Dec 10, 2019

On Blu-ray/DVD: The Olive Signature Edition of The Bells of St. Mary's (1945)

I don’t know how I got decades into classic film fandom without seeing The Bells of St. Mary’s (1945). Yes, I thought it seemed like it could be excessively sentimental or cutesy (two things which happen to not be true), but I also love Ingrid Bergman in anything and Bing Crosby has grown on me over the years. Fortunately, with the release of its new Signature Edition Blu-ray/DVD of the film Olive Films has helped me to fill this gap in my cinematic experience and opened my eyes to a deeply moving film.

There’s a timeless message in The Bells of St. Mary’s about greed, loyalty, and the necessity of standing firm in the face of hard truths. It has its frustrating moments, where a simple word of clarification could have saved great suffering, but has clearly been withheld in the interest of creating drama, but for the most part this is a pure work of great wisdom. Much of its success has to do with the brilliance of Ingrid Bergman, who manages to rip her audience to emotional shreds within the perfect frame of her nun’s wimple, but there is also the always-underrated Bing Crosby, whose persona has always been more appreciated than his impeccable control of each screen performance.

Bergman is Sister Benedict, the head of the struggling St. Mary’s school and Crosby reprises his role from Going My Way (1945) as Father O’Malley, the new priest at the school. The sisters of St. Mary’s are of good humor, they collapse into giggles at the sight of a mischievous kitten tangling with a hat, but they are also as brave, skilled, and determined as the most successful corporate salesperson. When the school is too low on funds to make crucial repairs to the building, it seems inevitable that they will sell the property to the aggressive owner (Henry Travers) of the new high rise next door.

This is a world where a higher power triumphs though, and while the outcome of the nun’s dilemma may strain credulity, it is pleasing in the just world it envisions. Director Leo McCarey shows love for all his characters, even those of questionable morals or deeds. He portrays each of them with the same caring touch and a sort of hope for finding gems in the grime of life, however thick it may be.

The picture on the Olive disc, which is a mastered from a 4K restoration, is clean and clear, with enough grain to give it the look of film. Special features include an audio commentary by Bing Crosby biographer Gary Giddins, the featurette Human Nature with insight from Steve Massa, the immensely entertaining Sr. Rose Pacatte discussing Faith and Film (TCM fans may recall seeing her as a guest on the channel), Before Sequel-itis with Professor Emily Corman, Screen Guild Theater radio adaptations of the story, and an essay about the film by cultural critic Abbey Bender. It’s a deeply satisfying set, on a par with the best of the Olive Signature Editions.

Many thanks to Olive Films for providing a Blu-ray of the film for review.

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