Come to the Stable (1949)
based on a story by
Clare Booth Luce
In my review of The Lemon Drop Kid, I reminisced about the olden days of yore, when the peasants were relegated to choosing between three whole (yes, count them, THREE!) TV channels, if they were lucky enough to live in a major urban area.
Some areas of the country couldn’t even manage to have one or two that they could pull in without putting up a massive aerial 300 feet above their house. Since I’m absolutely sure you read my particular treatise on Lemon Drop, you already know that back in those days every Christmas Eve and Christmas Day or even Christmas week the local stations would yank out every Christmas themed movie they could lay their green and red knitted reindeer mittens on. When there weren’t enough of those to pass around, they mined the Hollywood Library for any story that featured priests or nuns, probably figuring that as long as somebody in the movie was getting chummy with God, that would be close enough.
For the most part they were right, because I still am of the opinion that films like The Bells of St. Mary's and Going My Way, and a few others, should be yanked out of the vault only after Thanksgiving has finished, and returned immediately to a time controlled lock safe at the stroke of Midnight on Christmas evening, in which the sixteen inch thick steel doors won’t reopen again until the first balloon floats it’s way down past Macy’s Department Store . Doesn’t Disney pull this crap with 90 per cent of their movies and make a fortune?
Come To The Stable is one of those films you can lump into the un-holiday category. It’s not about Christmas, Thanksgiving, or New Years, but it does have the kind of spirit that people associate with the holiday such as good works and overcoming all odds to help mankind.
The story begins with two wise nuns bearing gifts arriving in Bethlehem for the birth of the Christ child….no…that’s not right. Let’s try this again. The story begins with two nuns from the Order of Holy Endeavor, Sister Margaret (from France, by way of Chicago, played by Loretta Young), and Sister Scholastica (Live and direct from France, played by Celeste Holm) arriving in the snowy, wintry, freeze your ass off hills of Bethlehem, Connecticut. There is no sight of a donkey anywhere so we’re not here to witness a virgin give birth.
The two sisters have traversed the picturesque matte painted country side to build a children’s hospital out in the middle of Bumfuck, Connecticut because of a promise they made to God during the war.
Sister Margaret was the boss lady in charge of a children's hospital in Normandy when it became a potential target during a military campaign. Unable to evacuate the little tykes, the Sister prayed that the hospital would be spared. The hospital was still standing by the time the last mortar had been fired, so Sister Margaret made a promise to God that, in gratitude for saving the children, she would return to America to build a Children's Hospital for sick little tykes. Wait a second while I get out a hanky and dab away the tears.
The reason the nuns have chosen this particular spot in BF Connecticut to build their very own Seattle Grace Medical Facility, is because they saw a picture on a postcard of a painting “Come to the Stable” by one Miss Amelia Potts, who resides in Bethlehem in a studio/apartment converted from an Old Stable. Or as Ms. Scholastica tells Ms. Potts, “it was to us like the star of Bethlehem leading the way.”
That’s as good of a reason as any. I’m sure there have been far flimsier excuses to build hospitals in certain specified locations, what with payoffs and graft. Did you really expect them to check into such mundane items as the population of the area, whether or not a hospital was needed or even wanted, whether there were decent roads to get to and from the hospital, or rather they could install such mundane things as electricity or running water. You know, trivialities. Having a couple of nuns spending half the movie down at City Hall working out those details would hardly be worth watching, would it?
But Sisters Margaret and Sister Scholastica do have their unshakable faith, and as far as they are concerned, there’s nothing like a good prayer or rosary session to conquer all obstacles and make up for their naiveté in such worldly matters as….well…practically everything.
Having introduced themselves to Ms. Potts and explaining their impossible mission, the sisters invite themselves to stay a while, right about the time that Ms. Potts is ready to check the train schedules and send them on their way back to town.
After admiring a few more of the paintings of Ms. Potts’s landscapes, the nuns decide to build the hospital on a nearby hillside. At dawn, they bury a St. Jude Medal on the site when they are attacked by a vicious wild animal and almost licked to death.
The dog’s name is Arson. The person chasing this overly friendly behemoth is Robert Mason (Hugh Marlowe) who manages to chase and calm down his overly friendly oversized mutt before he licks the nuns to death.
Mason quickly strikes up a conversation with the sisters and tells them that he owns the land and the house where Ms. Potts lives, that he lives in an adjacent property, is a songwriter who often works late at night which means that he sometimes sleeping during the day. What he does not own is the land where the nuns want to build their children’s hospital.
