Saturday, November 5, 2011

Clyde’s Movie Palace: The Trouble With Angels (1966)

 

The Trouble With Angels (1966)

starring
Rosalind Russell
Hayley Mills
June Harding
Marge Redmond
Mary Wickes
Jim Hutton
Bernadette Withers
Camilla Sparv
Binnie Barnes
Barbara Hunter

Directed
by
Ida Lupino

Original Music
by
Jerry Goldsmith

There are many movies that one sees as a youngster or as a teenager that don't hold the same appeal they once did when we revisit them as adults. As you get older and wiser, you might go back and watch a movie you haven't seen in years and you find that it just doesn't appeal to you in the same way it once did. You may not even be able to remember what it was that attracted you to the film in the first place.

There are also those films that you can appreciate even more so as the years pass by. Many of us saw such Disney animated fare as Snow White, Pinocchio, and Bambi as a child and enjoyed them simply because it was as if we were walking into a sidewalk picture from Mary Poppins and experiencing these magical worlds first hand instead of just reading about them or having them read to us. As we grow older, we can still appreciate the films for their outstanding artistry, technical achievements, and for the sheer breath taking beauty that they bring to us.

I can remember a few films that I saw as a child or a very young teenager that I had enjoyed for different reasons.  But when I view them now I have to wonder what the big deal was. A lot of the horror films I've seen fall into this category. What once scared the crap out of you is now the fodder for lists of worst films of all times. And no, I'm not talking about Plan 9 From Outer Space.  

And then there are films like The Trouble With Angels, probably long forgotten about by some who viewed it over forty years ago. It's quite probable that many under the age of forty may not even be aware of its existence unless they bumped into it in one of its occasional showings on Turner Classic Movies. But I certainly remember it, and as the years go by I enjoy watching it as much now as I did back when I first saw it at the Columbia Theater in Portsmouth, Ohio.

Let's be real here. There is no doubt that The Trouble With Angels was probably seen by the producers as a quick way to cash in on the Disney market and family film cash cow by Columbia Studio's big wigs back in 1966. And at first glance I'm sure the film seems to be nothing more than that for many. But for those of us who had seen it then and for some who watch it now, the film rises way above the level of the churn them out standard film fare of a bygone era and it does so for many reasons that may not be readily apparent.

Angels is a film in which the screenplay was written by a woman, based on a novel written by a woman, was directed by a woman, and stars almost entirely a cast of women. Yes, there are three males whom do make an obligatory appearance, but they are here for nothing more than to help the plot turn a few quick corners and then they are dispensed with.  

On the surface, the story  seems  basic and run of the mill. Two girls are sent away to a private school run by nuns where they proceed to cause havoc, raise hell, and inflict a few serious headaches on Mother Superior and the rest of the nuns.  But certainly there was something about the film that enticed Ida Lupino to direct her first feature in thirteen years. It would also be the last big screen release that she would direct although she would continue to work from behind the camera on many more television episodes.

From Images Journal:

From 1949 through 1953, Ida Lupino directed six movies for The Filmakers, a tough, emotionally powerful group of films that make up for their meager budgets by providing gritty, uncompromising stories and imaginative, occasionally stunning camera work. Comparisons with directors Robert Aldrich and Samuel Fuller are apt, for Lupino's movies are filled with strong pitches of near melodramatic intensity recorded in stark, unflattering terms. Lupino wasn't interested in typical Hollywood glamour, for her characters were common people--salesmen, waitresses, gas station attendants, and fishermen. And her empathy for the characters was revealed in the finely-honed characterizations that made us care about these people that Hollywood would typically ignore.

I emphasized the last sentence because that is what Ida Lupino brings to The Trouble With Angels. She makes us care about characters that otherwise might quickly be forgotten if they were the usual two dimensional cardboard cutouts one would find in a film such as this cranked out endlessly by the Disney studio in the late sixties and through much of the seventies (although this is a Columbia Pictures film). She gives the characters depth. She gives them reasons for being the way they are instead of just having them go through the motions.  What she gives them is something you won’t usually find in a film of this sort, and that something is motivation for who they are, why they are, and what they may or may not be in the future.  She gives them depth. 

Of course it helps when you have a strong script penned by Blanche Hanalis based on the novel by Jane Trahey. Instead of just littering the film with clichés, she uses one incident after another to not only move the story along but to help us understand that there is a reason why Mary and Rachel become so inseparable.

Mary Clancy (Hayley Mills) is in fact an orphan. Her parents died at some point in her life and she was sent to live with her Uncle George (Kent Smith). He in turn has sent Mary to St. Francis in the hopes that the nuns can keep her out of trouble. The fact that George's own daughter, Marvel-Ann (Barbara Hunter) had long ago been sent to take up residency with the nuns lets us know that when it comes to parenting skills, he is sadly lacking. It isn't until later in the film that our deepest suspicions regarding Uncle George are born out.

