Trivia experts will instantly peg Leo McCarey’s The Bells of St. Mary’s as the title splashed across the Radio City Music Hall marquee while Michael Corleone and his future bride, Kay, do their Christmas shopping in The Godfather. McCarey’s Bells really has more in common with Coppola’s second installment, inasmuch as both films are rare examples of sequels that surpass their illustrious precursors. It’s an even more infrequent instance of a sequel penned before its original, and released by another studio! In order for Paramount to loan out the services of Bing Crosby, RKO had to first consent to McCarey’s writing and directing a star vehicle based on the same character for their neighboring studio. Bing plays Father Chuck, who, long before joining the Roman Catholic order, took an active interest in sports, song, and dames. Metropolitan Opera great Risë Stevens adds a touch of class, as well as a hint of virility, by appearing as one of Father Chuck’s former love interests. Film scholars take note: The Bells of St. Mary’s falls between Going My Way and Frank Tashlin’s Say One for Me, to form Crosby’s “Showbiz Priest” trilogy. How’s that for a master’s thesis waiting to happen? It’s pure hokum, but in this case, it’s hokum drawn from the hand of one of cinema’s true humanists. What chances did a romance between a priest and a nun have of seeing the arc-light of day in a town where couples could only occupy a bed together if one of their feet was firmly planted on the floor? Only Leo McCarey (Duck Soup, Ruggles of Red Gap, Make Way for Tomorrow) could have pulled a love story of this sinful magnitude past the ever-vigilant eyes of the Hays Office. Ingrid Bergman signed opposite Crosby to play the screen’s most alluring nun. McCarey knew just the trick to pull it off: assign Sister Ingrid a faint cough 20 minutes in that winds up full-tubercular by the fade-out. Not to spoil it, but at the time, there was no way this subject matter could have possibly ended in anything but auditorium floors littered with soaked Kleenex. (1945) — Scott Marks
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