Friday, October 24, 2014


I suppose there’s a kind of tinpot triumph in making a film about the dark underbelly of human sexuality which succeeds in being, in itself, a work of astounding sleaze and prurience. Such is Who Killed Teddy Bear?; a high-pedigreed '60s exploitationer whose interrogative title suggests another entry in the Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? “hag horror” sweepstakes, but is, in fact, an example of what I call “cesspool cinema.” Cesspool cinema is a '60s exploitation sub-genre of low-rent, reactionary, social-commentary films preoccupied with the alleged rise in sexual degeneracy. These films dedicate themselves to exposing (in as prurient a way possible) the threat that drugs, pornography, and delinquency pose to a civilized society.

Tackling the kind of material David Lynch would later build an entire career upon, these movies sought to lift the sewer lid off of life, offering a dark, bleakly nihilistic glimpse into the twilight world of depravity and violence seething below the surface of so-called normalcy. Posing ostensibly as tell-it-like-it-is cautionary tales warning against the dangers of unchecked morality and wanton sexual license, “cesspool cinema” films tend to tip their sincerity hand by actually being every bit as skeevy as the world their narratives purport to condemn. A good example of cesspool cinema that runs a close second to Who Killed Teddy Bear? on the sleaze-o-meter is the sensationalistic 1964 Olivia de Havilland shocker Lady in a Cage.
Sal Mineo as Lawrence Sherman
Juliet Prowse as Norah Dain
Elaine Stritch as Marian Freeman
Jan Murray as Lt. Dave Madden
Who Killed Teddy Bear? is first posed as a musical question crooned melodramatically (not to mention, over-eloquently, given the character whose thoughts its lyrics are meant to convey) over the film’s tantalizingly lurid title sequence. A sequence which, depending on the copy you see, features a woman in bra and half-slip and a man in incredibly tight, white underwear—the latter being something of a motif in this movielocked together in an impassioned, touchy-feely embrace. Bearing witness to all this in the bedroom’s doorway is an understandably wide-eyed little girl clutching a teddy bear. A little girl who, upon fleeing the scene too swiftly, loses her balance and tumbles down a flight of stairs. Cue the psychosexual dysfunction and guilt.
The original, uncut version of Who Killed Teddy Bear? runs 94 minutes and can be distinguished from slightly truncated copies by the unblurred imagery shown in the title sequence

When Who Killed Teddy Bear? is posed as a question a second time, it’s by the inconsolable Edie (Margot Bennett)the hapless little girl on the stairs, now a brain-damaged 19-year-oldinquiring of her older brother, Lawrence (Mineo), the fate of her beloved lost childhood toy. You see, the sordid events unfolding under the film’s opening credits turn out to have been Lawrence’s guilt-ridden nightmare/flashback to the time when Edie was left in his charge.
The siblings are orphaned (there being a brief allusion made to their parents’ deaths, with Edie going so far as to call her brother, “mommy-daddy”) and it was Lawrence's momentary neglectas a then-underage boy surrendering to the seduction of an unidentified “sexually experienced older woman”—which resulted in Edie suffering the staircase accident which left her mentally and emotionally frozen at roughly the age of her trauma.
Margot Bennett as Edie Sherman
Bennett (former wife of personal crushes Keir Dullea AND Malcolm McDowell) is very good
in a role that appears to have inspired both Taliah Shire's costuming and performance in Rocky

Jump ahead several years: Lawrence is an adult with a crippling attraction/repulsion attitude toward sex, the silent recrimination of his sister's blameless, childlike dependency inflaming in him a neurotic prudishness that seeks to suppress her natural (sexual) maturation. As for that lost teddy beara lingering symbol of his guiltLawrence tells Edie that it has been killed in an accident, when in actuality, he has secreted it away.
Clearly, Edie wasn't the only one damaged that night.

What's also clear is the fact that Who Killed Teddy Bear?, in being a film exhaustively preoccupied with presenting sex in only its most tawdry and squalid contexts, has a sizable attraction/repulsion issue of its own. Like a movie adapted from Travis Bickle fan fiction, Who Killed Teddy Bear? paints a picture of New York as a singularly seedy hotbed of latent and manifest degeneracy. There's scarcely a character in the film left unslimed by its sewer-eye-view of humanity.

CASE #1 Lawrence
A waiter at a NYC discothèque, Lawrence's sexual molestation at the hands of an older woman (that’s what it was, although they didn’t call it that back then) leaves him with a staggering catalog of sexual hang-ups; not the least of them being voyeurism, making obscene phone calls, stalking (another word they didn't use back then), scopophilia, and sex attraction/repulsion. When not engaged in one of these extracurricular pursuits, he spends his time dry-humping his pillow, thumbing through his extensive porn collection (French Frills, When She Was Bad), trolling Time Square, or homoerotically working out at the gym. 
Where should I be looking? 
Sal Mineo's toned, always-on-display body does most of his acting in Who Killed Teddy Bear? Right now I'd say it's acting like a compass needle pointing north, subtly (?) identifying the guilty party.

