Monday, December 8, 2008


Holiday Movie Category: Tinsel-less Tearjerker


Father O'Malley the Schemer, Clarence the Corporate Angel, Sister Benedict the Pugilist Nun, Patsy the Whore's Daughter, Eddie the Lil' White Hope, the inspiration for Mrs. Doyle, and a classic holiday weepy.

More details here.


Father Chuck O'Malley, fresh from his adventures in 1944's Going My Way, arrives at dilapidated parochial school St. Mary's ready to take over from the departing headmaster who's been carted off to the loony bin (or rest home, I forget which). He's greeted by the busy-body caretaker Mrs. Breen (Una O'Connor) and the traditionalist but super-hot Mother Superior Sister Benedict (Ingrid Bergman). O'Malley's liberal attitude, easy-going management skills, and velvet-toned lungs instantly rubs Sister Benedict the wrong way and the two bump heads in minor disagreements. First, they square off on how to approach the problem of a young girl from a broken home named Patsy (Joan Carroll) who's failing her classes and emotionally wallowing in the fact that Mom may be a hooker. Then, they disagree on how best to deal with student Eddie (Dickie Tyler) who fights with another boy but chooses to turn the other cheek. And lastly, they differ on how best to approach the problem with the school building that's falling apart and about to be condemned. Sister prays for a miracle in the form of industrialist Horace P. Bogardus (Henry Travers) who's building ultra-modern office building adjacent to St. Mary's. Bogardus wants the school torn down so he can build a parking lot, but Sister and the other nuns hope he will come to his senses and give the building to the church. The realist O'Malley, however, believes St. Mary's should be shutdown and the children moved to another school. And so there are more good-natured confrontations, Sister Benedict receives some disturbing news, Bing belts out a couple of songs, and cute kids do cute shtick. In the end, with the school left in good hands, Sister Benedict must leave St. Mary's, and there won’t be a dry hanky in the house.


The Bells of St. Mary's airs annually during the holiday season and has been associated with this time of year even though the story revolves around a year in the life of a Catholic school and there's less than ten minutes of Christmas in the flick. And given that, I always believed that this movie had very little to do with Christmas, but in fact, it does. Its central theme hits upon notions of a kind heart, the spirit of giving, and the life-affirming power of faith. The movie’s cherished message has inspired at least three generations of movie-goers who made this film a huge hit and an everlasting expression of goodwill. But there's a shadowy darkside to the film, namely the unconscionable character of O'Malley. Yup, I’m calling Father Chuck out. The man is a moral con artist and a sham. I haven’t been this disappointed with a Catholic priest since, well, all of them. First, he reinforces acts of violence when he breaks up a fight between two boys only to complement and encourage the boy who started the fight. Proponent of aggression! Then he celebrates mediocrity by pressuring Sister Benedict to change Patsy's grades so she can squeak by and graduate. Rewarder of failure! Then, he surreptitiously exacerbates Borgardus' failing health and subsequent crisis of faith by frightening him with a forgotten legacy after his death unless he gives something back. Enemy of capitalism! And lastly, he withholds the reason why Sister Benedict is being transferred from St. Mary's. Jerk! Regardless, O'Malley gets the job done and Bing is charming doing so, and for that you gotta love the guy. The delightful and radiant Bergman is outstanding as Sister Benedict, especially when she breaks free from her rigid nature like in the classic scenes where she teaches Eddie to box. Newer audiences might find it difficult to identify with the schmaltz and sentimentality, in addition to the long running time and periodic slowness. Love it or dislike it (because it's impossible to hate) The Bells of St. Mary's is a heartfelt family movie that will forever be a skillfully made, well-acted, timeless treasure of Hollywood cinema.

Despite evil ol’ Father O’Malley!

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