Skip to main content

I can see you don’t know what it means to be up to your neck in nuns.

The Bells of St. Mary’s
(1945)

(SPOILERS) Now this, this is much closer to the “godawful Oscar-winning schmaltzTime Out labelled its predecessor Going My Way. Albeit, The Bells of St. Mary’s went home empty handed on the night of the 18thAcademy Awards (it received the most nominations of the contenders: eight including Best Picture). Instead, voters chose The Lost Weekend’s sobering tale of an alcoholic’s bender over Leo McCarey’s cockles-warming repeat of Bing Crosby being a thoroughly decent priest (I know, right?) The public were more in the mood for the schmaltz, however, with The Bells of St. Mary’s proving the biggest hit of the year by some distance (also RKO’s biggest hit ever) and returning nearly twice as much as The Lost Weekend. However, neither the critical nor box office laurels can disguise the fact that, to an unwavering latter-day eye, The Bells of St. Mary’s is turgid drivel.

Once again, Crosby’s Father Chuck O’Malley is called upon to set a parish to rights, which inevitably requires some tailor-made crooning on Bing’s part. This time, however, the absence of Barry Fitzgerald’s mildly leavening Oirish act as a foil to all that sincerity is starkly felt. In his stead, Ingrid Bergman is on hand as an impossibly holy and well-meaning nun (Sister Mary Benedict), and Bing has a school full of catholic pupils to tutor in the ways of righteousness.

Sure, there’s some potential during the opening minutes. There’s the possibility O’Malley will be outnumbered and outmanoeuvred by a gang of penguins, emasculating him in the manner of The Beguiled or Nurse Ratched. And there’s the threat of businessman Horace P Bogardus (Henry Travers, a year away from his legendary status as Clarence the angel in It’s a Wonderful Life), who has already built a big old, well young, edifice next door and has his sights set on turning the dilapidated school into a carpark (if they don’t sell, he just happens to be on the council, and if there’s a closure order, they’ll also have to pay for demolition).

But any kernel there buckles under the weight of almighty inertia. The Bells of St. Mary’s is two hours but feels like four. O’Malley and Mary have at worst a lightly, mutually amused friction, but really, they love and respect each other in as wholesomely chaste a manner as one could imagine. Mary has been praying for Horace to see the light and donate his prime building to the school, which he duly does when he has a change of heart induced by the underlying desire to be loved (Chuck forwards the idea one should be proactive and not just rely on God providing answers, and as the proceedings play out, there’s no miracle involved. But then, mysterious ways and all that).

Mostly, though, The Bells of St. Mary’s does its level best to induce level disdain with its succession of pupil problems for Chuck to puzzle over. There’s Patsy (Joan Carroll), dumped on the school by single mum Mary (Martha Sleeper), at least until the latter is reunited with musician ex Hoe (William Gargan). There’s a “philosophical” debate about the merits of juniors using physical violence when Eddie (Dick Tyler) turns the other cheek at Mary’s urging and gets a prize pummelling; bizarrely, she then choses to train him at fighting (reading from The Art of Boxing) so he may defend himself in a – what, composed? – fashion. The picture crawls blithely from scene to scene, under the smug illusion – correct, as it turned out – that viewers would just lap this stuff up.

Which, as per Going My Way, may have something to do with the conditions of its production and release (WWII, or in the following months). It seems – as Wiki tells it, anyway – the picture has become something of a Christmas favourite, despite having as limited a Yule setting as the first outing (that one at least ended at Christmas; this one boasts a quite repellent nativity play scene about a third of the way through, after which, all hope of recovery is forfeit). It’s also showing in Bedford Falls in It’s a Wonderful Life (and in The Godfather, Michael and Kay go to see it).

There’s some solid animal acting in the movie’s favour. A superb kitten performance, as it plays in Bing’s hat while the naughty nuns titter amongst themselves (Bing is trying to give a very serious speech). There’s also a yawning dog in a chapel that goes down well (Horace befriends it, entirely reasonably). Ingrid – who like Bing, had won an Oscar the year before – simpers benignly before being packed off with the TB. Bing occasionally looks amused or extra-sincere, and one gets the impression he’s longing for Bob Hope to insult him off camera.

