Starring Bing Crosby and Ingrid Bergman
My rating: ★★ stars
Manipulatively inspirational pablum elevated by Ingrid Bergman’s stellar performance.
The Bells of St. Mary’s is a sequel to the wildly popular, Best Picture winner Going My Way from the previous year. Bing Crosby returns as the crooning cleric Father O’Malley. In Bells, Father O’Malley has been dispatched to run St. Mary’s School, an urban grade school that lacks facilities and funds. He contends with the HNIC (Head Nun In Charge), Sister Benedict (Ingrid Bergman).
My mother attended Catholic school at the time this movie came out. She tells me that she and all her fellow students loved Sister Benedict when they saw the movie and wanted their own nuns to be just like her. The movie causes her to reflect fondly on some of the nuns she had as teachers and their care and dedication.
Sister Benedict is, indeed, a special character. She is wise without being smug. Powerful without being dictatorial—as willing to take advice as she is to give it. She knows her own mind but is willing to change it if circumstances change. She is, simply, an inspirational character.
This film is thoroughly wholesome and inspirational. It dates from a time when priests were benevolent figures of moral authority beyond reproach. The nuns led by Sister Benedict pray for their school to be saved, and, due to their faith in people’s inherent goodness, their prayer is granted. There’s nothing wrong with a movie being wholesome and inspirational, but much of the film, however, is treacly and far-fetched, manipulating the audience to feel inspired. One particularly eye roll-inducing subplot involves a single mother who is suddenly reunited with the husband who abandoned her; his return to her life is unmarked by any sort of conflict and solves all the problems in her life.
The film never mines its conflict between Father O’Malley and Sister Benedict to the fullest extent. It presents potentially intriguing disagreements where both characters are right—a more interesting form of conflict that that between right and wrong—but backs away before the disagreement can alter the feel-good tenor that the filmmakers seem to think every moment of the movie must have.
However, I came to appreciate the movie more when I recognized that it was subversive. Subtly subversive—I don’t think director Leo McCarey ever made an overtly subversive film and would probably have shuddered at the idea that any of his films contained subversive content at all. In the film, Father O’Malley and Sister Benedict’s doctor opt not to tell her about a serious medical diagnosis. Their actions are reprehensibly paternalistic despite being done with the best intentions. They make decisions they believe are best for her without consulting her. In the end, Father O’Malley changes his mind and tells her what is wrong with her. This turns out to be the right decision because, of course, making decisions for a woman and not letting her know why you’re doing them is bad. Bad. Don’t do that. Trust women to make decisions for themselves because they are intelligent people, as capable of making decisions about their lives as men are.
Ultimately, the movie doesn’t go too far in challenging paternalism. Sister Benedict doesn’t rip off Father O’Malley’s straw boater and beat him about the head with it, nor does the film acknowledge how wrong he was other than showing Sister Benedict’s gratitude at finally being told the truth.
Bing Crosby as Father O’Malley is not particularly interesting. He won an Oscar playing the same role the previous year, but his characterization is not to my taste. It’s rather flat, and the film’s unquestioning presentation of his goodness grates. The film also wedges in a few songs to take advantage of Crosby’s singing ability. None of the vocal performances is top-tier Crosby, and none fits particularly well within the film.
Ingrid Bergman, on the other hand, gives the performance of a career. She’s absolutely radiant as Sister Benedict. Her nun’s habit hides much of the movement of her body, but her face is wonderfully expressive. Her thoughts and emotions flicker subtly over her visage every time the camera finds it. She was nominated for an Oscar for Best Actress but lost to Joan Crawford for Mildred Pierce.
The Bells of St. Mary’s is a flawed film that is too interested in making the audience feel good to tell a compelling story, but it’s worth watching for Bergman’s performance alone.