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Tag Archives: Coming of Age Story

The Trouble With Angels (1966)

imagesA 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.

June Harding, Hayley Mills

June Harding, Hayley Mills

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.

June Harding and Hayley Mills in yet more trouble with Rosalind Russell

June Harding and Hayley Mills in yet more trouble with Rosalind Russell

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.

 
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Posted by on February 11, 2015 in Comedy

 

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Shadow of a Doubt (1943) – Evil Amidst Innocence

220px-Original_movie_poster_for_the_film_Shadow_of_a_DoubtAlfred Hitchcock is known as the master of suspense and I have seen and enjoyed many of his movies. However, my personal favorite – and reportedly his, too – is Shadow of a Doubt, which I believe is also his most human and relatable.

When Alfred Hitchcock first left England to make movies in America, many of his early American movies were still set in England: Rebecca (1940) and Suspicion (1941), but he wanted this movie to be more uniquely American in setting. He chose as his location Santa Rosa, California, and he did much of his shooting on location.

At the center of Shadow of a Doubt is the evil that comes to an innocent small town and an innocent family. Charlie Newton (Teresa Wright) is named after her mother’s much loved younger brother, Uncle Charlie or Charles Oakley (Joseph Cotten). She feels that they are extremely close, because of their names, but also because of how they think and feel. She likes to say that they are like twins. The movie begins with Charlie feeling like the family has gotten into a dull rut and what they need is Uncle Charlie to visit them. When Uncle Charlie does come unexpectedly, she and her entire family are thrilled and excited, especially her mother, Emma (Patricia Collinge).

The family with Uncle Charlie: Patricia Collinge, Henry Travers, Charles Bates, Teresa Wright, Edna May Wonacott, Joseph Cotten

The family with Uncle Charlie: Patricia Collinge, Henry Travers, Charles Bates, Teresa Wright, Edna May Wonacott, Joseph Cotten

What they do not realize is that Uncle Charlie’s money (he is described as being “in business”) has actually been acquired through murder. He is a serial killer, the Merry Widow Murderer, and he is on the run from the police and hiding out at their home. Hitchcock is simply masterful in how he builds his movie. Not long after he arrives, Charlie begins to suspect her uncle in some way and soon she figures out the truth. It is this growing of Charlie’s suspicions and Uncle Charlie’s realizations of her suspicions and how the two of them deal with each other that provides the tension. And Charlie’s realization that not only is her uncle a serial killer, but he’s quite willing to kill her, too, which is not at all the same thing as being willing to kill a random stranger.

What I love about this film is how infinitely relatable it is. It’s not glamorous, like many of Hitchcock’s other films. There are no gangs, international espionage, spies, thefts of priceless jewelry, epic chases, women running about in impossibly gorgeous clothing (I’m thinking, here, of Grace Kelly). The people in it are people we can imagine knowing or being like, people we might even have met.

We don’t dress like Grace Kelly and Cary Grant isn’t going to walk into our lives, but we can understand a family member – someone we assume we can trust – and we can imagine ourselves reacting to that situation. Would we tell our mother that her favorite brother is a serial killer; would we think our family would believe us? We can all imagine ourselves being at a loss trying to deal with this situation.

Charlie with her Uncle Charlie

Charlie with her Uncle Charlie

I think what Shadow of a Doubt taps into is how little ordinary people expect to encounter evil. We read about it and people in the movies always seem awfully eager to suspect and discover crime and conspiracy, but in real life we don’t really anticipate encountering that, especially in our own family. We generally expect to find real life somewhat prosaic.

I think it is also significant that it was made in 1943, during WWII. There is a sense of lost innocence for Charlie, having encountered this terrible evil that is in her uncle. He was originally a romantic figure for her, presumably emblematic of the world outside her safe and ordinary existence, but his view of the world is that it is a “sty,” an ugly place so ugly that it doesn’t matter what happens in it, even murder. He is the one to shatter her peaceful, sheltered and innocent view of life. He is like the Nazis horrifying the world with unimagined evil. It is partially a coming of age story for Charlie.

The cast is marvelous (Hitchcock always did have marvelous casts). Teresa Wright had recently enjoyed great success in The Little Foxes, The Pride of the Yankees and Mrs. Miniver, where she won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress. She is perfect as Charlie: innocent, but intelligent, grappling with the enormity of what she has learned, but not backing down. Joseph Cotten usually played nice guys, but he is excellent as Uncle Charlie, displaying charm, but always with hidden menace. Patricia Collinge is Charlie’s mother, who seems incapable of seeing the tension between Charlie and Uncle Charlie and is so blinded by her love of her brother, as if he represented everything good about life to her: her happy childhood, her young dreams and hopes. Henry Travers (known as Clarence the angel in It’s a Wonderful Life) is her father, a banker who relaxes by discussing murder mysteries and murder methods with his friend, Herb (Hume Cronyn), which provides a great deal of the whimsical humor in the film.

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Uncle Charlie doesn’t like to be photographed – Macdonald Carey, Wallace Ford, Teresa Wright, and Joseph Cotten

There is also a standout performance by Edna May Wonacott as Charlie’s sister, Ann. She is a bookworm who doesn’t quite like Uncle Charlie but never really knows why or even thinks about it. There are also two detectives lurking about (Macdonald Carey and Wallace Ford), who think Uncle Charlie might be the Merry Widow Murderer, and are cultivating the acquaintance of Ann and Charlie.

One of Hitchcock’s best and by far my favorite of his films. Suspenseful, but also more character driven then his usual movies. He tries to explore Uncle Charlie’s motivations and Charlie’s coming of age is a definite departure for Hitchcock. Coupled with his emphasis on the ordinary rather than extraordinary, it is a highly compelling, relatable, human, and even endearing story. It absolutely captured my imagination.

 
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Posted by on October 15, 2014 in Suspense

 

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