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James T. Farrell

A Review of the Film, The Bells of St. Mary

Hollywood Depicts an Aspect of Social Morality

(27 January 1947)

From Labor Action, Vol. 11 No. 4, 27 January 1947, p. 5.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

THE film, The Bells of St. Mary’s, has been widely praised. It has been recommended as a picture which should be seen by youth. Many Catholics have lauded the film because of its religious tone. In a recent public controversy between Mr. Darry F. Zanuck and Mr. Samuel Goldwyn, concerning the quality of Hollywood films, Mr. Zanuck cited this film as one of which the American motion picture industry can be proud. The film has been seriously regarded as one of a fine moral quality, and, at the same time, as one which is deeply human. It seems to me that a brief discussion of this picture is, in consequence, decidedly pertinent.

The Bells of St. Mary’s is the story of a priest, played by Bing Crosby, a nun, played by Ingrid Bergmann, and a school. St. Mary’s school is old and run down. The young priest comes to his new assignment at St. Mary’s. His predecessor has had a bad time of it with the nuns. It is expected that this new young priest will not fare well, and that the nuns will run him, and give him a good and steady nagging. The plot unfolds from the beginning, and there are two connected plot threads which definitely relate to questions of morality. One is the relationship between the young priest and the beautiful nun. The second is concerned with the desire of the nuns for a new and better school building. A crabbed and almost apoplectic old rich man owns a building next to the run-down edifice of St. Mary’s. This rich man wants to get the St. Mary building. The nuns, in turn, want the rich man to give them a building which will permit the nuns to run a better and more up-to-date school. In addition to the above, there is a girl whose parents are separated (if I recall the story correctly months after having seen it). The priest and the nun exercise their good offices in the interest of the girl: there are misunderstandings which threaten to be serious and to prevent her from graduating, but these are straightened out in the end and the girl’s parents even come together.

The morality of this film needs to be commented upon. For the praise which so many Catholics have showered on this film is strongly suggestive of the growing hollowness of conventional morality in our time. In the film, the children are presented mainly as existing for the school. Again and again, in little details, we see that this is the case. The new building is more important in the plot than are the children who are to be educated and trained for life in this hew building. The nuns and the priest are so presented that in the context of the story itself they act on this premise. The direct actions and the words of the priest and the nuns show them more decidedly to be concerned with the building than with the children. The children, thus, are seen as existing principally for the building. An object here is more important than young and malleable human beings. Behind the formulas of conventional morality and religious high-mindedness and dedication, we see religious instruction and parochial education as emphasizing a building, and as treating the children to be educated as secondary to that building. This unmistakable feature of the film shows that underneath the forms of morality there is moral density.

The Hollywood Plot Structure

A Hollywood film seems to demand that there be an attractive male and female at the center of every plot. In this film, the male is a priest and the female is a nun. There can, thus, be no love interest. And yet, as I sat in the theatre and looked at this picture, it became clear to me that the habits of concocting plots in the film industry were such that love interest could not be kept out of the story. Thus, the relationship between the priest (Bing Crosby) and the nun (Ingrid Bergman) is one of indubitable flirtatiousness. The priest and the nun develop, between them, a rivalry in which they want to outdo and outwit one another in little incidents and episodes which are witty in the way that Hollywood is usually witty. Wit and humor are here aggressive. The aggressiveness is expressed in rivalry. The rivalry has a concealed sexual character. The priest and the nun come very close to behaving like the usual boy and the usual girl in a film when they are thrown together, and when they engage in the efforts and actions of the selection of any love object as these are endlessly mirrored on the screen. The Hollywood film demands that the masculine and feminine star stand out above all others. The priest and nun stand out in the typical way. They are thrown together again and again for the purposes of the plot. They are continuously teasing one another. The children are as incidental to this teasing and platonic rivalry as they are to the aim of getting a new building.

