Greetings, ladies and gentlemen! It is Thursday again, so it is time for another Breening Thursday article! Because of my preparations for my live presentation on Sunday, Pre-Code vs. Pro-Code, I was unable to complete the breening project which I was preparing for last week’s entry in the series. As a side note, for my readers who are interested in seeing my live defense of the Code, we will make footage from the event available very soon. We will either post a video on our website, or we will provide a link to the Los Angeles Central Library’s footage. The question and answer section was very spirited! This week, I don’t want to miss Breening Thursday again. It is especially important to feature this week because it will be the last article in this series for four weeks! This is the last Thursday in June, and I am suspending this series during July in honor of #CleanMovieMonth85. Since we are dedicating that month exclusively to Breen Era films, articles about un-Code films have no place in it. This will be the last Breening Thursday article until August 1, when I will restart the series with a bang on the first day of #AMonthWithoutTheCode! I will announce our plans for this year’s month about Codeless films very soon.
On June 20, Sally Silverscreen of 18 Cinema Lane published her entry in our monthly guest series, What the Code Means to Me. Her lovely article compared Breen Era films to modern Hallmark films, astutely pointing out that such decency-based movies show the potential for a new Code Era in the 21st century. Per the agreement in this series, she made two suggestions for an un-Code film which I could breen in an upcoming Breening Thursday article. Her suggestions were Wild Oranges from 1924 and The Trouble with Angels from 1966. I have never seen her first suggestion, which was a fascinating option, since I haven’t breened many silents. Nonetheless, I chose her second suggestion, since it is a movie which my family has watched frequently throughout my life. I know this late Shurlock Era film by heart, and I have considered it as a breening topic before. I jumped at this chance to have an excuse for breening this movie, which is the latest Shurlock film I have breened so far. Thank you for the great suggestion, Sally! I hope that you and the rest of my readers find my thoughts on this film interesting and informative. Before we start the actual breening, let’s review the premise of this film.
A rebellious fifteen-year-old orphan named Mary Clancy (Hayley Mills) is sent to a strict Catholic school called St. Francis Academy for Girls. On the train, she meets and befriends another new student, Rachel Devery (June Harding), a malleable girl who previously attended New Trends, a free-thinking school. Acting on one of the defiant Mary’s “scathingly brilliant ideas,” the two girls, plus two other new students they meet on the train, are up to mischief as soon as they arrive at the nun-supervised school. These holy sisters are led by the Reverend Mother (Rosalind Russell), a strong and unwavering woman who sees that Mary is trouble from the moment she meets her. Mary and Rachel wreak havoc on the school throughout their three years, all under Mary’s stubborn leadership. Despite their frequent inexcusable behavior, the Reverend Mother feels it is her duty to cope with the girls rather than expel them. Perhaps, during those three years, she and the other nuns will be able to penetrate Mary’s hard heart and show her the right path. With no further ado, let the breening begin!
The film opens with a whimsical cartoon showing two “angels” with wings, halos, and parochial school uniforms performing a series of comical misdeeds as the credits roll. The catchy theme song by Jerry Goldsmith is played during this. This song is played throughout the movie in various arrangements, but in this opening arrangement, it has a definite rock and roll beat. This is in poor taste, very controversial for the 1960s, and stimulating the baser element. Since we are dealing with religious themes here, the rock beat should be removed.
In this cartoon, the redheaded angel that represents Mary is seen being up to no good. After one episode of bad behavior, lightning flashes, and a very large hand appears to shake its finger at the disobedient girl. It is sacrilegious and disrespectful to comically depict the “finger of God.” Instead, the punishment should be limited to lightning and the cartoon image of the Reverend Mother.
Later in the cartoon, a redheaded woman holding a large pink bubble in front of herself is shown. This is a reference to the role which striptease dancer Gypsy Rose Lee has in the film as a dance instructor. We will deal with her actual role in the film later, for now, let’s just say that no bubble dancer should be shown in the credits.
