1966: What ‘The Trouble With Angels’ gets wrong about nuns and convents

Pauline Kael reports in the March McCall’s that nine films about nuns are now in various stages of preparation. This phenomenon, inspired no doubt by the unprecedented success of The Sound Of Music, fills me with fore­boding rather than anticipation, be­cause it is frighteningly easy to get nuns all wrong on the screen and terribly difficult to do them justice, especially today when their proper identity is be­ing so hotly debated inside as well as outside convents.

The Trouble With Angels is so much better than The Singing Nun—mostly because its scope is small and carefully limited-that it seems captious to criti­cize it. Nevertheless, it is considerably less than satisfying, and one of the main things it stubs its toe on is the matter of emerging nuns and changing convents.

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The movie is based on a novel (or novelized autobiography). Life With MotherSuperior, by a nun who calls herself, pseudonymously or not, Jane Trahey. It is a comic, nostalgic account of life in a convent boarding school, mostly seen through the eyes of a re­bellious and creatively mischievous pupil (Hayley Mills) and her equally rebellious but less enterprising chum (June Harding).

I imagine the book was talking about convent-school life thirty years ago. The movie seems as if it is, and will strike a responsive and nostalgic chord in people like myself, who went to con­vent boarding schools at that time. Actually, however, the film is supposed to be about the present day, and here it comes to grief. As if it were made by a lot of middle-aged people who are see­ing their school days through rose-­colored glasses and haven’t been inside a convent or talked to a nun since, the movie portrays uncritically—and as though they were a matter of present fact—many of the rigid and ill-con­sidered practices of convent schools that have long since been softened or eliminated.

This outlook works quite well on the superficial comedy level, but it is an impenetrable barrier to getting below the surface of the characters or con­veying any real insight into religion or the religious vocation—though the Mother Superior (Rosalind Russell) is evidently supposed to be a remarkable woman, and we are also asked to be­lieve that the rebellious heroine has decided to become a nun herself some­where along the line.
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