The Bells of St. Mary’s

BLU-RAY REVIEW: 

Olive;
Drama;
$27.99 Blu-ray;
Not rated.
Stars Bing Crosby, Ingrid Bergman, Henry Travers.

Christmas has arrived early for Old Mikey this year, what with Olive Films’ much appreciated “Signature” upgrade of The Bells of St. Mary’s, a lovely visual rendering that features exactly the right person for its voiceover commentary: Bing Crosby biographer Gary Giddins.

Of course, laying that handle on Giddins and then letting it go at that is a little like suggesting that “White Christmas” was Crosby’s only hit single. But the credit is especially germane here, given that Vol. 2 of Little, Brown and Company’s Giddins-Crosby chronicle (Swinging on a Star: The War Years 1941-46) concludes just a little after Bells became not just its year’s biggest box office hit but the biggest live-action box office hit that RKO ever released. I’m qualifying this achievement just a little because there’s a claim from either Giddins or another bonus commentator here that the studio’s distribution deal with Disney up until 1954 allowed Bambi to take RKO’s all-time No. 1 spot, which is something I didn’t know. But you get the idea: This was more than the studio revenues taken in even by King Kong, or at least it was until the foiled Kong-Fay Wray courtship saga got re-issued to death before RKO went under.

Another hat worn by Giddins is his status as something of the go-to guy for any pointers on director Leo McCarey, something that Criterion was savvy enough to realize when they interviewed the critic/historian for their releases of The Awful Truth and Make Way for Tomorrow, both films released in 1937 and at the apogee of Hollywood in the ’30s. For Bells, McCarey and Crosby re-created the latter’s once-thought-to-be dicey casting as the hip young priest from Paramount’s Going My Way, which had recently swept a slew of 1944 Oscars after becoming the single most popular Hollywood movie of the war years.

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Bells wasn’t a sequel but a then very rare prequel that teamed him with the most prominent screen artist who hadn’t won her own ’44 Oscar for GMY. This would be Ingrid Bergman for her performance as the badgered wife who more than anyone put her movie’s title into the now common lexicon as a verb: Gaslight, as directed by George Cukor in a vastly superior screen remake of Patrick Hamilton’s 1938 play. Having spent almost all of her Hollywood career steeped in acting angst, Bergman fought David O. Selznick (who contractually held the keys to her profession destiny) to play the film’s Sister Superior and sparring partner — both with Crosby and an initially inept playground student pugilist in one of the picture’s most memorable scenes. Selznick had a way of compromising his contract players starting around of the time of Bells’ production — less out of mean-spiritedness than from a case of artistic myopia probably exacerbated by Bennies he used as chasers.

There’s one bit in GMY where Crosby sports a St. Louis Browns sweatshirt, which despite ’44 having been the Browns’ real-life one-hit-wonder World Series year (they still didn’t win it), suggests that O’Malley empathizes more than most with human failing. Meanwhile, Bergman’s Sister Mary Benedict takes a more traditionally rigid approach between the beams of light her very being exudes — hence the conflict dramatized with velvet gloves in Dudley Nichols’ script. This tension predominantly manifests itself over a) a young female student who’s a product of what was once viewed as suspect parentage; and b) conflicting attitudes over whether dilapidated St. Mary’s is worth saving — a moot point, perhaps, due to a developer (Henry Travers) who has constructed a modern office building right next door and is on his way to locking up a deal to use the school’s real estate as a parking lot.

McCarey couldn’t have known at the time how film history would play out, but the developer is portrayed with his typical disarming whimsy by Henry Travers, who was still a year way from playing Clarence the Angel in Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life. But anyone who’s been breathing in the years since (and can make casting associations) will likely sense that he or she won’t have to worry too much. Fortunately, to riff on the Sherman Brothers, the movie avoids employing a warehouse of sugar to make the tough stuff go down. Nichols and McCarey are sly enough to have Travers note, after a rare act of altruism, that it’s “tax-deductible.”

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Still, the picture could have gone off the rails were it not for the almost incalculable charm and chemistry between the two leads (this is my favorite Bergman performance) and the equally incalculable auteurist flair McCarey always brought to movies both great and not so good (as with, alas, the ones that found themselves on the upswing later in his career). The famous and certainly oft-quoted line about McCarey came from Jean Renoir when he said that the former understood people better than any other Hollywood director. To this, one might include cats as well because Bells boasts the greatest screen direction of one (and possibly the best in any setting, given that cats really can’t be directed) that I’ve ever seen. As for his direction of the very young children in a Nativity scene that equals the killer one in John Ford’s Donovan’s Reef, McCarey had the touch there as well — though it’s been said that after giving the kids some basic instruction, he left the room as they did their thing with the camera rolling.

