Film & TV

Golden Age Films: ‘The Bells of St. Mary’s’: Used Responsibly, Power Can Transform

It pays to cultivate a habit of joyful giving
BY Rudolph Lambert Fernandez TIMEAugust 17, 2022 PRINT

NR | 2h 6min | Drama, Comedy | 1945

Producer, director, and screenwriter Leo McCarey’s box-office hit “Going My Way” (1944) inspired his sequel, “The Bells of St. Mary’s” (1945). The films introduced Father O’Malley to audiences, a character McCarey created and dramatized.

Rare even for those years, McCarey’s sequel won greater popular acclaim than his original. The sequel won less critical acclaim (one Oscar to the original’s seven) but would have bettered the original’s haul of Oscars had it not been mere months separating their production and the similarities between the two films in character and theme.

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Screenshot of Bing Crosby as Father O’Malley from “The Bells of St. Mary’s.” (Public Domain)

The story revolves around people caught up in the past, present, and future of St. Mary’s church and school. Father O’Malley (Bing Crosby, then the first actor to be Oscar-nominated twice for the same character) is the new parish priest.

He arrives being warned that the nuns running the school, headed by Sister Benedict (the unfailingly gorgeous Ingrid Bergman), drove his predecessor away, in a wheelchair, by their sheer willfulness.

O’Malley and Benedict couldn’t be more different. He takes life a little lightly, she a bit too seriously. First at (good-natured) loggerheads over their differing leadership styles, they grow to develop mutual admiration and respect.

Together, their compassionate persistence wins over their cranky neighbor and landlord, Horace P. Bogardus (Henry Travers). Instead of converting the school into a parking lot as he first threatens, Bogardus ends up expanding the school by donating his building, as Benedict had repeatedly begged him to.

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Screenshot of Ingrid Bergman as Sister Benedict from “The Bells of St. Mary’s.” (Public Domain)

Power Tempered With Humility

McCarey’s movie is a lighthearted tale of power and authority. The message is that power wielded with humility and responsibility can work miracles. Used selfishly or recklessly, that same power can destroy.

Here, power operates at several levels. Bogardus, as owner-builder of estates abutting the school, has the clout as chairman of the city council to revive or ruin the school.

O’Malley and Benedict have the power to work with Bogardus to keep the parish prosperous. Instead of becoming complicit in Bogardus’s predatory ambition, they challenge him to be generous, and to use his power to protect rather than threaten the vulnerable.

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Ingrid Bergman as Sister Benedict discusses a generous donation with Henry Travers as Horace Bogardus in “The Bells of St. Mary’s.” (RKO Pictures)

Benedict, as Mother Superior and school principal, holds sway over the nuns and children. O’Malley holds sway over them all. But neither lords it over those under their charge. They’re firm, but gentle and principled, yet practical. So, the nuns and children love and admire both Benedict and O’Malley.

Lightness of touch permeates the movie, and Crosby and Bergman deliver it expertly in that opening where she introduces him as the lone priest to a contingent of nuns. Asked to “say a few words,” O’Malley rises with all the self-importance he can muster, places his hat on the fireplace mantel behind him, and launches into a grandiose speech.

Unknown to him, the parish kitten nestles under his hat and never quite settles down. O’Malley figures the nuns are listening deferentially to him. He isn’t amused that they’re giggling at his every phrase. It isn’t until they’ve had their share of laughter, at his expense, that he finds the feline culprit behind him.

Caring Communication

McCarey’s movie also shows how caring communication can break down barriers within and between power structures, no matter how irreconcilable they seem. But, he insists, we must care enough to understand what people are going through, and why they say and do what they do.

O’Malley uses his power of discretion to admit a young girl, Patsy Gallagher (Joan Carroll), to the school purely on her mother’s word, waiving mandatory third-party references or background checks. Patsy, upon spying a strange man cozying up to her mother and fearing the prospect of moving out of town, can’t concentrate on her studies and fails her exam. That’s actually a ruse to stay at school and, with luck, away from the strange man. Only later does she discover that he’s her estranged father.

O’Malley knows Patsy’s backstory, but Benedict doesn’t. That difference in understanding provokes their opposing stances on Patsy’s exam results. O’Malley wants Patsy to graduate on what he “knows” are compassionate grounds. Benedict won’t lower her (or the school’s) bar of excellence merely to match what she “believes” is his whim.

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Joan Carroll as Patsy Gallagher talks with Bing Crosby as Father O’Malley about her future in “The Bells of St. Mary’s.” (RKO Pictures)

Finally, it is communication and shared understanding that bring Benedict and O’Malley together to help Patsy graduate and accept her father back into the family.

Steeped in a patriarchal priesthood, O’Malley is humble enough to learn from Benedict that indulging school children with ad hoc holidays isn’t the best way to mold them into responsible, disciplined, educated adults.

Benedict is humble enough to learn from O’Malley that her habit (pun intended) of being righteous needn’t be joyless. Both learn that men and women can be allies instead of antagonists; differing styles can, with caring communication, complement instead of clash.

Dealing with children, Benedict and O’Malley are models of joyful giving. They’re patient. They talk but listen even more. They empathize. They don’t dismiss the faults that children point out in themselves or others, but they go out of their way to stress a child’s strengths. And they smile an awful lot.

Benedict has the funniest scenes, including one training little Eddie (Dick Tyler) to stand up for himself, all played for laughs, of course.

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Ingrid Bergman as Sister Benedict shows Dick Tyler as Eddie Breen how to defend himself in “The Bells of St. Mary’s.” (RKO Pictures)

What’s Worth Living For 

McCarey’s inventive use of disease (and looming death) shows how new truths can transform our responses to life’s realities. Both Benedict and Bogardus are diagnosed as being ill: she from tuberculosis, he from stress-induced depression and a faltering heart.

Bogardus first recoils in shock at his diagnosis. Later, he cultivates a habit of joyful giving that is not only its own reward but also promises others health and longer life. The moment he frees himself from clinging to that piece of real estate and donates it to the church, he finds he’s far happier and far healthier.

The film’s casting is a stroke of genius. Even a nun’s habitual sternness does little to hide Bergman’s stunning features and charismatic smile. Her exchanges with Crosby are marked by wit and humor, their onscreen chemistry lighting up every frame.

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Bing Crosby as Father O’Malley and Ingrid Bergman as Sister Benedict look over St. Mary’s grounds in “The Bells of St. Mary’s.” (RKO Pictures)

Luckily for McCarey, his movies hit screens on the back of the Great Depression and World War II, when audiences were yearning for redemption, or even the faintest sign of it. This movie about a tiny school quickly became associated with things precious, things worth preserving.

Unsurprisingly, when audiences heard Bergman herself sing the Swedish folk melody “Varvindar friska” (“It’s Spring”), it was reported that they cheered its melancholic sweetness.

They were not just pleased with the simplest things; they were delighted just to be alive, to be free, to be themselves. The movie’s simple melodies didn’t disappoint audiences of that era. When Crosby sang “Aren’t You Glad You’re You?” they actually were.

The Bells of St. Mary’s
Director: Leo McCarey
Starring: Ingrid Bergman, Bing Crosby, Henry Travers
Not Rated
Running Time: 2 hour, 6 minutes
Release Date: Dec. 6, 1945
Rated: 4 stars out of 5

Rudolph Lambert Fernandez is an independent writer who writes on pop culture. He may be reached at Twitter: @RudolphFernandz
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