Today is January 6, the Epiphany. Since Christmas Day, I have written about one Christmas film from the Code era every day in my “Twelve Days of Christmas with the Code” series. Those days led up to today’s article in honor of the Epiphany, which is the finale of the event. My article for today will be about The Bells of St. Mary’s, the top-grossing film of 1945. This Catholic classic directed by Leo McCarey was the sequel to Going My Way, the top-grossing film of the previous year. In it, Bing Crosby reprised his Academy Award winning role of Father Charles O’Malley.
Father O’Malley (Bing Crosby) arrives at St. Mary’s parochial school. While showing him to his room, the middle-aged housekeeper, Mrs. Breen (Una O’Connor), says that he has his work cut out for him, since he doesn’t know what it’s like to be “up to your neck in nuns.” The next morning, Father O’Malley meets the sisters, including the Sister Superior, Sister Benedict (Ingrid Bergman). Father O’Malley is a little disconcerted when the nuns laugh as he addresses them for the first time. Little does he know that a kitten has crawled into his hat, which he placed on the mantle behind him. When he finally realizes the cause of their mirth and removes the rascally cat from his hat, the first bell rings, and the nuns have to go to their classes. Sister Benedict takes him outside so that he can address the students before their classes. He regains his confidence and becomes a lifelong friend to the children by announcing that today is a holiday; there will be no school. Sister Benedict is furious that the new pastor made such a rash decision; she tells him all the problems that could arise because of what he did, but he isn’t concerned. She and her assistant, Sister Michael (Ruth Donnelly), show Father O’Malley around the school. The whole school is very run down, and the children don’t even have a playground. St. Mary’s had to sell their playground to make repairs on the school buildings, but it is still so decrepit that it may be condemned. The site of their former playground is now the location of a brand new, beautifully modern building which was erected by Horace P. Bogardus (Henry Travers). The nuns tell Father O’Malley that they have been praying for months that Mr. Bogardus would wake up one morning and give them his building. Father O’Malley is impressed by their faith, but he greatly doubts that a cold businessman like Mr. Bogardus would ever be so benevolent. Later that day, Father O’Malley meets Mr. Bogardus. The businessman offers to buy the school, saying that if they don’t sell it, it will be condemned, and they will have to tear it down at their own expense. He tells them that all the children would be better off going to St. Victor’s, but Father O’Malley says he will have to think it over. As the priest is about to go back into the school yard, a woman addresses him. She says her name is Mary Gallagher (Martha Sleeper), and she wants to enroll her daughter Patricia at St. Mary’s. She tells Father O’Malley that she ran away from home when she was very young to marry a piano player named Joe Gallagher. They got married, but it wasn’t long before he went to do an out of town music job, promising to send for her. He never did; not long after that, she had their baby, Patsy. That was thirteen years ago. She says that she wants Patsy to be away from her for awhile; she’s just beginning to think that her mother is no good, and she wants to send her to St. Mary’s before she realizes that she’s right. Father O’Malley assures Mrs. Gallagher that any mother who is so concerned about her child’s welfare must be doing alright. He tells her to send Patsy over to see him; she thanks him gratefully. The next day, a very mature looking Patsy (Joan Carroll) comes to see Father O’Malley. She is wearing makeup and a rat in her hair because she was looking for work, but he says that she should go to school here. He takes his handkerchief and playfully wipes the makeup off her face. She agrees to give the school a chance. Father O’Malley arranges for her to live across the street from the school with Mrs. Breen and her son, Eddie (Dickey Tyler). At first Patsy struggles with her studies. Sister Benedict tries to encourage her, but she does not want to confide in the concerned nun. Sister Benedict asks Father O’Malley about Patsy’s home life, since he personally vouched for her; he reveals that her parents are separated and encourages Sister Benedict to help the young girl. One notable event during the school year is a feud between the mild-mannered Eddie Breen, who listens to Sister Benedict’s advice about Christian conduct, and pugnacious Tommy Smith (Bobby Frasco), a trouble-making new boy at school. Sister Benedict and Father O’Malley disagree about how to bring up boys and the profit of fighting. Later, Father O’Malley watches a rehearsal for an adorable first grade Christmas play which the children wrote and staged themselves, and he inspires Patsy to write a unique paper by making her analyze the topic and its true meaning. Soon, the time of graduation draws near, and Patsy takes her graduation dress home to show it to her mother. As she approaches her mother’s apartment, she sees a man (William Gargan) exiting the room and saying that he’ll get the tickets to Syracuse. Little does she know that this man is her real father, whom Father O’Malley located and reunited with her mother. She is very disturbed, since she thinks this man is a gentleman friend of her mother’s. She goes back to the school without seeing her mother. She is so upset that she purposely fails her final exams so that she can stay at St. Mary’s another year. When Sister Benedict tells Father O’Malley how bad Patsy’s marks are, he is very distressed. He asks the sister if she could give her a better mark and pass her. They have an emotional argument about the true purpose of education and the value of grading. Sister Benedict says that she’ll pass Patsy if the priest orders her to, but she won’t change her mark. He doesn’t order her, but the disagreement stands between them like a huge wall. Not long after, Sister Benedict has a fainting spell. Dr. McKay (Rhys Williams) is called, and he asks her to come to his office on Monday. Sister Benedict is very happy to discover that Dr. McKay is Mr. Bogardus’s personal physician. Outside, Father O’Malley tells Dr. McKay that the best prescription he knows for a bad heart such as Mr. Bogardus’s is doing kind things for others. Dr. McKay perceives his plan. In the next scene, Father O’Malley bumps into Mr. Bogardus, who has just come from his doctor. He says that he’s lived very selfishly, but now he wants to be kind and help others. He goes into the church to pray. He begins to talk to Sister Benedict. He tells her about his desire to make people like him and says that he wants to start by giving St. Mary’s his building. Sister Benedict is overjoyed. Very soon after, Dr. McKay visits Father O’Malley with the results of Sister Benedict’s examination. He is very sorry to tell him that she has a touch of tuberculosis. Father O’Malley is devastated. The doctor says that it isn’t too serious; it’s in its very early stages. He suggests that Sister Benedict be sent to a dry climate with a position that isn’t at a school. Also, he thinks that it’s very important that she not be told about her condition, since he thinks that would depress her. Father O’Malley fears that she will think he has ordered her to be transferred because of their disagreement about Patsy. However, he agrees with the doctor that her health must come first. Sister Benedict is crushed when Father O’Malley gives her the news. As he feared, she believes that he doesn’t want her there. Will she leave the school full of bitterness because of the well-meant falsehood? Will Father O’Malley decide to tell her about her condition? Will they realize the truth about Patsy’s examination? Will the Gallaghers ever be a real family? Watch the movie to find out!
