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.”
4) The nursing home scene: Now seniors, the girls are young women, groomed and sophisticated. When the school brings them to a local senior center to sing Christmas carols and serve cake to the residents, Mary comes face to face with what it means to live a life where love gives no guarantees. Serving cake and encouraging one resident, she sees another weeping in the arms of the Reverend Mother as she recounts all she had done for her children, who never visit her. “Nothing was too much for me to do,” the grieving woman says. As the nun consoles her and encourages her to wash her face, freshen her makeup and make one more sacrifice for the sake of her children, Mary turns to her, furious, offended and, given her family, frankly terrified. “I hope I die young,” she spits at the Reverend Mother, “and very wealthy!”
3) Binders!: The ever-beleaguered Sister Rose Marie, already overworked, is charged by Mother Superior to do something about emerging chest issues. “But … I don’t know anything about … binders!”
2) Hayley Mills: Prodigiously talented, Mills makes Mary’s rebelliousness both real but reasonable and innocent, and she manages to bring touches of kindness and authenticity to her portrayal of Mary, no mean feat in a role that, in lesser hands, could have come off like little more than a Dennis the Menace cartoon. She makes Mary human and even ordinary when she rejects stuffing a broken window with a picture of the pope, and ends up spying the Reverend Mother as she feeds birds in the snow. Never a false note, which suggests great respect for the material.
1) Rosalind Russell: That cigarettes-and-whiskey-flavored voice—whether barking like a drill sargent as bubbles arise from her coffee, or purring like a kitten over a “blessedly quiet” new furnace—it holds you in her thrall. An old pro like Russell makes the most of every line and never misses the beat that makes it true. We all get something in our eye when she allows herself a moment of human vulnerability at the casket of the beloved Sister Ligouri. And her dignity in the face of Mary and Rachel’s ignorance is poignant.
Reverend Mother Evidently, Sister Ursula’s German accent amuses you.
Mary Clancy: [Impudently] I didn’t know she was German, Reverend Mother.
Mother Superior: Then surely you didn’t know that during the war, Sister Ursula kept 34 Jewish children hidden for more than two years in the cellar of a destroyed convent outside of Munich. And that when this was finally discovered she was imprisoned. She suffered untold indignities, and she … she … [choking up, and then turning away].
Mary Clancy: Are we dismissed, Reverend Mother?
Mother Superior: [quietly] Yes.
Simply the greatest Reverend Mother Superior in filmdom, hands down. Gloria in excelsis deo!