It is on the train to the school where Mary meets up with Rachel Devery (June Harding). Rachel is being sent to St. Francis by her parents because after having been enrolled in a progressive school, it turns out that her education is sadly lacking. To say that Rachel isn't college material is an understatement but she does excel in silent piano playing. It is also obvious that by not being Catholic, in the confines of St. Francis, Rachel feels like an outsider.

It is no wonder that she finds instant camaraderie with Mary, who may be Catholic but seems to have little regard for St. Francis and even less for Mother Superior (Rosalind Russell):

Rachel: Boy, she's a fink
Mary: President of the Club
Rachel: The way she acted you'd think we were criminals or something.
Mary: The only difference between this place and the girl's reformatory is tuition.
Rachel: And we got enrolled instead of committed.

And that's just the first day of what is to become a three year sentence for the two of them.

Smoking in the girl’s room and becoming acquainted.

Much of the early part of the film does become a continuous battle of wills between the two partners-in-crime and Mother Superior. Mary has one scathingly brilliant idea after another such as giving fake names when the girls first arrive at the school, sneaking off to the bathroom for a cigarette, taking the other girls on a tour of the nuns living quarter, skipping swimming lessons, having Rachael write a passionate letter to her former headmaster at New Trends School asking him to free her from the clutches of the Reverend Mother, spiking the sugar bowl with bubble bath, and entrapping Mary's cousin, Marvel-Ann, in a plaster mold.

At the opposite end of the spectrum is Sister Liguori (Marge Redmond), who runs her math classes as if it were a day at the track.

Rachael: Isn't she too much! .
Mary: She should have been a bookie!

Reverend Mother is the authoritarian figure, Liguori is her exact opposite. She is the one the students can relate to because she is "fun". She is that one single teacher that we wish we could have taught every single class as we made our way through school.  Sister Liguori is also Reverend Mother's closest friend and advisor. 

 

Early on we had already met Sister Clarissa (Mary Wickes ) as the gym teacher, swimming instructor and bus driver. She may seem a little daffy at times, but we know that she loves every aspect of her work. Sister Rose Marie (Dolores Sutton) is the overly shy sister who Mother Superior appoints to head the "Social Action Committee" (Mary: That's for picketing things) for the girls. Hardly the position one would expect someone of such demeanor to be appointed to but I guess there is always a method to the madness of Mother Superior, even when she sends poor Sister on a mission with the girls to buy brassieres.  Or as Sister Rose calls them, “binders.”

Then there is Sister Elizabeth (Portia Nelson) who teaches art. If Sister Liquori is the perfect teacher, Sister Elizabeth is at best, the far from perfect instructor. She is the teacher that none of us could stand because unless you are an exemplary student, she’d just as soon not have to deal with your ineptitude as Rachel discovers rather quickly.  There is  no forgiveness in her heart.

It's not that Sister Elizabeth is an important part of the film, but  it is to the credit of director Lupino and writer Hanalis that they are willing to include the imperfect character in the mix instead of giving in to the temptation to induct each nun into the Holy Order of Sister Perfectionism, a not so rare disease that can often overtake these kinds of films. A nice reminder that nuns are still human  and  subject to the same temptations and foibles as the rest of world. 

During this first year, we are clued in as to what we can expect. From her upstairs window, Mary watches as Reverend Mother strolls through the grounds amidst the falling leaves of autumn. We see in Mary's face and eyes her antagonism toward Mother Superior.  But what we also see is that there is more to her resentment than the fact that Reverend Mother is her superior and her boss. Its as if she resents her very existence. Does she in fact, remind Mary of her own mother (we are never told how old Mary was when her parents died) or does Mary see some of herself in the Reverend Mother? Or is it a little of both?

The scene is wonderfully staged by Lupino, and beautifully photographed by cinematographer Lionel Lindon.  Neither Russell nor Mills  speak a single word, yet the scene says so much. Lindon in fact, was a three time Oscar Nominee and won once for Around the World in 80 Days and does an credible job here in the many outdoor sequences that take place on the grounds such as the one pictured here.

In Mary’s second year at St. Francis, the scene is repeated during the dead of winter and the difference is that we can begin to see that the resentment harbored by Mary is slowly beginning to fall by the wayside.

