Sunday, January 22, 2012

Shaking the Veil


One of the oldest tropes in the book is that of the former sinner who becomes a saint -- or at least, that of the former troublemaker who mends his or her ways and becomes a more respectable person. Such is the trope used by the writers of the 1966 movie The Trouble with Angels, a comedy which would have you believe that adorable little Disney actress Hayley Mills was born to play both a rebellious Catholic girl and a future nun.

Unfortunately, Ms. Mills is not all that believable as rebellious Catholic girl Mary Clancy and though it is quite adorable to see her repeatedly lure her schoolmate Rachel Devery (played by June Harding) into one mess after another, I got the feeling that the film's writers just didn't have the heart to make a movie in which Ms. Mills was too rebellious. It doesn't help that most of Ms. Mills' misdeeds seem hilariously tame by today's standards; granted, Ms. Clancy's habit of smoking cigarettes will still get a girl in trouble with her teachers today even in public schools. But compared to the attitudes which would become common in future generations, Mary Clancy seems like an altar girl and the harshest sin we ever see her actually commit occurs in the opening credits sequence in which Clancy's animated self blows out the flame of the Columbia Studios torch. More often, Ms. Clancy's worst sin is trying to seem a lot more sophisticated than she actually is and she is hardly the first or last teenager to commit that misdeed.

Fortunately, there is Rosalind Russell as the strict but ultimately kind-hearted Mother Superior to give an antidote to whatever saccharine taste Ms. Mills gives the movie. Ms. Russell was hardly the first actress I would have picked to convincingly play a Catholic nun but she plays the role well enough that I can't help but think that if most real-life nuns in the 1960s were nothing like Ms. Russell's character, they should have been.

There is also a cameo by former stripper Gypsy Rose Lee whose role in this movie never quite makes sense as anything but either an in-joke reference to Ms. Russell's performance in Gypsy or else an excuse to allude to Ms. Lee's former career within the opening credits.

As a devout Catholic, I must admit that I wanted to like this movie a lot more than I actually did. After all, this was one of the last Hollywood movies to depict the nuns of the pre-Vatican II era in a sympathetic fashion and while I realize there is a darker side to recent church history than Hollywood movies of the Hays Code era liked to admit, I also doubt that such a system could have endured for so long if there was not at least some good in the system as well. However, this film just did not work for me as well as it should have.

Oh, well. Like Mary Clancy, I too was once a bit of a rebel against the Church even though I never went to Catholic school, and yet even back then, there was a part of me who could not resist the lure of holy water and stained glass. Wishful thinking, perhaps?

Perhaps. I'm still a long way from qualifying for a halo but at least I haven't been hit by lightning yet so maybe my guardian angel was trying to tell me something.

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