My Guiltiest Pleasure: The Bells of St. Maryʼs:
A Tribute to a Classic that Humanizes Catholicism
I tried for more than a quarter of a century to write this essay. At first I found it too hard to deal with my still-roiling feelings about Catholicism, and I had difficulty grappling with the challenge of analyzing director Leo McCarey’s transparent, effortlessly masterful visual style. Over the years I mulled the topic without success as it kept nagging me as something I needed to write about. But I was gradually learning how to cauterize and exorcise, if not entirely dispel, my traumatic memories of my days as a Catholic youth. Writing my memoir The Broken Places — another prolonged process, begun in the late 1960s, pursued in earnest in the seventies and early eighties, and culminating in that book’s final revisions for publication in 2015 — eventually put my childhood to rest, even if it did not bring “closure,” a concept I believe is a cruel illusion. We have to learn how to live with the events, people, and ideologies that shaped us.
The Bells of St. Mary’s offers a relatively sunny view of Catholicism — that was part of my problem in dealing with it — and yet the film movingly and amusingly tackles some of the thorniest issues surrounding the church, such as celibacy and sexuality, gender relations between nuns and priests and boys and girls, and the intermingling of faith and finances. I called it “My Guiltiest Pleasure” partly as a nod to the old “Guilty Pleasures” feature in Film Comment. Screenwriter-director Paul Schrader, who had a Calvinist upbringing, observed when he was asked to write one of those features, “Isn’t all pleasure guilty?” I would have shared Schrader’s perspective in my youth, but my adult viewpoint had evolved. When editor Richard Corliss invited me to contribute to “Guilty Pleasures,” I said I had a fundamental objection to that concept, which reeked of my bad days as a Catholic youth. I said I had only one cinematic pleasure I could call somewhat “guilty,” The Bells of St. Mary’s. Corliss seemed miffed and said I could not write about only one film. No doubt it was the long, ultimately successful process of dealing with my feelings toward the church in The Broken Places that gradually freed me to write this most personal of my essays, for my film column in Irish America magazine in 2000.
Anyone who has survived Catholic schooling — in my case, eight years of torture by Dominican nuns, then four years of more refined sadism at the hands of Jesuit priests — cannot help watching Leo McCareyʼs The Bells of St. Maryʼs with deeply mixed emotions. One of Hollywoodʼs most popular religious movies, a Christmas perennial on television like McCareyʼs earlier Going My Way, this 1945 comedy-drama nevertheless is far from being a simple, heartwarming affirmation of all things holy. With surprisingly astringent honesty, Bells addresses such still-vexing issues as celibacy, the churchʼs sexist attitudes toward women, conflicting philosophies of parochial education, and the omnipresent role of money in religion.
I have to admit, somewhat shamefacedly, that the principal reason I have always been so fascinated with The Bells of St. Maryʼs is that it is a barely repressed, unconsummated love story between a nun (Ingrid Bergman) and a priest (Bing Crosby). The radio ads for the film brought those undertones right out into the open: “Ingrid Bergman has never been lovelier, hubba, hubba, hubba!” In The Book of Movie Lists (1999), I put Bergman at the top of my list entitled “Sister Superior: The 10 Sexiest Nuns in Movies.” But there is nothing off-color or indelicate about this mature love story, fraught with believable tensions of all kinds, starting with the formidable barrier of enforced celibacy.
Romantic comedies traditionally employ powerful social obstacles to keep their lovers apart until the issues separating them are resolved. But here we know there can be no such formulaic “happy ending,” and the outcome of the love-hate relationship between Father Chuck OʼMalley and Sister Mary Benedict remains in suspense until the breathtakingly emotional final scene. That relationship takes precedence over the filmʼs flimsy plot, which revolves around the nunsʼ attempt to save their decrepit school through the combined power of prayer and emotional blackmail. As in all of McCareyʼs work, the real interest lies in the directorʼs wonderfully subtle and naturalistic depiction of people.