When Mother Superior returns the gaze, it is as if she is seeing the same thing we are and is not sure how to deal with someone like Mary. But late in the film, we discover that perhaps our suspicions regarding Mary and Reverend Mother as being more alike than either one of them is willing to admit to are well grounded. During a conversation with Sister Liguori Reverend Mother tells her:

"Mary has a will of iron. To bend but not to break. To yield but to not capitulate. To have pride, but also humility. This has always been my struggle sister. Can I be less tolerant of Mary than the Church has been of me?"

It is no coincidence that as the girls enter their second year and begin to mature,  the pranks no longer take precedence.  In fact, whereas most of the things they did during their first year were done simply to antagonize Mother Superior, what happens in the second and third years of enrollment are actually no worse than the things any one of us might have done at any given time during our teen years. It's just that when we did them the results weren't so disastrous, we didn't get caught, and we possibly hadn't already built up a long resume of crimes beforehand.   It’s sort of like three strikes and you’re branded for life.

Eventually Rachel grows tired of always being the odd girl out while Mary becomes more aware of the fact that things are not always as they seem to be. Antagonism begins to turn almost begrudgingly into respect and from respect grows admiration. Though it is left unsaid, there is never any doubt that there has always been something missing from Mary's life. We see it on many occasions and as her rebellion slowly subsides, it is replaced by a search for meaning and purpose in her life.  She needs to matter, to make her mark on the world.

One day when Mary and Rachel are out on the grounds, Mary mocks Sister Ursula (Marjorie Eaton) by imitating her German accent within earshot of Reverend Mother.



After they leave, Rachel senses something is amiss.   We know what it is, and though she won’t admit it, Mary knows as well. 

Mary: I hate her! (Reverend Mother)
Rachel: So, what else is new

But that is one tiny incident of many. Some, taken by themselves may not seem like much. Other events make an indelible impact.  What all of these small episodes do is help the film reach a satisfying conclusion based on who the characters are and not simply pulled an ending out of the hat simply because you have no where else to go.

If the ending had just been dropped in as it were with nothing to lead us to it, then we would have felt cheated. It's a credit to Lupino, Mills, and Lindon that we are able to see things as Mary sees them, not as distant observers as one of the other girls might. Often, without saying a word, Mills manages to convey to us what she is going through. But she is not beyond letting us know what is exactly on her mind at times.

In one of the films more remarkable scenes, during a Christmas visit by the students to a home for the elderly to entertain them, Mary is taken aback by what she sees and hears. As she walks around the room the conversations fade in and out much in the same way as if one were tuning an old radio from one station to the next. An old lady near senility sees a toy bird as a real one, another one complains about the home taking all of her social security. Still another cries while being comforted by Reverend Mother because her children won't be coming to visit her as they promised they would. It is the first time that Mary is confronted by the plight of those less fortunate than her and she does not handle it well. 

 

When The Trouble With Angels was filmed, Mills was trying to distance herself from the Disney type films she had left behind so it is fitting that she chose a film where in fact she could play a teenager who over the span of three years not only matures as an adult, but cuts many of the ties that bound her to her childhood. It is no fault of Mills that many critics refused to get past the juvenile high jinx in the early part of the film and could see it as nothing more than much of the same old same old.

If you go to this particular web page dedicated to The Trouble With Angels (and I highly recommend that you do) and see how the film was promoted, its no wonder that some (but not all critics. There are many who see it as I do.) still fail to see the "big picture" placed on the canvas by Lupino.

In the wrong hands, the role of Mother Superior could have become nothing more than a stern taskmaster, placed in the film solely for the purpose of being the target of Mary and Rachael's antics. But Rosalind Russell brings more to the role. Beyond being a nun, she loves St. Francis even with it's crappy boiler. More importantly, she loves each and every girl who is entrusted into her care and sees it as her duty, not to convert them to some kind of religious fanaticism in the hopes that they will join the sisterhood, but to prepare them to be able to make their way and cope in the real world. The fact that she is still able to convey this beneath what is supposed to be a rough, hard edged  exterior enables you to appreciate Russell’s performance even more. 

Because she cares about the future of these girls, it explains why she is so dismayed when confronted with Rachel's lack of scholastic achievement after transferring over from New Trends. She views Rachel as being totally unprepared for the world that awaits her, and understands why Rachel has chosen to follow Mary down what may be a destructive path from which there may be no turning back. And there is no disguising Reverend Mother's total disdain for Mary's Uncle George and his "secretaries".


Rachel changes throughout the film just as Mary does although not to the same degree. When there is a sewing contest, she stays up all night trying to finish a cocktail dress so that she won't be the only student without an entry. She no longer cares to be the odd girl out.

