A Socialite Comes to Bethlehem

 

It’s perhaps my favorite Christmas movie of all time.

Come to the Stable (1949, 20th Century Fox), directed by Henry Koster, earned eight Academy Award nominations including Best Actress in a Leading Role (Loretta Young), Best Actress in a Supporting Role (Celeste Holm), and Best Actress in a Supporting Role (Elsa Lanchester).

It is based on a short story by Clare Boothe Luce, who also co-wrote the script of the movie. She led a fascinating life starting from very humble beginnings. Yet, she became the premier socialite of her era, defined feminism in ways Margaret Sanger could never understand, scaled heights unseen for a woman of her time, broke barriers in her long career as editor, novelist, playwright, war correspondent, politician, diplomat, and later became an icon of conservatism and Catholicism after her conversion to the Catholic faith in 1946, under the direction of, the now, Venerable Fulton J. Sheen.

The Promise

Clare Boothe Luce was a quotable woman. Someone who was created to be quoted.

“I refuse,” she once said, “the compliment that I think like a man, thought has no sex, one either thinks or one does not.”

In her plays, her novels, her articles for Life, Vanity Fair, Vogue, and others, there was always a strong woman either behind the story or contained within it. In her Broadway blockbuster The Women (1936), there were forty speaking roles in an unprecedented all-women production. The Hollywood version starred, among many others, Norma Shearer, Joan Crawford, Rosalind Russell, Paulette Goddard, and Joan Fontaine. Remarkable casting considering the times Luce lived through and the genres she worked in.

After Clare’s conversion, her characters became less urbane, less acidic, less sophisticated, but still strong women determined to fulfill a destiny.

In Come to the Stable, the women, this time, were not spoiled socialites. They were humble nuns on a quest to fulfill a promise made to God. It was post-World War II. Two sisters from France travel to America, to a Connecticut village called Bethlehem, and to a stable, turned art studio, where a woman, Miss Potts (Elsa Lanchester), lived alone and painted religious scenes which had been reproduced on holy post cards. The sisters are in great hope that here their prayers will be answered, because, while still in France, one of Miss Potts’ post cards entitled “Come to the Stable” was sent to them from a grateful GI.

In the movie, Sister Margaret (Loretta Young), originally from Chicago, before taking her vows in France, explains this to Miss Potts:

“Well, you see during the war, sister (Celeste Holm, as Sister Scholastica) and I worked in a children’s hospital. It stood on a hilltop and in the path of an advancing American armored division. The Nazis were using it for an observation post and it was inevitable that the hospital would have to become a target.

Well, we moved most of the children out. But there were over a hundred that couldn’t be taken from their beds, all critical cases. So, one night I made a promise to God, that if He would help me get through to the American general, and the hospital would be spared, that I would, one day, come back to my own country and build just such a hospital for her children.”

The hospital was spared. But not because of the witty bantering of wealthy socialites and aristocrats. But because of the sacrifice, prayers, and petitions of determined religious women. The kind of women Clare had admired and emulated all her life. Only, this time dressed not in skimpy skirts and braless tops, but in black veils, scapulars, and white wimples. Quite a change. Because, Clare, herself, had changed.

 

Changing Hearts

As Clare Boothe Luce’s heart had definitively changed during her conversations with Bishop Sheen and her ultimate conversion to the faith of the universal church, so, too, does the character Bob Mason (Hugh Marlowe), a songwriter and veteran of the Second World War, who lives next door and is the landlord of Miss Potts’ stable. At first, he is enamored by the poor sisters staying with Miss Potts, but after he learns of their plans to build a children’s hospital he adopts a NIMBY attitude (not in my backyard).

The local bishop (Basil Ruysdael) is also initially supportive but extremely skeptical. Yet he, like Bob Mason, is swept into the holy machinations of the sisters’ holy endeavor.

And then a miracle happens. The land the sisters want to build their hospital upon is owned by a notorious racketeer, Luigi Rossi (Thomas Gomez). In a comedic, yet poignant meeting with the crime boss at his headquarters in New York, the sisters somehow find a way into his heart through the memory of his son, who was killed in the war and never identified. Before the sisters leave his office, they have the deed of the land in hand.

In 1944, Luce’s daughter and only child, Ann Clare Brokaw, a senior at Stanford University was tragically killed in an automobile accident. This unfortunate event was what led her mother to search for both consolation and the truth about life. Much like Luigi Rossi experienced a change of heart in his encounter with the sisters, so, too, did Clare find comfort, solace, and meaning in her own encounter with Bishop Sheen.

You see, there is a definite correlation in the life of Clare and her characters as there usually is in any author’s or artist’s work if one cares to dig deep enough.

Hearts, in this life, either become hardened and turn to stone or they simply melt, give way, and accept a higher authority’s promise and forgiveness. Their hearts finally learn to trust.

There are crossroads we all must face. Times that define us, that hurt us, that change and challenge us, and that ultimately either destroy us or lead to personal salvation and the truth.

Let this be the Christmas that leads you on the restorative path to your own personal redemption and freedom by trusting in the soothing and saving power of a child born poor in a stable, in obscurity, in a bed of straw.

I won’t tell you how the movie ends. Enjoy Come to the Stable and the excellent music written for it.

Merry Christmas.

 

(Foot note: The hospital the sisters envisioned was to be called “St. Jude’s,” after Saint Jude Thaddeus, one of the twelve apostles of Our Lord and the patron saint “of desperate cases and lost causes.” Of course, we all remember with deep affection the work of entertainer, screen and television star Danny Thomas. It was his life work to open just such a hospital as described in Clare Boothe Luce’s short story. Mr. Thomas did just that. Whether there is any connection between the two I don’t know. But, it would be nice if there was.)

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