Though the film was in large part a vehicle for the musical talents of the top-billed actors, (Many of the original theatrical posters and lobby cards portrayed Bing Crosby and Ingrid Bergman in non-clerical garb.) The Bells of St. Mary’s presents several important Catholic themes, such as the promotion of “common sense” as “the ability to enjoy the five senses properly” (within the boundaries of conduct considered acceptable to the Catholic Church), the importance of the environment a child grows up in, the role model capabilities of the adults around the child, and the importance of major physical donations to the operation of good works of the church, as well as the inevitable miracle which keeps the struggling, poor parish and associated parochial school going. However, in 1940s America, and within the Catholic Church, the nuns are a challenge, because they know their own minds, and think for themselves. They are not overly-impressed by the new administrator-priest sent to them by the hierarchy, and his slick Father What-a-Waste presentation.
This movie spreads on the sexism pretty thick. After all, the premise that a smooth-voiced, dapper, youngish priest, with nothing going for him besides his good looks and a seemingly inflated sense of self-confidence is going to magically save the small, poor parish and school from the nose-dive which awaits it, is the initial theme of the movie. It bounces back like a game of whack-a-mole throughout the picture, in spite of the challenges the world and the nuns throw at it. At the start of the film, when Fr. O’Malley moves into the priests’ quarters at his new posting, the rectory housekeeper tells him that his predecessor priest was “taken away” after having been rendered fit for a sanatorium with regard to his state of mind, and reduced to being fit for a wheelchair insofar as the state of his body was concerned. No disease was mentioned as the cause of the previous priest’s physical or mental state of infirmity, nor were the financial and logistical challenges of the parish and school more than briefly touched upon as potential stressors. Instead, the rectory housekeeper cites the fact that the school is staffed and run by nuns (women religious) as the source of Fr. Fogarty’s physical and mental breakdown. Never mind that this has been the case with most American Catholic parochial schools and Catholic institutions both pre-concilar and immediately following Vatican II. When we, the viewers, meet the nuns, they prove to be sympathetic characters who want the best for their charges, including a modern and spacious building, and a larger and safer schoolyard. They have been spending a lot of money to fix a parochial school building regarded as old and too small, while praying that Mr. Bogardus, who is building on the property next door, and wants to turn their school property into a parking lot, will one day “wake up and decide to give (his new corporate headquarters) building to them as a donation, for them to turn into a new school. Though nuns are supposed to give up the things of this world, when they actually meet and talk with Mr. Bogardus, they try the Jedi mind trick on him to get him to donate the building to become their new school, with the honor of being known for being the donor of the school “will live on long after you become dust”. In her discussion afterwards with the other nuns, Sr. Benedict unconventionally ends her prayers for the nuns to take over Mr. Bogardus’ new corporate headquarters building as their new school with …”And May God’s Will be our will”. (The combination of needling by the nuns, the sentimentality encouraged by the hearing of the children of the school singing O Sanctissima, and Bogardus’ heart problems eventually combine to convince him to donate the building to St. Mary’s in the end.)
Both the nuns and the new priest consider the children of the school they run to be “disadvantaged” as compared with their own experiences in childhood, when Swedish-born and Minnesota-raised Sister Benedict skied to school in the winter, and “played baseball and football with the boys” at other times during her younger years.
Later on in the movie, Fr. O’Malley (Bing Crosby) witnesses a schoolyard fight scene between boys and lauds the victor while suggesting that the nuns’ (correct and Christian, by the way) counsel to turn the other cheek, the following of which rendered the other boy the loser of the fight, was “womens’ influence”, which was dangerous in large quantities, because unmitigated, it ran the risk of turning boys into “sissies”. Never mind the example set by Jesus which they were supposed to be promoting as religious instructors. The formidable Sister Benedict rises to the challenge, and accompanied by another nun in full habit, shops for a book on the “the manly art of self-defense” and then goes on to teach the boy the basics of boxing, which he later uses to best his nemesis on the school playground, while Sr. Benedict uses the rhetorical question of what it proves to be able to beat someone up when the more important quality which defines us resides within us and our actions define who we are, to turn Fr. O’ Malley’s cynical statement about the nuns’ perceived inadequacies as instructors of boys as well as his clear departure from the orthodoxy of the church and the teachings of Jesus back against him. Sexism may have been served, but Sr. Benedict volleyed.
However, it is just assumed that a celibate man is more than up to the task of both the academic and moral instruction of a teenage girl whose home environment threatens waywardness, and for whom boarding at the convent is seen by her own mother as a desirable alternative to continuing to live with a single parent, a woman separated from her husband, because the daughter is “beginning to think I’m no good” because she has become old enough to figure out how her mother has been supporting them (it is implied that the single mother has been doing so as a high-end hooker: after all, she wears flashy clothes, doesn’t have a regular job, yet can afford Catholic boarding school). Patsy’s mother magically gets back together with the husband who walked out on her (possibly with the knowledge that she was pregnant) when Fr. O’ Malley arranges a logistical reunion between them. Even more magic happens here: they become a happy family, the father supporting them both on a musician’s earnings. Though potentially precocious Patsy initially has trouble accepting the new order of things, and declares a new-found intention of becoming a nun, it is Sr. Benedict who tells her that she should only join the nuns for the right reasons, and not in the hopes of running away from life.
Though it initially seems that more sexism is to be seen when Sr. Benedict is diagnosed with tuberculosis, and she is not to be told, but, paternalisticaly, Fr. O’ Malley is informed by the (also male) doctor; it is possible that this is simply the doctor’s intended use of the placebo effect:
Father Chuck O’Malley: Does she know about this.
Dr. McKay: Oh, not yet. It’s very important that she doesn’t know it. She has a wonderful vitality, a natural optimism, and that’s the best medicine anyone can have. If that spirit is dampened, it would… it would have a depressing effect and delay her recovery.
Father Chuck O’Malley: She’ll have to know about it. We… we can’t just send her away without…
Dr. McKay: Don’t you people, uh, more or less, uh, go where you’re told without question?
To my reading of the situation, Dr. McKay doesn’t seem to believe in sexism so much as he believes someone who makes a serious lifetime commitment to Catholic religious life has more faith than the rest of us, and will likely accept orders without question or further consideration or investigation. It is true that the movie was made and set in a more sexist time, when, paradoxically, it was often common practice for women religious to take mens’ names, but how relevant are gender roles, really, when the principal characters are (supposed to be) living lives of celibacy?
Leo McCarey was inspired to write the original story in tribute to his own aunt and childhood counselor Sister Mary Benedict, one of the Sisters who helped to build the Immaculate Heart Convent in Hollywood and who died in a typhoid fever epidemic.
Although this movie was a sequel to Going My Way (1944), it was released by a different studio. “Going My Way” was released by Paramount, to which Bing Crosby was under contract. This film was released by RKO, a studio for which Crosby had never worked. .. This was actually written before Going My Way (1944), which was originally intended to be a sequel to this film.