This article was written by Wesley Sterling, an interested reader of PEPS. He agreed to write an entry in our guest series, What the Code Means to Me, months ago. He recently decided to make his post an entry in our 2nd Happy Holidays Blogathon. Since he doesn’t have a blog, we are publishing the article here. Wes, thank you for contributing the eleventh article to our series exploring other writers’ opinions on the Code!
Please enjoy this Special Holiday Post in What the Code Means to Me and The 2nd Happy Holidays Blogathon!
Folded in my Bible, I keep a small print of a painting by the late Terry Redlin called “Sunday Morning.” I keep it there because if I could wave a magic wand and have my life look any way I wanted it to, I would be serving in a church setting that would look pretty much exactly like the serene picture created by Mr. Redlin. It’s been said that the best visual art is that which makes you want to be there, and I think that’s true. Whether we’re talking about paintings, photography, or film, I think the best works are those that transport you to another time and/or place and make you long for it to be a reality in your own life. It is with this in mind that I’d like to write in this article about “What the Code Means to Me” for PEPS and, as a case in point, review the holiday film “The Bells of St. Mary’s” from 1945, directed and produced by Leo McCarey.
“The Bells of St. Mary’s” stars Bing Crosby as Father Charles O’Malley, Ingrid Bergman as Sister Superior Mary Benedict, and Henry Travers as businessman Horace Bogardus. In it, Bing reprises his role of Father O’Malley from the film “Going My Way” (1944), so this is effectively a sequel. However, it carries its own quite well, and one doesn’t have to have seen “Going My Way” to appreciate this film. In it, Father O’Malley has been assigned to St. Mary’s Parish as head pastor and principal of the church’s school after his predecessor stepped down due to “a much needed rest.” His main interactions are with the nuns of St. Mary’s, especially Sister Superior Mary Benedict, the students including, in particular, Patricia (“Patsy”, played by Joan Carroll) and her parents, and Mr. Horace Bogardus (Henry Travers), who owns the office building next door and is hoping to buy the property of St. Mary’s to turn it into a parking lot. All the while, Sister Benedict and the nuns are praying that Mr. Bogardus will give them his building so that the dilapidated St. Mary’s school will not have to close.
“The Bells of St. Mary’s” is a perfect Code film and thus a great example of what the Code means to me; specifically the Code as enforced during the Breen era. Let me explain: The Breen era (1934-1954) encompasses the time period in America that we typically associate with “Classic Americana.” When we think of “Classic Americana” and traditional American values, we typically think of three things: Virtue, Patriotism, and Faith. All of which were championed by the Motion Picture Production Code and Joseph Breen. In fact, that’s what makes a great Code film a great Code film: these values being championed (especially when dealing with sensitive or difficult issues) and not mocked or disregarded as is so often the case in many modern films and the entertainment industry in general, for that matter. While there are many forms of entertainment art (movies, music, stage, etc.), some of the governing principles of the Motion Picture Production Code were that, “Mankind has always regarded the importance of entertainment and its value in rebuilding the bodies and souls of human beings” and that “Motion picture producers recognize the high trust and confidence which have been placed in them by the people of the world, and they recognize their responsibility to the public because of this trust.”
Because of these convictions and the fact that motion pictures were (and still are, I believe) the most culturally influential artform in America, this also affected how other entertainment media functioned. Because film was so influential, the Code set the standard for what the public expected out of the entire entertainment industry. Thus, music, radio dramas, and other media had to meet the same standards in the public eye, even though they weren’t officially under the jurisdiction of the Code and the PCA. But it set the standard of virtue, patriotism, and faith that had shaped the conscience of the public and what the public valued. Since film was held to such a high standard, all other media forms were effectively held to it as well. “A rising tide floats all boats,” as it were. As the Code fell into disuse and moral standards in film deteriorated, the other entertainment media quickly followed suit. I don’t think it is any coincidence that as we trace the decline of values and decency in our culture and our media, it falls in the same timeline as the decline of the Code’s use in film.
But the more a film adhered to the Code, the more the film as an artform made you want to be there. Perhaps not there in every situation or scene in a given film, but in a world where virtue, patriotism, and faith were honored. It made you long for a world where there was goodness and decency, especially when we see so little of it on the daily news today or in what now passes for entertainment.
When I watch “The Bells of St. Mary’s,” I wish I were part of that church and school. Even though I’m not Roman Catholic, the characters of Father O’Malley and Sister Benedict are the type of church leaders I wish we could all have. By them, we see Biblical virtues exemplified. We see Father O’Malley and Sister Benedict trying to not just teach their students but minister to them out of love for them (1 Cor. 13:1-3). We see examples of self-sacrificial giving from Mr. Bogardus (2 Cor. 9:7), and we see Father O’Malley considering others more important than himself in making difficult decisions (Php. 2:3). In these characters, we see faith working through love (Gal. 5:6). What if we all lived in a world like that? Even if someone isn’t a religious person, I think we all want to be loved and cared for in this way. We look on the screen in “The Bells of St. Mary’s” and say, “I wish I had that in my life.” That’s why it makes for great art. That’s what the Code was trying to ensure.
Cinematically speaking, “The Bells of St Mary’s” is one of my favorite films. Anything that stars Bing Crosby, Ingrid Bergman, and Henry Travers you know has to be good. While it’s usually regarded as a holiday film, there’s really only about 8 out of its 126 minutes of run time that takes place at Christmastime. But its message is certainly appropriate for a Christmas movie, as it is warming to the soul. Bing Crosby is, of course, one of the most famous voices for Christmas music, and he gets plenty of opportunity to showcase his voice here. Henry Travers is fantastic as Mr. Bogardus. Of course, he will always be “Clarence Odbody, AS2” (from “It’s A Wonderful Life”) to me. Ingrid Bergman always had a screen presence that was absolutely captivating, and that is no different here. She was a true character actress. Anyone who could go from playing Ilsa in “Casablanca” (1942) to the wife, Paula, driven nearly insane in “Gaslight” (1944) to Sister Benedict here in those few short years, and play all roles equally convincingly, is truly one of the Hollywood greats.
But greatness is what the Code was trying to ensure. And when it was adhered to properly, that’s what it achieved. Even if there wasn’t greatness in every cinematic element, there was greatness in what it tried to uphold and celebrate: Virtue, Patriotism, and Faith. And all other media, and all other people, benefited. The soul is uplifted, and that’s why the Code is important to me. These are the values that make us want to be part of great art when we see them displayed. I’m sure Mr. Redlin would have agreed. Merry Christmas!
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