Director Leo McCarey picked up two of his three Oscars the previous year, for writing and directing Going My Way (his first was directing the really very good The Awful Truth). Indeed, nothing he was attached to during the ’40s – including romantic drama An Affair to Remember – is a patch on his output in the previous decade (which included Duck Soup and Ruggles of Red Gap).

Perhaps that’s down to his professed beliefs. He was a devout Catholic – who’d have thunk given these two movies; Bergman’s character is based on his aunt Mary Benedict, who copped it to typhoid – and he became increasingly conservative as the decade progressed, and anti-Commie, with all the propaganda pieces (My Son John) and testifying that entailed. So clearly, he wasn’t one for turning the other cheek. Crosby said McCarey was a fan of improv. That might work when there’s a solid plot as bedrock and/or comedic beats. When you have nothing but positive vibes to impart, though, it can lead to something as stale and uninvolving as The Bells of St. Mary’s.


Popular posts from this blog

The Bible never said anything about amphetamines.

The Color of Money (1986) (SPOILERS) I tend to think it’s evident when Scorsese isn’t truly exercised by material. He can still invest every ounce of the technical acumen at his fingertips, and the results can dazzle on that level, but you don’t really feel the filmmaker in the film. Which, for one of his pictures to truly carry a wallop, you need to do. We’ve seen quite a few in such deficit in recent years, most often teaming with Leo. The Color of Money , however, is the first where it was out-and-out evident the subject matter wasn’t Marty’s bag. He needed it, desperately, to come off, but in the manner a tradesman who wants to keep getting jobs. This sequel to The Hustler doesn’t linger in the mind, however good it may be, moment by moment.

I said I had no family. I didn’t say I had an empty apartment.

The Apartment (1960) (SPOILERS) Billy Wilder’s romcom delivered the genre that rare Best Picture Oscar winner. Albeit, The Apartment amounts to a rather grim (now) PG-rated scenario, one rife with adultery, attempted suicide, prostitution of the soul and subjective thereof of the body. And yet, it’s also, finally, rather sweet, so salving the darker passages and evidencing the director’s expertly judged balancing act. Time Out ’s Tom Milne suggested the ending was a cop out (“ boy forgives girl and all’s well ”). But really, what other ending did the audience or central characters deserve?

Listen to the goddamn qualified scientists!

Don’t Look Up (2021) (SPOILERS) It’s testament to Don’t Look Up ’s “quality” that critics who would normally lap up this kind of liberal-causes messaging couldn’t find it within themselves to grant it a free pass. Adam McKay has attempted to refashion himself as a satirist since jettisoning former collaborator Will Ferrell, but as a Hollywood player and an inevitably socio-politically partisan one, he simply falls in line with the most obvious, fatuous propagandising.

Your desecration of reality will not go unpunished.

2021-22 Best-of, Worst-of and Everything Else Besides The movies might be the most visible example of attempts to cling onto cultural remnants as the previous societal template clatters down the drain. It takes something people really want – unlike a Bond movie where he kicks the can – to suggest the model of yesteryear, one where a billion-dollar grosser was like sneezing. You can argue Spider-Man: No Way Home is replete with agendas of one sort or another, and that’s undoubtedly the case (that’s Hollywood), but crowding out any such extraneous elements (and they often are) is simply a consummate crowd-pleaser that taps into tangible nostalgia through its multiverse take. Of course, nostalgia for a mere seven years ago, for something you didn’t like anyway, is a symptom of how fraught these times have become.

Doctors make the worst patients.

