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The Trouble with Angels

The Trouble with Angels
Columbia TriStar
1966 / Color / 1:37 flat full frame (?) / 112 min. / Street Date November 11, 2003 / 24.95
Starring Hayley Mills, June Harding, Rosalind Russell, Binnie Barnes, Camilla Sparv, Mary Wickes, Marge Redmond, Gypsy Rose Lee, Kent Smith
Cinematography Lionel Lindon
Film Editor Robert C. Jones
Original Music Jerry Goldsmith
Written by Blanche Hanalis (from a novel by Jane Trahey
Produced by William Frye
Directed by Ida Lupino

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

This enormously successful Columbia picture came at a time when clean-scrubbed family fare was becoming a conservative holdout in a changing Hollywood. Lighthearted stories about noble priests and nuns were standard stuff in the 1940s, but by the time of MGM's Debbie Reynolds vehicle The Singing Nun were an embarrassment of irrelevant social comment and ridiculous conservative fantasy. It all ended up in the trivial but harmless TV series The Flying Nun, which rather creatively crossed Soeur Sourire of the original top 40 single Dominique, with Dumbo the Flying Elephant.

The Trouble with Angels is innocuous at best, leaning heavily on the estimable talents of its stars Rosalind Russell and Hayley Mills. Pro director Ida Lupino does a respectable job, but it's a sad downslide for Hayley's career. Even though it was a big success at the box-office, it was her last - the world didn't need fresh-faced cute girls any more, and rejected the actress when she tried to do more mature roles. She's worked steadily since, but not at the level she deserves.


Mary Clancy (Hayley Mills) and Rachel Devery (June Harding) spend four years at the St. Francis Academy for Girls, befuddling the staff and especially Mother Superior (Rosalind Russell) with their constant pranks and troublemaking. But in their senior year, Mary has a change of heart ...

Just about everything in The Trouble with Angels is a tired rehash of comedy done much better in the truly anarchic English comedy from the 50s, Belles of St. Trinian's, where a private school becomes chaos central as the students battle the staff with every kind of practical joke possible. This newer picture is a meek little sitcom-proportioned show that won its popularity by being as harmless as possible. Mary and Rachel never have the kind of edge evinced by Merrie Spaeth and Tippy Walker in the superior The World of Henry Orient, a film that offered a wealth of observations on growing up as a little girl in 60s America. Angels is just about Hayley Mills being mischievous and cute, and despite the actress'es control and charm, remains a trifle.

What really happens? I don't think we see any classes in session except for art and gym. Mary and Rachel take their classmates on a forbidden tour of the nuns' quarters and do 'outrageous' stunts like spiking the sisters' soup with silly bubbles. Real rough stuff. They break the rules and wash some dishes. Russell responds with tempered wisdom. Then the girls go back and break more rules, with only the script to motivate them. The show eventually turns to a serious side with Mary realizing that the nuns, originally introduced as a wacky bunch of social misfits, are dedicated helpers of humanity. This comes about through one visit to an old ladies' home where Mary gets an earful of sad old abandoned women. With her only family experience a womanizing uncle (Kent Smith as a very unconvincing playboy), Mary apparently concludes that becoming a sister is better than being a woman in the real world, an 11th hour plot switcheroo that works only because the film hasn't tried to be anything more than superficial.

Hayley Mills fans will want to see her performance as a spirited kid who doesn't break out into Uncle Walt smiles every sixty seconds. She has charm to spare, but the script only gives her two notes to play, inexplicably trouble-prone, and then seriously devout. Her main buddy Rachel a plainer girl condemned to also-ran status when Mother Superior describes her as 'a follower, not a leader.' 1

The other girls barely have identities. There's the chubby insolent one who gets to be the recipient of a cruel stunt, and some artistic types. The Trouble with Angels seems to be aware of, but steers away from, the artistic activism of pioneering 60s Sisters. Those at Immaculate Heart here in Los Angeles were active in anti-war campaigning, and invented the famous War is Not Healthy for Children and Other Living Things poster. We hear one half-sentence about picketing and that's it ... we wouldn't want to offend anyone out there in movieland, no sir. The show wisely avoids selling anything miraculous or cheaply 'holy', and instead concentrates on the sisters' social services.

