As WWII was winding down, the most popular character in America was the singing priest Chuck O’Malley. As portrayed by Bing Crosby, O’Malley was an amiable reformist, trying to bring Catholicism out of the cathedral and onto the streets. Created in collaboration with director Leo McCarey, Going My Way (1944) and The Bells of St. Mary’s (1945) were the highest grossing films of their year, and amassed ten Academy Awards between them. Adjusted for inflation, The Bells of St. Mary’s made more money domestically than The Dark Knight Rises (2012). Father O’Malley is a kind of Catholic superhero, trying to modernize the religion before it lapses into irrelevancy.
Following Going My Way, McCarey was one of the highest paid men in America, and he could call his own shots. He formed a production company, Rainbow, and started planning the sequel, The Bells of St. Mary’s, which he sold to RKO (Going My Way was distributed through Paramount). He developed the story with screenwriter Dudley Nichols, which focuses on the efforts of Sister Mary Benedict (Ingrid Bergman) to acquire a new building for her crumbling school, which will soon be shut down because of code violations. Father O’Malley is the new parish priest who must try and corral her ambition.
Bergman was under contract with David O. Selznick, so RKO had to pay him $175,000 to borrow her services, as well as sell him the rights to Little Women and A Bill of Divorcement. Bergman recalled how Selznick attempted to dissuade her from accepting the role, arguing that she “would just be a stooge for Bing Crosby’s singing.” She was enraptured by McCarey’s energy, though, and felt that, “If you didn’t like him, there was something wrong with you.” It was a hefty sum for RKO to pay, but Bergman had just won the Best Actress Oscar for Gaslight, and teaming her up with Crosby was the safest box office bet in town. Crosby was an altar boy as a teenager, and attended a Jesuit secondary school, but dropped out of Gonzaga to pursue a career in music. Conversant with both laissez-faire parishioners and strict observers, he was the ideal personality to bridge the gap between the traditionalist and progressive wings of the Catholic church.
While the episodic Going My Way has a tendency to meander, The Bells of St. Mary’s is anchored by the bubbling rapport between Crosby and Bergman. In a reversal of traditional gender roles, O’Malley is presented as a tender nurturer, while Sister Mary is strict and assertive, even teaching a young boy how to box. Crosby is introduced to St. Mary’s school through a series of humiliations. He is chastised by the maid (Una O’Connor), who clucks “I see you don’t know what it means to be up to your neck in nuns”. In Going My Way he owns every room he’s in with his laid back charm, whereas when he lays back here, he accidentally hits a buzzer and rouses the whole convent. Upon entering the conclave, he proceeds to sit down on a shrieking kitten. And when he gives his welcome address to the nuns, another cat toys with a straw hat behind him, causing the sisters to erupt in laughter.
Despite these indignities, Father O’Malley is still eager to assert his masculinity, so after two kids end up in a brawl, he expresses pride that they stood up for themselves. He tells Sister Mary, “On the outside, it’s a man’s world.” Mary replies, “How are they doing, father?” Their shifting power relations are expressed through the direction of their gaze. Mary begins her retort with modesty, eyes looking down, but by the end of her pointed phrase they drift up and stare straight off-screen at O’Malley, with the edges of her mouth curling into a grin. In his reaction shot O’Malley exhales and looks down, mumbling, “not doing too good” under his breath. This oblique reference to the horrors of WWII is also a decisive moment in their relationship. From here on out they exchange roles – Mary will exert aggression, and O’Malley compassion, accepting his subordinate role in the school’s pecking order. He becomes a matchmaker for an estranged husband and wife whose daughter attends the school, while Sister Mary teaches her kids how to swing a baseball bat and throw a punch.