Bells’ setting is drab — this school is really rundown — but cinematographer George Barnes goes to town when it comes to lighting the actors and making Bergman look absolutely luminous (Barnes got an Oscar for black-and-white Rebecca and shot some of the era’s most gorgeous Technicolor pictures: later De Mille epics The Spanish Main, The Emperor Waltz, Frenchman’s Creek, the last visual spectaculars when I got to see them in nitrate 35mm prints). This Signature release is much, much improved over the previous Olive release, which looked kind of like a patch job to me. Arrow Films has its own handsome Region B release that’s newly available as well, and I assume it’s from the same source.

Aside from Giddins the Great, who sounds as if he might be battling a cold here, the extras include an array of goodies — all of which I liked — about the film at hand in relation to McCarey (by Steve Massa); an on-screen essay that I had a little trouble navigating on my screen (Abbey Bender); and a discussion of Bells’ prequel/sequel status from effervescent Prof. Emily Carman. She gets more out of the subject than I expected, due to the paucity of single big-screen follow-ups (as opposed to Tarzan, Nancy Drew and other series) in the era. There’s also a Faith and Film interview with Sr. Rose Pacette — I have a sweet spot for movie-loving nuns — who discusses what she likes about Bells and what she thinks is an offensive stretch (most prominently the control O’Malley has over Sister Benedict’s fortunes). It all dates from when she first saw the film decades ago as a much younger person, and it’s clear this is a movie that she, on balance, likes a lot.

I first saw Bells at a neighborhood theater’s 1958 Saturday afternoon triple bill — bookended by Stanley Donen’s Fearless Fagan and Bob Hope’s arguable career stretch in The 7 Little Foys. I came out of it with warm feelings toward Bergman’s characterization (Sister Rose comes off the same way) and Catholicism in general, which lasted until the following Tuesday. It was then, up at “my” shopping center, where I witnessed a kid my age from the nearby Catholic school mouthing off a little to a nun — cheeky waggery on his part but nothing more than what I was prone to say every day throughout 12 years in my own school system. It was then that the nun laid a huge slap across his face — not exactly Emile Griffith/Benny “Kid” Paget stuff but enough to make him see stars.

After this, I decided to remain a lapsed Presbyterian, but my love for McCarey’s last great movie (An Affair To Remember pretty close to an exception) has never waned. It’s my favorite Hollywood film of 1945 next to John Ford’s They Are Expendable, another instantly identifiable auteurist work.

Mike’s Picks: ‘The Far Country’ and ‘The Bells of St. Mary’s’

Gaslight

BLU-RAY REVIEW:

Available via Warner Archive;
Warner;
Mystery;
$21.99 Blu-ray;
Not rated.

Stars Charles Boyer, Ingrid Bergman, Joseph Cotten, Dame May Whitty.

Though this couldn’t have been the intention unless some ornery jester inside the Warner Archive brain trust was plotting mild mischief, the new Blu-ray of Gaslight’s additional inclusion of the 1940 Brit original serves an added purpose beyond pouring gravy on a already delicious release. There are lots of reasons why the famed Hollywood follow-up is the version we remember — the result of every production salvo that MGM could lob at it just four years later. Thus, the combined package amounts to a college-level course on how a big-screen mystery on the high side of adequate can be rethought into a classic.

And Metro’s superbly cast George Cukor remake definitely is one, at least of its kind, even if it remains somewhat overshadowed by an astounding string of all-timers from the same year (1944): Double IndemnityMeet Me in St. LouisHail the Conquering HeroThe Miracle of Morgan’s CreekLaura; and maybe Murder, My Sweet. There was a deep bench, too (Christmas Holiday, anyone?). That old canard about 1939 being the best year for Golden Age movies remains, well … a canard (see also 1946). It also makes one think again about the current theatrical attendance that’s been down all year, enough that my neighborhood multiplex is probably checking this very minute to see if it has enough marquee numerals to handle Howard the Duck CMLXXVIII.