After Mary and Rachel arrive at St. Francis, Rachel recognizes her cousin, Marvel-Ann (Barbara Hunter), and greets her. When Rachel asks about the other girl’s unfriendliness toward Mary, the latter explains that the grouchy girl is her uncle’s daughter. Mary explains, “Once I told her she was illegitimate, and she’s hated me ever since.” “Is she?” the curious Rachel asks. “Lord, no!” Mary responds, explaining, “Uncle George is very careful about that sort of thing.” This whole exchange is very suggestive and inappropriate, especially because it is between two young girls. No discussion of Marvel-Ann’s legitimacy or lack thereof is acceptable. Even if this exchange weren’t being eliminated, Mary’s line “Lord, no” would have to be cut, since it contains profane use of the word Lord. Since this situation is being eliminated, there needs to be a new reason for why Marvel-Ann hates her cousin. Mary already states that Uncle George has been sending his daughter to “the nuns,” meaning Catholic schools, since she was six. Perhaps she could add the following: “I told her years ago that her father wishes I were his daughter instead of her, since he didn’t send me away to school for years, and she’s hated me ever since.” Then, maybe Rachel could ask, “Does he?” Mary could reply, “Of course not. He wanted his own daughter to have a good upbringing. He let me do whatever I please and didn’t care how it turned out, since he knows I’m no good.” This is just a suggestion, but it gives an idea of what alternatives could be used to the unacceptable line about illegitimacy.
Not five minutes after they have arrived, Mary says that she’s “dying for a smoke.” Since the unfortunate girl is addicted to tobacco already, she encourages her new friend to accompany her to the bathroom to smoke cigarettes. To engage in this off-limits activity, they stand on top of the toilet seats and talk to each other over the tops of adjoining stalls as they smoke. The implication that they are standing on toilets is very vulgar but not surprising for 1966. Under the Code, the depiction of toilets was forbidden because it is not the proper subject matter for films. At the end of this scene, the girls dispose of their cigarettes by flushing them down toilets, the clearly audible sound of which makes the situation even more repellent. The girls may smoke, since that is an important part of the plot because it shows that Mary is a troubled girl. However, it must not be done in bathroom stalls. If they smoke in the bathroom, it should be by the sinks with neither stalls nor toilets in sight. Then, they can dispose of their cigarettes in the sink. If this solution is not desirable to the filmmakers, they should smoke in some other room.
As the girls smoke, Rachel tells Mary about the last school she attended, New Trends. Her teacher had her play a cardboard “silent piano” rather than a real piano. She says that she wasn’t allowed to even play the real piano. She says that her father said, “Why the – not?” Suffice it to say that the dash doesn’t stand for heck. This blatant profanity is completely unacceptable. It is quite surprising in this instance, even for 1966. Even in this late Shurlock year, it is in very poor taste for a fifteen-year-old girl to quote her father as having said a four-letter word to her. Worse still, it is the girl who is from the good family who says it, not Mary, the real troublemaker! The profanity should be replaced with heck, or the line should be simplified to, “Why not?”
At dinner that night, the new students are introduced to the nuns. The Reverend Mother introduces a very shy young nun, Sister Rose Marie (Dolores Sutton), who she says has just been appointed the leader of the social action committee. Mary whispers to Rachel, “I guess that’s for picketing things.” This is a sarcastic reference to the action which the Catholic Church had taken against immorality throughout the years, specifically in organizations such as the Legion of Decency, which boycotted films. This may have been the filmmakers’ own sarcastic little reference to the Legion of Decency, which changed its name to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Office for Film and Broadcasting in December of 1965. This brings us to the difficult point of just what is acceptable in a film about a mocking blasphemer. Mary is very irreligious, disrespectful, and sacrilegious in her discussion of Catholicism, Christianity, and the nuns. However, the whole point of the story is to show how she changes during her years at St. Francis. It is important to depict her as a bad girl at first, so some sacrilegious behavior is necessary. Then again, some things are too sacred to be mocked, especially since this young lady is the film’s protagonist. I will try to exercise good taste and judgement in deciding what blasphemous elements to remove. In this case, I must remove the line about picketing, since the Catholic Church’s willingness to boycott and protest evil was an important force for good in the 20th century, helping to lead to the formation of the Production Code Administration. It is unacceptable for Shurlock-Era Hollywood to mock that religious reformative action.
The next two objections are on the same topic. At dinner, the Reverend Mother says grace, and everyone follows her lead in making the sign of the cross. Rachel, however, is not a Catholic, so she doesn’t know how to make this religious sign. She tries to use both hands and manages to tangle them together both times she attempts to cross herself. The sign of the cross is the most sacred symbol of Christianity, used by Catholics and Eastern Orthodox Christians. Rachel’s fumbled attempts to make this symbol treat the sign as a subject for laughter. Making such a sacred religious sign part of a comedic gag could be very offensive to Christians, particularly Catholics. Rachel may look rather doubtful and unsure about how to make the sign, but she should watch Mary and follow her so that she can successfully cross herself.
