’t already played in Going My Way, and none of the supporting characters show any real depth. Most disappointing is Sister Benedict- the film sets her up as a formidable rival to O’Malley, but none of this pans out. Instead, she becomes practically saintly, as she sticks to her principles, has Job-like patience with her students, and prays for Mr. Bogardus. Even when she does something questionable, such as teaching a picked-on boy how to box, she does so for all of the right reasons. It’s a shame, since as Bergman plays the character it’s easy to imagine how, with only a few script changes, Sister Benedict might have been interesting and multi-dimensional, rather than the sanctimonious cipher we see in The Bells of St. Mary’s.
– Paul Clark, Nerve
It should come as no surprise that McCarey, the man who first teamed Laurel with Hardy, is able to find delicate humor in the most unlikely of places. O’Malley’s arrival at St. Mary’s is shown as a calamitous series of sight gags capped off by the original, and funniest, cat-in-the-hat. Other laughs come from a yawning dog in church and a performance of the nativity story by an all-toddler cast.
In “Going My Way”, Bing is up to his big ears in a vat of sentimental goop almost on par with either visit to “Boys Town”. “The Bell’s of St. Mary’s” is anything but cloying. It’s insightful, heartfelt and in many ways more uplifting than “It’s a Wonderful Life”. It even features Henry Travers one film before gaining winged immortality as Capra’s Clarence.
Finally, this from imdb.com to further underscore the director’s intention of making his film a romantic love story. “The production was overseen by a Catholic priest who served as an advisor during the shooting. While the final farewell sequence was being filmed, Bing Crosby and Ingrid Bergman decided to play a prank on him. They asked director Leo McCarey to allow one more take, and, as ‘Father O’Malley’ and ‘Sister Benedict’ said their last goodbyes, they embraced in a passionate kiss, while the offscreen priest-advisor jumped up roaring in protest.”
– Scott Marks, A Christmas Yuleblog
It’s sentimental hokum shrewdly put together where songs are sung, heartstrings are tugged and everyone walks away feeling good about these caring church people. Crosby croons “Adeste Fidelis,” “In the Land of Beginning Again,” and the uplifting “Aren’t You Glad You’re You.” The performances by the two stars are seamless.
Leo McCarey’s aunt was the nun who was the inspiration for Sister Benedict, and the one that inspired Bergman when she met with her to research her role.
– Dennis Schwartz, Ozu’s World Movie Reviews
ABOUT LEO MCCAREY
The following quotes are found on the They Shoot Pictures Don’t They director page for Leo McCarey:
“Blending an explosive sense of humor with unabashed sentimentality, McCarey came up with such comedy gems as Ruggles of Red Gap and The Awful Truth and such maudlin pearls as Make Way for Tomorrow and Going My Way.” – (The MacMillan International Film Encyclopedia, 1994)
“Leo McCarey represents a principle of improvisation in the history of the American film. Noted less for his rigorous direction than for his relaxed digressions, McCarey has distilled a unique blend of farce and sentimentality in his best efforts…McCarey’s moments may outlive his movies…After enough great moments are assembled, however, a personal style must be assumed even though it is difficult to describe.” – Andrew Sarris (The American Cinema, 1968)
“Jean Renoir once said that McCarey understood people better than anyone else in Hollywood. That facility enabled him to create warm, witty, sometimes zany comedies and gentle dramas.” – William R. Meyer (The Film Buff’s Catalog, 1978)
“I only know I like my characters to walk in clouds, I like a little bit of the fairy tale. As long as I’m there behind the camera lens, I’ll let somebody else photograph the ugliness of the world.” – Leo McCarey
Leo McCarey has always presented auteur criticism with one of its greatest challenges and one that has never been convincingly met. The failure to do so should be seen as casting doubt on the validity of auteurism (in its cruder and simpler forms) rather than on the value of the McCarey oeuvre. He worked consistently (and apparently quite uncomplainingly) within the dominant codes of shooting and editing that comprise the anonymous “classical Hollywood” style; the films that bear his name as director, ranging from Duck Soup to The Bells of St. Mary’s , from Laurel and Hardy shorts to My Son John , from The Awful Truth to Make Way for Tomorrow (made the same year!), resist reduction to a coherent thematic interpretation. Yet his name is on some of the best—and best-loved—Hollywood films (as well as on some that embarrass many of even his most fervent defenders).
In fact, it might be argued that McCarey’s work validates a more sophisticated and circumspect auteur approach: not the author as divinely inspired individual creative genius, but the author as the animating presence in a project within which multiple determinants—collaborative, generic, ideological—complexly interact. The only adequate approach to a McCarey film would involve the systematic analysis of that interaction. A few notes can be offered, however, towards defining the “animating presence.”
