From the Holy Land of Clyde’s Movie Palace Ancient Archives: Come to the Stable (1949)

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In a review I once wrote regarding a Bob Hope film, The Lemon Drop Kid (1951), 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 metropolitan area. Or at least within a twenty or so mile radius of one.

Some areas of the country couldn’t even manage to have one or two stations that rural residents could pull in without putting up a massive aerial 300 feet above their house. 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 to ring your jingle bell heart with boughs of holly.

For the most part they were right because I still am of the opinion that films like The Bells of St. Mary’s, Going My Way and a few others, should be yanked out of the vault only after the last sliver of Thanksgiving turkey meat has been heartily consumed, 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? The answer is: Not any more. Now, as long as it’s Pixar or something recent the powers that be slap it on Disney plus, while leaving tons of classic shows in the vault to crumble into whatever old negatives crumble into.

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 giving birth.

The two sisters have traversed the picturesque matte painted countryside to build a children’s hospital out in the middle of Bumfuck, Connecticut because of a promise they made to God during the war. As it so happens, there was no room at the inn, mainly because they didn’t ask and secondly because these ladies left home without their American Express Card, Visa Card, Discover Card, or a penny to their name. Talking about being cash poor.

But they do stumble across a stable, which does have a baby Jeebus, some angels, Mary and Joseph, a Shepherd or two, and it wouldn’t surprise me if there was a partridge in a pear tree.

They are actually a local family posing for a nativity scene being painted by a mousy looking woman named Amelia Potts, whom as movie coincidences would have it, is just the painter our two nuns from France are looking for. After the Nativity Family head home for supper, Mrs. Potts asks the two sisters to sit for a spot of tea where we finally learn why the nuns are here and why we are here watching them run around a snow bound countryside in Connecticut.

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 for a second while I get out a hanky and dab away the tears.

Sister Margaret:  During the war Sister and I worked at a Children’s hospital.  It stood on a hillside in the path of an advancing American Army Division.  The Nazi’s had used it as an observation post.  It was inevitable that the hospital would have to become a target.  We moved most of the children out.  There was over a hundred that couldn’t be taken from their beds.  All critical cases.  So that night I made a promise to God.  Help me get through to the American General and if the hospital would be spared that one day I would come back to my own country and build such a hospital for their sick children. 

Mrs. Potts: Goodness.  How exciting.  What happened then.  Do go on.

Sister Margaret:  Three days later when the attack was over, everything in the village was leveled to the ground but the hospital still stood.  So you see, God kept his end of the bargain and now I’m going to keep mine.

The reason the nuns have chosen this particular spot in BF Connecticut to build their very own Seattle Grace Medical Facility is that 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 as 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. 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.

The sisters invite themselves to stay awhile, 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 Mrs. Potts’s landscapes’ paintings, 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.

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. 

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Mason also informs  Sister Margaret that the person who owns the land they want to build on is a fellow by Vito Corleone….I mean, Luigi Rossi. Later in the day, when they visit the Bishop (Basil Ruysdael) to get his approval, he is reluctant to give his permission for the sister to carry on.

Sister Margaret: We have given it careful thought and are prepared to go about our task in the most business like way. We made a list of essentials, I have it right here. You’ll be glad to see we have cut down our essentials of the original list from twelve items to two items.

Bishop: That sounds practical, Sister. What are these items?

Sister Margaret: Land and money.

Bishop: But sister that’s rather a large order. Why don’t you put down just one item, money and be done with it?

Sister Margaret: Oh no, Your Excellency! I don’t like to disagree but the land is quite separate from the money. We’ve already seen the land. It belongs to a Mr. Rossi. A Mr. Luigi Rossi. And Sister and I are sincere in our belief that Mr. Rossi might donate the land.

Bishop: Luigi Ross…the name is familiar.

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After at first turning the nuns down flat, he then agrees to give them 30 days to see if they can get the land for the hospital donated by Mr. Rossi and develop another plan to raise the needed cash to build the darn thing. To help out, he generously gives them $50 of the church wealth to buy some bologna and bread to tide them and Mrs. Potts over for a few days.

Arriving back at the Bethlehem train station, the sisters are offered a lift home by Anthony (Dooley Wilson), who having lost his piano playing gig at Rick’s Cafe in Casablanca, is back in the states employed as Mason’s housekeeper and head wine delivery man. 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.

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The sisters borrow Mason’s Jeep and head to New York City to locate Luigi Rossi (Thomas Gomez). 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 Vito Corleone Luigi 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 bit (or is it nuns out of the convent bit?) 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.

