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Sing Dem “Bells”

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I have to say right off that I'm not a big fan of Christmas movies (the December holiday classic around our house being Night Train Murders), especially when they're jam-packed with “inspired” slap-happy movie stars impersonating clergy, angels or any other Hollywood cliché vital in the obtaining of false profits.

Therefore I'm probably not the ideal person to review two Forties pics of the season, the revered THE BELLS OF ST. MARY'S and the fairly obscure THE MIRACLE OF THE BELLS, now both on Blu-Ray and DVD from Olive Films/Paramount Home Video.

That said, I do enjoy watching works featuring favorite actors, directors, writers and cinematographers, so there is a validation factor justifying my sporadic viewing of these saccharin-doused versions of there's-no-business-like-ho-ho-ho-business.

Armed with this forewarning, I can then readily plunge into a discussion of Leo McCarey's enormously popular 1945 comedy-drama THE BELLS OF ST. MARY'S. A shrewd sequel to his mammoth 1944 hit Going My Way, BELLS picks up with My Way's star Bing Crosby (aka Father Chuck O'Malley) being transferred to a struggling parochial school, replacing the ailing, aged Father Fogarty (who we know is aged and ailing, as we see him being carted away in a wheelchair like a Goodwill donation).

O'Malley's lax approach is in contrast to the school's head nun-extraordinaire, Sister Benedict, the rapaciously beauteous Ingrid Bergman.

From here the cute differences betwixt the pair kick in like chronic diabetes. Bing takes on the troubled teen girls with a disturbing (more-than-a-modicum of) interest while Ingrid handles the males, particularly a sissified youth (Dickie Tyler), whom she teaches to fight and play baseball. Bing's main charge is Patsy (Joan Carroll), the daughter of a single mom, who apparently makes her living as a prostitute (Martha Sleeper). Crosby not only straightens them out (because we know what a great parent he was), but even reunites the woman with her estranged ex – a shiftless jazz pianist (William Gargan). Yeah, that relationship smacks of happily-ever-after (and I do mean smacks).

While this sounds spectacularly adult and salacious, it really isn't. It never crosses the line to rope in sarcastic bastards like me. Even the evil industrialist, who covets the school's property, isn't all that evil (hell, it's Henry Travers – how could he be?).

THE BELLS OF ST. MARY'S is a cleverly designed project orchestrated to make a lot of rich people a lot richer. McCarey and screenwriter Dudley Nichols stacked the deck with all the pushable emotional buttons necessary to garner another super-hit for its director (and producer-head of Rainbow Productions, in his first indy pic for RKO). How they ever wrested the rights to the O'Malley character (or Crosby for that matter) from Paramount is indeed a Christmas miracle I'd like to know more about. What makes me cringe is the script's celebrating its characters' dedication to half-truths, its keeping important info from others...a nice way of lying...And all in the name of Christianity. Despite that this causes much pain and ruination, it's heralded as adorable and even admirable by McCarey and Nichols. The duo also tends to overplay the adaptation of then-hep slang into the St. Mary's vocabulary (one “You said it, Sister!” would have more than sufficed).

Bergman, who was under contract to David O. Selznick, realized the potential of this endeavor, and was eager to jump into the fray, even though her employer was way less thrilled. In fact, Selznick tried to talk her out of it. BELLS had every indication of being a gooey mess, and not a vehicle for an actress known for being edgy and consistently making Hollywood fare more grown-up. Bergman was cheery about the whole shebang, laughing that she'd be wearing a nun's habit for the entire shoot – and therefore could eat whatever she wanted.

This changed immediately upon introduction to Bing Crosby, causing Bergman's bubbly anticipation to freeze like a Scandinavian fjord. Long story short: there was nada chemistry between the pair. Undoubtedly, this gig would prove to be the ultimate acting test, and mercifully one which they both passed, as their on-screen personaes blended like the toxic dyes in a Monsanto smoothie – and just as syrupy. Off-camera, Bergman resented Crosby's penchant for being remote and uncommunicative, and was revolted by his habitual spitting, as well as his ability to recite a catalogue of suggestive vulgarities that even Lionel Atwill would find offensive.

Even so, the movie seemed blessed from Day One. Shortly after production began, Oscar nominations for 1944 came out – with nods to McCarey and Crosby (for Going My Way) and Bergman (for Gaslight). All three won, and the next day RKO's publicity department went into high gear, readying the “starring this year's Best Actor and Best Actress” promotional campaign (sufficiently played down was the Church's Hollywood saint McCarey's two DUI arrests during the filming).

It was Bergman, however, who magnificently played the last card. Unusual for a movie, much of BELLS was shot in sequential order. On the final day of production, encompassing a touching farewell between O'Malley and Benedict, McCarey invited select members of the clergy to be in attendance. As the pious group watched reverently, Bergman approached Crosby for an embrace, then hitched up her habit, straddled her legs around him and DFK-ed him into orbit. Bing, who didn't seem to mind, valiantly carried on like the trouper he was. The Bible-belted men of the cloth practically had a holy cow. Regrettably, this climax never ended up in the final cut; otherwise it would have instantly changed my opinion of holiday pics, and zoomed to the top of Mel's Best Religious Movies EVER list.

