When this blogathon was first announced and only a few of Frank Sinatra’s films were claimed, I almost grabbed The Manchurian Candidate. But sometimes I like to pick films that are likely to be overlooked by others. So I decided to skip over to the IMDB and see if there was something else in his filmography I would rather cover.
When I saw the title The Miracle of the Bells, I rushed over to Movie Classics immediately and requested it.
So, why would a Jewish girl want to write about a film that has blatant Christian themes? That, while not precisely a Christmas movie, was at one time a Christmas staple on TV?
I’ll get to that in a little bit.
This was Frank Sinatra’s first dramatic role and, boy, did I come across a lot of naysaying over his performance while researching the movie. Apparently, many people think it’s plain hilarious that he played a priest.
Well, boo on them. I think he’s just fine in the role–he was still a little green, maybe, but he’s also affecting as a once idealistic priest who has had to face the realism of leading a poor parish with a crumbling church.
Based on a novel by Russell Janney and directed by Irving Pichel, the film features Fred MacMurray as a Hollywood press agent named Bill Dunnigan. As the story opens, he is bringing the body of a young actress named Olga Treskovna (Alida Valli) back to Coaltown, her hometown in Pennsylvania for burial. It’s a humble mining town filled with poverty and despair. Almost immediately funeral director Orloff (Harold Vermilyea) tries to bilk Bill out of as much money as possible, including booking the biggest and most expensive church in town.
Bill insists on fulfilling Olga’s final request to be buried out of St. Michael’s, the poorest church in town. When he meets with Father Paul (Sinatra), Bill is expecting more attempts to gouge him. Father Paul assures him that his church is poor but honest. Bill tells Paul the story of his relationship with Olga, a young woman he realized he loved only after she was dead.
It turns out Olga was a very idealistic and ambitious young actress who seemed in a huge hurry to become famous. At intermittent stages in their acquaintance, Bill helps her out. When he lands a job as a press agent at a big studio, he persuades the studio head Marcus Harris (Lee J. Cobb) to hire her for his big Joan of Arc film after the star is fired.
Olga puts all her heart and soul into the part and seems destined for stardom. As the film shoot winds down, Bill finally notices she is ill. He begs her to stop working for a short time to get the rest she needs, but she insists on carrying on. The day after filming ends, she dies.
Harris decides that it’s just too creepy to release a picture with an actress who is already dead, especially since she was an unknown. Bill is crushed, because he knew Olga had her heart set on the film making a difference to the people in her hometown, who she hoped to give hope and meaning through her work and fame.
Thinking like a press agent, Bill decides to pull a stunt to persuade the studio to release the film. He has all five churches in the town ring their bells for three days straight. He has virtually no money to pay them, so he writes a series of bad checks, hoping the studio will send him the money in time to avoid bounced checks.
The bell ringing first captures the attention of the townspeople, who begin to visit St. Michael’s, which usually sees very few parishioners, even on Sundays. Then the story is picked up by the local, state, and eventually national press.
The studio is unimpressed and still determined to recast and reshoot the movie. Bill is on the verge of being arrested for writing the bad checks. Just as the funeral mass is about to begin, the church begins to shake and the attendees are stunned to see the statues of the Virgin Mary and St. Michael turn, as if to look upon Olga’s coffin.
Shaken, even Bill is certain a miracle has taken place. He finds Father Paul in the church basement, investigating what happened. The priest explains the church was built on a weak foundation over mine shafts. The weight of so many people in the church caused the foundation to shift and the statues to move.
Bill begs the priest not to tell the truth, and argues that to the people who witnessed the event, a miracle has really taken place. While he can’t outright lie to his parishioners, Father Paul gives a sermon about the miracle of the goodness in a person like Olga.
The news about the miracle finds its way to Hollywood. Although Harris rejects it as another press agent stunt, he eventually capitulates and agrees to release the film. He promises to use the money it earns to build a hospital for the miners in Coaltown. Bill is content Olga’s dying wish has come true.
O.K.–this is a strange little film, with a very strange story. The mixture of religion and Hollywood is just plain odd. The idea that a miracle, a sign from God, no less, is needed to get a movie released is plenty weird and on paper may even seem a bit offensive to some.
There’s also something a tad meta about it, because around the same time it was made, Ingrid Bergman was in the midst of making a Joan of Arc film that ultimately received mixed reviews and was a box office disappointment.
But I like this film a lot, and one reason is how inclusive it is. There’s a lovely scene where Bill and Olga run into each other on Christmas Eve (probably why the film was often shown on TV during Christmas) and end up having dinner at a Chinese restaurant. The proprietor Ming Gow (Philip Ahn) serves an authentic Chinese feast to the couple, and joins them for dinner. They speak about fate and God. Olga gives him her St. Michael’s medal as a thank you for the meal.
While the word “Jewish” is never used in the film, it’s strongly implied that Marcus Harris is Jewish. (The original actress in the Joan of Arc film is fired after she makes anti-Semitic and anti-American remarks.) He speaks about “his” religion. At the end, he tells Father Paul that in his religion one doesn’t question God when something wonderful happens. Father Paul replies it’s the same in his religion.
In spite of the reticence when it comes to actually calling other religions by name (other than Bill mentioning his mother was a Protestant), it’s clear the story is meant to resonate with anyone, regardless of their personal beliefs, and I think that’s really nice.
It’s also a rare film that acknowledges the corrosive effect of poverty on the physical and spiritual health of those who suffer from it. It was shot on location in a real mining town and used many of the town’s residents in small roles and as extras.
Now, getting back to Sinatra’s performance: I think it’s a bit underrated. Yes, he sings, an English version of a melancholic Polish song, but it doesn’t feel out of place. Whether he was playing a singer or a crook or a soldier, Sinatra always came across as a guy who came from a humble beginning. I can believe him as a pragmatic young man trying to do his best to serve his beliefs and his parishioners. I also really like the friendship that develops between Father Paul and Bill, an unlikely relationship brought about by the memory of a remarkable and determined young woman.
Yeah, it’s an odd little film, and maybe it’s not Sinatra’s greatest movie performance. But something about them makes me like both.