Coma (1978) (SPOILERS) Michael Crichton’s sophomore big-screen feature, and by some distance his best. Perhaps it’s simply that this a milieu known to him, or perhaps it’s that it’s very much aligned to the there-and-now and present, but Coma , despite the occasional lapse in this adaptation of colleague Robin Cook’s novel, is an effective, creepy, resonant thriller and then some. Crichton knows his subject, and it shows – the picture is confident and verisimilitudinous in a way none of his other directorial efforts are – and his low-key – some might say clinical – approach pays dividends. You might also call it prescient, but that would be to suggest its subject matter wasn’t immediately relevant then too.

You ruined every suck-my-silky-ass thing!

The Matrix Resurrections (2021) (SPOILERS) Warner Bros has been here before. Déjà vu? What happens when you let a filmmaker do whatever they want? And I don’t mean in the manner of Netflix. No, in the sequel sense. You get a Gremlins 2: The New Batch (a classic, obviously, but not one that financially furthered a franchise). And conversely, when you simply cash in on a brand, consequences be damned? Exorcist II: The Heretic speaks for itself. So in the case of The Matrix Resurrections – not far from as meta as The New Batch , but much less irreverent – when Thomas “Tom” Anderson, designer of globally successful gaming trilogy The Matrix , is told “ Our beloved company, Warner Bros, has decided to make a sequel to the trilogy ” and it’s going ahead “with or without us”, you can be fairly sure this is the gospel. That Lana, now going it alone, decided it was better to “make the best of it” than let her baby be sullied. Of course, quite what that amounts to in the case of a movie(s) tha

You just threw a donut in the hot zone!

Den of Thieves (2018) (SPOILERS) I'd heard this was a shameless  Heat  rip-off, and the presence of Gerard Butler seemed to confirm it would be passable-at-best B-heist hokum, so maybe it was just middling expectations, even having heard how enthused certain pockets of the Internet were, but  Den of Thieves  is a surprisingly very satisfying entry in the genre. I can't even fault it for attempting to Keyser Soze the whole shebang at the last moment – add a head in a box and you have three 1995 classics in one movie – even if that particular conceit doesn’t quite come together.

It’s always possible to find a good moral reason for killing anybody.

The Assassination Bureau (1969) (SPOILERS) The Assassination Bureau ought to be a great movie. You can see its influence on those who either think it is a great movie, or want to produce something that fulfils its potential. Alan Moore and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen . The just-released (and just-flopped) The King’s Men . It inhabits a post-Avengers, self-consciously benign rehearsal of, and ambivalence towards, Empire manners and attitudes, something that could previously be seen that decade in Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines (and sequel Monte Carlo or Bust , also 1969), Adam Adamant Lives! , and even earlier with Kind Hearts and Coronets , whilst also feeding into that “Peacock Revolution” of Edwardian/Victorian fashion refurbishment. Unfortunately, though, it lacks the pop-stylistic savvy that made, say, The President’s Analyst so vivacious.

Abandon selective targeting. Shoot everything.

28 Weeks Later (2007) (SPOILERS) The first five minutes of 28 Weeks Later are far and away the best part of this sequel, offering in quick succession a devastating moral quandary and a waking nightmare, immortalised on the screen. After that, while significantly more polished, Juan Carlos Fresnadillo reveals his concept to be altogether inferior to Danny Boyle and Alex Garland’s, falling back on the crutches of gore, nihilism, and disengaging and limiting shifts of focus between characters in whom one has little investment in the first place.

This guy’s armed with a hairdryer.

An Innocent Man (1989) (SPOILERS) Was it a chicken-and-egg thing with Tom Selleck and movies? Did he consistently end up in ropey pictures because other, bigger big-screen stars had first dibs on the good stuff? Or was it because he was a resolutely small-screen guy with limited range and zero good taste? Selleck had about half-a-dozen cinema outings during the 1980s, one of which, the very TV, very Touchstone Three Men and a Baby was a hit, but couldn’t be put wholly down to him. The final one was An Innocent Man , where he attempted to show some grit and mettle, as nice-guy Tom is framed and has to get tough to survive. Unfortunately, it’s another big-screen TV movie.