The film is based on a novel by Russell Janney.
The story begins as Hollywood press agent Bill Dunnigan (Fred MacMurray), who works for a movie studio, arrives by train with the body of actress Olga Treskovna (Alida Valli), in her home town of "Coal Town," named for its coal mining industry. In a voiceover narrated by Dunnigan, we learn that he was in love with Olga, although he never told her; we also never find out if she loved him. He has brought her back to "Coal Town" to honor her deathbed request to be buried there. He encounters hostility from the local funeral director who resents her because she never finished paying for her father's burial. After being pressured by the funeral director and the pastor of the larger and more prestigious St. Leo's Catholic church, Dunnigan goes to Father Paul (Frank Sinatra), the priest of the smaller and poorer Polish St. Michael's church in accordance with Olga's wishes. Showing Dunnigan where Olga's parents are buried in the graveyard atop a hill, away from the dust of the mines, Fr. Paul sings, a cappella – in both English and Polish, the plaintive "Ever Homeward", the only song in the film.
The main flashback story then begins, showing how Olga is plucked from a chorus line in a nightclub to serve as the stand-in for an extremely temperamental film actress who is to star as Joan of Arc in a motion picture. Dunnigan realizes that Olga has the makings of a talented actress herself, and when the film's star throws a tantrum and walks out, he manages to convince Marcus Harris, the film's producer (Lee J. Cobb), to audition Olga, despite her having had no film experience. The screen test is a success and Olga is cast as Joan. However, as filming progresses, she shows signs of being seriously ill. After inquiring after her health from her doctor, Dunnigan is secretly informed that Olga has a severe, fatal form of tuberculosis, likely caused by her inhalation of the coal dust from "Coal Town" where she grew up. Desperate to do something for her hometown that will restore the pride of its bitter and disillusioned citizens, Olga continues with the filming, and collapses after the shooting ends. Rushed to a hospital, she dies with Dunnigan at her side.
To generate interest in the film, the grief-stricken Dunnigan desperately pulls a publicity stunt, convincing all 5 churches in "Coal Town" to ring their bells for three days as a tribute to the dead actress, paying them with checks that he cannot cover. Huge interest begins to develop in the unknown actress who gave her life to complete the film, and Marcus Harris wires Dunnigan enough money to cover the checks. But Harris calls Dunnigan and tells him that he has decided not to release the film, because the moviegoing public might resent greeting the arrival of a new star who has died. Harris intends to recast the role and begin filming all over again.
On the day of Olga's funeral, an overflow crowd which includes Dunnigan enters the tiny local church, which has never been so full. As the crowd prays, a loud creaking noise is heard, and the statues of St. Michael and the Virgin Mary slowly turn on their pedestals until they face Olga's coffin. The parishioners regard this as a miracle, even though Fr. Paul has already gone to the basement (to ensure the safety of the parishioners) and determined the ground has shifted -- causing the pillars which support the statues under the church to move because of the large crowd. Dunnigan persuades Father Paul not to quash the faith of the people of Coal Town. Marcus Harris, after much reluctance, decides to release the film, which becomes a huge success. Fr. Paul is overwhelmed by the nationwide donations his church has received and the movie studio's offer to build a hospital/clinic to fight the disease which cost Olga her life.Fred MacMurray as William 'Bill' Dunnigan
Alida Valli as Olga Treskovna (credited as Valli)
Frank Sinatra as Father Paul
Lee J. Cobb as Marcus Harris
Harold Vermilyea as Nick Orloff
Charles Meredith as Father J. Spinsky
James Nolan as Tod Jones
Veronica Pataky as Anna Klovna
Philip Ahn as Ming Gow
Frank Ferguson as Mike Dolan
Frank Wilcox as Dr. Jennings
Dorothy Sebastian as Miss Katie Orwin (Uncredited)
Michael Raffetto - Harold Tanby (uncredited)
The film was put into production at the same time that Ingrid Bergman was filming her own Technicolor Joan of Arc, which was also released by RKO in 1948. Ironically, the very expensive Bergman film, although much more highly regarded today, was not a success upon release, unlike the fictional Joan of Arc film depicted in The Miracle of the Bells.
For that matter, The Miracle of the Bells has also been dismissed by critics, and was mentioned in the satirical film book The Golden Turkey Awards, which poked fun at Frank Sinatra's portrayal of Father Paul. Time Magazine excoriated the film upon release, declaring in their review that "St. Michael ought to sue". In recent decades the film has developed a better reputation due to its realistic portrayal of coal miners in small town America. Many of the extras in the film were actual miners working for the Glen-Alden Coal Company. Several exterior shots were filmed on location in Glen Lyon, Pennsylvania, the town in which the film and novel take place.
The film encountered distribution difficulties in England because of a boycott against the films of Ben Hecht. Hecht had made derogatory comments about the presence of Britain in Palestine.
The film recorded a loss of $640,000.
The Miracle of the Bells was presented on Lux Radio Theatre May 31, 1948. The adaptation starred MacMurray, Valli, and Sinatra.