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With: Bing Crosby, Ingrid Bergman, Henry Travers, William Gargan, Ruth Donnelly, Joan Carroll, Martha Sleeper, Rhys Williams, Richard Tyler, Una O'Connor
Written by: Dudley Nichols, based on a story by Leo McCarey
Directed by: Leo McCarey
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Running Time: 126
Date: 12/06/1945
IMDB

The Bells of St. Mary's (1945)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Going Another Way

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Thanks to re-releases and some kind of immense, inherent audience draw (as well as a kind of Christmas vibe), Leo McCarey's The Bells of St. Mary's remains among the top 50 highest-grossing films of all time, in the adjusted-for-inflation list. It's the sequel to McCarey's Oscar-winning Going My Way (1944), and it too was nominated for a bunch of Oscars -- eight, to be exact -- though it won only one, for Best Sound. It played up the sex appeal of the beautiful Ingrid Bergman, even though she's never seen out of her nun's habit. Bring Crosby was nominated again for Best Actor for reprising his role as Father O'Malley, even though it looks as if he's confused throughout most of the movie.

Overall, this odd sequel is less balanced and streamlined than its predecessor, and seems a bit less planned out. It has the same balance of humor and hokum that drove the first film, and yet it all still works. The tagline was "your heart will be wearing a smile," and -- as strange as that sounds -- that's exactly what happens.

Just as in the previous entry, Father O'Malley starts the movie with a new assignment; this time it's the Catholic school run by Sister Benedict (Bergman) and her fellow nuns. Once again, the school is falling apart and there's no money to fix it. A grumpy businessman, Horace P. Bogardus (Henry Travers), is building a new office building nearby, and wants to buy the school so he can tear it down and make a parking lot. (Ironically, Travers also plays the angel Clarence in that other beloved holiday movie It's a Wonderful Life.) The sisters, on the other hand, keep praying for a miracle: that Bogardus will donate his new building to the school.

Meanwhile, we get the other, unconnected subplots, such as the acceptance of a troubled girl (the daughter of a single mom) into the school, and Benedict and O'Malley clashing over teaching methods. Strangely, the movie sides with O'Malley in no uncertain terms, even when he seems to be wrong. There's also a charming sequence in which Sister Benedict buys a book on boxing and teaches a boy how to fight so that he won't get picked on by bullies. (Once again, Father O'Malley weirdly sides with the bully during that confrontation.) And a major character comes down with tuberculosis. Perhaps most memorably, there's the Christmas Nativity play. And Bing sings, of course.

The movie's biggest asset is no doubt McCarey's skill, which seems at once easy-going and high-pitched, funny and maudlin, goopy and streamlined. He was as skilled as Capra was at turning in this kind of laugh-cry crowd-pleaser, and he did it, I think, with a lightness of heart and an overall focus on the comedy to draw people in and lower their defenses, put them at ease. Though the various irregular pieces of this movie make it one of McCarey's least satisfying movies on an artistic level, it's totally understandable as to why it's his most popular.

Olive Films gave The Bells of St. Mary's a Blu-ray release in time for Christmas of 2013. It's not one of their finest achievements. While the transfer is fine, it's not quite pristine. It seems soft in terms of both grain and contrast, though the audio is very good. As with most Olive releases, there are no extras, but there is a very good liner notes essay by film critic R. Emmet Sweeney, who writes for the Turner Classic Movies blog.