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The Miracle of the Bells is now out on a handsome Blu-ray from Olive Films. Although the movie hasn't been seen much in thirty years it still rates high in viewer surveys. Seeing it for the first time ignited a furious thought-storm in this reviewer. I didn't care for it, but my reservations ignited a recurrent problem I have with certain films about inspirational miracles.
Movies with religious themes sometimes get a free pass -- when a filmmaker tries to express ideas of God and Faith, reasonable critics ought to tread lightly. Questioning the filmmaker's intent can easily look cheap or insensitive. Old C.B. DeMille & Co. took advantage of this when they used big budget Bible stories to sidestep censorship -- pious posing is a great smokescreen for bad-taste filmmaking. After the advent of the Production Code and on through the 1950s, pretty much every Hollywood film took the Judeo-Christian viewpoint as the norm, and no alternatives to approved faith models were tolerated. Fantasies and science fiction prove this out -- in bigger films with a Code seal, future societies and even some alien cultures include dialogue 'adjustments' that acknowledge the existence of a supreme power in the Christian mold.
I can't extend this argument to other religions because I don't know of any films made by Buddhists or Sikhs or Muslims to promote the values of their faith. I have a feeling that they must exist. Back home here in America selling God has always a moneymaking proposition, and the movies have done more than their share.
At the peak of movies that deal directly with Christian miracles may be Fox's The Song of Bernadette. It's made in extreme good taste and shows uncommon sensitivity by giving doubt its due. One of Bernadette Soubirous' inquisitors is a sincere disbeliever, yet even he acknowledges an inner desire for the answers/comfort that Faith can bring.
The postwar decade saw political dogma and religious fervor take a massive upswing, especially evangelical Christianity. The movies followed suit. Two versions of the story of Saint Joan flopped, for various reasons, but producers were quick to try to recreate the feel-good vibe offered by Leo McCarey's hugely successful Going My Way. Light fantasies about heavenly intervention in human affairs, sometimes called films blanc, had always been around, but newer examples like the Christmas movie The Bishop's Wife laid the actual "God" connection on a bit thick. Taking His Name in vain is frowned upon, but apparently not portraying his Kingdom as cute and fuzzy. 1
Some of these miracle pictures tap the same postwar anxiety exploited by politicians and evangelists -- the fear of communism -- to sell their agendas. 1952's The Miracle of Our Lady of Fatima takes place in Portugal in 1917. In it The Virgin Mary warns us about "an evil scheme in Moscow". Less political but still anxiety-ridden is the odd The Next Voice You Hear... in which God speaks to us directly through the radio. The film is riddled with self-contradictions and dulled by a slightly patronizing tone, but the characters are warm and likeable. All it really wants to say is that we all need to stop being so negative, and start going to church. What the movie forgets is that if God were to make his presence so clearly known, worshipping him would no longer require Faith, per se. What's organized religion without Faith?
The vague anxiety of the times comes out in the open in the completely haywire Red Planet Mars. God speaks to us from his home on Mars, and the entire planet experiences a Christian conversion. This of course means the end for those Godless commies. The film's anti-communist message declares that the only hope for mankind is for the United States to convert to a Christian theocracy. Science brings us this revelation, but the noble heroine asserts that Science is Evil. A Nazi conspirator serves as a sort of anti-Christ. If one pays too much attention to Red Planet Mars, there's a danger of your head exploding.
But much more benign "miracle" movies can be troubling too, which finally gets us around to The Miracle of the Bells, a 1948 Jesse Lasky production released through RKO. Was there a "God bandwagon" in the late 1940s that big stars wanted to jump on? A woefully miscast Frank Sinatra is on hand as a kindly but dull priest, a part nowhere near as ingratiating as Bing Crosby's laid-back bub-bub-a-boo priest in the McCarey films. Fred MacMurray is okay casting; 1948 audiences didn't identify him so strongly with the noir Double Indemnity as we do now. The female lead is more problematical. She's the David O. Selznick contractee Alida Valli, promoted here as just "Valli". Despite her later role in the popular The Third Man Valli was a super flop in the much touted Hitchcock-Selznick show The Paradine Case. Hers is the crucial role in The Miracle of the Bells, but we have a difficult time caring very much about her character. In her best pictures Valli delivers intimidating beauty, with something soulful or desperate hiding behind two ice-cold eyes. Not much use for those qualities here.
