Thursday, November 17, 2022

Christmas scene in THE BELLS OF ST. MARY'S (1945)


The Bells of St. Mary’s (1945) gives us a version of a child’s telling of the Nativity, this time acted out in the tradition of the awkward parochial school Christmas pageant. 

Bing Crosby as Father O’Malley, and Ingrid Bergman, as Sr. Mary Benedict, the Sister Superior of the school, watch the rehearsal of the youngest class.

This post continues my countdown to Christmas coinciding with the launch of my newest book, Christmas in Classic Films.

Bing first sings “Adeste Fideles” to rehearse an older group of kids for the pageant, a hymn he sang on his Kraft Music Hall radio show for years every Christmas, so he didn’t need any rehearsing.  He is stunned when Sr. Benedict not only tells him to quiet down so the littler kids can rehearse in the next room, but that his services will not be needed: Christmas will go on without Crosby (at least until the advent of television, of course, when a generation grew up with his annual TV Christmas specials).  He is even more gobsmacked by the thespian talents of the children who present the Nativity with dialogue they make up as they go along. 

Bobby Dolan, Jr., is the little boy who “wrote” the script and plays Joseph.  He hoists a taller Mary onto a sawhorse donkey, seemingly without hurting himself though he is a little winded, and they proceed to be rejected by innkeepers through the parted proscenium curtain. 

Somebody’s wandering little brother gets to be Baby Jesus.  It’s a funny skit because it comes off exactly as it’s meant to: unrehearsed and purely a project of make-believe.  Sr. Benedict’s amusement at their theatrical, not to say liturgical, mess is priceless, and her allowing of it makes her a mensch of a nun. 

Little Bobby, clearly a trouper, was the son of film exec, composer and music director for MGM Robert Emmet Dolan.  He also had an uncredited bit part in Going My Way the previous year, which first brought Father O’Malley to us and gave Bing an Oscar.  Bobby had only one more movie before his film career apparently ended.  His Joseph may not have been the authoritative representation, but it clearly had Ingrid Bergman’s imprimatur.

(Come back next week for a look at an early silent version of A Christmas Carol...from 1910!)


Jacqueline T. Lynch is the author of Ann Blyth: Actress. Singer. Star. and Memories in Our Time - Hollywood Mirrors and Mimics the Twentieth Century and Hollywood Fights Fascism. TO JOIN HER READERS' GROUP - follow this link for a free book as a thank-you for joining.


Karen said...

While I've seemingly always recognized the name of this film, I've never seen it. I'm not a big Bing fan, but I love Ingrid Bergman -- I may just have to give this one a try, Jacqueline!

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

I suspect that the hierarchy and rituals of the Roman Catholic Church would probably feel alien to perhaps most of the audience then and especially now, when so much has changed from that era for younger Catholics who might never have been taught by nuns in habits. The positions of the characters Bing and Ingrid play and their relationship to each other reflect this. But there is enough general nostalgia of schoolrooms and school yards and childhoods spent in a simpler time that might appeal to many viewers today.

I think Bing actually comes off as a bit sterner in this movie than in GOING MY WAY when he first played Fr. O'Malley -- he was more devil-may-care, if one may use the term for a priest, in that one.

Ingrid is lovely and can never be anything else.

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