A very funny and endearing movie, The Trouble With Angels is one of those few movies to be directed by a woman, written by a woman, and about women. It helps that it takes place at a Catholic girl’s school, which means any men who appear are purely incidental to the story. It was directed by Ida Lupino, written by Blanche Hanalis and stars Rosalind Russell, Hayley Mills, and June Harding.
Two girls meet on a train on their way to St. Francis Academy, a boarding school for girls. Mary Clancy (Hayley Mills) was sent there by her uncle in the hope that it might straighten her out. Rachel Devery (June Harding), however, was sent there by her parents after her abysmal performance at the progressive school, New Trends (her father did not consider “planting sweet potatoes and learning the silent piano” as real education). The two girls become fast friends, with Mary the chief trouble maker who gets “scathingly brilliant ideas” while Rachel always happily assists her, constantly getting them into hot water with the Mother Superior (Rosalind Russell). They end up spending half their time at the school washing pots (as Rachel says, “I wonder if my father knows he’s paying good money to have his daughter educated as a janitor”).
They smoke cigarettes and cigars, set off fire alarms, put bubble maker in the nun’s sugar (thus setting off a fountain of bubbles from their tea), sneak off to spy on a rival band, fake various diseases to keep them out of the swimming pool, encase Mary’s cousin’s head in plaster, give paid tours of the Nun’s living quarters and generally cause relatively innocent, though somewhat defiant, havoc. Rachel is gawky, but very endearing and a “born follower.” But Mary is the confident one, always scheming and openly resentful of the Mother Superior. As Mary says, “the only difference between St. Francis and a reform school is the tuition.” But through the years, Mary gradually finds herself revising her opinions.
The movie spans their entire time at St. Francis for three years. It’s a coming of age story, but it is also a movie about relationships. There is the friendship between Rachel and Mary. As fun as it is to go off each summer and be free of school, you can see how extremely happy they are to be reunited at the end of each summer when another year of mischievous antics and scholastic endeavor begins. There is also the warmth between the nuns, especially between Mother Superior and the math teacher, Sister Liguori (Marge Redmond – whose methods, Mother Superior says, are “newer than new.” She likes to set up quizzes as if they were a race at Pimlico). There is also the relationship between the nuns and their students, which is extremely warm, though more austere. And finally, there is the embattled, but progressively understanding one between Mary and Mother Superior.
One of the things I loved about the film is that there is no one moment when Mary comes to appreciate Mother Superior. The movie manages that rare feat of having someone’s feelings gradually change without resorting to any sudden epiphanies, though there are many little scenes that trace the change from resentment to respect to even affection. Her evolution happens naturally, without her or the audience really being aware of it.
Although Mary never complains about being an orphan, there is a sense that in St. Francis, she finds a home and in Mother Superior she finds her first real authority figure – not exactly a mother, but in a way. That is perhaps why she is so resentful in the first place. But as much as she resents Mother Superior, she is also fascinated by her, always watching her and wondering about her choice to become a nun and it turns out that the two of them are very much alike. Her Uncle George (Kent Smith) appears to be a wealthy man who goes through “secretaries” rather quickly and Mary seems to have been left mostly to herself. Rachel, on the other hand, does have parents who also do care about her and she is less in need of a home.
The entire cast is great, but Rosalind Russell as Mother Superior particularly stands out. I read that they originally wanted Greta Garbo for the role, but all I can say is thank God she didn’t accept. Russell, a devout Catholic herself, was perfect in the role, with her dry humor, expressive face, aura of authority and genuine emotion. She takes simple lines like “Where’s the fire?” and “God is on ours [side]” into utter gems of wit and irony. Wearing a wimple really does accentuate the face and Russell has a very expressive one, reacting to bubbles coming out of her tea, lemon squirted on her face, the girls dancing around like a bunch of octopi during a dance class, the unexpectedly short band uniforms (“We are a Catholic school, Mr. Gottschalk!” she protests at one point), and the school’s derelict boiler. But she can also register deep pain and grief, as she does when one of the sisters dies unexpectedly. All the girls find her manner of telling them cold, but you can see the pain in her eyes.
Hayley Mills is also good. She manages her character arch without ever throwing it obviously in your face what she is thinking or feeling. I didn’t see it the first time I watched the movie, but she uses her outward expressions and words as a mask for deeper stirrings within her that is quite subtle. But she and June Harding are also a hoot together, demonstrating a real friendship between the characters.
Among the cast is Mary Wickes as Sister Clarissa, the physical education teacher who also teaches religion. It is a fun role and also a warm-up for her more famous nun role as Sister Mary Lazarus in Sister Act and Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit. There are many more nuns and each of them have their own unique personality, though it took me two viewings to properly get them sorted out.
The script is almost perfect…and quite quotable. There is just the right amount of craziness without ever going over the top. It’s almost entirely about girls and women interacting – there is very little time spent even thinking about boys. It is very refreshing in that way; that women and girls can have a life outside of chasing men. It’s a very innocent film, without being childish. These girls must still learn about life. There is death; the girls visit a home for the elderly and see first hand how the nuns care for others, but also the little sadnesses and tragedies that come with growing older. And after making fun of Sister Ursula’s accent, the girls learn how she hid 34 Jewish children during WWII and was later found out and tortured by Nazis. School may have been a romp, but they must also grow up.