Saturday, December 29, 2012

Classic Films in Focus: THE TROUBLE WITH ANGELS (1966)

Why does Hollywood love nuns? For an industry generally obsessed with sex and skin, the motion picture business has produced a remarkable number of movies about those black clad, celibate sisters over the years, including serious dramas like The Song of Bernadette (1943) and Doubt (2008), romantic musicals like The Sound of Music (1965), and even wacky comedies like Sister Act (1992). The Trouble with Angels (1966) falls somewhere in the middle between drama and comedy; it is by turns serious and silly, and its view of the cloistered characters changes throughout the film, depending upon the moment and viewpoint being perceived. Those who feel a certain affection for nuns, the Catholic Church, or girls' boarding schools will find these institutions treated with respectful humor in The Trouble with Angels, although anyone looking for riveting drama or brashly provocative comedy had better skip this lightly handled tale of girls coming of age under the watchful eyes of their holy guardians.

Hayley Mills stars as Mary Clancy, a new student at St. Francis Academy for Girls, who arrives ready to give the nuns plenty of trouble in return for their efforts. She quickly recruits another new student, Rachel Devery (June Harding), as her best friend and co-conspirator, and the two of them proceed to stir up the well-regulated lives of the students and their teachers. They replace the nuns' sugar with bath salts, smoke in the bathrooms and the basement, and give the other students tours of the nuns' private quarters. Over time, however, Mary begins to see the nuns in a new light, especially the stern Mother Superior (Rosalind Russell).

There are both strengths and weaknesses in director Ida Lupino's approach to this tale. The plot of the film ranges over a period of several years, but the summers are treated as blank time, with the students shown departing the school in the spring and then returning each fall, a little older and a little different as a result of their months away. This tactic keeps the movie rolling along, and it does not feel very long, even though it runs 112 minutes from beginning to end. The scenes that we see are like snapshots taken at different moments over the course of this journey; we look in on Mary, Rachel, and the nuns at key points in their lives and then move on. This long view keeps the tension of the plot at a very low level, since we don't stay long enough in a particular moment for there to be much development. It may seem at times that the film is, indeed, just wandering along its path, stopping to look at items of interest now and then, but without much of a destination in mind. Mary, however, is a dynamic character, although her maturation over the course of the story is generally quite subtle. We can only understand how much she has grown and changed when we see the film's conclusion, and I don't want to give too much of that away.

I normally find that a little Hayley Mills goes a very long way, meaning that The Parent Trap (1961) has always struck me as sadistic in its insistence on twice as much Mills as any person could reasonably withstand, but Lupino has a very good sense of her women's stories, and perhaps it is her influence as the director that helps Mills give one of her most truthful and interesting performances. Mills' Mary also gets support from Rosalind Russell's strong presence as the Mother Superior; she gives us a very believable woman, never a caricature or a stereotype, but a real person who struggles to keep the school afloat and treats her students with patience, dignity, and love. June Harding has comparatively little to do as Rachel; her character remains static and functions primarily as Mary's sidekick, but the other nuns make up an interesting group. Mary Wickes brings her trademark comedy to the cloister as Sister Clarissa (she would play nuns several more times and even appeared in Sister Act and its sequel in the 1990s), and Marge Redmond brings gentle humor and goodwill to the role of Sister Liguori. Look for Binnie Barnes, Camilla Sparv, and Dolores Sutton among the other sisters at St. Francis. The most amusing small part in the film has to be that of Gypsy Rose Lee as a special teacher brought in to educate the girls about feminine "grace." The very idea of Gypsy Rose Lee setting foot inside a Catholic girls' school is enough to justify the entire film's existence.

If you are not familiar with Ida Lupino's work as an actress, be sure to check out films like They Drive by Night (1940), High Sierra (1941), and The Man I Love (1947). Having created moving, complicated female characters onscreen herself, she was the perfect director for a picture like The Trouble with Angels, which focuses so delicately on the lives of the women and girls of St. Francis. Her other directorial efforts include Not Wanted (1949), The Hitch-Hiker (1953), and many episodes of various television series. For more of Hayley Mills, try Pollyanna (1960), In Search of the Castaways (1962), and That Darn Cat! (1965). Four-time Oscar nominee Rosalind Russell is best remembered today for His Girl Friday (1940), Auntie Mame (1958), and Gypsy (1962). Last but not least, don't miss the very funny Mary Wickes in the holiday standard, White Christmas (1954).

An earlier version of this review originally appeared on Examiner.com. The author retains all rights to this content.