Movie review: ‘The Trouble With Angels’

twaWho would want to watch a movie about two Catholic schoolgirls getting into trouble? Yes, of course there are those kind of movies about “Catholic schoolgirls” getting into trouble … and an entire segment of a certain film industry in Southern California has made a lot of money off that genre. However, we’re not talking about that here. We’re talking about a film that gets a bad rap because its “wholesome family fun” overshadows its true depth as a motion picture. The movie I’m writing about is “The Trouble With Angels.” It is much better than you might expect and has a simply sensational turn by the simply sensational Rosalind Russell.

‘The Trouble With Angels’
(1966; 122 minutes; rated PG; directed by Ida Lupino and starring Rosalind Russell, Hayley Mills and Binnie Barnes)

A SUPERIOR PERFORMANCE BY ROSALIND RUSSELL

(NOTE: I expanded and reorganized this review on March 17, 2016, with additional opinion and more trivia.)

The teenagers-getting-into-trouble genre has turned out a consistent number of films over the years with mixed results. You can go from the silly to the gross to the so-bad-it’s-good films, but there are forgotten gems such as “The Trouble With Angels” from 1966 that show such movies can actually have depth.

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The Trouble With Angels” is a 1960s, clean-cut, family-style comedy with a nice touch of faith tossed in (not too much despite being set in a convent/girls school). Despite any stereotype of the period and genre, “The Trouble With Angels’” screenplay is solid and the film has wit while not relying on cheap shots or gags to make its point.

In “The Trouble With Angels,” it is the work of Rosalind Russell, as the convent’s Mother Superior, that makes this one worth going out of your way to watch. If an actor ever managed to immerse himself or herself in a role, then Russell did it here – much like some men in film can appear to be military commanders with simply their bearing, Russell becomes a Mother Superior in every second she’s on screen.

Finally, Russell has excellent vulnerability to share with the audience, too, at both obvious and not-so-obvious moments.

In brief, Hayley Mills and June Harding are two teens who meet while traveling (by train) to a Catholic girls’ school. Mills quickly becomes the leader of the pair with one of her “scathingly brilliant” ideas. The girls, joined by two other newbies, play a joke by changing their names to “Kim Novak,” “Pearl Ring” and “Sandy Beach.” OK, lame is as lame does, but you can check out the difference between a funny name in 1966 and one from “Porky’s” in 1982 (click here for my review).

Of course, as you might guess, the girls’ “adventures” are pretty tame by today’s standards (by observing the standards of MTV today, “The Excorcist” is a tame motion picture): they spy on another school’s band; smoke the plumber’s left-behind cigars; put bubble powder in the nuns’ dinner drinks; and take other students on a tour of the nuns’ residence that’s off-limits to the students.

Wow. Thelma and Louise they were not.

Still, Mills loves to buck authority and takes glee in giving Russell the Nazi salute (behind her back, of course). By the time of graduation, as expected, there’s a big change (no spoiler alert here) and the film closes with Russell both understanding and strict.

Typically, I give a synopsis of the work by members of the principal cast equally, but I can’t do that here since I’m so taken by Russell’s work. So, I’ll give spotlight time to her alone …

Each time I watch “The Trouble With Angels,” I’m amazed by what Russell brings to the role. She makes sure her character projects the all-knowing, worldly-wise Mother Superior. She easily shows how she is motivated to make sure that the young women in her charge will be educated with a proper foundation for life and is patient with them in matters of faith. I can only imagine how difficult this is to convey on-screen.

Russell is stern, but not “Mommie Dearest;” knowledgeable, but not haughty; and, most of all, despite her countenance, she’s understanding, but never becomes obsequious.

Russell first shows her compassion toward Mills and Harding when the girls smoke cigars and the fire department is called. She was going to toss them out, but reconsidered when she met Mills’ uncle (he’s her guardian since she is an orphan) and gets a look at his “secretary.” Russell understands immediately that the uncle could never provide the guidance that Mills would receive at the school.

Further, Russell manages to lead by example in faith. She is tough, but not all-the-time condemning those who stray; she is patient, knowing that faith doesn’t come in an instant; and she’s persistent and consistent (two key factors in the conveyance of anything, especially faith).

Also, it’s the attention to details of Russell’s ability and the thoughtfulness of the filmmakers in taking their time. As an example of the former, the two girls examine a bird’s nest upon their return to school after one summer vacation, Russell walks by and says, “Get rid of the bird’s nest.” The girls toss it away and Russell doesn’t even pause in saying, “Not that one.” She meant the hairpiece Mills was wearing. For the former, the film takes time to examine how the girls evolve throughout their high school years.