The great French filmmaker Jean Renoir once remarked, “McCarey understands people — better perhaps than anyone else in Hollywood.” And yet this Irish-American filmmaker has never received the sustained critical attention paid to such peers as John Ford and Frank Capra. McCareyʼs films include several classics that remain mint-fresh today. He directed the best silent films of Laurel and Hardy, as well as the Marx Brothersʼ masterpiece, the anarchic antiwar farce Duck Soup. McCareyʼs The Awful Truth is among the most imitated of all romantic comedies, as are his Love Affair and its remake, An Affair to Remember. Along with Yasujirô Ozuʼs Tokyo Story, McCareyʼs little-known 1937 drama Make Way for Tomorrow is one of the two best movies ever made about old age [Ozu and his co-writer Kôgo Noda consciously modeled Tokyo Story on McCarey’s film. — JM].
Unfortunately, in mid-life McCarey abandoned his fascination with the nuances of human nature and plunged headlong into a fanatical anti-communism that all but destroyed both his art and his career. A prominent member of the right-wing Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals, McCarey became one of the ringleaders of the Hollywood blacklist. In a bizarre exchange while McCarey was serving as a friendly witness in 1947 before the House Committee on Un-American Activities, HUACʼs chief investigator, Robert E. Stripling, asked him how Going My Way and The Bells of St. Maryʼs performed at the boxoffice in the Soviet Union.
“We havenʼt received one ruble from Russia on either picture,” McCarey replied.
“What is the trouble?”
“Well, I think I have a character in there that they do not like.”
The pre-1947 McCarey would have understood the absurdity of that scene. His best work stems from his very Irish appreciation of the thin line between the tragic and the ridiculous aspects of life, from his blending of the mundane and the sublime. Orson Welles said that Make Way for Tomorrow “would make a stone cry.” Whatʼs most remarkable about that film is that it does so largely through the use of comedy, such as when the elderly couple (Beulah Bondi and Victor Moore) relive their honeymoon before being forced to separate forever.
Loosely structured to a fault, Going My Way was a surprise boxoffice hit and won seven Academy Awards, including the Oscar for best picture. The character of the suave, worldly, straw-hatted priest played by Crosby captivated audiences of all persuasions. Like Make Way for Tomorrow, Going My Way is essentially a film about aging, with an added level of poignancy in dealing with the declining years of a man of the cloth. The drama revolves around Father OʼMalley diplomatically maneuvering the doddering old pastor, Father Fitzgibbon (Barry Fitzgerald), into retirement. The scene of Fitzgibbonʼs ancient mother (Adeline De Walt Reynolds) arriving from Ireland is one of the all-time great tearjerking moments in movies, and the emotion is fully earned.
After Going My Way, McCarey recalled, “I received letters from all over the country saying that since I had made priests so human and popular, I should do as much for the good sisters.” One reason Bells is that rara avis, a sequel that surpasses the original, is its finely crafted screenplay by Dudley Nichols, best known for his work with John Ford. Based on a story by McCarey, Bells has a more rigorous structure than Going My Way, but as always in the directorʼs work, some of the most memorable scenes are self- contained set pieces.
The childrenʼs Nativity play, filmed in an improvisatory style (“Every time they do it the dialogue is different,” OʼMalley observes), is magical in its simplicity. McCareyʼs great love of music (he always kept a piano on the set for noodling between takes) shines forth in a joyous song Sister Benedict sings to the other nuns in her native Swedish. When OʼMalley asks what it means, she replies hesitantly, “Itʼs Spring.” In fact, the song is about young lovers in springtime, another instance of the filmʼs oblique acknowledgment of sexual impulses.
This time, Father OʼMalleyʼs role as a clandestine diocesan troubleshooter places him in conflict with the sistersʼ somewhat unworldly idealism. Unlike the eminently practical priest, they have little trouble believing that they can persuade a crotchety old businessman (Henry Travers, who later played the angel Clarence in Capraʼs Itʼs a Wonderful Life) to donate a building for their new school. When OʼMalley tells Sister Benedict late in the film that she has to face facts, she responds with a small laugh, “Weʼve tried so hard not to face facts.”
Bergmanʼs multifaceted performance blends a desperate gaiety with an overly strict approach toward pedagogy, mirroring her own emotional repression. She displays a powerful struggle to repress her anger toward her subordinate status in the church hierarchy. But she is strong-willed and more than a match for the smugly complacent OʼMalley. She grows in his respect even as their power struggle brings them into seemingly irreconcilable conflict.