Russell Janney's original book was adapted by Ben Hecht, the intellectual dean of Hollywood script doctors. In 1943 Hecht wrote a serialized magazine story called Miracle in the Rain that was later adapted for radio, and finally made into a very good 1956 film version, that he also scripted. What makes Miracle in the Rain relevant here is that a religious miracle shows up only for a fantastic final scene at St. Patrick's Cathedral. Lovers separated by the war are briefly united through an impossible event that, the narrator tells us, he believes because he wants to believe it. The 'miracle' is almost an afterthought, but the movie works because we identify so strongly with its characters.
We don't know how much of The Miracle of the Bells was Ben Hecht's work, but the final product is a real head-scratcher. Here in a nutshell, without spoilers, is the storyline. Hollywood agent and all-round swell guy Bill Dunnigan (Fred MacMurray) sadly accompanies the casket of actress Olga Treskovna (Valli) back to Coaltown, Pennsylvania, which is dominated by a big mining outfit. Expecting a warm welcome, he is instead met by the venal undertaker Nick Orloff (Harold Vermilyea) who pushes for unearned fees while reminding Bill that everybody in town disliked Olga and her father, a notorious drunk. Orloff tries to steer Olga's services to the big Catholic church, which charges exorbitant rates, but Olga stipulated the smaller St. Michael's, now run by the honest and personable Father Paul (Frank Sinatra). Bill tells Paul Olga's story, seen in selective flashback: Bill aids and encourages the inexperienced chorus girl and befriends her as her career progresses. The big break finally comes for Olga when producer Marcus Harris (Lee J. Cobb) fires the temperamental European star Anna Klovna (Veronica Patasky) from his big-budget film of a martyred saint, Joan of Arc. Olga is just a lowly stand-in, but Bill's push gets her the starring role. By the time the filming wraps, everybody is convinced that she is a big star in the making. But Olga dies of tuberculosis just one day after completing the role.
Back in Coaltown, Bill discovers that Marcus is going to shelve Joan of Arc. He won't listen to the agent's plea that Olga gave her life to complete the movie. Having realized only too late that he loved Olga, Bill pulls a massive publicity stunt to try to change Marcus's mind. He pays to have the town's bells rung for three days straight, to make Olga into national news. The ruse works, but the Hollywood producer still refuses to budge... until a convincingly dramatic real miracle occurs.
The Miracle of the Bells starts interestingly enough, even if Pennslyvania looks too much like a California desert. The script and Irving Pichel's direction have little good to say about human nature, what with the greedy undertaker Orloff and the surly, uncouth miners in the bar. The snob priest in charge of the town's fancy cathedral (Charles Meredith) belongs in an Upton Sinclair story -- his house of worship is too good for Olga until huge crowds and the national spotlight becomes part of the picture. Frank Sinatra's impossibly easy-going Father talks as if he's on tranquilizers. He of course has no harsh words for anybody, no matter how much his little church is slighted. As it turns out, St. Michael's actually looks like pretty nice house of worship, with nothing to be ashamed of.
Besides the discordant misanthropy, other things in the earlier part of the story don't work right. The bits we see of the filming of the Saint Joan movie are not at all inspiring, so Olga Treskovna never seems like big star material. (Her director is played by ordinary-Joe actor Frank Ferguson, after all). We don't feel that Olga is much more than a nice person. Her only connection to the later events is that she wanted to become a star to inspire the people of Coaltown. This I don't get at all... does the movie take for granted the notion that movie stardom is some kind of holy goal, or for that matter, even a desirable one? If the idea is that a movie star must die to get attention for coal miner's disease, the movie doesn't push that angle enough. Olga's death pact with Hollywood still looks like a statement of personal egotism unrelated to the miracles that follow.
Olga's TB is pure Hollywood nonsense. She's fit enough to perform one day and dead the next. The fact that she hides her dire medical condition doesn't make her seem any more noble or idealistic, just more determined to finish her movie. One has to be terribly naïve to believe that a person takes the path to stardom for anything but self-interest. Producer Marcus Harris doesn't claim that his movie has particularly noble ambitions, although the makers of Biblical & miracle pictures routinely implied that in their press materials. Marcus's cancellation of the movie doesn't add up either, as the fact that Olga has died would only boost his film's curiosity value.
