The Bells of St. Mary’s – An OCF Classic Movie Review

This week is Thanksgiving and that means we’ve reached the Holiday season.  And going hand in hand with that is my annual holiday movie watching and reviewing ritual.  In years past I’ve especially concentrated on versions of “A Christmas Carol.”  And rightly so.  It is almost a transfiguration of the generosity of the Christmas holiday into a mythic experience.  There is an actual catharsis associated with experiencing Scrooge’s repentance and rebirth.  So, without a doubt I will have something new to say about Dicken’s classic again this year.

But let’s return to the task at hand.

Tonight, I watched again “The Bells of St. Mary’s.”  I’ve seen it many times before.  First off, it’s not actually a Christmas movie.  The movie begins in the Fall and ends in the late Spring.  There is indeed a scene or two associated with Christmas as it relates to the eponymous Catholic grammar school that is the focus of the film.  But it is incidental, not central to the plot.  Strictly speaking, there is no holiday theme to the movie at all.  What there is, is a representation of an American Roman Catholic parish grammar school from the middle of the twentieth century.  And when I say it is a representation and not an actual reflection, I can speak with all the assurance of thirteen years of Catholic school experience to back it up.  Without a doubt, the priests and nuns that I encountered in school and church bore not the faintest resemblance to the kind, patient, loving and wise religious figures that exist in the film.  Quite the contrary, I know without a doubt that some of the priests, brothers and nuns that I knew were truly evil and committed atrocities for which they can never be forgiven.  So, I have no illusions as to the reality of Catholic education and those administering it.

Also, this is a movie from 1945.  America was close to defeating the Axis powers in World War II when the movie was being made.  The populace was united and determined and looking forward to winning the war and returning to normal life including marriage and children.  Everything about the movie reflects a societal view that was carefully orchestrated by Hollywood and the Federal government to maintain morale for the civilians at home and the troops abroad.  Wholesome entertainment and Christian values were the coin of the realm.  And they were especially important around Christmas time.  So, what we see is the Hollywood idealization of Catholic grammar school life.

Put all that together and you have to conclude that this movie is a lie.  A deliberate fabrication.  Shouldn’t it be derided for deluding the public?  Maybe.  After all, if the Catholic Church has been enabling predatory pedophiles for decades maybe movies like the present one are part of the front that allowed this practice to exist.  That may be true.

But if you watch this movie you see a story about people working together to raise children not only by educating their minds but also by nurturing their spirits.  The pastor and the nuns spend the time to find out what problems the children are experiencing and giving them practical advice and help to overcome their problems and face the real world they will soon be joining.

The portrayals by Bing Crosby and Ingrid Bergman are extremely enjoyable.  Both of them radiate warmth, intelligence, humor and vitality.  Bergman especially shows us a sensitive woman enduring an extremely confusing and demoralizing reversal in her life.  Some of the other characters and circumstances have some predictable tropes and stereotypes painted on but these do not greatly distract us from the central plot lines and some are quaint in and of themselves.

Overall, I found this movie to be a beautiful story.  Whether it’s classified as a story, a fantasy or propaganda it is emotionally powerful and very enjoyable.  For the Christmas season it provides an idealized version of what the Christian religious community is supposed to be.  If only it truly were like the movie.

The Films of Alfred Hitchcock – Part 3 – Notorious – A Classic Movie Review

Of all the films made by Alfred Hitchcock, the one that most closely aligns with the feel of Hollywood’s Golden Era is Notorious.  The action of the characters and the look and feel of the scenes adheres to the conventions and formulas of that period’s filmmaking.  And I mean this in a positive sense.  The production values are excellent.  The actors are the finest.  The dialog and plot are very well done.  A good case can be made that this is the best movie made in Hitchcock’s long and successful career as a filmmaker.  The movie takes place in 1946.  World War II had just ended and Nazis were still topical.  Ingrid Bergman’s character, Alicia Huberman, is the daughter of a German spy recently convicted of espionage in the United States.  She is a loyal American and agrees to help the U.S. government in the person of T. R. “Dev” Devlin played in his typically winning way by Cary Grant.  Naturally they fall in love but the problem is the government wants Alicia to become romantically entangled with a German industrialist living in Rio de Janeiro named Alex Sebastian (played by the inimitable Claude Rains in his remarkably idiosyncratic way).  She is supposed to find out what dastardly plots these escaped Nazis are planning.  This of course leads to jealousy and spite in Devlin and pain and anger in Alicia.  When circumstances force her to marry Sebastian to maintain the espionage this further poisons the relationship between our two star crossed lovers (are there any other kind?).  The plot has twists and turns and uranium salts (which got Hitchcock in trouble with the real US Government) but throughout we root for the love story and hiss at the bad guys (in this case Nazis and the US Secret Service).  The remarkable thing in this movie is that although Claude Rains is the evil Nazi you kind of sympathize with his character at certain turns.  He is the unfortunate man in a house with two women, his new wife and his domineering mother.  And he is haunted by the ubiquitous Cary Grant popping up everywhere and presumably a rival for his wife’s affections.  Who wouldn’t want an atom bomb available under those difficult circumstances?

Hitchcock’s cinematic work began well before Hollywood’s Golden Era and in England.  He continued to create popular and original thrillers well into the 1960s, long after the studio system had disappeared.  Thus, Hitchcock is not defined by or limited to the Golden Era sensibilities.  But Notorious without a doubt possesses the “classic” look of that era and definitely deserves its reputation as a masterpiece.  Anyone interested in Hitchcock or the movies of the ‘30s and ‘40s should consider viewing this film.

Now put all that aside.  Notorious is a great story.  Hitchcock provides all kinds of suspense and intrigue.  Everyone on both sides is hiding something from everyone, including themselves.  So much deception even starts to trip up the deceivers and eventually it all starts to crumble.  The ending is a collapse all around and a fitting finale.  I highly recommend this movie and hope you’ll enjoy the performances not only by the three main characters but also from all those bit part Nazis doing their best to be wonderfully evil.