Underneath that power struggle is the subtext of sexual tension. The two are constantly sizing each other up, jockeying for advantage, trying to score philosophical and emotional points, alternating between flirtation and asperity. Sister Benedict is a working woman with a position of authority, but one that is severely circumscribed, as is her body by the black habit and starchy white wimple she wears. The abstraction of her figure (which Bergman found liberating, because she didnʼt have to worry about her weight during the filming) throws all the attention on her luminous facial expressions. Bergman is rapturously lit by George Barnes, one of Hollywoodʼs greatest glamour cinematographers.
Reviewing the film in The Nation, James Agee found much to take offense, including the way Bergman “comes painfully close to twittering her eyes in scenes with Crosby. . . . I find very objectionable the moviesʼ increasing recognition of the romantic-commercial values of celibacy. I like hardly better a little boxing lesson in which Mother Bergman shows one of the schoolboys how not to lead with the other cheek. I am just plain horrified by the way in which the sisters hound an old nabob into beneficence.”
Iʼve had an aversion to Ageeʼs criticism ever since reading his complaint in The Nation about Fordʼs 1948 Western Fort Apache, that “there is enough Irish comedy to make me wish Cromwell had done a more thorough job.” Perhaps itʼs the difference in our religious and cultural backgrounds, but what Agee finds scandalous about The Bells of St. Maryʼs is what I value most about the film. I find refreshing McCareyʼs frank exploration of the notion that priests and nuns are human beings with feelings and frailties, and I am amused by the filmmakerʼs unsentimental recognition that a large part of running a religious institution is raising money, sometimes even in unscrupulous ways.
Fittingly, the fiercest battleground between Father OʼMalley and Sister Benedict in their “marriage of opposites” is over the raising of children. With pleasing asymmetry, the script gives the priest a surrogate “daughter” and the nun a surrogate “son.”
Joan Carroll is startlingly real in her rawly emotional performance as Patsy Gallagher, the troubled teenager mentored by OʼMalley. When the priest reunites Patsyʼs mother (the delectable, aptly named Martha Sleeper) with her long-estranged husband, a musician (William Gargan), Patsy blurts out in one of the filmʼs most moving frissons, “Is this my real daddy?” But the “fallen woman” stereotype is turned on its head by the tolerant OʼMalley, who clearly has known women in his life and is not in the habit of judging them by rigid moralistic standards. Nevertheless, his combative attitude toward Sister Benedict suggests a certain residual bitterness toward the opposite sex beneath his amiable facade.
Sister Benedict, who disapproves of OʼMalleyʼs indulgence toward Patsy, exercises her unorthodox parenting skills on a scruffy parish kid named Eddie (Dickie Tyler). OʼMalleyʼs view of Eddie demonstrates that the priestʼs attitude toward manhood is much less enlightened than his views of womanhood. He thinks the nun is turning Eddie into a “sissy” by teaching him the Christian virtue of turning the other cheek. Not without misgivings, the sister teaches Eddie to box, in a delightfully improvisatory scene. When Eddie hits her a staggering blow, it is a delicious violation of taboo as well as a sudden demonstration of the nunʼs corporeality.
On a deeper level, what soon emerges is her human vulnerability. Like a Camille of the sisterhood, she is suffering from tuberculosis, but because of the paternalism of doctors and the church in that era, she is not told what is wrong with her or why she is being sent away from St. Maryʼs. Father OʼMalley allows her to think he is having her banished to end their rivalry, and she directs withering looks of silent anger at the priest even while saying, “Itʼs going to be difficult to leave St. Maryʼs, but we shouldnʼt become too attached to any one place.” Privately, in some of the most beautiful closeups of Bergmanʼs career, Sister Benedict prays to God to “remove all bitterness from my heart” and allow her to accept the transitory nature of religious life.
The filmʼs climax is filmed with all the emotional intensity of a romantic love scene. Father OʼMalley virtually croons as he tells her, “You know when Dr. McKay said you were perfect, he was right, for thatʼs what you are. But he didnʼt mean physically. Because, sister, you have a touch of tuberculosis.” Sister Benedict reacts with an unexpectedly radiant smile. “Thank you, father,” she says. “Thank you. Youʼve made me very happy.”
There is a revealing footnote to this scene. After shooting it, Bergman asked McCarey for a retake. Crosby said his lines again, and this time Bergman threw her arms around him and gave him a passionate kiss on the mouth. The priest serving as a consultant to the film came running up, objecting in horror as the subtext of The Bells of St. Maryʼs erupted into full, glorious view.