Bergman triumphed in another area too – McCarey's trademark encouragement for improvisation, most notably in a sequence where the parish urchins prepare a nativity sketch (one only need to see McCarey's My Son John where Helen Hayes' rambling “realism” relegates her to blithering idiot status).

As one would suspect, THE BELLS OF ST. MARY'S utilized the services of the industry's finest craftsmen and artists. In addition to those mentioned, BELLS’ supporting cast was dotted with such beloved Gaelic punims as Rhys Williams, Una O'Connor and Ruth Donnelly. George Barnes embellished the picture with beautiful black and white imagery while Robert Emmett Dolan provided an appropriately sticky score. Attempting to cash in on the hit record “Swing on a Star,” which added considerably to Going My Way's take, a similar ditty, “Aren't You Glad You're You” was concocted and warbled by Bing to his captive throngs. It didn't quite scale the musical heights of its predecessor, but, then again, it didn't have to.

THE BELLS OF ST. MARY'S opened at Radio City Music Hall, as their big Christmas attraction. And big it was! Playing well into 1946, BELLS became the highest-grossing picture of the year (nearly $22 million, over a quarter of a billion in 2013 coin!), topping such blockbusters as The Big Sleep and The Best Years of Our Lives (both far more representative of the no-nonsense realism post-war audiences were increasingly craving). It also competed with concurrent Crosby and Bergman releases, Road to Utopia, Blue Skies, Spellbound and Notorious – all box office bonanzas. It was the movie that reunited wartime couples went to see, snuggle at, and then see again...and again. BELLS kept the California box company working 24/7, constructing cartons to carry the cash away. It gleaned an impressive eight Academy nominations, including Best Picture, Director, Actor and Actress (winning for Best Sound Recording).

McCarey's later cavalier handling of the movie's rights, coupled with Bergman's Rossellini “scandal,” kept BELLS out of circulation for quite a few years. When it was finally released to TV in the late 1950s (where it became “the time-honored classic,” along with It's a Wonderful Life – another indy RKO that attained its later fame in P.D. heaven, due to its director-producer's negligence), ST. MARY'S looked as physically ravaged as the school depicted in the movie. To say the least, the now-dull, gray monotone visuals, buttressed by bacon-frying audio, hampered the intended joyous impact.

The new Blu-Ray restores BELLS' contrast and clarity; the sound, too, exhibits a more robust bass than in previous laser and DVD incarnations. There is some negative dirt at occasional reel changes, and a bit of crackle here and there, but it's nothing to carp about. Unpretentious and family-friendly, THE BELLS OF ST. MARY'S delivers what it promises: more Bing for your buck.

1948's THE MIRACLE OF THE BELLS, another independently produced RKO entry (by Jesse L. Lasky, Jr., and Walter MacEwen), is a cynical attempt to cash in on the above BELLS band wagon (a fortunate title tie-in, optioned from the novel of the same name by Russell Janney).

The snarkiness doesn't emanate merely from the BELLS moniker but by the casting. With Crosby unavailable, the producers sought out the best singing priest replacement, Frank Sinatra (instead of St. Mary's, he presides over St. Michael's). And with Bergman similarly out of the picture, they obtained the services of Selznick's newest import, Alida Valli, billed as simply Valli (of the Italian dolls).

The movie is rife with bitterness, sarcasm and nastiness – so automatically it is raised three points in my inspirational cinema pantheon. Much of this welcome rudeness is the result of an often vicious script by Ben Hecht (who cowrote the adaptation with Quentin Reynolds).

The plot concerns a contemptuous press agent's (none other than contemptuous Fred MacMurray) arrival in a hick Pennsylvania coal town to bury a local beauty. The dead dame, Olga Treskovna (Valli), the daughter of the burg's drunk, aspired to be an actress.

In numerous flashbacks, MacMurray recounts Olga's rise from poverty to a dance troupe to Hollywood, where she, by no fault of her own, manages to score the lead in a new Joan of Arc bio-pic (bizarrely enough, Bergman was concurrently at RKO preparing her film version of the Maid of Orleans story).

The movie's producer is the extremely Jewish Marcus Harris. Devoutly American – spewing out anti-Red-toric so much in vogue back then. “Sorry you don't like America,” he tells his original “Joan,” a sneering Russian prima donna (Veronica Pataky), seconds before kicking her Commie butt off the lot. The fact that this role is played by Lee J. Cobb, a blacklist victim, who eventually named names, is a rather ironic touch I'm sure Hecht would have relished. Other than that, Cobb, representing a movie mogul composite, is portrayed as a sympathetic, kindly, grateful son of immigrants (you know, just like those real-life studio sweethearts, Mayer, Cohn, Warner...). His later pondering out loud of “God selling movies through me...” is the singularly most horrific revelation ever uttered about The Industry, prior to Rick Santorum's decision to enter it.

