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Culture Lust by Angela Carone

Scott Marks Recommends A Holiday Movie With Priests, Nuns and Puppies!


Bing Crosby and Ingrid Bergman in The Bells of St. Mary's


When I asked Scott Marks, Film Club of the Air 's obstinate and entertaining co-host, what movie he would recommend for the holiday season, he had a surprising answer: The Bells of St. Mary's .

Scott often surprises me with the films he likes. He's a purist and dogged cineaste who doesn't suffer mainstream fare well. I never would have guessed a holiday tale starring Bing Crosby as a priest would be his cup of tea. I asked him to explain why he chose this 1945 classic and he sent me the following:

(Scott starts with the stats, including, of course, the film's aspect ratio. Why? Because he's Scott...and these things matter!)

The Bells of St. Mary's

Directed by Leo McCarey


Written by Dudley Nichols from a story by Leo McCarey

Starring: Bing Crosby, Ingrid Bergman, Henry Travers, Joan Carroll & Rhys Williams

Running Time: 126 min.

Aspect Ratio: 1.33:1

Rating: *****

When people ask if a sequel has ever surpassed its original, Godfather II and The Bells of St. Mary's are always the first that come to mind. ( Gremlins II runs a close third.) Long before the second installment of the Corleone family trilogy, Bells had the distinction of being the first sequel to be nominated for a best picture Oscar, and coincidentally makes a stellar cameo appearance on the Radio City Musical Hall marquee in The Godfather .

Fancy yourself a contemporary filmmaker hired to tell the story of Father O'Malley (Matt Damon in the role originated by Bing Crosby), a showbiz priest assigned a position at an urban parochial school following the former Pastor's mental breakdown brought about after spending years "up to his neck in nuns." Once established, Father O'Malley falls in love with Sister Mary Benedict (sinful Angeline Jolie as Saintly Ingrid Bergman), a tubercular nun, all the while helping a prostitute's daughter (Mylie Cyrus substituting for Joan Carroll) get an education. In addition to a earning a compulsory G rating, the final cut has to be sprinkled with a handful of musical numbers.

Normally, films about nuns leave me cold. Who wants to see Audrey Hepburn in The Nun's Story when it's made clear by the title that sparkling romance will never enter into it? Only Leo McCarey, the man who, according to Jean Renoir , understood people better than any Hollywood director, could have slipped this material past the censors.

It should come as no surprise that McCarey, the man who first teamed Laurel with Hardy, is able to find delicate humor in the most unlikely of places. O'Malley's arrival at St. Mary's is shown as a calamitous series of sight gags capped off by the original, and funniest, cat-in-the-hat. Other laughs come from a yawning dog in church and a performance of the nativity story by an all-toddler cast.

I know how crazy this must sound to you. Am I actually recommending a film rife with puppy and kitty cutaways, cute kids and Bing Crosby? You bet! Not Der Bingle's biggest fan, but he's actually superb in the role. For two hours I believed that Bing Crosby was a munificent soul. That's acting! In Going My Way , Bing is up to his big ears in a vat of sentimental goop almost on par with either visit to Boy's Town . The Bells of St. Mary's is anything but cloying and sentimental. It's insightful, heartfelt and in many ways more uplifting than It's a Wonderful Life . It even features Henry Travers one film before gaining winged immortality as Capra's Clarence.

Finally, this from to further underscore the director's intention of making his film a romantic love story. "The production was overseen by a Catholic priest who served as an advisor during the shooting. While the final farewell sequence was being filmed, Bing Crosby and Ingrid Bergman decided to play a prank on him. They asked director Leo McCarey to allow one more take, and, as "Father O'Malley" and "Sister Benedict" said their last goodbyes, they embraced in a passionate kiss, while the off-screen priest advisor jumped up roaring in protest. "

You can read more of Scott's film reviews on his website . You can also hear him on KPBS' Film Club of the Air . This week, he and Beth Accomando talk about Sweeney Todd , Juno , The Diving Bell and the Butterfly , The Savages , and Youth Without Youth.