Probably working out a contract commitment, Camilla Sparv (Dead Heat on a Merry-Go-Round) shows up for about 50 seconds, once at the beginning and once later to tell Hayley about her plans for reassignment in a leper colony. The two choices for holy work appear to be riding herd on brats and tending to miserable outcasts, and nothing in between.

Ida Lupino's direction is efficient and sufficiently varied to make The Trouble with Angels seem more than the rather inexpensive movie it is. The full quota of thirty schoolgirls are only seen for a few minutes, and climaxes like the big band contest are kept offscreen, obviously for economy. The setting is almost exclusively one castle-like manor house, probably recreated on soundstages for interiors. Lupino slips in actor Jim Hutton for an unbilled guest stint as the principal of a competing school. It's a 'progressive' institution with liberal policies that both Mother Superior and the screenplay dismiss sight unseen. Ms. Lupino also nabs retired burlesque queen Gypsy Rose Lee for billing purposes in the film. She plays a teacher of interpretive dance class, of which Mother Superior is equally critical. Perhaps proving her skill at an ordinary assignment, Lupino recognizes the commercial grade of the project and approaches it accordingly.

With Ms. Lupino's help, Rosalind Russell's Mother Superior is both professional and subdued and never becomes a clown patsy, the kind of Joe Flynn character that gets buckets of water poured over his head in McHales' Navy. Still, Russell and Mills are such good actresses, it's more than a little depressing that there were no longer any respectable roles for them. Ever seen Russell in Mrs. Pollifax - Spy? It's drek, positively stultifying.

Besides a few hairstyles, the most dated thing in the movie is the script's reliance on smoking as naughty-acceptable teen behavior. I guess it's the most shocking thing that the writers felt straight America would accept from what are supposed to be good girls. There are no boys in the movie and not even a hint of sex, which we all know shouldn't exist in teen minds. The adult males have almost no contact with their daughters, thus placing Mary and Rachel in sort of a limbo of isolation that helps us accept them as individuals. Only the actors' personalities allow them to be confused with real American teens, however.

The various nuns are introduced at the beginning of the show, and then ignored as characters. Years supposedly go by, but Marge Redmond has barely enough time to smile once or twice, and then we can't remember who the heck she was when it comes time to get weepy-eyed over her. Mary Wickes has a thankless bit as the bus driver, and Binnie Barnes is invisible but gets high billing - she is, after all, the wife of Columbia's new studio head, Mike Frankovich.

Given a huge marketing push, The Trouble with Angels was a big hit for Columbia in some pretty dark days, box office-wise. The ad campaign exploited visuals cribbed from the earlier Singing Nun posters, with a laughing Rosalind Russell riding a bicycle with her legs stuck out. Nothing of the kind happens in the film.

Columbia TriStar's DVD of The Trouble with Angels is one of the studio's flat transfers. It's difficult to tell if the image is full frame or adapted pan-scan, but the bland lighting and limited settings might have benefited from properly cropped compositions. The sound is adequate to assess Jerry Goldsmith's dreary score - he must have put a bag over the piano to do this one, paying his dues to get the big assignments with which he'd soon make his name.

There are no extras, just some trailers for other family oriented Columbia TriStar product.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, The Trouble With Angels rates:
Movie: Fair (or good, depending on one's nostalgia factor)
Video: Fair the only possible rating for a ill-suited Pan-Scan transfer
Sound: Good
Supplements: none
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: December 17, 2003


1. One of the few negatives to a small private-school upbringing that I can think of is the fact that one would be stuck with the opinions and prejudices of a limited number of teachers and supervisors. All it takes is for one Sister to decide you're the 'follower' type, and you'd be discouraged from truly achieving from then on.

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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