Both Bing Crosby and Ingrid Bergman were nominated for Academy Awards for their performances in this film. Since Bing Crosby had won Best Actor for the same role in Going My Way, he was the first person to be nominated for two Academy Awards for the same role. The supporting cast is excellent; it adds to the dynamic qualities of this picture. Of course, one of the finest additions to this movie is Bing’s singing. He sings two popular songs, “Aren’t You Glad You’re You?” and “In the Land of Beginning Again,” plus the theme song and a few other sacred pieces. He didn’t have to sing to make his character a success, however; Father O’Malley is a great character because of Mr. Crosby’s acting.
Leo McCarey and Joseph Breen were very good friends. Maybe it’s because they were both Irish Catholics. They were members of the group of Hollywood Hibernians who were jokingly called the “Irish Mafia.” It’s an interesting point that the housekeeper’s name is Mrs. Breen. I’m sure it wasn’t a coincidence. Mr. McCarey probably meant it as a jovial reference to his friend at the PCA.
Leo McCarey had a lot of taste in his direction. He didn’t believe in showing ugliness; he wanted his films to make people leave the theatre happier than they were when they entered. In many ways, he had the same goal for films as Mr. Breen. Because of this, Mr. McCarey made many films which are extremely good Code pictures. Neither The Bells of St. Mary’s nor its predecessor, however, was a completely light and frivolous film. Both have serious subjects which could have been problematic if not properly handled. The situation with Mrs. Gallagher was quite questionable in the original draft of the story. After the proper amount of self-regulation, however, all offensive elements of the character were removed.
At the time of this picture’s release, some viewers complained about the lack of religiosity in this picture; I think there is just enough religion for mass popularity. The main characters are obviously Catholic, yet the Catholicism is not so overwhelming that the film would be distasteful to viewers who are not members of the Roman Catholic Church. Many people claim that there is a romantic flavor in the relationship between Father O’Malley and Sister Benedict, but I disagree. It seems to me that they dislike each other most of the time. They disagree so frequently, and when they are amicable they seem like a brother and sister. I think that the proper emotions were always used.
The Christmas scene in this movie is brief but memorable. On a snowy night, Sister Benedict walks across St. Mary’s courtyard and goes into a building where Father O’Malley and some of the children are rehearsing “Adeste Fideles.” Sister Benedict says that the sound of their singing is distracting the first grade students, who are trying to rehearse their Christmas play. Father O’Malley says that he and the children had intended to offer their musical talents to the play, but she says that there’s no place for “Adeste Fideles.” The father says that he has to see a play like that, and she brings him to the rehearsal. The children perform a charmingly spontaneous and simple version of the Christmas story, with a cute, wheezing little boy named Bobby (Bobby Dolan, Jr.) leading the play. Once everyone is in the manger, the children celebrate Jesus’s birth with a song. Instead of a Christmas carol, they sing “Happy Birthday.” It’s adorable and very sweet. Although the actual Christmas scene lasts not much longer than five minutes, the religious theme makes the whole picture seem like a holiday movie.
Most people think that the three kings arrived at the manger on the night of Christ’s birth. That idea has been widely perpetuated by movies, songs, stories, and nativity scenes. However, according to the New Testament of the Bible, the star appeared on that night, when the three wise men began their journey. It was two years before they arrived. Furthermore, they are identified only as wise men, not necessarily kings. The Epiphany is a Christian holiday celebrating the time when the wise men visited Jesus, since it was his first manifestation to the Gentiles, which were represented by the three foreign men. I chose The Bells of St. Mary’s for my Epiphany film selection because the children’s Christmas play shows the wise men visiting Jesus, even though it does show their visit on Christmas itself. The Epiphany’s meaning and origin are not widely known anymore, so I thought I would briefly describe them. As a side note, my name, Tiffany, was often given to girls born on the Epiphany. It comes from the Greek name Theophania, which means manifestation of God, since Jesus was manifested to the Gentiles on th Epiphany.
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