The MGM Gaslight is so stylish— it and Adam’s Rib are easily Cukor’s best films of the 1940s endless you like The Philadelphia Story better than I do — that I wonder if Louis B. Mayer somehow hated it, at least until he saw the grosses. Probably not, because it was steeped in a bedrock genre (historical murder mystery) and thus not one of those new-fangled problem pictures or twisted sisters that probably had L.B. reaching for the Preparation H (everything from Freaks through Intruder in the Dust and a couple John Huston pictures from the early ’50s). On the other hand, to get its ideal cast, the studio had to borrow two A-list leads from penurious David O. Selznick (not just eventual Ingrid Bergman but Joseph Cotten as well). Nor was top-billed Charles Boyer under contract to Leo the Lion.

Gaslight was originally a play by Patrick Hamilton, who also penned the original Rope (later filmed by Alfred Hitchcock — and definitely a movie he had to have hated) plus the eponymous novel that later led to John Brahm’s Hangover Square. The Boyer-Bergman take runs half-an-hour longer than its predecessor (which makes a lot of difference in its favor), and a lot of key details are changed, but the basics are pretty consistent in both versions. A wastrel (The Red Shoes’s Anton Walbrook in the original) marries a delicate woman (the Oscar-winning Cavalcade’s Diana Wynyard) for her inheritance, which is mostly wrapped up in the London house once owned by the latter’s aunt, who was victim of an unsolved murder a decade or so earlier.

The kicker, though, is that the old woman also left her extraordinary valuable jewels somewhere in the house, which the murderer is unable to locate. Thus, he resorts to a rather extreme Plan B, which involves marrying the niece (who was a child when the tragedy occurred) and moving back into the same house, which had remained unoccupied over the ensuing years. This really isn’t spoiler material because most of it is divulged fairly early on — and besides, this is much, much more of a psychological drama than mystery despite some subsequent sleuthing by the suspicious Law. And because “gaslight” used as a verb has so re-entered contemporary parlance — as in, “Someone has been trying to convince me that the most famous tabloid grifter of the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s got elected president” — even the unknowing can easily surmise what the husband is trying to do here to his wife’s shaky emotional state. (A literal gaslight is a key factor in the plot as well.)

Whereas the British original tosses us right into all this without any context, the MGM opens with a happy Bergman in another country, which makes her mental and even physical dissolution so much more dramatic as the movie progresses. What’s more, the remake’s establishing scenes allow us to see Boyer briefly turn on the charm (which Walbrook is never allowed to do), which gives us a reason to accept that the about-to-be new victim would marry this guy in the first place. By turning both parties into respectively, a voice-lesson student and her accompanist, the couple’s obvious built-in musical appreciation adds power to a later scene (in both films) where the wife’s emotional state half-ruins a recital.

And though both versions feature an inspector who, from afar, senses something is badly awry, the original gives us a rumpled-Brit standard issue while the later version serves up a dapper Scotland Yard crime-sniffer played by Cotten. This last move adds some sexual tension to the later going, and though the movie isn’t heavy-handed enough to shoehorn in a romance,there’s definitely something in the air from both directions, and it gives the narrative a boost.

None of this is to knock — at least to any great degree — the decent-enough earlier picture, which, for its part, suffers right out of the gate here via an unrestored print (fans of the original with an all-Region player should note that in a previous Region B solo release from the BFI offers a standalone print that is). But the Cukor version is so beautifully rendered, especially in its performances and cosmetics, that there’s really no comparison, no matter how you cut it. The actors are so on point (the perpetually underrated Boyer more than included) that Cukor knows to let their faces carry the day, only moving the camera in those situations where it’s best served (there are a lot of interior nicknacks to play with here), which was his style. In fact, the cinematography is so lush that I temporarily convinced myself while watching it that Gaslight had to have gotten Joseph Ruttenberg one of his four cinematography Oscars, forgetting that the black-and-white award went to Laura that same year.

Watching Bergman fall to pieces in increments (often increments in the same scene) is an extraordinary acting feat that comes to Blu-ray just a few weeks after Criterion put out Olivia de Havilland’s showstopper in The Heiress; it’s almost too much to absorb. I wouldn’t have wanted to be an academy voter choosing between Bergman and Barbara Stanwyck (Double Indemnity) in 1944 — though for me personally with Bergman, she’ll always be Sister Mary Benedict in The Bells of St. Mary’s, her next movie after Gaslight. And this is coming from a lapsed Presbyterian.

Another treat here is the teenaged Angela Lansbury as this very dysfunctional household’s servant — one who seems to have managed the tuition to go to tart school on the side. Remarkably, this was the same year Lansbury played Elizabeth Taylor’s sister in National Velvet (now, that would make a great Warner Archive Blu-ray), so it looks as of MGM must have figured out it the versatility it had on its hands fairly early (oh, if L.B. Mayer had lived to see The Manchurian Candidate). Lansbury, who just keeps plugging, offers some bonus section remembrances as well — but the MGM Gaslight is such a resplendent entertainment that Warner could have given it as a no-frills release, and it still would be a Blu-ray factor at year’s end.

