7.13.2008

Celeste Holm in Come to the Stable (1949) - Supporting Actress Sundays

Among the treats I look forward to in Supporting Actress Sundays is hitting the lesser-known or lesser-loved performances by those actresses I have come to call the category's WIDOs, or the actresses who seem to function as the category's standbys for a discrete period of years. WIDOs, of course, is my evocative abbreviation for the "when-in-doubt-options" for Supporting Actress Nominations. WIDOs are those actresses -- think Glenn Close in the early 1980s, Dianne Wiest in the later 1980s, Cate Blanchett in the mid2000s, and Thelma Ritter through most of the 1950s -- who, for a handful of years, seem to ever be on Oscar's Supporting Actress shortlist, whether or not the performance/film warrants it. Sometimes, the performer's run of good nomination fortune begins with a win, but, other times (Close, Ritter), the actress really does turn out to be a WIDO only. So, 'twas with some interest that I approached this week's nominated performance, the least acclaimed of this particular actress's three nominated performances in four years...

...Celeste Holm in Come to the Stable (1949)
approximately 53 minutes and 51 seconds
31 scenes
roughly 57% of film's total running time
Celeste Holm plays Sister Scholastica, the incessantly naïve French nun who serves as sidekick to Sister Margaret (Loretta Young in a ghastly performance of mellifluous sincerity) on their shared, quixotic quest to establish a Children's Hospital in the wilds of Western Connecticut.
In the role of Sister Scholastica, Holm is charged with three main tasks:
A) To be plausibly naïve/culturally clueless/idiotic enough to justify Sister Margaret's many expository sermonettes;
B) To be adorably enthusiastic, permitting her bright face to beam with beatific joy from the confines of her wimple; and
C) To play a mean game of tennis.
To her credit, Holm acquits herself gamely on all three counts. Which is somewhat impressive as the role has no use whatsoever for what is, perhaps, Holm's greatest gift: the slyly nuanced line-reading. Instead, Holm is saddled with chirpy, mostly monosyllabic dialogue which she delivers in a nearly shrill "Fifi" accent. This incongruity of Holm -- who nearly radiates sophistication and integrity -- in the role of a wimpled French ditzball? It can be tough to swallow (especially with the smarmy Young jabbering right next to the usually silent Holm).
Holm is at her best when "beaming beatifically." Holm's Sister Scholastica is especially vivid -- her facing registering empathy and gravitas with undistracting warmth at precisely the right moments -- in the film's single, genuinely moving sequence in which the Sisters visit a shady underworld figure named Luigi Rossi (Thomas Gomez in a startling, emotionally textured performance).
Holm is also adept at conveying genuine, infectious enthusiasm, all of which makes her Sister Scholastica pretty adorable.
This wimpled adorableness is on full display when Holm's Sister Scholastica takes to the tennis court in a quid pro quo gesture that feels dangerously close to a wager. The scene is played for comedy -- I kept thinking that Sister Scholastica has all the makings of a 1960s Disney feature, The Nun Who Wore Tennis Shoes -- before it is revealed -- spoiler alert! like you care! -- that Sister Scholastica was a French tennis champion before she entered the religious life. (Imagine that!)
Celeste Holm is entirely adequate in the role of Sister Scholastica, surviving both her miscasting and her costar with a witty, empathetic grace.
The part of Sister Scholastica -- a co-lead by most measures -- is nonetheless a supporting role that would have likely escaped Oscar's notice, were it not for the inexplicable nomination surge for this picture (7 nominations! WTF!?) and for Celeste Holm being one of Oscar's most reliable WIDOs of the period. (I tend to count the other Supporting Actress nomination from this film "a coaster" but we'll get into that in the coming weeks.)
An entirely decent performance by an actress on whom Oscar was sorta stuck in the later 1940s.

8 comments:

Alex in Movieland said...

I'm so sad that I just couldn't find this movie :(
I like Celeste Holm ever since I became an "All About Eve" slave.


I'm glad 1956 and 1959 are back in the voting game. These are movies that I can surely count on to make me eligible for my first smackdown. I voted for 1964, I already have the movies and they are quite interesting.

How long will the voting process last?

Adam said...

Seriously. Seven nominations? I don't think that's at all justifiable. I'm just holding out for your raves on the Pinky ladies.

DavidEhrenstein said...

Celeste looks so "pinned" in those shots. I wonder what drugs she was on.

Alex in Movieland said...

Is she like the Melanie Wilkes of 1949?

DavidEhrenstein said...

Sort of.

Vertigo's Psycho said...

I'm glad you posted this on Sunday. I went last night to a tribute to Holm at the Egyptian Theater, wherein the lady herself appeared. In between showings of The Tender Trap and All About Eve Holm was interviewed onstage, then took questions from the audience. As I sensed the conversation was winding down, Stable, which had not been discussed, came to mind via your post, so I asked Holm if she had any memories of costarring with Loretta Young in her Oscar-nominated role. With the help of her husband, the 91-year-old star recalled the following tidbit:

Ultra-proper costar Young had a "cuss box" on the set of Stable- if anyone said a dirty word, he or she had to put a quarter in the "cuss box" for charity. One day Ethel Merman was roaming around the 20th Century Fox lot and heard of this setup. As the story goes, Merman marched onto the Stable set with a twenty-dollar bill, shoved it into the cuss box, and said, "Okay Loretta, why don't you go f--- yourself!"

Holm brought down the house when she uttered this bawdy punchline. Too bad this scene with Merman didn't appear in Stable, as the film's seven nominations would've been fully justified if it had.

I've heard a story similar to this with Young's Rachel and the Stranger costar, Robert Mitchum, taking the place of Ethel, but it plays even better with "the Merm" in the house.

Campaspe said...

This post made me laugh so hard. I liked this picture as a kid when I was going through my "should I be a Catholic?" phase. I bet it would drive me crazy now. It fit with the period, I guess. You are right, the scene with the crime boss was the best.

Aaron said...

Alex,
If you really feel the need to see this movie (it's worth it's 90 minute running time, at least), you can watch the film online with your Netflix subscription (if you have one, of course).
And she IS like the Melanie Wilkes of 1949, that's what I was thinking while I was watching it, actually.

Holm acquits herself admirably in the role, but I'm with StinkyLulu: the film doesn't merit all the love it got and the performances (all three of them) are nowhere near award-worthy.