The relationship between Hollywood and Catholicism has always been a complex and historically interesting one. While Catholics were influential in the creation and enforcing of a long-lasting censorship system (known as the Production Code), there were comparatively few movies which directly addressed or presented Catholicism as a way of life. This makes the treatment of Catholic material or the introduction of Catholic characters in classic film a very interesting topic. On the one hand, Hollywood’s financial success depended on securing and retaining the support of as many viewers as possible, whatever their religion; on the other hand, much of what could constitute interesting viewing material was potentially offensive to staunchly Catholic or Christian audiences, including the presentation of religion in historical or cultural terms. Furthermore, there remained the problem of how to treat religion at all in such a heavily visual medium as film. A new series entitled “Catholicism at the Cinema” will examine how religious–and especially Catholic–elements were employed in mainstream Hollywood film from the 1930s through the present day.
It could be argued that “Catholic” films in Hollywood had their heyday in the 1940s. In 1944, we got Going My Way, in which Bing Crosby played a genial, musically-inclined parish priest. He reprised that role in 1945’s Bells of St. Mary’s, along with Ingrid Bergman as a teaching nun. These two films have many admirers, as does the 1949 Come to the Stable, which features Loretta Young and Celeste Holm as fund-raising nuns. Other highlights of the decade include a young Gregory Peck in 1944’s The Keys of the Kingdom, the 1948 Ingrid Bergman Joan of Arc, and of course the 1943 Song of Bernadette, starring Jennifer Jones in her breakthrough role. All of these pictures enjoy a certain degree of fame to this day among film fans in general. But for some reason there is less talk of the 1948 RKO picture The Miracle of the Bells (directed by Irving Pichel), which features a distinguished trio of lead actors and offers a more fanciful story somewhat reminiscent of other 1940s excursions into fantasy as well as religious matters.
The film opens as press agent Bill Dunnigan (Fred MacMurray) arrives by train in the mining town of Coal Town, Pennsylvania, accompanied by the coffin holding Olga Treskovna (Alida Valli, here billed simply as “Valli” in an effort to place her on the pedestal left vacant by Garbo’s retirement). He intends to bury her next to her father and mother, as she requested, from the little church of St. Michael’s, a saint to whom she often prayed during her short life. Fr. Paul (Frank Sinatra in a muted, effective performance) helps him to understand Coal Town and come to terms with Olga’s death. The film alternates between Dunnigan’s experiences in Coal Town and flashbacks from his perspective as he remembers or recounts how he met the deceased.
Olga, an aspiring actress, crossed Dunnigan’s path multiple times as she tried to make her dreams of becoming a great film actress come true. With Dunnigan’s help, she starred as Joan of Arc in a big-budget picture, ignoring her ominous cough until she collapsed and died from it the day after shooting the movie’s last scene. All this is made clear early on in the film; what is stressed throughout is Olga’s strong spiritual sense of her role as a representative or embodiment of all the fine and good qualities lurking in her fellow-citizens from Coal Town. Thus her theatrical success is intended to be both gift to and symbol for those ceaselessly toiling miners and workers who live in the sooty valley where her parents lie buried.
The lead actors and the supporting cast all turn in performances as good as the material allows. There’s a touch of noir in MacMurray’s narration and soliloquies, his love for a dead woman, and his calling her “baby,” while Valli turns what could be a thankless bore into an appealing girl who clearly carries a torch for the self-absorbed Dunnigan. Harold Vermilyea is memorable as a mercenary undertaker, while Philip Ahn brings dignity to his cameo as a lonely restaurant host in an early scene. And Sinatra is surprisingly good as Fr. Paul, although it’s hard to buy him as a priest given his history, and the one time he is permitted to sing–a brief song hauntingly carried without any backing instrumentals–will probably bring a smile to those who know him chiefly as a singer. But the people who cast him in the role were on to something–his gaunt face has a look that could be asceticism (but wasn’t). Yet the picture and its weight of holiness is mostly carried by MacMurray and Valli.
The film clearly draws a parallel between Olga and the role of Joan which she enacts, as does Olga herself. When studio head Marcus Harris (Lee J. Cobb) doubts the wisdom of entrusting an important role to an unknown actress, Olga enters his office clothed as Joan, walks confidently to his desk, and instantly wins him over, echoing Joan’s famous recognition of the Dauphin at their first meeting. Two scenes from the Joan of Arc film are included in the flashbacks–one of them is a semi-fantasy scene, as Olga enacts one of Joan’s trial scenes as a sort of try-out for Dunnigan, and an appropriate courtroom setting replaces her little apartment living room for the duration of the scene. Later on, we are shown Joan being burned at the stake as Olga, by then in the last stages of tuberculosis, invests the role with an otherworldly spirituality. Like Joan, a girl of humble origins who was called by God to lead her people to freedom, Olga uses her talents to hearten and inspire her fellow-citizens, worn down by the wear and tear of daily toil, to hearken to higher, nobler realities. These clearly include religion and a sense of spiritual reality; by the end of the film, the little church of St. Michael’s is full of worshippers, in contrast to its hitherto desolate state.
