THE BELLS OF ST. MARY’S —attention,sneering sophisticates: this 1945 Christmas present was a giant hit and award gatherer not because people were rubes (they had just concluded a thing called World War Two), easy marks for sentimental schmaltz (both of which it bears, as a matter of course and without guilt). It rang #1, sweeping up $21,333,333 and eight Oscar nominations simply because it’s charming, funny, touching and beautifully acted. Find another parade to rain on, this one is worth setting up a chair for. Don’t force the sister to rap your inattentive knuckles with a ruler.
Director Leo McCarey’s story, scripted by Dudley Nichols, takes Bing Crosby’s affable ‘Father O’Malley’ from the previous seasons biggest smash, Going My Way, and assigns him to decrepit St.Mary’s parochial school, in need of everything except a dedicated staff, blessed as it is by level-headed and effervescent ‘Sister Benedict’ (Ingrid Bergman). Adjusting their styles to task, the calm, unorthodox, tune-crooning priest and the serious yet beaming nun deal with problem children and work on the local skinflint (Henry Travers). That’s the sum of the leisurely, winning 126 minutes. A song or two could have been dropped, but Crosby’s baritone warmth on “Adeste Fidelis” would melt the heart of Karl Marx. Bing at home may have been not so much cool as cold, but he was a fine actor, and his O’Malley is a swell fella. Travers, 71 here, hits his curmudgeon-turns-charitable notes just right, and there are genuinely cute bits with the kids (the passion play rehearsal is choice, Bergman’s boxing lesson a classic), a curious terrier, and a kitten with comic timing that must have seemed heaven-sent: how in heaven’s name do you get a baby cat to hit its marks? One take, or twenty? Nichols script is deft enough to be smart measuring in sweetness content without killing the host by saccharine shock (in the same year he adapted the less-kindly doings for And Then There Were None and Scarlet Street).
Ingrid Bergman is in a class by herself. Her glowing eyes, radiant smile, lilting cadence and tickled giggle emanate decency and goodness. Her seventh straight hit in a row brought a well-earned Oscar nomination for Best Actress. Bing was up for Actor, along with the Picture, Director, Film Editing, Music Score and Song (“Aren’t You Glad You’re There”). It won for Best Sound. Since Crosby and Bergman had been honored the previous year (Going My Way and Gaslight), voters opted for the darker side of the ledger, picking Ray Milland’s drunk in The Lost Weekend and Joan Crawford’s troubled Mildred Pierce.
With Joan Carroll, Rhys Williams, Martha Sleeper, Una O’Connor and Richard Tyler.
* Leo McCarey only made five more films–two okay hits in Good Sam and An Affair To Remember, three flops with My Son John, Rally Round The Flag Boys and Satan Never Sleeps. This champ success came about as a tribute to his aunt and childhood counselor, a real Sister Mary Benedict, who helped in building the Immaculate Heart Convent in Hollywood and later died in a typhoid epidemic. He distilled his cinematic philosophy: “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 theater than when it came in….It’s larceny to remind people of how lousy things are and call it entertainment.”