Mason also informs Sister Margaret that the person who owns the land they want to build on is a fellow by the name of
Vito Corleone….I mean Luigi Rossi. Later in the day when they go to visit the Bishop (Basil Ruysdael) to get his approval, he is at first reluctant to give his permission for the sister to carry on, but agrees to give them 30 days to see if they can get the land for the hospital donated by Mr. Rossi and come up with another plan to raise the needed cash to build the darn thing.
Arriving back at the Bethlehem train station, the sisters are offered a lift home by Anthony (Dooley Wilson), who just happens to be Mason’s housekeeper. But it is Anthony who is given the ride, a ride in which we get one of those moments often seen in films of this type where nuns do unexpected things and not doing them well resulting in unpredictable hilarity. I’ll leave the unpredictable hilarity part up to your discretion.
The sisters borrow Mason’s Jeep and head to New York City to locate Luigi Rossi. If you haven’t figured out by now that Rossi is a gangster, then let me explain it to you: Luigi Rossi is a gangster.
Before meeting up with Don Rossi the two nuns make a quick pit stop at Saint Patrick's Cathedral
which enables them to do a few funny fish out of water bits nuns out of the convent bits, and enables the citizens of New York to gawk at them as if they’d never seen two nuns in an open air jeep driving down the streets of downtown Manhattan before.
Or maybe they were wondering as I did why they weren’t suffering from exposure after having driven from Connecticut in freezing temperatures in the damn thing. Not only that, did I or did I not see a station wagon in Mason’s garage when the sisters picked up the jeep? Why didn’t Mason let them use that instead? And come to think of it, why is Anthony forced to drive around the Connecticut landscape with that nice luxury automobile sitting there? Yeah, I know. That’s all minutiae and rather stupid details to be complaining about some sixty years after the fact, but cut me a break. I wasn’t alive in 1949 to complain.
Upon leaving the church, they get directions to Luigi Rossi’s place of business from one of the policemen who know him, but won’t arrest him. I guess that’s just the way it was in those days. Get to know your local mob leader but don’t detain him because you have 50 bucks riding on Ponder at Churchill Downs.
Rossi (Thomas Gomez) is going to use the land to build his retirement home when “things get too hot” for him, so donating the tract of land to a couple of nuns is out of the question. But God works in mysterious ways, especially in the scripts of Hollywood Movies, and it goes without saying that Sisters Margaret and Scholastica won’t come away empty handed.
As to why, well I won’t spoil it for you because you’ll probably find it all sad and touching as long as you can get it out of the back of your mind that Rossi has probably ordered his men to “put the finger on someone” more than once. But hey, if Marlon Brando can be lovable in The Godfather by ordering a horse’s head to be dumped in the bed of Jack Woltz, there’s no reason why we can’t sympathize with Mr. Rossi, who doesn’t order anybody’s demise, at least when he’s on the screen.
Back in Connecticut, Robert Mason is singing his latest tune for his girlfriend Kitty (Dorothy Patrick). Marlowe’s singing is atrociously dubbed by someone named Ken Darby. I don’t know how well Marlowe could sing, but he couldn’t have done any worse than Darby. Hell, I could have sung this tune better than Darby if I had been alive. But there are some nice renditions of the song, so try a little Bobby Darin on for size.
The tune is called “Through a Long And Sleepless Night” and is a sure fire hit. Mason has also just been offered a Hollywood Contract which means he will be out of town for a few months. Both are events that will come into play later in the film. But to prove to us he is still a good guy (for now) Mason gives Sisters Margaret and Sister Scholastica $200 to share his good fortune with the church. It would seem the sisters are on a roll.
The next day they are driving around the country side in Mr. Mason’s jeep while they are reciting their rosary, Sisters Margaret and Scholastica have a flat. It would seem that having a flat is divine providence since the blowout occurs adjacent to an old Witch Hazel factory. The sisters talk the owner, Mr. Jarman (Walter Baldwin) into selling them the factory, for $50 dollars because he’s incredibly generous you see. Well, not exactly.
The $50 dollars is merely to give the Sisters a three month option until they can come up with $5,000 dollars, the amount the sisters believe they are buying the property for. What they don’t realize is that the $5000 dollars will be a down payment towards the real cost of $30000. When the Bishop discovers the true contract terms he is ready to send the nuns packing back to Gay Paree, because the Catholic Church has better things to do with its cash such as putting it into a trust for the future defense fund of wayward Priests.
But a busload of extra nuns from France via central casting arrive just in the nick of time to help Sisters Margaret and Scholastica with their project, leaving the Bishop no choice but to give them another thirty days to complete their mission and to learn the English language, which absolutely none of them are familiar with.
Thirty days or not, accomplishing their objectives will not be easy. Mason returns from California and when he does, it’s No More Mr. Nice Guy. Not to mention there’s the matter of that aforementioned hit song he penned.