The film resembles both The Song of Bernadette and a Frank Capra film in its understanding of the crowd and its faith in the ultimate goodness of average people. The last scenes of the movie show crowds of believers–though believers rather in the existence of goodness than in any religion in particular–streaming towards St. Michael’s in order to pay homage to the dead girl and her implied faith in them.
There is a strongly patriotic element in the film, and it’s fair to say that an American sense of equality and freedom in all things qualifies the movie’s religious aspects as well. While Olga and much of her hometown is Catholic, Dunnigan mentions his Protestant upbringing and remains as something of an outsider–albeit a sympathetic and deeply moved one–in the church scenes. His gradual spiritual awakening (partly caused by his love for Olga) is less of a religious one than a discovery of faith itself. While his initial reaction to the “miracle” in the closing part of the film is rather alarming at first (predating a similar and far more offensive development in Preminger’s 1963 picture The Cardinal), his mistake is premised less on contempt for the average man’s intelligence than it is on his newly-found sense of the importance of faith. It is true that he phrases this in a way that seriously undermines the religious credentials of the film, but The Miracle of the Bells, like most other so-called religious Hollywood films, is far more of a multi-faith film than a strictly Catholic or even Christian one. We see this most clearly in the scene when Marcus Harris (subtly indicated to be Jewish) speaks of his own people’s understanding of what a miracle is; Fr. Paul agrees with his conclusion, and if we take into account Dunnigan’s previously avowed Protestantism, we see here a kind of inter-faith, humanistic understanding of divine matters which would increasingly characterize mainstream films when they touched upon the subject of religion at all.
Furthermore, the Capra-esque faith in, and appreciation of, the common man is identified as explicitly American in two ways. First of all, Olga and her parents were immigrants who came to America in search of a better life, and Olga’s self-imposed quest is founded on a belief in the eventual popular recognition and rewarding of self-improvement, rigorous education, and unremitting work. Secondly, Marcus Harris fires the studio’s initial choice for the role of Joan only when the actress makes derogatory comments about America, voicing his love for the country, the bounty it has provided for many immigrants, and his respect for it. And while some movies have highlighted Hollywood’s preference for high box-office appeal over quality of work, Miracle of the Bells does remind one, through Harris’ recognition of value in the Joan of Arc film project as well as Dunnigan’s faith in the people’s right to see Olga’s great performance, that film can be an art form and an uplifting one as well as an entertainment, something that did inform many of the big studio heads’ careers and choice of material.
Another point that recalls Capra’s films and the socially-conscious pictures of the era is the role of the media and the three newspaper men who eventually befriend and aid Dunnigan as he seeks to share Olga’s life and message with the public. It’s almost as though the process of canonization has been transferred from the Church to the press, just as the movie offers Olga, secular saint, as successor to Joan of Arc, and Dunnigan, press agent, as the new St. Michael, fighting the forces of indifference and corruption to ensure the triumph of good in the person of Olga.
Overall, the movie is a fascinating and perhaps even subtly subversive take on religion, Hollywood, and the press, drawing an interesting, indirect comparison between the roles of saint and movie star which one can imagine as the basis of a very different film (maybe a black comedy by Wilder?). Its treatment of Catholicism itself is both respectful and detached; scenes involving the church and Fr. Paul are uniformly accurate, yet one gets the sense that they are pieces of business, spectacles which are presented yet not entered into. The movie reserves its warmth and awe for Alida Valli and her humanistic charity, for Joan of Arc has long ago been received by the world at large as a character outside of religion as outside of history, and therefore a favorite of theater and popular culture alike, particularly as a symbol of inspired female valor and virtue.
In all honesty, the film has serious flaws, chief among them its abundant sentimentality; but that is so large a component of many films–especially of this ilk–that it may not come as a surprise. It’s a well-made product, and touches on so many of the right keys for an attempt of this kind that it is, in the final analysis, quite effective in wringing grudging praise from even the most hardened of watchers, perhaps due to the skill of its famed co-screenwriter Ben Hecht. The outlines of the story (from a novel by Russell Janney) are rather puzzling when examined dispassionately (at the top of the list stands the question of how Olga’s flagrant neglect of her health and suicidal insistence on finishing the picture equal martyrdom), but taken as a whole, the movie remains either inspirational or diverting…perhaps even both.
The movie runs two hours and is filmed in black and white. (A colorized version exists and, like all such travesties of intentionally-designed cinematography, should be avoided except as a last and desperate resort.)