Thursday, December 17, 2015

Christmas Movie Churches: The Miracle of the Bells (1948)

Come December, cable networks begin to play films with churches in them, because Christmas time gives them freedom to be just a little spiritual, a little religious. So this film will pop up on the programming schedules -- and it does have a scene that takes place on Christmas Eve. A press agent happens to meet an acquaintance, a rising starlet, in a small town on Christmas Eve. They search for a place to eat and all they can find is Chinese restaurant. The owner of the place, Ming Gow, apparently does all the serving and cooking on his own and doesn't even charge them for their meals. As a bonus, he tells them the Christmas story. But this is not a film about Christmas. It is really about something very different indeed.

My hat's off to whoever convinced RKO Pictures to invest in a movie entirely about a man making funeral arrangements, the essential plot line of The Miracle of the Bells. There are also flashbacks that tell the story of the actress who has died, but really, this is a mortician's story.

Fred MacMurray plays a Hollywood press agent, Bill Dunnigan, who follows the dying request of an actress, Olga, who was on the brink of stardom. She had asked for a traditional Polish funeral in her hometown of Coal Town, PA. Dunnigan accompanies her body to the town and is greeted by Nick Orloff, the mortician. He charges Dunnigan for money he says is owed for Olga's father's funeral four years earlier, and immediately begins to pile up charges that will be incurred by Olga's funeral.

Among the more substantial are the fees charged by St. Leo's Roman Catholic Church. Father Spinsky from St. Leo's explains that his is an expensive church,so they must charge for their services to keep it up. When Dunnigan, the press agent, compares around town, he finds that St. Leo's charges twice as much for say, ringing their bells than other churches. (As you may guess by the title, bells play a rather important role in the plot.)

There are times when it is reasonable for a church to charge, even charge substantially for its services. A church with a lovely sanctuary or setting may get a lot of people requesting to use the grounds for weddings. If the church accepted (and didn't charge for) every request, their property would be unavailable for ministry and would soon be greatly run down. Couples can go to any number of other sites for a wedding, and that's okay.

I think memorial services and funerals in churches are very different things from weddings. I've been with families who came to a church at their greatest time of sadness to find that the church has piled some debt on top of the grief. Yes, there are expenses -- the time of an organist for instance, that it can be reasonable ask for recompense. But how much better if a church can minister in a time of need and not ask for repayment.

Dunnigan decides to hold the funeral of the woman he loved at a different church in town, St. Michael's, which is pastored by Father Paul (Frank Sinatra). St. Michael's is a poor church, and everyone agrees it looks like a barn. St. Michael's ministers to poor coal miners without expectation of anything more than meager gifts. Father Paul genuinely cares for Olga and the grief that Dunnigan is experiencing. He tells Dunnigan he has time to hear his story.

At the worst time of a person's life, after the loss of a loved one, a church should never be seen as trying to profit by that death. The compassion of Father Paul is what is needed.

During the funeral at St. Michael's, an amazing thing happens. The granite statues at the front of the church, of Michael and Mary, seem to turn toward Olga's coffin. Father Paul investigates the foundation of the church and finds that this was caused by the shifting of mine shafts. He questions whether it was truly a miracle.

I appreciate his intellectual honesty, but if the mines shift during the funeral service, that sill may be quite the miraculous thing.

I'm not giving St. Michael's the full four steeples, because I'm afraid the floor will collapse any minute, but it gets a very respectable three steeples. 

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