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.