The Miracle of the Bells (1948) is a very strange but beguiling film. It belongs, more or less, in that category of Hollywood-made religious films such as The Song of Bernadette (1943) and The Miracle of Our Lady of Fatima (1952), though for a variety of reasons the deceptively titled The Miracle of the Bells almost defies any categorization.
For years the movie was regarded with scorn, earning a place in The Golden Turkey Awards and a lowly *½ rating in Leonard Maltinfs popular movie guide. But it has its fans and itfs definitely worth seeing, with a lot of major league talent behind it. Fred MacMurray, Alida Valli, and Frank Sinatra star, while Ben Hecht and DeWitt Bodeen worked on the script, adapting Russell Janneyfs novel.
The film was, apparently, a pet project of Paramount Pictures co-founder Jesse Lasky, who produced it independently for release through RKO. Paramount now owns the rights, and Olive Filmfs high-def release looks terrific.
Despondent press agent Bill Dunnigan (MacMurray) accompanies the body of aspiring actress Olga Treskovna from Hollywood back to her working class hometown of Coaltown, Pennsylvania. Hefs met by local funeral director Nick Orloff (Harold Vermilyea), a money-obsessed, unpleasant man of the type Jessica Mitford later wrote about in The American Way of Death. As Orloff browbeats Dunnigan out of his last $300, the first two-thirds of the movie unfolds primarily in flashbacks, tracing Dunniganfs relationship with Olga (Alida Valli).
They have several chance encounters, including one spent on Christmas Eve dining at an otherwise empty Chinese restaurant, where proprietor Ming Gow (Philip Ahn) graciously treats them to an elaborate feast.
Meanwhile, back in the present, Dunnigan at last finds some relief from Orlofffs constant demands for money in the form of sympathetic Father Paul (Frank Sinatra), the Catholic priest of Coaltownfs poorest church, where Olga said she wanted to be buried.
In more flashbacks, Dunnigan and Olga meet again in Hollywood, where Olga is working as the stand-in for the star of producer Marcus Harrisfs (Lee J. Cobb) epic production of Joan of Arc. (Ingrid Bergman, among those considered for the role of Olga, was at the time starring as Joan for an RKO production being shot simultaneously.) The temperamental leading lady is fired and Dunnigan hits upon the idea of casting Olga in her place. Despite Harrisfs great reluctance to cast a complete unknown, Olgafs screen test is a sensation and she wins the part. Alas, shefs also dying of tuberculosis, a condition dating back to her exposure as a child to coal dust.
The Miracle of the Bells is a real oddity. In addition to Vermilyeafs horrifically insensitive, contemptible funeral director, a characterization that must have really shocked 1948 audiences, the script also portrays Coaltownfs other churches, particularly its wealthiest, as money-grubbingly insensitive as Orloff. Further, the film accuses the church of kowtowing to the powerful local mining industryfs interests. The name of the movie may be The Miracle of the Bells, but it is overpoweringly cynical.
Where it falters is in Olgafs murkily-defined determination to finish Joan of Arc even at the cost of her own health and, later, the trivialness of Dunniganfs third act publicity stunt to get the completed-but-shelved picture released. A lot of this doesnft make sense, either, as Harrisfs decision to shelve his $3 million production merely on the grounds that the public would never get to see another Olga Treskovna movie is patently absurd. Dunniganfs plot to have all of Coaltownfs church bells rings away for three days straight is built on a lie: few in the town had ever heard of Olga and those that did harbor a resentment against her lush of an old man, though Olga remembers him differently.
Finally, there is the miracle itself, which I wonft give away, but which the script mucks up with MacMurrayfs and Sinatrafs characters acting against expectations, and the townsfolk acting like a bunch of ignorant lemmings.
One of the main criticisms levied against the film, Frank Sinatrafs saintly priest, is largely unfounded. Itfs tainted by our image of the later, Oceanfs Eleven Sinatra, the Las Vegas showman and Rat Packer, yet his subtle, sensitive performance is in line with the scriptfs needs. The undervalued MacMurray is perfectly cast as the worldly press agent caught off guard by Olgafs ethereal beauty and charm.
Valli, as shefs billed in the credits, was on loan-out out from producer David Selznick; she made The Third Man around this time, as well as, with less success, Alfred Hitchcockfs The Paradine Case. One of the screenfs great beauties, Valli in her youth had the mysterious qualities of Garbo with the sensitivity of Bergman, but was put to better use in European rather than American films. Oddly, as she aged, her singularly steely blue eyes and sturdy physique added a strange quality of menace Valli later capitalized on in films like Eyes without a Face and Suspiria.
To her credit, the few scenes where the audience sees her in character as Joan of Arc are quite valid and even moving, certainly on par with Bergmanfs performance and superior to Jean Sebergfs later interpretation. (Seberg, like Olga, was plucked from obscurity to play the part in Saint Joan.)
The film abounds with nice little touches throughout: Orlofffs rough ride transporting Olgafs coffin from the train station to the funeral home, as Dunnigan, surprised by Orlofffs insensitivity, doesnft quite know how to react; Harrisfs first meeting with Olga and the agonizing hesitation as he sizes her up, disinclined to hire her; Dunniganfs reaction to Olgafs death, a reaction somewhat unusual for a Hollywood leading man in 1948; and the unspoken love the two leads have for one another.
Video & Audio
Presented in its original 1.37:1 aspect ratio, after an alarmingly beat-up RKO logo The Miracle of the Bells looks great throughout, with impressive sharpness, contrast, strong blacks, etc. The mono audio, English only, is likewise strong. No Extra Features, alas.
I suppose The Miracle of the Bells is the kind of a picture viewers either accept on its own terms or reject outright with no middle ground. (Ifm reminded of several friends who positively loathe Frank Caprafs Itfs a Wonderful Life.) I expected rough sledding based on other reviews, but instead found myself transfixed by much of The Miracle of the Bells, while its flaws, though significant, werenft deal-breakers. I liked it and Highly Recommend it.
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes film history books, DVD and Blu-ray audio commentaries and special features. Visit Stuart's Cine Blogarama here.