Fifteen years before Lilies of the Field told its tale of the collision of Sidney Poitier’s good-humored Baptist handyman with Lilia Skala’s strong-willed Mother Superior, and the building project that occurs as a result, there was Come to the Stable, which has a similar story about a group of nuns with a vision for building something and the other people who don’t necessarily share that vision but nevertheless become involved in one way or another: the bishop, a local artist, a reclusive composer, even an underworld figure.
Come to the Stable, which received seven Academy Award nominations, is more conventional, more sentimental, and more pious than Lilies of the Field, which won its Oscar (Poitier’s Best Actor); it’s not as interesting a film, but has its own gentle charm.
Whereas the crafty Mother Maria in Lilies shrewdly hides her thoughts and intentions behind a convenient language barrier, in Come to the Stable Sister Margaret (Loretta Young) and Sister Scholastica (Celeste Holm) act out of genuine naivete and holy innocence, tackling seemingly insurmountable problems with a directness disconcerting to anyone who happens to be in their way. Sometimes this approach is exactly the right one, and they get their needed "miracle"; but other times they end up with egg on their faces, and look credulous and silly. Is God perhaps testing their faith, or merely teaching them a lesson in being realistic? Perhaps both.
The bishop (Basil Ruysdael) is a decent enough chap, sympathetic to the sisters’ mission but daunted by the practical difficulties. As their cause goes forward, however, he begins to suspect that what’s driving them is an irresistible force before which there is no known immovable object: "There hasn’t been for 2000 years."
Although the main characters are Sister Margaret and Sister Scholastica, the protagonist is Robert Mason (Hugh Marlowe), the unflaggingly courteous but reclusive songwriter who doesn’t want a hospital built in his backyard, yet feels obligated to extend every courtesy to the sisters — which they cheerfully accept, and then some. Mason is the character easiest to identify with, the straight man who bridges the gap between the audience and the otherworldly nuns; and it’s fun to watch him trying to figure out how to relate to these sweet and cheerful but trying neighbors. (In a running joke, he can never remember Sister Scholastica’s name; a gag my wife and I found particularly amusing because we had no trouble with "Scholastica" but couldn’t remember Margaret!)
Mason is also the character who must be changed somehow by the end of the story, and whose change will figure prominently in the resolution of the story. Dooley Wilson (Casablanca’s beloved Sam) has an amusing role as Anthony, who works for Mason but furtively undermines his employer’s interests.
This is sweet, pious entertainment of a sort that "they don’t make like that anymore." With its Bethlehem, CT setting and Nativity themes and imagery, it makes uplifting Christmas viewing.
Smith is determined to move on, but soon agrees to a day’s work; and proceeds to find himself faced with one task after another. Exactly how much Mother Maria intends to ask of him — and how much she is able to pay him — are not immediately clear; nor is the extent to which the language barrier is a hindrance to her and the extent to which she is hiding behind it.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.