Later, Mary and Rachel charge the other girls thirty-five cents each for tours of the off-limits cloister quarters of the nuns while the sisters are at chapel. Mary starts by showing the girls the Reverend Mother’s room. Marvel-Ann doubtingly says, “How do you know it’s her room?” Mary confidently replies, “It’s got the king-sized crucifix,” pointing to the large cross over the bed. The italicized words are a very disrespectful way to refer to the crucifix, which, like the sign of the cross, is the most sacred emblem of Catholicism. Yes, Mary is a blasphemous girl. However, we mustn’t allow the script to go so far as to offend religious audience-members. The phrase king-sized should be replaced with the more serious huge.
Next, Mary and Rachel hike outside with the physical education teacher, Sister Clarissa (Mary Wickes). They and the rest of the students are wearing gray sweat suits, since it is snowy. When we see the two troublemakers from the back, we see that they have white patches on their posteriors. The two slackers have obviously been sitting in the snow. This is rather vulgar, since it draws undo attention to their posteriors. The gag of the snow on the seats of their pants should be removed.
Because she writes a misleading letter of complaint to her former teacher at New Trends, Mr. Petrie (Jim Hutton), Rachel ends up washing pots and pans, the punishment which the Reverend Mother liberally doles out to the two mischief-makers during their three years at St. Francis. Mary keeps Rachel company and whispers as she asks her friend what the Reverend Mother said to Mr. Petrie. She whispers so that she won’t awaken the sleeping Sister Prudence (Judith Lowry), the oldest nun in the convent, who is supposed to be watching Rachel. At a normal volume, Rachel says, “I keep telling you. Sister Puddy could sleep through a blastoff.” It is extremely disrespectful for Rachel to refer to the elderly nun as Sister Puddy. This single act of disrespect doesn’t serve much of a purpose. It just solidifies the idea that disrespect for elders, clergy, and religion is common and accepted. She should just call her Sister Prudence.
At last we come to the controversial bubble dancer of the cartoon credits, the dance instructor played by Gypsy Rose Lee. Her character is Mrs. Mabel Norman Phipps, and she is hired by the Reverend Mother to teach the girls “how to walk and how to dance” in reaction to their parents’ observation that they are “singularly clumsy.” The Reverend Mother refers to the new teacher’s reputable references, including her having taught at many of the finest girls’ schools and her picture having appeared on the cover of a dance magazine. However, the lady herself is rather flamboyant. She announces that the girls will need leotards, and the young ladies are soon seen wearing these unflattering garments. The first shot of them thus-attired is a rather inappropriate through-the-legs angle which is reminiscent of Busby Berkeley’s pre-Code dance photography. Mrs. Phipps tells them that they must be young willows. She encourages them to start moving very loosely. The girls eagerly imitate her abandoned, loose-limbed style, echoing her chants of “willows” and “fluid.” When the Reverend Mother comes in, she is horrified to see just how fluid her pupils are. This sequence is in poor taste for several reasons. Firstly, Gypsy Rose Lee always brought the bad reputation of her profession with her, so her casting as any sort of teacher is very questionable. In the 1940s, it was announced that Miss Lee would appear in some films, and reporters quickly questioned Joseph Breen on how the PCA reacted to such news. He clearly stated that company policy on whether or not it was good business for a striptease dancer to appear in a film was not his concern. It was only his business to monitor what she did in films. As long as she kept her clothes on on the screen, the ethics of her presence on the screen was Will Hays’s business, not his. However, in this case, I think he would have said that this sequence implies that Catholic schools are not very careful about whom they hire as teachers. The Reverend Mother seems quite shocked when she sees what sort of dancing her girls are doing, so we assume that she was not very well-informed about Mrs. Phipps’s background. Also, the dancing itself, if it can be called that, puts the girls in some very suggestive and inappropriate positions. Gypsy Rose Lee, Mrs. Mabel Norman Phipps, and the willows would have no place in the Code version of this film. This situation was just included as a reference to the fact that Rosalind Russell played Mama Rose in the 1962 film Gypsy.
