The Bells at Cockaigne plays it very safe. It’s an inspirational “play for television” about lovable old Irishman in the U.S. Gene Lockhart daydreaming about winning an apparently still legal in 1953 numbers racket the newspapers run. Lockhart’s going to use the money to go home to Ireland and his little village one last time.
Lockhart sounds like he’s doing an ad read for a leprechaun. He really goes crazy with the accent. It’s not good, but it’s also not offensively bad. It’s a tolerable bad accent.
Now, Lockhart’s top-billed but the Bells is actually all about young kid (kid meaning late teens, maybe early twenties) James Dean who’s got a sick baby daughter and no money. He and wife Donalee Marans need a miracle but they’re not getting any so Dean’s going to play poker with his coworkers after they get paid. Oh, right, it’s payday. Vaughn Taylor’s the paymaster. He talks to Lockhart a lot.
It’s all very predictable and very positive. There’s nothing to it. Except Dean. Dean’s performance has these transcendent moments, where for a minute it’s not obviously a nonsense bit of positivity to play to a Christian nation in 1953. Where it’s actually Dean playing this part. Young, naive, out of his depth. Bells finds some honesty, thanks to Dean, when it’s not even looking for it.
Lockhart’s fine. Taylor’s not as good as Lockhart but only bad a couple times. Marans isn’t good. You really don’t watch this one and think the director did very much to help his actors with their performances. For Marans, it matters. Probably for Taylor too. Not Lockhart. Definitely not Dean. Watching Dean at the poker game, where he’s got the nervous active style going opposite all the comparatively motionless stiffs… it’s something.
The Bells of Cockaigne succeeds, despite having no ambitions at such a thing, and it’s all thanks to Dean. And it not being particularly bad in any way.