Way back when movies were still in black and white, before our lives were changed by Perfect Strangers, the program that defined two generations, and when a home entertainment center consisted of a shelf full of books and a few copies of Boy's Life with some of the pages stuck together, there was a certain genre of films. This mostly post-World War II genre of films brimmed with optimism, often a a level that we in our cynical modern times would consider naive.
The most well known film of this period and this curious genre was It's a Wonderful Life, which cemented its place in history by becoming the Christmas movie.
The Bells of St. Mary's, released in 1945, a year before It's a Wonderful Life, shares many of the same themes. There is no suicide effort that leads to revelations about a man's life, but there is a story of financial troubles and an apparent antagonist in the form of a miserly businessman who undergoes certain revelations when he comes face to face with the possibility of his own death.
Those revelations are a little too sudden and unbelievably radical to the point where you think he must have seen Marley's ghost and associates, but he hasn't. A lot of things in this movie, and in that old genre, are a little too over the top in their joyous optimism, and that is why so few of the movies from that genre are remembered fondly today. Some of them just seem really, really silly.
Bing Crosby plays Father O'Malley, a character he first appeared as in the film Going My Way. This film is apparently a 1940s version of a sequel to that film, but this film is far better remembered than its predecessor. Although Bing Crosby is entertaining in an often goofy way as a singing priest, the real key to this movie is the performance of Ingrid Bergman. If you want to see how the performance of one actor can completely change the entire mood of a film, see Ingrid Bergman in this movie.
Bing Crosby's Father O'Malley is consistently upbeat and positively certain of the goodness and value of people, which is wonderful in and of itself. He tends to look worried when their school, St. Mary's, seems certain to close because of financial difficulties and existing in a building that is impossible to bring it up to code. To me, someone who shares much of his attitude about life and people, he just isn't very real and it seems like he would be just fine moving on to somewhere else.
Ingrid Bergman's Sister Benedict is not floating on a cloud throughout the movie the way Father O'Malley and many of the other characters seem to be. She has seriously invested herself in this school and its students and she believes in the school and those students.
The difference between the two main characters is punctuated in a debate between them involving the decision to fail a student who has played a key role in the film. Both insist they want what is best for the student, but Father O'Malley wants her to pass because to fail could damage her confidence and self-esteem. Sister Benedict continues to remind him, "But she failed." The outcome of this debate sets up the climactic conclusion of the film, which I will not reveal and so forth.
There is a certain scene in the film in which Ingrid Bergman prays. It is a scene that will make you forget she is Ingrid Bergman and truly believe she is a devout Catholic nun. It is the only scene from the movie I've seen before watching the entire film today. It is shown outside of the film for certain reasons, the key one being that it shows what damned good acting really is.
If you enjoy It's a Wonderful Life and have seen it so many times you can recite it by heart and haven't seen this film, put it on your To Do list immediately.
I must note here that my mother's middle name is Ingrid because her father, my grandfather, had an unhealthy obsession with Ingrid Bergman. My opinion of her has nothing to do with these facts.
Also, the doctor in this film has absolutely zero respect for the whole doctor-patient confidentiality thing.