Unapologetically Catholic and "scathingly brilliant", this classic film remains a favorite
Released while the Church was shuddering through its first Post Vatican II transitions, Ida Lupino’s The Trouble with Angels remains a family favorite in a surprising number of households. Meant to be a Pollyanna-free showcase for the teenaged Hayley Mills, the simple comedy—formulaic, sentimental and unapologetically Catholic—somehow manages moments that are—dare we say it, scathingly brilliant!
Aleteia’s staff lists why. Add your own top moments.
10) It’s based on a true story! The Trouble with Angels is adapted from Life with Mother Superior by Jane Trahey, who attended a Catholic day school now known as Providence-St. Mel’s School. Mary Clancy’s character was based on Trahey’s friend Mary Courtney, who later became Sister John Eudes, a Sinsinawa Dominican.
9) The train scene, otherwise known as the moment we meet Mary Clancy and Rachel Devery: two girls on their way to St. Francis Academy (a boarding school), and who would both clearly rather be headed just about anywhere else. Mary is smoking a cigarette (a vice and recurring plot device), and we get an early introduction to her quick wit as a woman exclaims in disgust, “Really! A child of your age, smoking?” and Mary replies casually, without missing a beat, “I’m not a child, madam; I’m a midget with bad habits.” When Rachel dares to approach her, Mary breaks the ice by immediately conscripting her into a shared flight of fancy, temporarily abandoning their given names in favor of “Fleur de Lis” for Rachel (“You’re half French,” Mary explains) and “Kim Novak” for Mary. “I like it,” Rachel says. “So do I,” Mary replies. “But I’m stuck with ‘Mary Clancy!'”
8) The smoking scene: Meant to be cleaning out a cellar in reparation for an infraction, Mary and Rachel lounge about, reading old newspapers while smoking Mary’s uncles’s cigars. Fanning the smoke toward a window, they alarm the elderly and deaf Sister Prudence, who scuttles off to ring the fire alarm. In delightful oblivion, Mary and Rachel notice the sirens and muse, “sounds close” just before a firefighter’s ax comes through the window. Suddenly, the Reverend Mother peeks in and gives the girls a withering look, asking only—but scathingly-“Where’s the fire?”
7) The “mother-daughter” relationship between Mary and Mother Superior. Initially antagonistic, we see that some of Mother Superior’s ire toward her wayward pupil may come from her own understanding of herself, and of mercy. This plays out in a beautiful scene. After the fire alarm, it seems clear that Mary and Rachel will be expelled, yet Mother Superior grants a “reprieve.” Tellingly, the girls seem relieved. Sister Ligouri (she of the marvelously fun math classes) tells the Reverend Mother, “I knew you wouldn’t expel them.”
“Well, it’s a good thing you didn’t make book on it,” Mother Superior responds, “you would have been taken to the laundry!” She then explains what influenced her thinking, and what she saw in Mary, and in herself: “Mary has a will of iron. To bend but not to break … to yield but 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?”
6) Rachel’s “alternative school”: Mother Superior confronts Mr. Petrie, headmaster of the rival “New Trends School,” a progressive boarding school from which bang-licking Rachel transferred after her parents objected to lessons in planting sweet potatoes and “silent piano” lessons:
Mother Superior: I’m convinced that your school encourages barbarism and concerns itself only with free thinking, free wheeling and finger-painting.
Mr. Petrie: The finest educational minds in the country happen to be on our side!
Mother Superior: God is on ours!
5) The sewing scene. Each year in Mary Clancy’s life, there is moment of revelation wherein a nun reveals both her humanness and the value of her faith. One is when Sister Constance, proclaimed “a natural beauty” by Mary, reveals she is not only looking forward to beginning a mission among lepers but actually asked for the assignment. Another is when she realizes that the Reverend Mother had a promising worldly future in fashion design before she “found something better.”
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