Miracle of the Bells (1948): Hollywood Melodrama, Starring Fred MacMurray and Alida Valli

In Miracle of the Bells, Fred MacMurray, then at the peak of his career, plays Hollywood press agent Bill Dunnigan who works for a movie studio.

When the film begins, he arrives by train with the corpse of Polish-born actress Olga Treskovna (Italian star Alida Valli), in her (fictional) hometown “Coaltown,” a site dominated by its coal industry.

Based on a novel by Russell Janney, this modest, black-and-white tale, penned by Quentin Reynolds and Ben Hecht, unfolds as a series of long flashbacks, narrated in voiceover by Dunnigan, as he discloses the sequence of tragic events to Father Paul (Frank Sinatra, in a supporting role), the ultra sensitive and sympathetic local priest.   \

Dunnigan was smitten with Olga, though it’s not clear if she was attracted to him.  He has brought her back to “Coaltown” to honor her last request, to be buried there. After encountering some hostility from the local funeral director, who still resents Olga’s father because he was crooked, Dunnigan enlists the services of Father Paul, who helps grant Olga’s request.

The main flashback depicts how Olga is chosen from a chorus line in a nightclub to serve as a double for an extremely temperamental film actress, the intended star of a screen version of Joan of Arc.  Dunnigan realizes that Olga has the makings of a talented actress, perhaps even a major star.  Opportunity knocks, when the temperamental star throws a tantrum and walks out, and Dunnigan persuades the tough producer, Marcus Harris (Lee J. Cobb) to audition Olga, despite her lack of experience. The screen test is a success and Olga is cast as Joan.

However, as filming progresses, she becomes seriously ill. Dunnigan is secretly told that Olga suffers from fatal form of tuberculosis, caused by her inhalation of coal dust.  Eager to redeem her family name, Olga continues with the shoot, and collapses at the end. She dies with Dunnigan at her side.

The grief-stricken Dunnigan pulls a publicity stunt, convincing churches all across “Coaltown” to ring their bells for three days as a tribute to the dead actress, promising to pay them with money he doesn’t possess and cannot afford.

As a result, there is growing interest in the unknown actress who gave her life to complete a film, and Marcus Harris wires Dunnigan money to pay his collectors. Eeven so, Harris decides not to release the film, fearing the public reaction to a new star who is already dead. Harris plans to recast the role and begin shooting again.

At Olga’s funeral, a huge crowd enters the tiny local church, which  has only had a dozen of practitioners. A loud noise is then heard, and the statues of St. Michael and the Virgin Mary turn on their pedestals until they face Olga’s coffin. The parishioners think it’s a genuine miracle, though logic suggests that the ground under the church was weakened due to the unusually large crowd

Dunnigan persuades Father Paul not to tell Coaltown’s residents the truth. Indeed, with their faith is restored, the reluctant Harris decides to release the film, which then becomes a success.

The RKO production is directed with tactful taste by Irving Pichel.  By sheer coincidence, the film was made at the same time that Ingrid Bergman was shooting her own epic (Technicolor) version of Joan of Arc, which turned out to be Victor Fleming’s last picture.  Released by RKO in 1948. the expensive Bergman film, was a commercial flop.

Dismissed by major critics at the time, the film didn’t do much for rising star Frank Sinatra, who seems to be miscast.  In recent years, however, the film has developed some reputation due to its high-profile cast and realistic depiction of locale; some of the film’s extras were miners working for the Glen-Alden Coal Mine Several exterior shots were shot on location, in the tale’s actual town, Glen Lyon, Pennsylvania.

It is often shown around Christmas due to its hopeful message, which came in the form of a long, heartfelt speech made by Dunnigan to Father Paul, equating the statutes miracle to the long enduring myth of Joan of Arc.  In the last scene, Sinatra takes the podium to deliver a sentimental and hokey sermon about divine intervention, belief in miracles, truth, and beauty.

Cast

Fred MacMurray as William ‘Bill’ Dunnigan

Alida Valli as Olga Treskovna

Frank Sinatra as Father Paul

Lee J. Cobb as Marcus Harris

Harold Vermilyea as Nick Orloff

Charles Meredith as Father J. Spinsky

James Nolan as Tod Jones

Veronica Pataky as Anna Klovna

Philip Ahn as Ming Gow

Frank Ferguson as Mike Dolan

Frank Wilcox as Dr. Jennings