There's a common adage about movies, and it's mostly true, that sequels suck. That is very true in general, but not always. For every few dozen crappy sequels made to cash in on the popularity of the original film there are one or two good ones. Terminator 2 is a classic and so is the second Godfather movie. The same can be said for The Bells of St. Mary's, a 1945 film directed by the immensely talented Leo McCarey (the man who told Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy that they should team up) and stars Bing Crosby and Ingrid Bergman. The follow-up to McCarey's Going My Way, Crosby once again plays the personable Father O'Malley, a role for which he won an Academy Award for Best Actor the previous year. This film would also be honored by the Academy. It was the first sequel to ever be nominated for a Best Picture Oscar, and though it only won for Best Sound, Recording, it was nominated in another seven categories.
The friendly and unconventional Father O'Malley (Bing Crosby) has received a new assignment: he's to take over at St. Mary's, a run down inner city school. The building is very old and to fund the recent repairs, they had to sell the playground to Horace P. Bogardus (Henry Travers) a tough businessman who is erecting a factory on the site. Now he wants to purchase the school itself and knock it down for a parking lot, something he'll need for the factory. O'Malley has to determine if the parish should sell the school or not.
The nuns who run the school are firmly against selling St. Mary's. It's been their home for years and they love not only the school, but the community that it serves. They are lead by Sister Mary Benedict (Ingrid Bergman), a by-the-book educator who is never the less fond of her wards, and they've all been praying for the school. Not that it won't be demolished, but that Mr. Bogardus would give them his new factory. After all, it would make a lovely school.
Though Sister Benedict and Father O'Malley are quite genial and very friendly to one another, there is a bit of friction. It starts on O'Malley's first day when he addresses the students. He says that he'll make his speech short then announces that today's a holiday and everyone can go home. This pleases the students, but horrifies the Sister. How will they explain that to the superintendent of schools? The parents haven't been notified, where will the children go? They might get into trouble unsupervised.
That's just the start of their sometimes rocky relationship. O'Malley thinks the Sister coddles the male students rather than encouraging them to stickup for themselves, and on her part Sister Benedict is a little wary of a student that the Father admitted, Patsy (Joan Carroll). Patsy's mother, a single parent named Mary, appealed to Father O'Malley's good nature. She wants her daughter in a wholesome environment. Patsy was getting older and has started to think that her mother was 'no good,' and Mary wanted Patsy somewhere else before she realized that she was right. (I was always unsure just what that conversation really meant. It seemed to imply that Mary was a prostitute, but she certainly was living in a nice place, if that was the case.)
This simple, quite movie takes place over the course of a school year, and it consists of a series of short stories coupled with one of two over aching plots. That sounds like the recipe for boredom, but with Crosby and Bergman on the screen, the sedate story is anything but dull. They have a lot of chemistry together and both of them were at the top of their game. She's the sort of teacher everyone would love to have, kind, strict, and fair (not to mention gorgeous even in a nun's habit) and O'Malley is fun and free-wheeling but smart, just the sort you'd want to look after your kids. They play their roles wonderfully, and the heart-rending scene at the end shows just how talented they were.
The film has many memorable moments, from the Sister Benedict teaching a boy to fight to Patsy's paper on "The Six Senses" but the one that's most enjoyable is the Christmas play that the 1st graders put on. They wrote it themselves, and though they change it every time they practice, it's priceless.
Director Leo McCarey did an admirable job. To has a great sense of comedy (he directed The Marx Brother's best film, Duck Soup) and adds a good dollop of humor but never lets the humor overshadow the rest of the film. It is the small things, like the little girl who leans forward to look at Mr. Bogardus when Bing Crosby says he has "a heart filled with holly" that give the movie its charm. He managed to mix the humor and drama perfectly and that's the reason this movie is a classic.
The 1.33:1 image looks very good overall. The level of detail is greater than the DVD release and the B&W picture is crisp and clear. Usually the grain looks fine, there should be grain in a movie recorded on film, but there were a few scenes where it seemed to increase quite a bit. I'm not sure why this happened, the print could have been cobbled together from a couple of sources or it could be inherent in the original negative, but it made me notice. There's also a box covering up RKO's name in the opening credits, which isn't Olive's fault. I've seen that several times before on this film, and it's sort of irritating (the mask slips over into the first couple of seconds of the actor credits) but there's not much that can be done.
The DTS-HD Master Audio track is on the original mono, and it does a great job of reproducing the 40's-era soundtrack. The songs are clean and clear and the dialog is the same. There isn't any background noise or dropouts to report.
There aren't any on-disc extras (the trailer would have been nice) but there is a nice booklet with an essay about the film included with the disc.
A charming and heart-warming film, made back when those terms meant 'good entertainment' rather than 'a sappy film' like it does today. Bing Crosby and Ingrid Bergman are excellent in this fun, classic movie that's great to watch around the holidays. Highly Recommended.