Grade:  B+/B


Rated PG

People who grew up watching Pollyanna, The Parent Trap, In Search of the Castaways, Summer Magic, The Moon-Spinners and That Darn Cat! no doubt think of Hayley Mills as a Disney actress. But other than those early films and much later sequels to The Parent Trap, Mills made far more movies and TV shows with other studios. And the coming-of-age comedy The Trouble with Angels (Columbia, 1966) still stands as one of her best ‘tween and teen films.

Mills gets second billing behind Rosalind Russell (His Girl Friday) in this story of students sent to live and study at the St. Francis Academy for girls, which is located in a convent and staffed by nuns. Russell plays the droll longsuffering Mother Superior, who, like Peter Pan’s shadow, seems to be everywhere the girls are, no matter what hijinks they’re trying to pull. And this is most certainly a hijinks film.

It opens on a train headed for St. Francis, with an openly rebellious Mary Clancy (Mills) lighting up a cigarette despite the no smoking rule. Onboard she meets Rachel Devery (June Harding), who seems “simpatico” and delighted to have found a friend. From that moment the two become inseparable . . . and insufferable as they begin their first year at St. Francis Academy.

The film documents their antics over the four years that they spend in the nunnery, whether it’s pranks and practical jokes, defiance of rules, or the kind of simple shenanigans that many teens pull when they haven’t prepared for class or are trying to get out of P.E. Mary and Rachel aren’t bad girls, mind you, but they behave more like hares than the tortoise approach Mother Superior seems to take, clearly hoping that over time she might make some difference in the girls’ lives. As a result, The Trouble with Angels has more depth than the typical light comedy, and viewers are encouraged to see things from both sides. It’s a surprisingly subtle transformational film in the Going My Way mold.

Columbia certainly picked the right director for the job. Not only was Ida Lupino one of the few female directors working in Hollywood, but she was also a bit of a rebel herself. She bucked the studio system by refusing roles and films she thought were not strong enough—so much so that she was frequently suspended by Warner Bros.

So how does a 1966 film about Catholic schoolgirls hold up today?

It’s still fun and entertaining becauseof the depth, the subtlety, the intelligent writing, and the crisp pacing. There’s also something inherently timeless about a wise adult who tries to mentor semi-resistant young people, whether we’re talking about Yoda and Luke Skywalker or a nun and a Catholic schoolgirl she identified as the ringleader. The pranks and antics keep it fun, while the relationship between the nuns and the girls keep it interesting.

In the irony department, famed stripper Gypsy Rose Lee turns up as an outside instructor that Mother Superior hired to teach the girls graceful movement. Russell had played Lee’s mother in the musical biopic Gypsy in the film she made immediately before this one, and film buffs will find such additional layers fun. Some familiar faces turn up, too, like Mary Wickes, who also donned a habit in the Sister Act films and played the secretary to TV’s mystery-solving priest, Father Dowling.

Collectively, this group of nuns is as entertaining as the ones from The Sound of Music, with individual personalities (eccentricities?) that shine through their habits—whether it’s teaching the girls how to swim, how to play an instrument, or any of the subjects that make school a beneficial burden.

Mills was 19 when Angels was shot, and perhaps the biggest surprise of the film is that the actress who plays Sundance to her Butch was 28 years old at the time—older than some of the actresses who played nuns. But the two work well together and are plenty convincing that they are in need of both maturity and understanding. The Trouble with Angels remains good fun and a great choice for family home theaters.

Entire family:  Yes

Run time:  111 min., Color

Studio/Distributor:  Columbia/Sony

Aspect ratio:  1.85:1

Featured audio:  DTS-HDMA 2.0

Bonus features:  D (only a trailer)

Barnes & Noble link


Rated PG for mild thematic elements

Language: 0/1—Nothing here to report

Sex:  1/10—Some revealing band uniforms, girls en masse shopping for bras (and trying some on over their blouses) and brief allusion to one parent having an affair

Violence:  0/10—Nothing at all; you were expecting rulers across the knuckles?

Adult situations:  3/10—Several instances of juvenile smoking (cigarettes and cigars)

Takeaway:  The Trouble with Angels remains current because the Catholic church remains constant in so many ways, and the characters under Lupino’s direction aren’t caricatures