Late in the film we also have a case where real life will eventually imitate art instead of the other way around. Think Andrea Jaeger.
Come to the Stable is one of those films that despite being totally predictable in its manipulations, you can’t help but like it. This can be attributed in large part to the stellar casting. Loretta Young and Celeste Holm are the perfect nuns, so much so that they could just as easily have been plopped down into The Nun’s Story or Song of Bernadette.
You’ll have no problem believing their naiveté when it comes to such worldly matters as gangsters, mortgages, jeep driving, and parking tickets, even if it all seems a bit silly. These sisters are so incredibly pious, and their faith so overwhelming unabashed, that you half expect the Virgin Mary herself to come flying out of the clouds at any moment to build the hospital for them. Obviously she doesn’t do that, but I do suspect that she installed an invisible holy bubble around that jeep to keep the nuns warm. Those Connecticut winters can be deadly.
I went to Catholic schools for 10 years, and of all the sisters I knew in three different Catholic schools, not one of them even came close to demonstrating the holy reverence of these two. In fact, a couple of them even had their sadistic side, reminding me more of Sister Mary Stigmata from the The Blues Brothers than anything we see here. Maybe the Catholic Church should have been calling down to central casting for its supplies of priests and nuns.
In all those years I only observed one sister who could even come remotely close to the beauty exhibited by Young and Holm. No, I’m not talking about inner spiritual beauty. Both ladies look as if they were prepared to do a Max Factor commercial in order to round up donations for their hospital project. I never saw any hint of Vivid Impact Lipcolor 28 Rose Rage when Sister Marcia was telling our class what rotten little shits we were in the eighth grade for suggesting a couple of the girls were wearing falsies. Hey, it wasn’t me who started that rumor! But my hat’s off to the makeup department of 20th Century Fox. Maybe they should have donated their services to convents all over the world. A little rouge, a little lipstick, might have helped recruitment. But with or without makeup, the two nuns are positively radiant.
I really liked Hugh Marlowe more in this film than perhaps any other he appeared in, or at least through most of it. He’s actually a pretty good guy before morphing back into one of the despicably disdainful characters became noted for such as the one he played in this film. But as you’ll see, there’s a reason for that.
Elsa Lanchester, who made a whole career out of roles like this after having been betrothed to Mr. Frankenstein in the thirties, does well as poor eccentric Mrs. Potts, whose good nature Sisters Margaret and Scholastica prey upon throughout the film. But when I was growing up, you just didn’t say no to a nun, unless you were a bishop and even the bishop in this film has trouble kicking the sisters back to France. So I can sympathize with Amelia, which is why it’s almost shocking when she gets ticked off at Mr. Mason.
And I only thought of Lanchester’s most famous role as The Bride of Frankenstein only once or twice during the whole movie. It’s hard to escape that vision no matter what role she’s playing. Holm, Young, and Lanchester received Academy Award nominations. So I’m left scratching my head as to why this film has become somewhat obscure. Look Fox, if you aren’t going to do anything worthwhile with the movie such as a nice DVD release, sell the rights to Turner Classic Movies, Netflix, or Amazon where people can see it.
Come to the Stable was directed by Henry Koster, who was nominated for an Academy Award for The Bishop’s Wife, a film he had made two years earlier. So he is in familiar territory here. Shackled to the Fox studio for this movie instead of a location shoot, he makes good use of close-ups, so we aren’t distracted too much by the fact that you’re within spitting distance of Hollywood and Vine.
The black and white cinematography by Joseph LaShelle is done very well. You’ll hardly notice that most of the Connecticut countryside is nothing more than matte paintings, or that much of the jeep rides are done against studio backdrops. I’ve seen other films that have also used this method extensively, and it isn’t done nearly as well as it is done here.
I like Come to the Stable. Its heart seems to be in the right place. Loretta Young and Celeste Holm do a lot to convince us that they could sell Satan a year’s supply of kindling to keep warm if they so desired. Yes, it’s predictable. Yes, the ending is almost anticlimactic. Yes, some of the nuns out of their element jokes are a bit much, but even you will have a hard time not feeling your heartstrings being tugged in the closing scene when you see a certain someone in church looking up at a stained glass window. And if an old agnostic like me can enjoy a film such as this you should be able to as well which is why I have no choice but to give it a grade of B.
Updated: Where can you see Come to the Stable? Well, when I suggested that it run on Turner Classic Movies, and on Feb 27, 2012, it did. The film ran on Netflix streaming last year, but not so this year. There is one Amazon seller who will let you have it for about $24.00. He has a 96 percent approval rating so use your own discretion, because the DVD obviously is either an import or something else. My copy, from which all these stills were taken, was recorded on an old VHS transferred to DVD from Fox Movie Channel where you may find the film on occasion.
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