As perhaps the unlikeliest Mother Superior of all time, Ingrid Bergman could stand accused of pocketing Leo McCarey’s The Bells of St. Mary’s in the folds of her nun’s habit if her appealing, emotionally grounded performance wasn’t so tightly woven into the design of this pop-religious fable. Bergman’s Sister Mary Benedict, the even-keeled supervisor of a rundown urban Catholic school on the brink of extinction, conducts her relationship with newly arrived pastor Father O’Malley (Bing Crosby, reprising his role from McCarey’s Going My Way) in a state of bemused, soft-spoken confidence. Working from an original story by the director, veteran John Ford screenwriter Dudley Nichols puts this pair of do-gooder clerics through the paces of conflict via their divergent tactics in handling student bullying, a troubled girl from a broken home, and the courting of a grumpy businessman (Henry Travers) whose new corporate headquarters threatens the existence of the school, while casually revealing that they’re allies in heart and soul. Beneath the crowd-pleasing corn, it’s a story of love fostered through social work, and between two celibate social workers.
The Bells of St. Mary’s has the magic of Hollywood craft, not of the grit about to crash into postwar cinema (and Bergman’s career) through neorealism. Crosby’s jaunty priest breezes into his new job, straw boater on his head, like the lascivious con man of Bing’s Road movies with Bob Hope, but he’s soon upended in the first of McCarey’s canny long-take tableaus: a gaggle of sisters entering a convent parlor to meet O’Malley, in ones and pairs, until he’s surrounded and flummoxed. The bulky habits’ immense white collars and headgear give the performers, even wiseacre character player Ruth Donnelly, a touch of alien distinction, with Bergman’s youthful beauty and poise lending her queenly authority. (No wonder non-Catholic audiences were transfixed.) Of course, Crosby, the era’s multimedia king of showbiz, handily employs his own resources; O’Malley not only promises to admit a “fallen” woman’s daughter (Joan Carroll) to classes, but boosts the girl’s self-worth by crooning “Aren’t You Glad You’re You?”—and later reunites her parents with a hymn to personal renewal, “Land of Beginning Again.” (That Crosby knows how to locate a long-vanished honkytonk piano player is the most convincing of the script’s leaps of faith.) In a balancing of co-star scales, Bergman charmingly sings a bit of a Swedish folk paean to spring, but her strength is in the character’s wily aggression and humanizing obsession with her institution’s legacy.
Beyond its self-evident star-vehicle bona fides (not only a sequel to an Oscar-winning hit, it was the highest-grossing film of the 1940s aside from animated Disney features), The Bells of St. Mary’s is infused with personal passion. Aside from his slapstick interludes with cats and a dog that recall his roots in silent comedy, and a sweetly humble Christmas pageant staged with six-year-olds delivering lines with natural hesitation, McCarey made the film as a tribute to Sister Benedict’s namesake, an aunt who died of typhoid. It’s certainly a time capsule of a mid-century, masculine Irish Catholic worldview, as when Benedict secretly coaches a bullied boy on dispatching his rival in a fistfight after studying up on “pugilistics.” (Bergman’s punching chops, if not her splendid comic timing, are likely due to the director’s boxing experience, but as the sister is supposed to be a Minnesota-raised tomboy, he should’ve showed her how to hold a baseball bat.)
Certainly the cozy relationship between the movie industry and the Church (its Legion of Decency had sweeping censorious powers) partly made a film like this what it is, free of any ruler-wielding parochial sadists who smacked this critic’s forebears around in the classroom. But Bergman’s third-act triumphs, embracing young Carroll with comforting words about her future, then in joyfully receiving a confession/absolution from Crosby in the final scene, transcends the hokum with the grace and organic truth of a great film actor.
Inconsistency in image quality betrays the lack of a full restoration here (some faded contrast, particularly in long shots or low light, along with some softness and flickering), but the overall look is more than adequate, particularly in a film dependent on star close-ups and two-shots. The mono sound is unspectacular, but pleasingly renders Bing Crosby’s three songs and Robert Emmett Dolan’s score.
The usual supplement-free disc from Olive, but the booklet features a crisp essay by critic R. Emmet Sweeney analyzing the power dynamics between the "strict and assertive" nun and the "amiable reformist" priest, as well as Leo McCarey’s use of improvisation. Alas, the story of the final-scene take in which Ingrid Bergman, feeling the erotic undercurrent of the characters’ parting, seized Crosby and planted a juicy kiss on him isn’t backed up by any surviving footage.
While the backstory of this enormously popular hit isn’t served by the barebones package, the charms of its superstar leads and utopian approach to social problem-solving is hard to resist.