When the Reverend Mother sees the girls being “fluid” like “willows,” she realizes that they are in need of some undergarments. In the next scene, she tells the timid Sister Rose Marie that she must take the girls to a store to buy suitable underpinnings for them. Poor Sister Rose Marie says that she doesn’t know anything about “binders,” but the Reverend Mother says that she will be too busy to take them on the brassiere-shopping trip herself. At the store, the girls go wild as they rummage through the lingerie and try the most glamorous garments on over their uniforms. Thankfully, the Reverend Mother arrives just in time and informs the clerk that they will take two dozen simple white garments. This whole situation is very inappropriate and extremely unnecessary. It is unacceptable to openly discuss such an intimate item of female apparel, let alone show dozens such items. Also, it is rather preposterous to assume that these young women of sixteen do not already wear these undergarments. It is quite obvious from their appearances that they do. This situation was only added because there was nothing to “prevent it” by 1966. The Code requires that both the dancing and brassiere sequences be eliminated. As a matter of fact, they have absolutely no bearing on the plot. Mary and Rachel both are present in these scenes, but they don’t have any particular involvement. They don’t cause trouble, and they don’t carry out any “scathingly brilliant ideas.” These two scenes were just added for the purpose of lending some extra 1960s humor. A new scene or scenes could be added instead, or the movie’s running time could be nicely trimmed by about ten minutes!
In a later scene, Mary and Rachel are walking on the grounds of the school when they meet the Reverend Mother. After the nun scolds Mary for mocking the German Sister Ursula (Marjorie Eaton), Mary vents to Rachel. Then, lightening her mood, she says, “Come on. Race you to Saint Fatty Peloosa!” I’m not positive about the exact name she says. It may be Fanny Peloosa. Either way, Mary is using a very disrespectful nickname for a saint. This is another instance in which I think her sacrilegious line is unacceptable. She should just dare Rachel to a race toward a real saint’s statue.
The pinnacle of the duo’s evil deeds is when they smoke cigars left by the plumber in a dusty old basement. Although this act is not done with the intention of causing mischief for anyone besides themselves, it has very dangerous and complicated results when a nun sees their smoke coming out of a window and thinks the building is on fire! While the girls are smoking down there, Rachel tells Mary that she doesn’t think she likes the cigars. She obviously smokes them and other forms of tobacco just because of Mary’s encouragement. Mary says, “It’s good to have something you hate you can give up for Lent.” Rachel agrees that this is sound logic. This is a very flippant and blasphemous view towards the season of Lent. If Mary were strictly an atheist who hated Christianity but eventually began to respect it, it might be acceptable for her to say such a disrespectful line about a Christian holiday before her conversion. However, the fact that she was raised as a Catholic, albeit a bad one, changes the whole situation. Many non-Catholics would interpret this is an accurate statement of a common view toward Lent among Catholics. While some irreligious and casual “cradle Catholics” like Mary might feel this way, most Catholics who observe Lent are very serious about it. This line should be deleted.
Because of this escapade, the Reverend Mother decides to expel the two hoodlums. She summons Rachel’s father (Pat McCaffrie) and Mary’s Uncle George (Kent Smith) to tell them about her thoughts on the matter. George Clancy explains to the Reverend Mother that he is always concerned about his little niece’s welfare, although he is very busy with his “business affairs.” As he is saying this, the Reverend Mother is observing the leopard coat-clad secretary who is standing by his convertible. He again states that his “affairs” have taken up a great deal of his time. It is obvious from these subtle implications, which the Reverend Mother quickly observes, that he is preoccupied as much with his romantic affairs as with his business affairs. This implication is subtle and basically acceptable. We don’t know just what is going on between Uncle George and his secretaries. However, we infer that it is not the sort of situation which is a good influence for Mary. This is pretty subtle and acceptable for the most part. My only objection is the use of the word affairs. This word has such a strong connection to amorous immorality that it makes the situation unnecessarily obvious in its tawdriness. Both business affairs and affairs should be replaced with the single word business.
After the second summer vacation, Mary and Rachel are very happy to be reunited. Rachel gives Mary a pink fluffy purse which she says she got in Mexico. She tells Mary that there was a matching hat, but her father said it made her look like a chippie, “whatever that is.” The italicized word which Rachel doesn’t understand is a forbidden expression, slang for a woman of the oldest profession. This unacceptable word should be replaced with something like Ziegfield girl or taxi dancer. Otherwise, the line should just be eliminated.
