Wednesday, March 30, 2011

The Trouble With Angels

When I was growing up in Conway, Ark., the merchants in town sponsored free weekly movies for the children in town every summer.

There was only one theater in Conway in those days, and the movies that were shown were usually a few years old. They were new to me, of course, and probably to most of the kids I knew.

Because there was almost always a lag between the times when many of the free movies I saw were released and the time I actually saw them, I'm not really sure when I saw them for the first time.

Such is the case with a movie that made its debut on this day in 1966 — "The Trouble With Angels" starring Hayley Mills and Rosalind Russell.

My best guess is that I must have seen it about three or four years after it came out. I don't really know.

But I do know that I liked it when I saw it. Maybe that is because I actually got to watch it.

Sure, it was pretty silly, even predictable. In hindsight, that was the best kind of movie for the audience that saw it. I went to many of the free movies in my hometown when I was growing up, and the silly movies were the ones that always seemed to hold that audience's attention.

Other movies had somewhat limited audiences within the more general audiences in the theater. It was at the free movies, for instance, that I saw "Planet of the Apes" for the first time, and I was intrigued, but I wasn't able to watch all of it because the members of the audience engaged in a "food fight."

Long before John Belushi and the cast of "Animal House" brought the concept to the screen, the kids of my generation were doing it in the seats and aisles of the darkened theater.

(I remember the kids got so rambunctious that the theater manager stopped the movie and came out on the stage — yes, there was an actual stage in the theater — and threatened to pull the plug on the movie if we didn't settle down.)

"Planet of the Apes" was just a little too high over most of the heads in the theater that day. I had to watch it on another occasion — and in an entirely different setting — to experience the whole film.

But "The Trouble With Angels" seemed to totally absorb everyone sitting in the theater the summer afternoon it was shown.

Yes, it was silly and predictable. And, since the action took place on the campus of a girls' school, it probably had more appeal for the girls in the audience than the boys. (That would change in the years ahead. This audience would have been mostly 8– and 9–year–olds — and I know, from having been an 8– and then 9–year–old boy, that no boy in that age group considers girls angelic in any way.)

Nevertheless, my memory is that everyone sat in rapt silence as the story played out on the screen.

If you watch the movie today, you might recognize some of the cast members by face if not by name.

Apart from the adolescent girls who played the students at the school, the adults who played the instructors were all seasoned pros. Some are known for the roles the played on TV, others for their contribution in other films, and they were all above the material they were given. But they handled it admirably.

There are no lines from the movie that have remained with me all these years ... well, except for one.

It was Hayley Mills' catchphrase in the film: "I've got the most scathingly brilliant idea!"

When she said that, you knew that something really outrageous (at least within the context of the film) was about to happen — and, usually, it did.

If you compare it to similar movies, made before or since, "The Trouble With Angels" was a fairly routine film.

But I think, in the loving directorial hands of Ida Lupino, what the story did (it was based, as I understand it, on the memoirs of a former Catholic high school student) was make the audience care genuinely about everyone in it.

And that's quite an achievement.