Format: DVD from Geneseo Public Library through interlibrary loan on laptop.
I really should have known from the picture on the cover of the DVD case that Come to the Stable was going to be a rough ride. There are plenty of movies involving nuns that I like. That’s a good thing because there are a surprising number of nun-filled movies on my Oscar list. But there’s something about this picture that screams that Come to the Stable is going to be filled with a particular religious cheese, the kind that expects us to believe that miracles happens strictly from wishing really hard that something was so and that even the most hardened heart can be swayed by the application of earnest prayer.
And yes, that’s exactly what we’re signing up for here. One wintery night, two nuns arrive in the town of (of course) Bethlehem somewhere in New England. These are the Chicago-born turned French nun Sister Margaret (Loretta Young) and the awesomely named Sister Scholastica (Celeste Holm). They have come to Bethlehem by virtue of a series of events. During World War II, the sisters worked at a children’s hospital that fell in the path of a military battle. Through the awesome power of prayer (hereafter referred to in this review as the “Poweraprayer”) the hospital was spared shelling and the children who could not be evacuated survived. Because it was the Americans who spared the hospital, the two sisters have come to build a hospital in America.
They chose Bethlehem not because of the name, but because of the presence of Amelia Potts (Elsa Lanchester), a painter who specializes in devotional paintings, using a local family as stand-ins for religious figures. The nuns essentially move in with Miss Potts and decide that a local hilltop will be the site for their hospital. To get this site, they need to deal with the owner, a notorious New York racketeer named Luigi Rossi (Thomas Gomez), who wants to build a house on the site. How do they convince him to donate the land to them? The Poweraprayer! That, and the promise to dedicate a stained glass window to the memory of Rossi’s son, who died in action near their French hospital.
Oh, but that would be easy if that were all. It turns out that the project is in severe financial straits from the get-go, and only the wealth churning powers of the Catholic Church on a mission can rescue the budding hospital from being (pardon the phrase) aborted. But of course we know that the hospital (dedicated to St. Jude, of course) will be built in the end because if nothing else, our two sisters and the others they recruit have the Poweraprayer to wish themselves into a happy and blissful success.
Yes, I’m being glib, but I’m also being accurate. One of the main foils of the nuns is Bob Masen (Hugh Marlowe), a songwriter who does everything he can to get the nuns evicted from his presence. If you guessed that somehow the Poweraprayer will get him to relent by the end, do what he can to help the hospital get built, and probably eventually come to Jesus, well, you know exactly where religious-themed films from this era try to get to by the end.
I could deal with most of this, treating it as something of an annoyance to be expected in the more religiously minded films of the era. But it goes a lot deeper than that. Come to the Stable is another in the list of films that seem to hold with a certain belief that characters who are completely clueless as to the way the world works are somehow comic. At one point, the nuns borrow Bob’s Jeep and manage to park illegally, getting him a parking ticket. When they find the ticket, the assume it’s advertising, tear it up, and drive on. So, for the generous gift of using his vehicle (he even tells them to charge gas to his account), and he ends up being kicked in the ass for it. It’s funny, because ha ha, fuck you. This happens frequently. Bob’s hired man Anthony (Dooley Wilson) favors the nuns over his boss. They even cut his water main at one point and treat his inconvenience like it was a miracle.
I won’t apologize for this. This sort of willful, gleeful naivety is unappealing to me. I don’t find it funny or charming and I never have. I don’t care if it’s a pair of nuns or a pair of kids. It pisses me off. In this case, it’s worse than normal because Margaret and Scholastica simply demand that everyone do what they want because they’re nuns, dammit. When they experience initial success, they call for a bunch more nuns to show up from France and they invade the home of Miss Potts, forcing her to deal with 14 houseguests out of nowhere, and she’s supposed to deal with it because nuns. They don’t even ask if it’s okay—they just move their friends in, and then guilt her into accepting them as houseguests.
Ultimately, Come to the Stable couldn’t have more glurge and schmaltz in it if it were made out of cotton candy. It’s a baby step away from being diabetes on celluloid in no small part because it presents such a laughable, kindergarten theology that I simply can’t take it seriously. And yet this thing garnered seven Oscar nominations, including a Best Actress nod for Loretta Young and Best Supporting nods for both Celeste Holm and Elsa Lanchester, who isn’t in the damn film enough to begin with, since she’s one of the few bright spots.
It would be convenient to blame my anti-religious stance for my opinion of this, but I don’t think I’m capable of liking this film regardless of what my religious opinions may be. I’ve liked enough religion-themed films to balance out that idea, anyway. Come to the Stable is a pile of sap and it’s not very good sap. It telegraphs where it’s going minutes before it gets there. There’s not a single surprise in the whole thing. Worse, it presents a theology that would seem to indicate that good things happen to good people all the time and that nothing is so bleak that can’t be solved by the Poweraprayer. It’s foolish, it’s embarrassing, and I’m sorry I wasted 90 minutes or so of my time watching it.
Why to watch Come to the Stable: Because it has Elsa Lanchester in it.
Why not to watch: Brace yourself for religious pablum.