One incident concerning the children will, perhaps, here suggest the quality of this picture. One of the boys is beaten up by a little bully. The little bully more or less becomes the champion of the priest. The nun champions the boy who has been beaten up. She does this in order to outdo the priest. She buys some manuals which contain instructions on how to fight. She reads these manuals, shadow boxes, and then teaches her little champion how to fight. Her champion then beats up the bully. The priest is outdone by the nun, and she, as it were, has beaten him at his own game. This little incident seems to be amusing and harmless. And yet its moral implications are far from harmless or merely funny. For here we see a nun and a priest using two boys as expressions of their own teasing rivalry, a rivalry which, in the context of the film, throws a man and a woman in opposition to one another. Just as the children exist for a building, so, in this way, they exist as supernumeraries for the rivalry of a priest and a nun. The fact that the administrators of the Production Code, that critics, priests, Catholic laymen and others could approve of this representation of the children is significant. One can pertinently ask them if in their praise and approval of this film, they examined its moral implications? One can, in addition, ask if they favor schools, educational practices, pedagogical instruction which would be in line with a view such as the one definitely implied in the total representation of the children in this film?

In the end, the nuns gain their aim. They get the building from the crochety rich man. But his aim is accomplished by a little trick. The man’s doctor is a Catholic. The priests and the nun participate in the trick which the doctor plays on his patient. He tells the rich man that he is likely to live longer if he becomes generous rather than stingy. He is, thereby, frightened into becoming a generous man. He helps unfortunate people on the streets, and he gives away a building. Here, a doctor is represented as treating a patient in such a manner. Apparently this rich man is a cardiac case, and also, he shows signs of having hypertension. What do doctors, Catholic and otherwise, think of this form of advice given to patients? This amusingly presented part of the plot also raises moral questions.

In addition, the nun develops tuberculosis. And she is not told what her condition is. The doctor and the priest both participate in this concealment. The concealment of this information introduces the threat of tragedy into the plot. Illness is misrepresented here. But this is a feature that has also been mentioned and attacked. In fact, New Masses has been making hay against Hollywood on precisely this point. And in this instance, New Masses is correct, not wrong.

Some Moral Implications

In addition to the moral implications involved in the above comments, there is another point which can be mentioned. In general, this is one of those films which gives the impression that good cheer, good will, the babying of human beings with a hollow goodness, will lead to valuable human results. This all amounts to the expression of banal and empty sentimentalities about doing good. The moral level of such sentimentalities is the same as that expressed in the popular songs which ooze optimism, and the commercial advertisements which promise the good life to customers who will be smart enough to buy the right products. It is a sentimentalization which tells us that there is a silver lining in every cloud. This is considered, in our day and age, to be affirmation of life, an expression of faith in humanity. In the name of such optimism and sunshiny goodness, serious writers are attacked as cynics, and they are denounced as nothing less than enemies of the human race. To try and present images of human beings in terms of the torn, tragic and ambivalent emotions which human beings feel and express in real life is immoral: to present goodness in the way that it is represented in The Bells of St. Mary’s is moral.

The representation, of the children in this film is symptomatic and significant. Children are immature and need to be guided. They are, in a sense, at the mercy of adults. Children can be guided and educated either for their own good or for the good of the significant adults who have authority over and influence upon them. Here, the children exist – I repeat – for the benefit of the adults and because they are needed as objects of instruction in a new school building. When the nun becomes ill, she is treated like a child by both her doctor and the priest. She is not told what is really wrong with her. She, whose duty it is to guide the young, cannot be trusted to face the realities of life and death when these concern her. In pictures such as this, the motion picture industry, in turn, really tells us of a predominant moral attitude current in Hollywood. It is an attitude which treats the audience like children. The realities of life and death cannot be clearly and seriously mirrored on motion picture screens because the audience cannot be trusted to face the realities of life and death which they must face day in and day out in their actual lives. The moral pattern in film then, suggests what are probably the moral attitudes of the picture makers. For, let me repeat, important personages of the film industry have praised this film precisely because of its alleged high moral tone. And at the same time that moral films of this calibre are produced, callousness and cynicism develops by leaps and bounds all over America. One asks here: might there be any connection between this kind of film morality and the real callousness we find all around us in our daily lives. An investigation, seeking to answer this question, might be very illuminating.

(Copyright by James T. Farrell, 1946)

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