The 1966 Columbia release The Trouble With Angels is one of those singular films made at the end of the studio era that stars Hollywood greats but is the kind of movie that one doesn’t quite see getting independent funding. It has some of the qualities of the live action Disney B films (like the classic Cat from Outer Space), including the charming presence of Hayley Mills. But the theme of the film, and it’s setting, place it in the small but important cannon of funny films about a nun’s life of service. If The Trouble With Angels is a message film, it is very subtly, and the medicine is given a good dose of sugar. I instead see it as a a charming story that encapsulates a truth, not only of the human condition, but also of the state of affairs in the US in the 1960s. Of course, my personal ownership of the narrative (and to a lesser but still true extent, the film form) has little to do with the films historical context, and much more to do with the rendering of the theme, but the timeframe dictates the style, and perhaps the film could not have been made any other.
I’m not much more than a surrogate Catholic, and a poor one at that, but Catholic thought and teaching has informed my adult life greatly, and I trace it’s influence back at least as far as my first viewing of The Trouble With Angels. The 1960s saw the election of John F. Kennedy, the growth of social activism by the Catholic Worker movement, the publication of writers like Walker Percy and Flannery O’Connor, and eventually the Vatican II council. American Catholicism came of age in the 60’s, and at the same time, the face and practice of Catholic life changed significantly. The lives of nuns and monks would never quite be the same, which is interesting, considering that The Trouble With Angels is the story of a girl who is the worst trouble maker in the school, and ends up joining the order.
In some sense, Mary (of course her name is Mary. What else would it be?), as played by Mills, opens up the secluded life of th sisters for every person. Doing this in a mass mediated story makes it in some sense a social idea. That the life of service as a nun is no longer a life of seclusion.
Mary’s trajectory from cigarette smoking truant to candidate for novitiate is the serious arc of the story. Along its path are a dozen humorous episodes in with Mary and her simpatico pal Rachel (a delicious June Harding) executing the former’s “scathingly brilliant ideas” (a phrase now long part of my lexicon). They put bubble bath in the sister’s sugar bowls, smoke cigars in the basement, and avoid swimming class for three years (side note: they avoid going in the water, a nicely renders symbol of their avoidance of religious life, a la, the avoidance of a baptism).
These escapades happen to the chagrin, annoyance, and clever eye rolling of the Mother Superior, played to a T by Rosalind Russell. Russell is brilliantly commanding in the part, but also lends a beautiful air religious maturity. Who knew the same woman who is at journalistic and romantic ends in His Girl Friday and is the very picture of catty in The Women, would make an absolutely incredible nun? I don’t know how much both Ros and Mills were playing parts, and how much it meant to them, but that’s beside the point. A friend of mine in college gave a stunning turn as Jesus in our production of Godspell, yet I’d never have gone to him for religious advice. Grace works in mysterious ways.
The screenplay, based on a novel by Jane Trahey, was writtenby Blanche Hanalis, whom some of know as the developer of Little House on the Prairie. It was directed by pioneering female director Ida Lupino. A singular authorial voice is not clear, but the final film is a so nicely rendered it makes me believe that the screenplay was solid as written, and the director took time simply bringing it fully to life. This is witnessed in the multitude of beautifully crafted moments, both scathingly funny and endearingly touching. The plot never drags, but moves through each subplot with Harry Potter-like pacing of school years. The relationship of Rachel and Mary makes the movie nearly that rarest of stories: the female buddy film (more on this in my next post).
Yet the relationship is mirrored in Mother Superior and Sister Ligouri (Marge Redmond). Sisterhood, both formal and informal, isn’t so much a theme as it is a given circumstance. The dialog sparkles, the characters are bo memorable and real (and include Mary Wickes as the nun who teaches gym. She is delightful), and the story is a coming of age, troublemaker turns good tale with plenty of laughs. I think the secret lies in the serious nature of the subject matter, told by not taking itself too seriously. The girls may be at times disrespectful, but they play pranks, not do real harm. In a sense, they loosen up the strictness of the cloister (again, similar to movements within the larger church at the time) in order to understand what was acceptable, in fact, attractive, to those called to a life of service.
And that really is what the story is about. Throughout the film, we watch Mary watching Mother Superior. Quite often, it’s while the latter is near the statue of St. Francis. She watches her arch nemesis and mother figure comfort the sorrowing, feeding the birds, and leading the sisters. While stuck at the school during the Christmas holidays of her senior year, Mary watches the sisters during Christmas mass. Mother Superiour sees her watching and smiles. What the nun knows is that Mary has changed. Early on in the film they notice one striking sister whom Mary says is a “flawless beauty”. When Mary and Rachel find her going away party picture they exchange guesses on her finding romance and leaving the order. When the sister tells them that she hAs left to work in a leper colony, Mary is visibly shaken. The idea of service, of a life apart from worldly endeavor, is thrust upon Mary. The scene comes after the Christmas mass, and after what personally may be the most profound film moment I own.
Rachel, inadequate seamstress that she is, has been up late working on a cocktail dress for her home economics class. When Mother Superiour finds her, the dress is in a sorry state and it is already late. Cut to Mary’s entrance at 5 am, with Rachel asleep on the couch and MS now nearly finished with a beautiful dress. MS then tells Mary the story of how she grew up in Paris, working with a designer and harboring hopes that one day her own designs would rival the great Chanel. Mary, smartly dresses and world wise woman of 18, looks at the nun. “How could you have given it up?” MS reply encompasses the Christian life of service in total: “I found something better”.
Nuns and their life of service have always fascinted me. We are all in some way called to a life of service. Mary’s sense of humor, her wit, and her struggled “to bend but not to break, to yield but not capitulate” are combined in my favorite way: truth, sacrifice, grace and witty dialog. It is both content and form: a comedy with a moral heart, and a fun story to watch. The ideas of The Trouble With Angels don’t play well on film, they’re not self gratifying enough. Selflessness does not sell theater tickets (with one brilliant exception, Casablanca), so it’s a wonder the film was made. But the era that also produced Debbie Reynolds as The Singing Nun managed to make this story in a palatable way. I think it’s the only real way to make it: the truth is not an easy sell, but we desire it anyway, and rightly so. For those who have tried to outrun their calling in Christ know its really of no use. As MS must tell the struggling Rachel, Mary chose. She was not coerced. The story of every Christian really is the story of someone who found something better.