Mike’s Picks: ‘Gaslight’ and ‘Mother Wore Tights’

‘Community,’ ‘Rescue Me,’ ‘Benji’ on September Disc Slate From Mill Creek

Complete Blu-ray series sets of “Community” and “Rescue Me,” two double features and films about animal friends are among the titles on Mill Creek Entertainment’s September disc slate.

Due Sept. 18 is Community: The Complete Series, featuring all 110 episodes from the TV series, on both Blu-ray ($99.98) and DVD ($69.98). The comedy ensemble series, starring Joel McHale, Chevy Chase, Gillian Jacobs, Alison Brie, Ken Jeong, Donald Glover, Danny Pudi, Yvette Nicole Borwn and Jim Rash, centers on a tight-knit group of friends who all meet at Greendale Community College and their hijinks.

All seven seasons are included in Rescue Me: The Complete Series coming out Sept. 11 on Blu-ray ($149.98). Whether pulling survivors from a fiery high-rise or the twisted steel of a subway collision, Tommy Gavin (Denis Leary) takes pride in leading the heroic but overwhelmed firefighters of the NYFD. Meanwhile, he’s also drifting between sorrow and anger over a separation from his wife and three kids, and the haunting memories of his fallen comrades.

The lovable mutt Benji returns Sept. 11 in the Benji: Off the Leash Blu-ray combo pack (plus DVD and digital) at $19.98. The story, told from the pooch’s point of view, tracks his early days as a pup to his current life in showbiz. Bonus features include a feature-length commentary with director Joe Camp, editor Dava Whisenant, composer Anthony Di Lorenzo and producer Margaret Loesch; a behind-the-scenes featurette; and “Benji Movie Memories,” which covers memorable scenes from five Benji movies starring three different Benjis.

Streeting Sept. 18 are two double features on Blu-ray at $14.98 each. The comedy double feature includes Age of Consent, starring James Mason and Helen Mirren, and Cactus Flower, starring Goldie Hawn, Ingrid Bergman and Walter Matthau. This is the first time either film has been available in high definition.

Also in HD for the first time are Nightwing and Shadow of the Hawk, paired in a double feature of fright. Nightwing follows the investigation of a wave of mysterious deaths on a Native American reservation in New Mexico that turn out to be caused by killer bats. Shadow of the Hawk stars Jan-Michael Vincent in a tale of an old Native American shaman who trains his skeptical grandson as a medicine man to battle enemies and black magic.

Born Free: The Complete Collection comes out on DVD Sept. 11 at $19.98. The franchise collection is based on the 1960 book about raising an orphaned lion cub Elsa and then releasing her back into the wild. The book changed the world’s perception of wild animals. The DVD collection includes the 1966 original film, the 1972 sequel, the 1974 TV series and the 1996 TV movie.

Due Sept. 11 is the Western Buffalo Girls on DVD (plus digital) at $14.98. The film, starring Anjelica Huston, Melanie Griffith and Sam Elliott, celebrates the escapades of tough-talking Calamity Jane Canary. It co-stars Gabriel Byrne, Reba McEntire and Peter Coyote.

The miniseries Family Pictures comes out Sept. 11 on DVD (plus digital) at $14.98. The drama, starring Anjelica Huston, Sam Neill and Kyra Sedgwick, is based on Sue Miller’s best-selling novel. It follows a daughter who comes home to her divorced parents and tells the story of her family, including her younger autistic brother.

Coming Sept. 11 on DVD (plus digital) at $14.98 is Hollywood’s Best and Brightest, featuring more than 12 hours of Hollywood star biographies. Featured legends are Warren Beatty, Sean Connery, Robert De Niro, Clint Eastwood, Mel Gibson, Jack Nicholson, Al Pacino, Robert Redford, Burt Reynolds, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone, John Travolta, Dick Van Dyke, Robert Wagner, Michael York, Julie Andrews, Kim Basinger, Candice Bergen, Catherine Deneuve, Faye Dunaway, Jane Fonda, Jodie Foster, Goldie Hawn, Lauren Hutton, Angela Lansbury, Shirley MacLaine, Ann-Margret, Barbra Streisand, Kathleen Turner and Raquel Welch.