McCarey’s formative years as an artist were spent working with the great clowns of the late silent/early sound period: Harold Lloyd, Mae West, W.C. Fields, the Marx Brothers and (especially) Laurel and Hardy, for whom he was “supervising manager” for many years, personally directing two of their greatest shorts ( Liberty and Wrong Again ). His subsequent career spans (with equal success) the entire range of American comedy from screwball ( The Awful Truth ) to romantic ( An Affair to Remember ). The director’s congenial characteristic seems to have been a commitment to a spontaneous, individualist anarchy which he never entirely abandoned, accompanied by a consistent skepticism about institutions and restrictive forms of social organization, a skepticism which produces friction and contradiction even within the most seemingly innocuous, conservative projects. Going My Way and The Bells of St. Mary’s are usually rejected outright by the intelligentsia as merely pious and sentimental, but their presentation of Catholicism is neither simple, straightforward, nor uncritical, and it is easy to mistake for sentimentality, in contexts where you expect to find it anyway (such as Hollywood movies about singing priests), qualities such as tenderness and generosity. The celebration of individualism is of course a mainspring of American ideology, yet, pushed far enough in certain directions, it can expose contradictions within that ideology: its oppressive response to many forms of individuality, for example.
—Robin Wood, Film Reference.com
“I was a problem child, and problem children do the seemingly insane because they are trying to find out how to fit into the scheme of things,” Leo McCarey once said.
The legacy of Leo McCarey has divided critics, many of whom seem to concur that he was better at creating isolated moments than crafting great movies. Still, he made important contributions to comedy and a handful of his films have retained their capacity to touch the viewer’s emotions.
His films were financial and critical successes; many—like An Affair to Remember and The Bells of St. Mary’s—have remained household names. McCarey worked on nearly 200 movies across 40 years, primarily comedies. He was the first director (and is one of only seven) to have won Oscars for Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Screenplay in the same year. Jean Renoir said McCarey “understands people better perhaps than anyone else in Hollywood.”
As to his approach, McCarey told an interviewer, “I love when people laugh, I love when they cry, I like a story to say something, and I hope the audience feels happier leaving the theatre than when it came in.”
On his success: “I don’t know what my formula is. I only know I like my characters to walk in clouds. I like a little bit of the fairy tale. Let others photograph the ugliness of the world. I don’t want to distress people.” Many of his films center on teaching scenes—one person teaches another to sing, to box, to drum, to speak on the radio—but they always feature a teacher with compassion, who forgives his student for their gaffes, forgives them their sins, as McCarey’s had been for his own many failures before learning where his place in this world was to be.
He also valued quiet moments in his films, especially at the end—such as The Awful Truth or Going My Way, comedies that end peacefully, with a still, small silence. Instead of ending with a bang, McCarey’s comedies end with a whisper … and we remember them. The use of silence in his endings has been compared to that of Robert Bresson. McCarey is not in the same league, but has a similar effect on his viewers in the contrast, the chiaroscuro, between the active, sometimes raucous, musical numbers and the quiet, contemplative endings.
– Eric David, Christianity Today
For a director who made a film (The Bells of St. Mary’s ) seen, at one time, by more moviegoers in the USA than any other to that point in history, McCarey has, oddly enough, become something of a cult figure. Among his most perceptive and vocal supporters are David Kehr, Jonathan Rosenbaum and, especially, Robin Wood. Though Wood’s essays and Kehr and Rosenbaum’s reviews have championed him on multiple occasions, virtually every extended biographical or critical essay about Leo McCarey written since the advent of auteurism either questions whether he was more than a serviceable metteur-en-scène or, alternatively, discusses his neglect and defends his career as an auteur. This essay very much follows the latter approach.
One factor that has made it difficult to champion McCarey as an auteur is that he lacks a “visual style” that is as identifiable as, say, a Hitchcock, Welles, or Sirk. Some critics, like George Morris, have argued that McCarey does have one, but to my mind the case can only be made in a limited fashion. For the most part McCarey’s visual style is one that is barely distinguishable from numerous other Hollywood filmmakers of the same era, especially those directors that started at the bottom of the Hollywood ladder (in McCarey’s case, as a script supervisor) and apprenticed in silent shorts and early sound features. To his credit, his mise-en-scène shows sensitivity to the meaning of objects (the graduation dresses in The Bells of St. Mary’s, for instance). His cinematography is restrained, and he clearly has a fondness for using off-screen space. (Sometimes McCarey places the most important moments of his films just beyond the frame – the killing of the Nazi husband in Once Upon a Honeymoon, for example, or perhaps best of all, the lovers’ first kiss in An Affair to Remember.) Beyond that, I believe the questions of McCarey’s visual style – whether he has one, and if so, what it is – are not easily answerable, and this is one reason why McCarey’s status as an auteur is insecure. But, more to the point, why must a director have a visual style to be an auteur? Cinema is more than a visual medium, it’s a medium that exists in time, and few Hollywood filmmakers had more command over rhythm and structure than Leo McCarey.
Even McCarey’s most ardent supporters would have a hard time making the case that his films can be encapsulated in the way that makes defining Ford’s or Hitchcock’s status as an auteur a comparatively more straightforward enterprise. McCarey’s career has eras defined by substantially different concerns. His career, which began in silent slapstick and ended with works that bend genres and blend spiritual and political commentary, cannot be reduced to any one genre or theme. Furthermore, his style is one that is more sonic and rhythmic than picturesque, which makes the work more difficult to identify immediately and discuss in print. (Try selecting a still image that communicates rhythm!) And, like many great directors, he made some films that are, at first (or second) glance, bad or even embarrassing. These are mere complications, however, and a sensitive approach to McCarey’s career reveals a career of tremendous growth. The recurring themes and formal motifs of his mature period are largely unique in the American cinema, and the fact that he developed them over the course of his career in interesting ways makes him undeniably an auteur. The fact that many of these works are truly great ranks him, ultimately, as a great film artist.