June Harding, in her first big screen role, acquits herself well as Rachel especially considering that she was the new kid on the block amongst a bevy of old pros. Since the character of Rachel does have a problem with her lack of basic education, another actress may have been tempted to play Rachel as a clueless dolt. But she is far from being that. She may be physically uncoordinated and at times in her life unmotivated scholastically, but she is far from being a dunce. And though Mary may be the leader and Rachel the follower, there can be no doubt at all that their friendship is one that will last well beyond their years at St. Francis.

There is a story floating about that Russell said she and Mills did not get along on the set. Although this is posted in several places, one can only take it with a grain of salt since the story is never sourced. Without Russell around to to give credence to it and Mills not having confirmed it, it remains just what it is. But even if it were true, it did nothing to affect the work of the actresses and obviously had no affect on the body of work as a whole.  And thanks to Patrick of Santa Monica who left a link on Clydemovies, the story regarding Rosalind Russell comes as a complete surprise to her.

I hate to think what some producer or director in today's society would have done with this material if the film were being made today. I'm sure they would once again dumb it down thinking it might play well to today’s teenage girls, whom they view as being pretty much either hare brained or just plain brainless.

Looking at the dismal box office grosses of some of these dumbed down hopeless and hapless teen and tweener girl films, it's obvious that some producers and directors are as clueless as Mr. Petry from New Trend  is.   But it enables these suits and ties to point and say, “Aha, teenage girls aren’t interested in films about teenage girls”   Give me a break.

In The Trouble With Angels, the producers obviously got what they wanted. They were pleased enough with the results that they commissioned a sequel called Where Angels Go, Trouble Follows.

It is also obvious that given the confines of the story, Lupino managed to get much of what she wanted out of the project as well. Frankly, as much of a pioneer as she was for women in film and television, one would think that even posthumously she should be more revered and honor for her pioneering work in film and television.

The troubling thing is, given todays climate and how difficult it is for women to still break into the directors chair, she would still be facing many of the same obstacles. Yes, there have been successful woman directors, most notably Penny Marshall, Kathryn Bigelow, Nora Ephron & Martha Coolidge, but they are certainly the exception and not the rule. Have you heard that Helen Hunt has directed a new movie? I didn't think so. (Note: When this review was written, Kathryn Bigelow had not yet won her Oscar and there was no Hurt Locker.) 

William Donati, author of Ida Lupino: A Biography which is a highly appreciative account of her life, has written:

"Great directors make great films, and good directors make good films. Those whose work transcends time and changing values earn undying recognition. Within the locus of low-budget, modest films, Lupino features were commendable for the period but fall short of being great films."

That assessment needs to be augmented by the recognition that Ida Lupino broke through various glass ceilings for women as directors and producers. In that process she enriched the sensibility and subject matter available in all feature films. That she was able to do so with a slender body of directed films, and without being or claiming to be an awesome genius, ought to be encouraging to all filmmakers confronting new thematic and employment barriers.

Couldn't have said it better myself and really, how could I not have any choice but to give The Trouble With Angels a Solid A.

There are several ways you can see this film. It plays occasionally in wide screen format on Turner Classic Movies, but sometimes it can be a long time between drinks of water on that channel, depending on when they have the rights and when they don’t.  It is also available to rent from Netflix on disc or to buy for about ten bucks from many places. And just recently the film has appeared on Netflix Streaming (11/1/2011), but you know how that goes.  Streaming today, gone tomorrow.  It is also available as a rental from Amazon or a digital purchase.  The DVD is available to purchase (see link at top of page)  but it is panned and scanned full frame in order to fit someone's idea of what a movie on TV should look like. I won't even go into the fact that nothing shown on the cover of the DVD actually happens in the movie.  But, you don’t have to be particularly intelligent to run a corporation these days do you?

3 comments:

  1. What a insightful and intelligent essay on the film. I grew up in love with Hayley Mills and Angels is one of the films I can still watch today with interest and enjoyment. (Incidentally, I still own the original vinyl soundtrack to this movie, great Jerry Goldsmith score). It's good to see that a favorite movie of mine that has basically been ignored by serious critics is getting a respectful treatment, Look forward to reading other of your reviews.
    Gene

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  2. What a nice review of one of my favorite movies, thank you. I have always been a fan of Rosalind Russell and Hayley Mills.
    Back in the beginning days of VHS, I ordered this movie from a video store and paid $79.00 for the movie! I still have it, of course
    along with DVD now. I'll never forget when after Reverend Mother tells Mary a story of when, as a young girl, she envisioned becoming a fashion designer, Mary asks Reverend Mother how could she give that up. Reverend Mother replied, "I found something better". Warms my heart every time. I recommend this movie to anyone!

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    1. Always enjoyed this film. I paid $59 for it on VHS but that was a discounted price because I worked at a video story. I think it's as good as any other film of this genre, and better than most. Often overlooked.

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