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 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 is dead set on using the land to build his retirement home when “things get too hot” for him, so donating the property 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. 

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.

Luckily for our two refugees from the Order of Holy Endeavor, Rossi’s son, Luigi Rossi Jr., was listed as MIA in France during the war and presumed dead. Well, I guess that wasn’t so lucky for Junior but it does inspire Rossi Senior to loosen his grip on the deed to the place in exchange for the nun’s promise to put a stained glass window in the church honoring his son. Okay, you can put away the Kleenex for a while.

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Back in Connecticut, Robert Mason is singing his latest tune for his girlfriend Kitty (Dorothy Patrick). Marlowe’s singing is dubbed by Ken Darby. I don’t know how well Marlowe could sing, but Darby didn’t exactly knock my socks off and sounds not a bit like Marlowe.  So you might try this dose of the late great Bobby Darin. To be honest, although the song was nominated for an Oscar, it’s not my cup of tea.

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 drive around the countryside in Mr. Mason’s jeep while 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 which just happens to adjoin the land recently acquired by way of the New York Mafia. The sisters talk the owner, Mr. Jarman (Walter Baldwin), into selling them the factory, for $50 because he’s incredibly generous. 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. They don’t realize 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 all the way back to the Eiffel Tower because the Catholic Church has better things to do with its cash, such as putting it into a trust fund for the future defense fund of wayward Priestly Perverts.

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. 

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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. It turns out, there’s a major problem with that melody.

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 you can’t help but like despite being totally predictable in its manipulations. 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”.  Both would be nominated for Oscars, but neither took home the gold. There’s not much divine providence in real life Hollywood.

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 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 Blues Brothers”  than anything we see here. Maybe the Catholic Church should have been calling down to central casting for its priests and nuns’ supplies.

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 to round up donations for their hospital project. I never saw any hint of Vivid Impact Lipcolor 28 Rose Rage when Sister Marcia told our class what rotten little shits we were in the eighth grade for suggesting a couple of the eighth 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 in this film than perhaps any other he appeared in. He’s actually a pretty good guy before morphing back into one of the despicably disdainful characters he became noted for. But you know that Holy Jeebus just isn’t going to stand for his sour attitude by the time the credits roll.

Elsa Lanchester, who made a whole career out of roles like this after having been betrothed to Mr. Frankenstein in the thirties, is simply terrific as Mrs. Potts and deservedly won a Best Supporting Actress nod for her work here. She’s not naïve but understands that the nuns have a lot of faith, a lot of innocence, and not much understanding of how things work in reality. She doesn’t want to be the one who bursts their bubble and when push comes to shove, she has no problem reading Bob Mason the riot act.

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 Normandy and yet Amelia Potts does her level best to keep the two nuns at least a little grounded.

Lanchester also received an Academy Award nomination but was probably canceled out by being in the same Supporting Actress category as Holm. So I’m left scratching my head as to why this film has become somewhat obscure. Fox eventually released it on a MOD DVD, but it’s not exactly pristine in quality.

And now that the Fox catalog titles belong to Disney, don’t expect any other release so get it while you can. Disney has declared an all out assault on physical media, and seems to have little use for many of the catalog titles of their own, let alone the ones they just acquired from Fox. One can only sigh and wish it had been Warner who had pulled off the deal. These days, unless you’re Star Wars, Marvel, or Pixar, Disney has no use for you.

But if you’re reading this in early December of 2020, fate has dealt you a winning hand. The film will have several airings on Turner Classic Movies during their 2020 Christmas Movie Marathon.

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. Mr. Koster also directed “The Singing Nun” which I reviewed here. So he is in familiar territory. 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.

You’ll hardly notice that most of the Connecticut countryside is nothing more than matte paintings or that the jeep rides are done against studio backdrops thanks to the cinematography of Joseph LaShelle and the Art Direction of Lyle Wheeler along with Joseph Wright. LaShelle was an old hand at this sort of thing seeing as how he was the Director of Photography of countless films from 1944 until 1969.

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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 but it will still tug at the old heart strings. Yes, some of the nuns out of their element jokes are a bit much, but even you will have a hard time not pulling your kleenex out for 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 B+ grade.

I originally wrote this review ten years ago before upgrading it for this blog with better screen caps and better text. When I wrote the original, my brother commented on it. My brother passed away in January of 2019, and his wife followed him a few months later after having battled breast cancer for 10 years. So I screen capped his comments to place here which I’ll do any time I run across them. He was my biggest and best fan and I miss him so I’ll dedicate this review to his memory.

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