It is truly sad to recall that Russell died of metastasized breast cancer in 1976 at the age of 69, according to IMDb.com. I would have like for her to have been able to do an episode of “The Love Boat,” where many aging actors did some surprisingly good work (no, I’m not kidding … I truly enjoy “The Love Boat” and you can click here to read my treatise about it).

As for the rest of the cast, here’s a quick rundown:

  • Mills is energetic and engaging in her usual competent turn as “Mary Clancy.” Her British accent remains a killer – and gets 95-percent of the screen time (only Russell’s greater acting stature got her top billing). Mills knows how to play to the camera and is a natural. She’s smooth throughout, but can put some edge when she wants. Mills is most notably known for “The Parent Trap” in 1961 (Lindsay Lohan, who since became Hollywood’s latest version of a bad girl, did a nice revival of the role in 1998) and was a contract actor for Walt Disney. Mills had multiple appearances on “The Love Boat.”
  • Harding’s work as “Rachel Devry” can only be described as workmanlike. She’s good, but not great and doesn’t manage to elevate the role. She is most solid at the end with her confrontation with Mills. “The Trouble With Angels” is the actor’s only credit in a motion picture. She had a career beginning in 1956 in the debut season of “As the World Turns” and continuing throughout the 1960s as a TV actor, but nothing past 1970, according to IMDb.com. I’m not sure why she didn’t have any “Love Boat” exposure.
  • In an example of a supporting role that shines is the job by Mary Wickes, who plays “Sister Clarissa,” who drives the school’s bus and teaches physical education (her character is fleshed out further in the sequel “Where Angels Go Trouble Follows” – click here for my review of that one). Wickes has a good time in the role and makes the sister come alive. She went on to play another nun in Whoopi Goldberg’s “Sister Act” and its sequel. Wickes had a prolific career and notched 138 acting credits and worked right up to her death in 1995 at 85 and from complications involving breast cancer. She was known for her physical comedy, sharp tongue and distinctive voice. Wickes did a “Love Boat” episode, too.
  • Gypsy Rose Lee does a wonderful job in a small role.
  • The ever under-appreciated Jim Hutton, who two years later would be in John Wayne’s “The Green Berets” war movie about Vietnam, died of liver cancer at a youthful 45 in 1979 and plays the longsuffering “Mr. Petrie” in an uncredited role as the head of a “progressive” school despised by Russell.

Also, why “The Trouble With Angels” is rated PG is completely beyond me. Maybe it’s because when the girls are taken by a most inexperienced nun to buy “binders” that an actual (not being worn) bra is shown and Mills tries on a bustier over her clothes (so racy!). It might be because a couple of teenagers enjoy the pleasures of an illicit smoke!

The Trouble With Angels” was outside the top 25 films at the box office in 1966. It notched $4.1 million in sales on a budget of $2 million, according to Wiki. The top film was “The Bible: In the Beginning …” with $34.9 million while coming in at No. 25 was “Penelope” starring Natalie Wood with $8 million, according to Wiki. Other films I’ve reviewed from 1966 include “The Glass Bottom Boat” with Doris Day – click here for my review and “Assault on a Queen,” a terrific Frank Sinatra caper – click here for my review.

Here are some cast and film notes (via IMDb.com):

  • The movie is based on the book “Life with Mother Superior” by Jane Trahey.
  • The Trouble With Angels” was the first feature film directed by Ida Lupino in more than a decade.
  • Directly from IMDb.com: “According to Rosalind Russell, she and Hayley Mills did not get along during filming. She claimed that every time she turned around or walked away from Mills, she would stick her tongue out at her.” Sounds to me like Mills was just staying in character.
  • One other supporting actor who played on an episode of “The Love Boat” is Camilla Sparv, who played the beautiful and dedicated “Sister Constance.” She won a Golden Globe the year after “The Trouble With Angels” as Most Promising Newcomer for her work with James Coburn on the caper flick “Dead Heat on a Merry-Go-Round.”
  • Finally and directly from IMDb.com: “Producer William Frye personally offered his friend Greta Garbo $1 million to play the Mother Superior in the film. When she declined, he offered the role to Rosalind Russell at a much lower salary.”

© Chuck Curry and A Gator in Naples, 2014-2016.
Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without
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