The Bells of St. Mary’s (1945)

Directed by Leo McCarey

The Bells of St. Mary’s is movie that is very representative of a type of movie Hollywood made in its heyday, very much the way it’s predecessor was, Going My Way. On one hand, it is a type of film that Hollywood has continued to make (like certain Disney films) with varying degrees of success – family oriented and sentimental. On the other hand, it is anachronistic and, for some, nostalgic.

It’s hard to imagine someone making a movie today about priests and nuns that accepts and embraces them in the way this movie does. They are the good guys, no questions asked.

It introduces an interesting dramatic problem, however. If priests and nuns are so completely accepted as good, as this movie’s sensibility does, where do you find the conflict and drama that makes an interesting movie?

Writer and director Leo McCarey and writer Dudley Nichols manage it by presenting a few storylines and disagreements, of a very mild sort, between Father O’Malley (Bing Crosby) and Sister Mary Benedict (Ingrid Bergman). One is the question of the school’s existence; another is the young girl Father O’Malley accepts at the school to help her struggling mother locate the father (who is also the woman’s husband).

The main conflict, however, is between Father O’Malley, who has been sent to run and evaluate St. Mary’s, bringing with him some unconventional methods and approaches, and Sister Benedict, who is much more rules driven and completely devoted to the school – so much so, she is working (mainly praying) for a miracle to save it.

As all these threads play out and intersect, we also get lots of songs with Bing Crosby crooning at the drop of a hat. The music is delightful, though I wouldn’t say there are any memorable songs in the movie.

Family movies are still made today but even in those the complete trust and belief in the kind of world The Bells of St. Mary’s represents doesn’t really play and while softer compared to adult films, even today’s family movies have a rougher edge than this movie. Another aspect of The Bells of St. Mary’s that distinguishes it from today’s movies is its utter focus on being a movie as opposed to a marketing vehicle.

It’s an idiolized, fantasy world the movie presents but that is okay because every now and again that’s a nice thing to experience. It’s also a movie that is well-paced, but in a slower, mid-1940s way. It is simply a pleasant, enjoyable movie to watch.

Lastly, it’s fun to see Henry Travers, the angel Clarence Oddbody from It’s a Wonderful Life, playing businessman Horace P. Bogardus, the self-centred, cranky man who slowly transform in Scrooge-like fashion. Travers plays him wonderfully and it’s a great source for the movie’s humor.

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