On the basis of its 1966 publicity, those who viewed the "The Trouble With Angels" (TTWA) must have been expecting a comedy. They got something rather more complex. In fact, most of the comic episodes occur early in the film; thereafter, life gets serious, as the girls visit a home for the aged, learn how one sister was abused by the Nazis, and how another plans to teach in a leper colony. Then the friendliest sister passes away. Thus, the film gradually evolves into a serious portrayal of life in a boarding school (St. Francis Academy), the transition from youth to maturity, and the experiences that can make, or break, friendships. The principal protagonists are guilty of various misdemeanors--smoking, entering the sisters' living quarters, and skipping swimming instruction. But these infractions are primarily a reflection of immaturity, which largely disappears after one year at St. Francis.
TTWA follows the relationship of its two principal characters, Mary Clancy (Hayley Mills) and Rachel Devery (June Harding) in their three years at St. Francis Academy. Both were sent there to be straightened out. At first, both react unfavorably to the school, which they see as "medieval," and akin to a girls' reformatory. They view school authorities as "the enemy," and agree that the Mother Superior (Rosalind Russell) is a "fink"--once when her back is turned they honor her with a Fascist salute. But, the girls have their differences, especially in matters of religion. Mary, who has visited the Vatican and seen the Pope, is increasingly receptive to Catholicism and its doctrines. Pretty obviously, Rachel is not a Catholic. Twice, under the Mother Superior's disapproving scrutiny, Rachel is unable to make the sign of the cross. Near the end of her first year at St. Francis, Rachel writes to the head of her former school that she is "a captive in a nunnery." Once, the Mother Superior tells Rachel that she is the "Devil's agent." In their second and third years at St. Francis, the differences between the girls are becoming clearer. When Rachel suggests that Mary stuff a picture of the Pope in the window to keep out the snow, Mary is horrified. Later, Rachel considers it appropriate that Sister Constance should leave the order and rejoin her former lover--a prospect that leaves Mary incredulous. Purely fortuitous happenings serve to confirm the girls' differing attitudes. Mary observes the Mother Superior feeding the birds, comforting an elderly woman, and grieving over Sister Liguori's casket. But Rachel, who hears only the Reverend Mother's impersonal announcement of Liguori's death, wonders aloud, "How can she be so cold?"
Predictably, contemporary promotional material emphasized the relationship between Mary and the Mother Superior, who were portrayed by Hayley Mills and Rosalind Russell, the most famous members of the cast. But, as other reviews demonstrate, TTWA can be viewed from various perspectives. It is perhaps most interesting to focus on friendship between Mary and Rachel, viewing them as two distinct, but equally important, personalities. Although it occasionally seems that Rachel is a failure in everything, in some respects, she seems to be more in touch with reality than Mary. It is Rachel who seeks Mary's assurance that the sisters will be away from the cloister during Mary's planned "tour." It is Rachel who expresses concern about skipping swimming lessons. When the girls are smoking in the boiler room, it is Rachel who inquires about the significance of the alarm bell; and, when fire engines arrive, it is Rachel who suggests an effort to locate the fire. As the girls, unable to swim, having avoided swimming lessons for three years, are about to dive into the pool for the mandatory life saving test, it is Rachel who asks, "What do you think we ought to do?" Rachel, in posing such practical questions, is playing Sancho Panza to Mary's Don Quixote. Mary's "leadership" has done nothing but get Rachel in trouble. It is a testimony to friendship or loyalty that Rachel continues to follow Mary--and Rachel expects the same loyalty in return. When she learns that Mary plans to become a nun, Rachel is stunned by what she regards as Mary's act of betrayal. In retrospect, Mary's decision, and Rachel's response are not surprising. And TTWA, having morphed from a comedy into an interesting cinematic essay about friendship, concludes in a dramatic final scene in which Rachel struggles with conflicting emotions and ultimately chooses reconciliation.
Equally talented in comedy and drama (and herself a product of a Catholic school), Rosalind Russell was well cast as the Mother Superior. The role of Mary did not capitalize on Hayley Mills's talents. And, for perhaps the first time in her career, Mills is not the center of sympathetic attention. Instead, that attention focuses on Rachel, whose shortcomings and vulnerabilities are manifest. June Harding was certainly not the obvious choice for the part of Rachel. She was too old (she turned 28 during the filming), and had almost no experience in comedy. Seeming to confirm her unsuitability for this role, she showed up at an early interview looking more like a Manhattan model than an adolescent schoolgirl. But director Ida Lupino immediately saw something in Harding--perhaps Harding was like Rachel--and lobbied executives to give her this role. Mills and Harding were a sort of cinematic odd couple. Mills was a scion of a prominent English theatrical family, who had already been in 10 films, usually as the star. Harding on the other hand, was the daughter of a wholesale meat packer in a tiny southern Virginia town, making her only major film. Nonetheless, they worked well together; and Harding delivered a convincing performance as Mary's rather naïve and impressionable understudy--although she was nine years older than Mills. From her letters, one gets the feeling that Harding was having more fun than anyone else on the set, and it shows. Also contributing to the success of TTWA are Lupino's unobtrusive but effective direction, and Jerry Goldsmith's music.
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