McCarey modeled Bergman’s character after his aunt, also named Sister Mary Benedict, a member of the Immaculate Heart Convent in Hollywood. Bergman portrays her with impish exuberance, an admitted tomboy who still finds pleasure in upsetting the expectations of how a nun is supposed to act. Bergman is very loose and inventive, and contributed eagerly to the improvisations that McCarey encouraged. Off-hand gestures, like how she flips a baseball off her wrist in a sporting goods store, or exaggerates her footwork during a boxing lesson, were made possible by McCarey’s improvisatory process. During down time, the director would sit at a piano and spitball ideas with the cast, encouraging acts of wild spontaneity. Bergman was already feeling free, not having to worry about her figure since she was clothed in a nun’s habit for the entire feature. “I was like a child with money”, she recalled, “and in the country of the greatest ice cream.”
McCarey put this improvisatory process on the screen with the Christmas Play, which Sister Mary is overseeing. She lets the children write it themselves, and informs O’Malley that, “Every time they do it, the dialogue is different.” The children are clearly making it up as they go along, as Bobby (the son of musical director Robert Emmett Dolan) hems and haws his way through the story of the birth of Jesus, ending in a tableaux of golf-club wielding shepherds. Instead of closing with “O Holy Night”, the kids sing “Happy Birthday”. Despite being set at a Catholic school, The Bells of St. Mary’s is quite secular, presenting the church as more of a social services organization than a religious one.
This is made explicit with the subplot of Patsy Gallagher (Joan Carroll), whose single mother pays the bills through prostitution. O’Malley takes her in as a student without asking questions, and tracks down her errant pianist father. This whole section plays like canned melodrama, a staid commercial for the value of church in the community. It almost seems as if McCarey included these scenes so he could get away with the more subversive antics of the rest of the movie.
One of the next turning points in the film occurs during a secular song. Sister Mary is singing a traditional Swedish folk tune by the piano with the nuns gathered all around her. O’Malley is attracted to the scene by her lilting soprano. He steps towards the circle, and McCarey cuts into a shot from his POV. It is the most artful composition in this otherwise classically framed film, in which two black habits join in the foreground to make a “V” shape, with Sister Mary’s face centered in the middle, as if in a cameo necklace. It is a devotional image, but this is not a religious psalm, but a love song.
Her eyes are shaded downward as she trills the lyrics, which roughly translate to: “Spring breezes whisper and caress loving couples/Streams rush by/But they are not as swift as my heart”. As she winds the song to a close, her voice lowers. But she inches up her head and finally sees O’Malley, which makes her voice fly up the scale to hit her highest note, which breaks up into a chuckle and a grin: “Oh, Father O’Malley!” In recognizing his gaze, she breaks the spell, but the tenor of their relationship has changed.
Their reciprocal glances continue to build in intensity, as word comes down that Mary will be transferred to another convent out West. It is ordered by her doctor, but O’Malley has to pretend it was his decision. This betrayal of trust triggers her shift from secular to spirtual, folk song to prayer. Before her departure, she kneels in in the chapel. Her eyes are directed upwards as she pleads,“Dear Lord, remove all bitterness from my heart”. It is a rare acknowledgment of God’s presence in a film otherwise occupied with the physical. As she passes by O’Malley outside the doors of the convent, her stare is unwavering, as she searches for some flicker of regret in his face. But there is none.
As she is about to depart, her prayer is answered. O’Malley calls her back, and gives her the truth. He did not order her re-assignment. Sister Mary closes her eyes in ecstasy, a beaming smile lighting up her face. She simply says, “Thank you, father. You’ve made me very happy.” They hold each other with their gazes, neither breaking away. For the first time their looks are equal. This is as close as they can come to a declaration of love.
Aware of the erotic tension of this goodbye, Ingrid Bergman planned a practical joke on the final day of shooting. In one of the last takes she threw her arms around a stunned Crosby and kissed him passionately on the lips. Reportedly one of the priests on the set jumped up and yelled, “You can’t use that!” McCarey didn’t, but this missing negative should be as sought after as the original cut of The Magnificent Ambersons. Something else to pray for.