The movie's main action is Bill Dunnigan's effort to promote Olga and force Marcus to release her one and only starring movie. It's his way of expressing his love for a woman that he wishes he had been more serious about. Again, not a bad thing, but the way Bill does it seems yet another act of egotism. Making the bells ring for three days is an effective but dishonest gimmick. It gives the impression that Coaltown is mourning its lost "star", which is a lie. But Bill also intends the bell-ringing to take on greater significance... after all, the title of the movie identifies his publicity gag as the film's miracle. This is the prime sticking point in these Faith-miracle stories, the one that raises flags of suspicion: a conspiracy of interested parties agrees that Belief trumps Truth, that the facts don't matter and it's perfectly okay to lie to people if doing so promulgates a needed message. People need to be brought into the churches, and it doesn't matter how. The good end justifies the means.
The subsequent unexpected miracle in The Miracle of the Bells is immediately revealed to be not a miracle, but an understandable physical phenomenon. Interestingly, the script pointedly has Father Paul explain this point. The non-practicing Bill is the one convinced that he's witnessed a miracle, and no amount of reasoning is going to shake him. Never mind that a miracle is exactly what Bill was looking for: he's now a believer. The movie soon dissolves to shots of thousands of people marching slowly to St. Michaels, to personally pray at the site. This outpouring of goodness is meant to be an awe-inspiring, Biblical-style blessing for us all.
Plenty of viewers of The Miracle of the Bells accept its message as offered. I look at the lines of inspired churchgoers, and ask where exactly they came from. We've been in Coaltown for almost two hours and the movie has identified only one reasonably decent person, Father Paul. The Spontaneous Mass Conversion feels scary, because the crowds are marching to church because of a mistake. To this viewer, they're victims of a mass error, and a partial deception. I understand that a believer would point to the goodness generated by the incident. Bad things happen in the world far too often because people are duped into evil action, so what's so terrible with things going the other way once in a while? With that argument, what counts is the feeling, even if the feeling is based on a lie. Important things might come of this; it's even mentioned that the unsolicited money pouring into St. Michaels could fund research against the coal dust disease that killed Olga Treskovna.
I suppose that The Miracle of the Bells has an "out" in that everybody could be wrong, that this particular miracle could have been 100% sincere and authentic. But in the real world, I believe that fake miracles lead to more fake miracles and eventually to a breakdown in the commitment to rational thought. This goes for crystals and auras and flying saucers as much as it does the image of the Messiah showing up in a tree or as a stain on a wall. The ideological insanity of Red Planet Mars is just a step away. All one has to do is stop trying to understand reality, narrow one's vision and believe only those things that support one's personal preferences or political grudges. It's as important to see little lies for what they are, as it is big lies. 2
This reviewer doesn't discount expressions of Faith in movies per se. I've been moved by a couple of films that conveyed the mystery of Faith to me in very pure terms. 3 Hollywood movies about miracles are cherished by some and ridiculed by others. I find The Miracle of the Bells to be preposterous but fascinating -- those long-ago Sunday School lessons were more influential than I thought. I realize that my 'review' is even more subjective than is usual for me, but I've never read much of anything addressing this mini-issue.
Olive Films' Blu-ray of The Miracle of the Bells is a really good transfer of a BW film in excellent shape. I'm sure there are some patches of dirt here and there, but I remember the film being clean and sharp all the way through. This show has its dedicated fans, and they won't be let down by the Blu-ray's quality.
Incidentally, Valli and MacMurray walk the streets of a town that very much resembles the sets for It's a Wonderful Life, another independent production released through RKO a couple of years before. Except that Frank Capra claimed that those sets were all destroyed upon completion of filming. The film's special effect of superimposed bells ringing is really well done, and makes us wonder for a second if a "Liberty Pictures" logo is going to fade in.
The disc cover art (above) is certainly attractive -- could it be original Italian poster art? Unfortunately, the likenesses are all pretty weird. Fred MacMurray looks like Pat O'Brien, Alida Valli seems anonymous and Frank SInatra looks like, I don't know, Matthew Broderick?