– Paul Harrill, Senses of Cinema Great Director biography
ABOUT INGRID BERGMAN
(Both of these websites are run by Ingrid Bergman’s family. The former seems to be a news and shopping site with more updates, while the latter features some multimedia.)
In temperament, Miss Bergman was different from most Hollywood superstars. She did not indulge in tantrums or engage in harangues with directors. If she had a question about a script, she asked it without fuss. She could be counted on to be letter perfect in her lines before she faced the camera. And during the intervals between scenes, her relaxing smile and hearty laugh were as unaffected as her low-heeled shoes, long walking stride and minimal makeup.
Yet this even-tempered and successful actress, who was apparently happily married, became involved in a scandal that rocked the movie industry, forced her to stay out of the United States for seven years and made her life as tempestuous as many of her roles. In a sense, she became a barometer of changing moral values in the United States.
In 1949 she fell in love with Roberto Rossellini, the Italian film director, and had a child by him before she could obtain a divorce from her husband, Dr. Peter Lindstrom, and marry the director.
Before the scandal, millions of Americans had been moved by her performances in such box-office successes as ”Intermezzo,” ”For Whom the Bell Tolls,” ”Gaslight,” ”Spellbound,” ”The Bells of St. Mary’s,” ”Notorious” and ”Casablanca,” roles that had made her, somewhat to her annoyance, a symbol of moral perfection.
”I cannot understand,” she said, long before the scandal, ”why people think I’m pure and full of nobleness. Every human being has shades of bad and good.”
– Murray Schumach, The New York Times obituary, August 31, 1982
The complexity of Ingrid Bergman’s career (with its notorious vicissitudes), and of the image that is its product, raises a number of important issues about stars: the perennial one (but here in a peculiarly acute form) of the tensions between acting and presence; the efforts of Hollywood to construct a star according to a specific prescription and the actress’s rebellion against that construction; the diverse and sometimes contradictory ways in which a “star image,” once constructed, can be inflected in the work of different directors.
Bergman’s partial rebellion against this image-construction was motivated by a desire to prove that she could act , and was not merely a star. When in the 1941 Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde MGM cast her as Jekyll’s high society fiancée and Lana Turner as Hyde’s low-life mistress and victim, it was Bergman who took the initiative (enlisting Turner’s cooperation) in demanding that they exchange roles. A somewhat curious accent aside, her promiscuous cockney barmaid was extremely successful (though the critics, predictably, said she was miscast).
Two of Bergman’s finest performances in two of her finest films draw directly upon the natural/lady opposition: the persecuted wife of Cukor’s Gaslight and the energetic and forthright nun of McCarey’s The Bells of St. Mary’s . The latter, too easily dismissed by embarrassed sophisticates for its alleged sentimentality, is among other things, a complex and delicate study of gender roles, allowing Bergman a wide range of expression within the apparent confines of her nun’s habit. Bergman’s notions of being an actress (centered on a striving after obviously big acting roles such as Maria in For Whom the Bell Tolls and, above all, Joan of Arc in the disastrous Fleming film of that name) were always somewhat naive; her richest and most complex performances arose not out of “big” roles but out of collaborations with directors such as Cukor and McCarey who were particularly sensitive and sympathetic to performers , collapsing the usual distinction between presence and acting ability. One may also note that, for all her efforts to establish a wider range, Bergman was quite incapable of playing a bad woman convincingly; the irreducible beauty of her character partly undermines the dismally reactionary project of Ingmar Bergman’s Autumn Sonata , the chastisement of a great pianist for failing to be a great mother.
– Robin Wood, Film Reference.com
Ingrid remembered a really good thing about playing a nun. She could eat all the ice cream she wanted. Nobody worried about her gaining weight because nobody knew if she gained any. All that showed of her, wearing the nun’s habit, was her face.
“I was like a child with money, and in the country of the greatest ice cream. Later I was to live in the land of gelati, which could be very good, but somehow Italian ice cream never caught my fancy the way the American did.
“I even dreamed about ice cream. Those were good dreams, those ice cream dreams, but they were not as enjoyable as the real thing.”
Ingrid not only discovered American ice cream, but she came “to know intimately sundaes and banana splits. A hot fudge sundae was an unbelieveable delight, and you could add banana and more ice cream and hot chocolate by ordering a banana split. In New York City, where I liked ice cream the best, I could eat four ice creams in a day.” She frequently ordered a second dish. Then she said she had to leave and go to another place because she was too embarrassed to order a third and even a fourth portion.
– Charlotte Chandler, Ingrid: Ingrid Bergman, a personal biography. Simon and Schuster, 2007. Pages 113-114
The Making of Ingrid Bergman: Some CGI Creepiness