‘The Miracle of the Bells’ (1948) and the Intercession of St. Michael

The underappreciated 1948 film, which stars Fred MacMurray and Frank Sinatra, is rich with Catholic themes

Movie poster for ‘The Miracle of the Bells’
Movie poster for ‘The Miracle of the Bells’ (photo: Wikimedia Commons)

They just don’t make ’em like they used to. The Miracle of the Bells (1948) is one such example. Unabashedly Catholic in its setting, content and themes, it falls short in familiarity compared to others from that decade like The Song of Bernadette, Going My Way or The Bells of St. Mary’s. That it was generally dismissed by critics upon its release hampered its reputation from the outset. However, viewing the film today is a real treat, and a great introduction for young viewers — particularly young girls — to glimpse the depiction of Catholicism during Hollywood’s Golden Age and become inspired by the character of Olga. 

Fred MacMurray headlines the cast as Hollywood press agent Bill Dunnigan. When visiting an old friend, a producer of musical theater, Dunnigan encourages him to give a break to one of the chorus line dancers the producer was about to fire. Her name is Olga Treskovna, played by Italian actress Alida Valli. Olga and Bill run into each other sporadically in the ensuing years as she remains determined to become an actress. When they meet again on the set of a picture by Dunnigan’s boss, producer Marcus Harris (Lee J. Cobb) of Excelsior Studios, inspiration strikes Bill Dunnigan.

The movie in question is a biopic of the Maid of Orléans, St. Joan of Arc. Initially, Joan is portrayed by a fiery diva who storms off the set, leaving the production absent the starring role. Marcus Harris decides to cancel the production. But Olga is on set as a camera stand-in for the egomaniacal leading lady. And that’s when Bill Dunnigan realizes who can take over the role of Joan. 

In a remarkable sequence, Olga performs a monologue from the script, beginning with Joan’s famous line at her trial, when asked if she is in a state of grace: “If I am not, may it please God to put me in it; if I am, may it please God to keep me there.” Bill is impressed. He convinces producer Harris to give Olga a screen test. Soon enough, this unknown who only a few years earlier was about to be fired from a chorus line is now top billing in a major Hollywood studio movie.

Except there’s one problem. Olga is terminally ill from tuberculosis. But she conceals that fact from everyone, including Bill. She dies a day after the last shot of the movie, the last moments of Joan of Arc’s life at the stake. But Marcus Harris is thinking about dollars and cents. Olga had no other credits, no connection with the public. Convinced the movie’s release would sink his studio, Harris shelves the film until it can be remade with a recognizable star. Once again, Bill has to find inspiration to convince Harris otherwise.

Most of this is told in extended flashbacks. The structure of the film hinges on Bill arriving in Olga’s childhood home in Pennsylvania’s coal mining country to make funeral arrangements. There he meets Father Paul, the young pastor of the poor Polish parish St. Michael’s, played with spot-on sincerity by Frank Sinatra. Father Paul did not know Olga Treskovna or her deceased father, but it is his curiosity that gives Dunnigan a chance to share her story.

Olga was a young woman of deep faith. She had a particular devotion to St. Michael the Archangel. A number of references to the great archangel punctuate The Miracle of the Bells. As Bill Dunnigan is a non-practicing Protestant, last in church for his mother’s funeral at age 7, he asks a lot of questions. When the two have a memorable Christmas Eve dinner at a Chinese restaurant, Olga gifts a medal of St. Michael, her favorite saint, to owner Ming Gow (Philip Ahn). “Saint Michael, huh? What’s his specialty?” Dunnigan asks her. “Fighting,” Olga replies. “For God.” With Olga and Bill the restaurant’s only patrons, Ming Gow likens the three of them to the Wise Men journeying toward the Christ Child.

When Bill meets with Father Paul in the rectory, he notes a framed painting of St. Michael on the wall. Father Paul is also deeply devoted to St. Michael. Interestingly, he explains to Bill that it was St. Michael who freed St. Peter from prison — twice!

When Father Paul takes Bill into St. Michael’s Church, Bill notes the large statue of St. Michael in the sanctuary. “Say, that’s our boy up there, isn’t it?” Later, even Bill Dunnigan calls on St. Michael for intercession when it looks like his gamble on spending money he doesn’t have to honor Olga threatens to land him in jail.

I won’t spoil any more of the delightful plot. The film was directed by Irving Pichel, an actor and frequent narrator of John Ford pictures. Pichel’s last film was of the Passion, Day of Triumph (1954). The Miracle of the Bells was based on a 1946 novel of the same name by Russell Janney. RKO distributed the film the same year as the bigger-budget and better-known Joan of Arc starring Ingrid Bergman. While The Miracle of the Bells is not a “Joan of Arc” film per se, St. Joan nevertheless is another powerful intercessor to the characters, albeit obliquely. We are shown scenes of the Joan of Arc film in production, including the powerful last shot of Olga as Joan tied to the stake invoking Jesus, just as Joan did in real life. That St. Michael was one of Joan’s “voices” she heard during her remarkable life is another connection.

The film was largely shot on location in Pennsylvania, depicting real-life coal miners and the town they inhabit. The film’s structure and plot of the death of a rising young actress, would later be used by Joseph Mankiewicz in the high profile The Barefoot Contessa, starring Humphrey Bogart and Ava Gardner. Of course, faith is not a factor in that one, and it appears Mankiewicz, who also wrote the script, did not know about The Miracle of the Bells beforehand. As for MacMurray’s Bill Dunnigan, his profession as a press agent might easily make him a cynic — similar to Kirk Douglas’s Chuck Tatum in Ace in the Hole a few years later — but he is a perfect gentleman toward Olga.

The Miracle of the Bells earned mixed-to-negative reviews when it was released in 1948. Perhaps it was too Catholic for the critics, expecting the treachery of MacMurray’s character from Double Indemnity or the happy-go-lucky Frank Sinatra of Anchors Aweigh. However, from a contemporary perspective, it is a marvel — indeed, a near masterpiece. We are an audience aching for stories that immerse themselves into the rich milieu of Catholicism. Here we are given a story where no less than five churches populate this tiny coal mining town of Pennsylvania. The leading lady is playing Joan of Arc. The presence of St. Michael abounds. We are shown Father Paul praying the Mass in Latin (“Introibo ad altare Dei”) and explaining to Bill what the Angelus is.

No, they don’t make ‘em like they used to. But that doesn’t mean we can’t still appreciate them today.