Monday, April 4, 2016

On honoring my father's wishes and The Miracle of the Bells (1948)

Timing is everything.

My father passed away in August and since that time I have been in charge of his settling his affairs. Recently I took a day off to get a few errands done including delivering my parents' tax forms and paperwork to their lawyer. He's been in the business for 52 years and still does everything with pen and paper. When I entered his office I was struck by the lack of technology. He had a simple fold out desk, a basic chair, and paperwork scattered everywhere. There was no computer. He did everything the same way he had been doing it for the last half century. I delivered my parents' paperwork knowing that this is what my father would have wanted. He would have wanted his taxes to be done by the same lawyer who had been doing them for the family since the 1980s. He would have wanted them to be done with pen and paper. He would have wanted a paper check for his tax return. As my father's daughter I saw to it that his final tax forms were done the way he would have wanted because honoring the wishes of the dead is the responsibility of the living.

Later that same day I watched the RKO film The Miracle of the Bells (1948). It had been recorded on my DVR in December when TCM had their Frank Sinatra month and I forgot about it. I picked a film at random from my DVR and wouldn't you know it it's a film about carrying out the wishes of someone who has passed away. It's like the universe was waiting for this exact day for me to watch this movie.

It's a bizarre little film. Fred MacMurray plays press agent Bill Dunnigan. He brings the body of deceased actress Olga Treskovna (Alida Valli) to her hometown. She left him very specific instructions on what to do after she died. Olga wanted a funeral service held at St. Michael's church, 6 girls dressed as angels surrounding her casket, ringing of church bells and a burial at the top of a hill where her parents were laid to rest. Coaltown is aptly named because of the thriving mining business. The town is also the reason why Olga's parents died and why she died, the coal dust weakened her lungs and tuberculosis set in. Dunnigan's first encounters with the people of Coaltown is disheartening. No one remembers Olga, they speak ill of her father who was known as a town drunk and the funeral director (Harold Vermilyea) wants to squeeze every penny out of Dunnigan. His faith in humanity is restored when he meets Father Paul (Frank Sinatra, yes that Frank Sinatra) of St. Michael's church. Father Paul's humility, patience and willingness to listen allows Dunnigan to open up about Olga's story which the audience see through flashbacks.

Publicity photo of Fred MacMurray, Alida Valli and Frank Sinatra from The Miracle of the Bells (1948).

She's determined to become a star and knows she has very little time to achieve her goal. Dunnigan steps in as her savior in more ways than one.  As it turns out Dunnigan has discovered a wonderful new talent in Olga and works to get her the role of Joan of Arc in a film produced by Marcus Harris (Lee J. Cobb). Olga turns out a marvelous performance only to die the day after the film is finished. Harris threatens to shelve the film and reshoot it with another star. Dunnigan is determined to save Olga's legacy. He wants to make her funeral a national story. How does he do it? He pays 5 churches of Coaltown to ring their bells continuously for 72 hours hoping this will bring national attention to Olga and change Harris' mind about shelving the film. In order to make a difference Dunnigan will have to go big or go home.

The Miracle of the Bells (1948) might have an odd plot but this quirk film will draw you in and hold your attention. You can't help but root for the main characters even while you're scratching your head with confusion. The first scenes of the film show Dunnigan (MacMurray) bringing Olga's body to Coaltown and this sets a morbid tone to the film. It's not a weepy nor is the film overly sentimental. Which is odd because I think that was the intention in the first place. Because this film is so strange its quirks make it seem more genuine despite of itself. There are religious overtones but it's not heavy handed. Flashback scenes give us plenty of time to learn about Olga and to watch as her relationship with Dunnigan develops. They also give us a respite from the somber tone of the present day's situation.

This movie did not fare well despite it being based on the best-selling novel by Russell Janney. It suffered a financial loss at the box office and it was released when Frank Sinatra's career was on a downward spiral. Most people give this film unfavorable reviews however I liked it despite its flaws. Maybe you just have to be in the right mood to enjoy it.

The Miracle of the Bells (1948) is available on DVD and Blu-Ray from Olive Films.

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