The Miracle of the Bells (1948)

Article #1572 by Dave Sindelar
Viewing Date: 7-4-2005
Posting Date: 12-1-2005
Directed by Irving Pichel
Featuring Fred MacMurray, Alida Valli, Frank Sinatra

A press agent arrives in a small Pennsylvania coal town with the body of an actress who died after making her first big picture, a biography of Joan of Arc. While making funeral arrangements for her, he conceives of a publicity gimmick to make the producer release the film, which he shelved.

This is one of those religiously inspirational movies that Hollywood made during the forties about angels, miracles, etc. Most of them are actually quite effective due to the fact that they fleshed the movies out with complex situations and characters, humor, and a sense of real curiosity about how people would really react to the fantastic situations portrayed; check out THE SONG OF BERNADETTE as one of the best examples of such a movie. This one fails to do so; it’s sincere, but trite, simplistic, and overly serious. It’s also marred by a weak performance by Frank Sinatra, but I can’t really blame him too much; he was miscast and his uncomfortable performance seems to reflect his awareness of that fact. It makes its biggest mistake, I think, when the Lee J. Cobb character mentions an actress named Genevieve James; I was immediately able to figure out the real actress being referenced, and that just called my attention one more time to THE SONG OF BERNADETTE (a movie which also featured Cobb), and this movie really suffers by comparison.

It’s not totally ineffective, though; when the central miracle occurs late in the movie (which supplies the movie’s fantastic content and merits its inclusion in this series), the movie does offer an alternate explanation which somehow makes the whole movie stronger because it doesn’t change the fact that it’s still an amazing coincidence. It also includes a few greedy characters in the bunch to keep a certain amount of drama to the proceedings. However, I do find it hard to swallow that a town that had to endure three days of church bells ringing would react with awe-struck mystical reverence (not while annoyance was still an option, anyway). And somehow, I couldn’t watch the movie without thinking about a song and a comedy sketch. The former is “The Bells Are Ringing” by They Might Be Giants, in which the ringing of bells turns people into mindless conformist zombies. The latter is a Monty Python sketch in which an agnostic is attacked by a church steeple with a ringing bell and has to destroy it with a tactical nuclear missile. (“There’s nothing an agnostic can’t do if he really doesn’t know whether he believes in anything or not!”) Somehow, this didn’t really add to my reverence for the proceedings.

1 Comment

  1. Point being, everyone in the 40s was a believer in small towns. Everyone was part of their community church and attended every Sunday and went whenever something was happening.
    I lived a few miles from the town this movie was talking about. Coal town was Glen Lyon PA. The church was St Michael of the Archangel and it still stands.
    It is a sleepy little coal town and always was. Ppl know everybody in town even if you just moved in yesterday.
    I watched this movie many times growing up and as an adult found myself living in the shadow of the town itself so I decided to visit. My sister and I read the book, getting our landmarks fixed and went exploring. We found the street where she grew up, Oak St, on the left as you come into town, up on a hill. And the cemetery where a mock headstone was placed during the movie and still stands.

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