It's the supporting characters who inhabit THE MIRACLE OF THE BELLS that provide the pop in the corn. Whereas in ST. MARY'S, the dastardly folk weren't that villainous, in MIRACLE they are revolting, greedy pigs. The town funeral director (Harold Vermilyea) constantly tries to cheat the burial service-paying MacMurray. As Fred was infamously known as the cheapest SAG member of all time, it becomes genuinely painful to watch his wrinkled, tearful face as the various leeches in this picture keep trying to bleed him dry.

Undeniably, the two most interesting humans in MIRACLE comprise its female lead and, natch, Frank. Valli, who later achieved much-deserved fame and fortune back in her native Italy, pretty much tanked during her Hollywood/Selznick tenure. And with good reason. Whether it was a language problem or a matter of merely being unable to adapt to Tinsel Town-foolery, she comes off as unemotional...and, to put it mildly, cold to the touch. Certainly gorgeous, with stunning peepers, her acting and reacting to virtually EVERYTHING comprises a one-face frozen Valli-forged expression that only suggests confusion, misinterpretation and any other thespian evocation of the word “Huh?!” Sadly, the only warmth she generates is when she's burned at the stake. Even here, as Joan of Arc, her misdirected darting glances scream Michele Bachmann crazy-eyes. Fred MacMurray thinks so too, as he watches terrified. This moment likely served as her run-through for Suspiria.

Unfortunately, Valli's dialogue reading fares no better. Told that she's been awarded the lead in Joan of Arc, her response of “I'm going to explode!” is delivered as if it's literally going to happen.

Then there's MacMurray's line, “It's a pleasure to run into a human being.” What makes this the biggest howl in the picture is that it's said to Sinatra. Granted, it's a bit before his “Screw you, buddy!” era, and filmed when Warner Bros. cartoons were still drawing him as thin enough to slip through a drinking straw, but, you know, it's often hindsight knowledge that makes vintage movie watching so much fun. Like so many of his pre-From Here to Eternity forays, Frank plays it quietly and sincerely, softly whispering the words as if they were fortune cookie platitudes (which gratingly only serves to conjure up an earlier excruciating Chinese restaurant sequence).

When all is said and done, it becomes uncomfortably clear that the best thing that happens to Olga is her dying. The ensuing “miracle” only further underlines this, thus verifying the subtitle, It's a Wonderful Death. As far as phenomena goes, MIRACLE’s bona fide marvel is the realization that Valli is the only one of the four principals not requiring a wig.

A major thorn in the crown is that the script, and its celluloid result meanders on way too long. I suppose one must chide director Irving Pichel. The sometime-actor Pichel was another interesting dude, and I can only imagine movie buff Sinatra approaching him with, “Hey, you're the guy from Dracula's Daughter!” In my perfect world, Pichel directed THE MIRACLE OF THE BELLS dressed and made up like that undead stiff.

I suspect that in the hands of more cut-to-the-jugular folk like Billy Wilder or Joseph L. Mankiewicz, THE MIRACLE OF THE BELLS might have emerged as something of a classic. Coincidentally (or not), MIRACLE's bare bones narrative, both in content and flashback style, bring to mind the latter's slicker (but also uneven) 1954 outing The Barefoot Contessa.

RKO's ace d.p. Robert de Grasse shot the picture (it's neat to see a cemetery scene done on the same set used for the Jacques Tourneur/Val Lewton The Leopard Man), and Leigh Harline composed the treacle score. Action specialist Elmo Williams edited the two hour Ode to Olga with the energy reminiscent of the Bataan death march. I can't help but wondering how much more enriching the scenario would have been had flesh-eating zombie Olga returned from the grave to wreak vengeance on her scumbag hamlet.

THE MIRACLE OF THE BELLS Blu-Ray looks the best that this movie ever has (at least in my lifetime). The excellent B&W contrast and sharp compositions are only slightly infrequently betrayed by the opticals. The audio displays some sibilant tendencies, but generally is okay for sound. You're never gonna see a better transfer unless the movie undergoes a massive restoration – which, frankly, ain't going to happen (that WOULD be a miracle!).

Coproducer Lasky wanted something with a little more bite than the usual religious flick, something as opposite from THE BELLS OF ST. MARY'S as he could fathom; he got it: it was a picture nobody went to see. What little juice gleaned from THE MIRACLE OF THE BELLS came from Frank singing behind the organ. What off-screen happiness resulted also originated from Frank and his organ; shortly after filming commenced, Sinatra began a brief but passionate liaison with Valli, culminating in the movie's only authentic religious experience.

THE BELLS OF ST. MARY’S. Black and White. Full frame [1.37:1; 1080p High Defi-nition]. Mono audio [DTS-HD MA]. UPC: 887090075206. Cat #: OF752. Olive Films/Paramount Home Video. SRP: $29.95.

Also available on DVD: UPC: 887090075107. Cat #: OF751. SRP: $19.95.

THE MIRACLE OF THE BELLS. Black and White. Full frame [1.37:1; 1080p High Defi-nition]. Mono audio [DTS-HD MA]. UPC: 887090063807. Cat #: OF638. Olive Films/Paramount Home Video. SRP: $29.95.

Also available on DVD: UPC: 887090063708. Cat #: OF637. SRP: $24.95.


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