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Nominated for seven Academy Awards, the 1949 religious-themed comedy Come to the Stable stars Loretta Young and Celeste Holm as two nuns who descend on a small New England town with dreams of building a children's hospital. After imposing themselves as houseguests on a befuddled local artist (Elsa Lanchester), the resourceful Sister Margaret (Young) and Sister Scolastica (Holm) set out to secure land and funding for the hospital through some clever maneuvering. Along the way they must also overcome the objections of nearby neighbor Robert Masen (Hugh Marlowe), a struggling composer who doesn't want the picturesque landscape ruined.
Come to the Stable was based on a story by noted writer and subsequent U.S. Congresswoman Clare Boothe Luce, who penned the famously catty play The Women in 1936. Luce, a recent convert to Catholicism, was inspired by a fact-based incident in which two nuns traveled to Bethlehem, Connecticut to transform a dilapidated factory into the Abbey of Regina Laudis in 1947. Initially 20th Century Fox thought the story too religious to be appealing to mainstream audiences. However, the success of similarly-themed films such as Paramount's Going My Way (1944), which won the Academy Award for Best Picture, and RKO's The Bells of St. Mary's (1945), which was nominated for Best Picture, helped convince studio executives that Come to the Stable could also perform well at the box office.
Writer Oscar Millard was the first writer brought in to adapt Luce's story into a screenplay. It became necessary to make a few key changes to the plot in order to circumvent the need for rights clearance with the real-life Benedictine nuns on which the film was based. According to studio documents, the Benedictines, with whom Fox had been trying to negotiate a deal, at first objected to any sort of Hollywood film being made of their story. "Only a documentary, and a very fine one, could satisfy them," wrote a Priory Executive Board member to Clare Boothe Luce's agent Kay Brown in 1948. "...That's why they passed up the $25,000, when they didn't have $200 in the world." After months of trying, however, the film's producer Sam Engel was eventually able to secure the blessings (and signatures) of the sisters, sealed with a $25,000 donation made on behalf of the studio to the Abbey.
Actress Irene Dunne had a strong interest in playing Sister Margaret when Come to the Stable was in its early stages. However, Fox studio chief Darryl Zanuck could only picture gorgeous leading lady Loretta Young in the role. In an internal studio memo, Zanuck called Young "a great Catholic" and pointed out her recent Academy Award win for Best Actress in The Farmer's Daughter (1947). For her part, Loretta Young was pleased with the idea of starring in a religious-themed picture with a positive message.
Loretta Young was one of Hollywood's most vocal Catholics at the time, and her star power allowed her final script approval on Come to the Stable. When she found out that Sam Engel had asked acerbic humorist Dorothy Parker to do a re-write, Young balked. "Sam," she told him according to her authorized 2000 biography by Joan Wester Anderson Forever Young, "I love Dorothy Parker's work...but I don't think she knows much about nuns." The movie star got her way, and a new writer, Sally Benson, was brought on to do a final draft of the screenplay. This time, Young approved.
While no one denied Young's talent, beauty or box office appeal, she quickly began to annoy much of her fellow cast and crew by unofficially appointing herself as a consultant on the film, watching over the representation of all things Catholic with a pious eagle eye. She had people fined for taking the lord's name in vain on the set, which she called "intrinsically evil," and pointed out any error that she perceived regarding the representation of Catholic practices during the shoot and insisted they be corrected. "These were all minor points," she told her biographer, "but everything had to be credible. Because if you didn't believe they were real nuns, you wouldn't have believed anything else about the picture, especially their faith in God that Clare had written about so beautifully."
Come to the Stable was a solid hit for 20th Century Fox. Its success boosted the careers of everyone involved when the film earned seven Academy Award nominations including Best Actress (Young), Best Supporting Actress (Holm and Lanchester were both nominated), Best Writing - Motion Picture Story (Clare Boothe Luce), Best Art Direction, Best Cinematography and Best Original Song for "Through a Long and Sleepless Night."
According to a 1950 news item in the Hollywood Reporter, Fox was planning to make a sequel to Come to the Stable that would team Loretta Young, Celeste Holm and producer Sam Engel again called A Spark in the Night. The proposed plot had the sisters traveling to Japan to work with bomb victims at Hiroshima, but the sequel was never produced.
Producer: Samuel G. Engel
Director: Henry Koster
Screenplay: Oscar Millard, Sally Benson; Clare Boothe Luce (story)
Cinematography: Joseph La Shelle
Art Direction: Lyle Wheeler, Joseph C. Wright
Music: Cyril Mockridge
Film Editing: William Reynolds
Cast: Loretta Young (Sister Margaret), Celeste Holm (Sister Scholastica), Hugh Marlowe (Robert Masen), Elsa Lanchester (Amelia Potts), Thomas Gomez (Luigi Rossi), Dorothy Patrick (Kitty), Basil Ruysdael (The Bishop), Dooley Wilson (Anthony James), Regis Toomey (Monsignor Talbot), Mike Mazurki (Sam).
by Andrea Passafiume