As she continues relating her summer trip south of the border, Rachel tells Mary that she went to a bullfight. “I threw up,” she blandly says, to which Mary replies, “Oh, dear.” Such a blatant reference to a disgusting bodily function is unacceptable. Rachel’s line should instead be, “I got sick,” which is more subtle.
Then, Mary tells Rachel about her trip to Europe during the summer. She proudly announces, “I have pictures of Uncle George’s new secretary in a bikini – black mesh!” This is an unacceptable line because of its risqué implications. The mere fact that Uncle George’s secretary accompanied them on their trip abroad is very suggestive. Her statement that this woman was in a black mesh bikini puts a very indecent picture in one’s mind. The young girl’s fascination with such an immodest situation is quite disturbing. The whole line should be deleted.
Later in the film, St. Francis prepares for a school band contest. In the dormitory, Mary tells Rachel that they should find out if their stiffest competitor, New Trends, is any better than they are. By the way, the St. Francis band is quite mediocre. As they are planning, the two girls lean over a table and begin plotting, their backs toward the camera. There is an undo focus on their posteriors. This focus should be lessened.
After their mission has been accomplished, the girls tell the Reverend Mother about the New Trends band. They happily inform her that the other band is “just as rotten” as they are. The only difference is that New Trends has special band uniforms. The girls beg the Reverend Mother for band uniforms, but she tells them that they will perform in their gym suits. The girls are appalled by this idea. Mary says that it’s different at Sacred Heart, since they wear “short shorts” for gym. The Reverend Mother simply replies, “They’re French.” The line about short shorts is unacceptable, since it is too pointed a discussion of indecent clothing.
Eventually, the Reverend Mother gets new uniforms for the band. She rents them from Mr. Gottschalk (Jim Boles), and she is very grateful for the bargain he gives her. She is a little less grateful when she actually sees the uniforms on her girls. They are red leotards, not even shorts, and they are covered with gold filigree! The camera focuses on all the bare legs in another Berkeley-esque shot. The Reverend Mother is appalled, but the band wins the contest and earns the much-needed prize money. The band uniforms are really unacceptable. They make the girls look like pre-Code chorus girls. This scenario is important for the plot, but it cannot remain unaltered. The girls’ uniforms must not be so short on the bottom. Instead of leotards, perhaps the costumes could have sparkly skirts that hit just above the knee. That way, the costumes would still be rather daring and extremely flashy for a Catholic school, but they wouldn’t be indecently exposing. Also, there should be no focus on the girls’ legs. Instead, closeups should focus on the sequins and sparkles.
That concludes my breening of this film! This movie is interesting in the fact that it is a dominantly female production. Since the action takes place in a convent school, there are only four credited male characters. The director was a woman, the famous and very versatile Ida Lupino. The screenplay was written by a woman, Blanche Hanalis, based on a novel by another woman, Jane Trahey. This just goes to show that women also will add tawdry humor and cheap vulgarisms when they can get away with it. Rascally filmmaking is not exclusive to men!
This movie has a wholesome and uplifting premise. It is considered to be a family film. However, when it was re-released in 1996, the MPAA Classification and Rating Administration gave it a PG rating for “mild thematic elements.” Although I don’t put much stock in CARA’s ratings, this classification reminds us of the unfortunate tendency which began in the Shurlock Era of putting unnecessary unacceptable content in family films. Even more than other films, family films should uphold the Code standard of being “reasonably acceptable to reasonable people” of all ages. I hope that, with the changes I suggested, this film would be that and would be just as funny and entertaining as it is now. Thank you for the suggestion, Sally!
By the way, please join our month-long celebration of Code films, #CleanMovieMonth85! Throughout July, we are going to watch nothing but American Breen Era films, and we are inviting participants to do the same. Writers can join this celebration with articles about their own favorite films and discoveries during the month, and we will republish them on our website. Here’s to 85 years since the formation of the Production Code Administration!
As a special high-point of our month-long celebration in July, we are hosting a blogathon on the first weekend in July in honor of the formation of the PCA and the twenty wonderful years of decent cinema which followed during Joseph Breen’s tenure. It will be called The Favorite Code Film Blogathon. On July 5-7, participants will choose their single favorite Code films and write about why these movies from the era of film decency were so good. Please join!
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