Friday, July 23, 2010

Christmas in July: The Bells of St. Mary's (1945)

The Bells of St. Mary's is another movie strongly associated with the holiday season that actually has very little to do with Christmas. It was released in December of 1945, and it does have one memorable sequence that focuses on Christmas, and that seems to have been enough to bestow "holiday classic" status upon it. The warm, uplifting tone of the film probably helps, as does its story of a priest and a nun running an underdog New York City parochial school. It feels like a film for families to watch while gathered together for the holidays, and its easygoing pace and episodic structure make it not too taxing if you've had a bit too much Christmas dinner.

The plotting is a little scattered, as Bing Crosby's Father O'Malley (previously the main character of 1944 Best Picture winner Going My Way, which I haven't seen) arrives at St. Mary's and finds himself at odds with the head nun there, Ingrid Bergman's Sister Benedict. Although he's warned that the previous priest left in a wheelchair, O'Malley only mildly clashes with Sister Benedict, and really all of the movie's conflicts could best be characterized as mild. The closest thing to a main plot thread is the effort by the curmudgeonly industrialist next door to buy St. Mary's and turn it into a parking lot, but even he is portrayed less as evil than as simply hard-working, and the resolution to the story is remarkably easy and low-key. There's also a female student whose mother is heavily hinted to be a prostitute, but it's vague enough for plausible deniability, and either way it too turns out remarkably well given the circumstances.

Not a whole lot happens, then, but director Leo McCarey shoehorns in numerous opportunities for Crosby to sing, and Bergman is lovely as the wise, earthy Sister Benedict. A late-breaking plot development hinges on keeping vital medical info from Sister Benedict in a twist that struck me as a little melodramatic, but it too ends up resolved in a simple, anticlimactic way. I got a little tired of this meandering, overly sweet film as it headed past two hours, but the performances and some of the small comedic touches (including an impossibly cute Christmas pageant improvised by child actors) keep it from being a waste of time.

The True Meaning of Christmas: Let the kids decide.

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