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Miracle of the Bells Blu-ray rates:
1. Of course, I wouldn't begin to compare any of these films with today's so-called faith-based TV series, that insist on a narrow moral solution to every problem, and that see complicated social issues melting into insignificance before the power of Faith -- depressingly pictured as cheap miracles, sometimes engineered by literal secret agents from Heaven. With all the awful suffering, injustice and screaming doom experienced by so many people on Earth, doesn't anybody see how appallingly hateful and obscene it is to fantasize that Heaven will dispatch a smartly-dressed Angel to intervene in some privileged American's petty domestic problem?
2. For the last several years around Christmas time here in Los Angeles, I've seen the same charity scam played out on Television. A "news" story comes on saying that Awful Thieves have broken into a locker at some place or another, and stolen ALL THE TOYS collected to give out to needy and unfortunate kids. The charity representative on screen looks despondent. BUT there's a phone number and address where we concerned viewers can donate to keep the Holidays happy for all those children. You don't want to see them crying, do you?
Maybe this is just a coincidence (sort of a serial coincidence) but I think not. The charities probably haven't the resources to motivate the public to cough up the $. With the drama added by the robbery story, people that donate can feel that they're heroes coming to the rescue. So why does this ignite the same distrustful, resentful feelings I get when I see the same Fake Miracle scenario play out in entertainments?
3. Film #1 is a student film I saw at UCLA, long ago. I have no idea now what it was or who made it. It was filmed at some kind of monastery in the mountains somewhere in Southern California. The key shot was about a minute long and in slow motion. A group of thirty or so young monks (initiates? don't know) ran down a hillside path and past the camera. They were the happiest collection of faces I think I've ever seen on adult humans, grins that seemed to beam inner happiness. The feeling was infectious. It was just an image and perhaps a totally accidental one, but it looked like those guys had found some fantastically fulfilling happiness.
Film #2 is Carl Dreyer's 1955 Ordet, which contains a flat-out supernatural miracle without apology of any kind. No symbolic trimmings either, as the no-frills setting is Danish, sober and Protestant. The human emotion in the film is so intense that one feels like crying out loud at the end. What Ordet has that the Hollywood pictures can't offer is a feeling of absolute integrity.
4. A note from correspondent "B", 5.25.13:
"The disc cover art is certainly attractive -- could it be original Italian poster art? Unfortunately, the likenesses are all pretty weird. Fred MacMurray looks like Pat O'Brien, Alida Valli seems anonymous and Frank Sinatra looks like, I don't know, Matthew Broderick? "
You are correct in your assessments but not your assumption (a logical one, as Olive sometimes uses European poster design art as package art); the cover art is in fact straight from the main RKO domestic one-sheet. Go figure.
I believe there are at least a few exterior shots of tiny Glen Lyon, Pennsylvania in the picture. A second unit may have visited the little town briefly; it's local lore. Most of the film does look like California, to be sure.
I liked your review very much. I believed it was quite scrupulous in discerning and defining the inspirational from the utter hogwash... which is what The Miracle of the Bells is, of course.
Sinatra's edge-free performance is amazingly strange, isn't it? -- as though he was on a steady diet of certain modern pharmaceuticals that have a side effect of complete blandness. [You keep reminding yourself: this is Frank Sinatra.] Watching this picture years ago, I always wanted to cut the MacMurray character some slack -- he's a press agent, for the love of Mike -- but I couldn't forgive the movie for allowing the Hollywood guy, however earnest and well intentioned, to steamroll the priest into essentially vouching for the "miracle." I found that intolerable, and in retrospect I'm amazed Joe Breen allowed this to get a Production Code seal. I know nothing about the Janney novel, but I can't but imagine that Hecht, the guy who wrote Nothing Sacred, at least drafted a frenzied, high-pressure comic version of the scenes in which MacMurray talks Sinatra into this.
All in all, I prefer to think that there's a Hecht treatment or draft somewhere in which MacMurray is unable to persuade/corrupt the priest into colluding with him on a phony miracle; after the clergyman stands up and tells the world the truth, that's when things start to turn around for all concerned. The people realize how important their church is to the community and how valuable an honest holy man is a religious leader. Lee J. Cobb suddenly wakes up and realizes that all of this has been great publicity and, besides, he can beat Wanger's big-budget Joan movie into release. Something like that. I don't know how this might have gone over, but it seems preferable to the phony (and fake) piety of the picture as it stands. Best, Always. -- B.
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