CASE #2 Norah
Since we’re introduced to Norah at precisely the moment she’s at the business end of a dirty phone call, there’s no way of telling how much of her frosty demeanor and almost paranoid level of apprehension is her usual personality or the result of suddenly finding herself one of New York’s premiere creep magnets. An aspiring actress and part-time DJ at the very same dance club where Lawrence lurks...I mean, works...Norah can barely get through a day without being hit on by randy patrons“You hungry? Let me buy you a frankfurter”or having the status of her virginity become the central topic of conversation: “Every scrawny broad thinks she’s the only one entrusted with the crown jewels, and then she’ll die if she loses them!”
"Who is this? Who IS this?"
For films like this to work, it's necessary for it never to occur to the recipient
of an obscene phone call to merely hang up.
CASE #3 Marian
Tough-as-nails (aka, lesbian) manager of a discothèque which seems to do a pretty decent business given they only have three records. Marian’s a brassy, calls-‘em-like-she-sees-‘em, survivor type whose weakness for furliteral and figurative (“I dig soft things…don’t you?”), plays a significant part in her propriety-mandated, horizontal early departure from the film.
Being just a simple girl from Rochester, NY, Norah can't be faulted for mistaking 
Marian's offer of succor to be as dirty as it sounds
CASE #4 Lt. Madden
Striving for hard-boiled but landing at Borscht Belt, police Lt. Madden is every bit the sex-obsessed porn junkie as Lawrence, but fiery moral rectitude over the loss of his wife to violent assault has allowed this self-styled expert on deviant sex to place his own behavior above the pale. Behavior which includes working clinically gruesome details of sex crimes into the most casual of conversations, and turning the apartment he shares with his 10-year-old daughter Pam (Diane Moore, comedian Jan Murray’s real-life daughter), into a virtual vice squad reading room. Who Killed Teddy Bear?’s themes of innocence corrupted are repeated in Madden’s daughter falling asleep each night to the sound of her father listening to his collection of audio tapes of sex assault victims. Talk about your grim fairy tales.
"She's very she a hooker?"
Decades before this became a common question posed by pre-teens of their favorite pop stars,
little Pam Madden's (Diane Moore) presumptive appraisal of house-guest Norah Dain betrays signs of a troubling sexual precocity 

These are the players in Who Killed Teddy Bear?; less a cast of characters than a police blotter of victims and would-be assailants in service of a familiar, somewhat rote, woman-in-peril crime thriller. The plot is simple: someone has their eyes on Norah and embarks on an escalating campaign of harassment to get her attention. It's a race with the clock as to whether or not the police can find the caller before he makes good on his many threats.
The film takes a weak stab at trying to drum up a little suspense as to the identity of Norah's peeping tom/stalker by casting a wide net of suspicion over everyone in her skeevy circle: a lecherous maître d'; a young Daniel J. Travanti as a deaf-mute bouncer with piercing eyes; the cop who takes a too-personal interest in her casebut the choice to shoot the caller from the neck down, calling attention to his impossibly taut backside and wasp waist, swiftly narrows the field of probable suspects to a comical degree.

No, what truly distinguishes Who Killed Teddy Bear? is its lewd-yet-arty exploration of aberrant sexual development; its overheated, almost documentary look at New York's seamy side (it could pass for an anti-pornography propaganda film); and a tone of suffocating bleakness that feels positively surreal when one realizes this film was made the same year as The Sound of Music.
Honestly, Who Killed Teddy Bear? is a dark film that takes a head-first dive into the sewer and never comes up for air. Were it a better film, it would probably be unwatchable
Corruption of Innocence
In profiling the home lives of Lawrence and Lt. Madden, Who Killed Teddy Bear? parallels the
similar damage that can arise from dissimilar obsessions

Imagine John Waters making one of those overheated erotic thrillers from the '80s and '90s. Films with sound-alike titles along the lines of Body of Evidence, Guilty as Sin, Crimes of Passion, and Fatal Attraction. Imagine Waters' absurdist brand of debauched urban squalor played straight and you’ve got a pretty good idea of what Who Killed Teddy Bear? is like. As twisted a work of mid-century pseudo-mainstream cinema as was ever screened at a Times Square grindhouse theater. 
Hollywood’s hypocritical nature is rarely shown to such brilliant advantage as when it has worked itself into a sanctimonious lather over some social-ill it wishes to expose. The makers of Who Killed Teddy Bear? (director Joeseph Cates [Phoebe’s father] and writer Arnold Drake) obviously decided that the best way to comment on the pernicious threat of degeneracy is to make a film any self-respecting degenerate would love. 
Movies Are Your Best Entertainment
Lawrence treats himself to a picture show. Who Killed Teddy Bear? is worth checking out
for its scenes of '60s-era Times Square alone. Amusingly, this dive of a theater has a uniformed doorman! 

As a fan of '60s go-go movies, I love all the scenes set in the discothèque (seedy dance club, really), but it blows my mind that a hunk of sleaze this oily could have been made at a time when Hullabaloo, Shindig, and The Patty Duke Show were all over the airwaves. Nostalgia fans love to think of the '60s as this kinder, gentler era, but a movie like Who Killed Teddy Bear? suggests that the decade was perhaps just more skillful in sweeping its social debris under the rug.
"You look like a whore!"
Remarkably, sister Edie isn't the character delivering this line.

I haven't seen the late Elaine Stritch in many films, and I'm not sure her range extended far beyond some variation of the tough-old-broad type she plays here, but within that range, she is untouchable. She gives the best performance in the film (arguably the only performance in the film), turning a "type" into a dimensional, fleshed-out character. She enlivens the proceedings and raises the film's quality bar each and every moment she appears.
Daniel J. Travanti of Hill St. Blues appears as Carlo, the bouncer
And speaking of tough, personal fave Juliet Prowse is perhaps one of the least-helpless looking women I've ever seen, but her innate brassiness is a major asset in a film as focused on female victimization as this. I can't really vouch for her performance, which seems a little superficial, but I like that her character is depicted as independent-minded and often more pissed-off than scared by what's happening to her. Hers is a huge departure from the kind of cowering, passive women common to women-in-jeopardy films (like Doris Day in 1961's Midnight Lace).

As public tastes in movies changed, many '50s boy-next-door types sought to extend their careers by taking on roles that challenged their squeaky clean images: James Darren - Venus in Furs, Troy Donahue - My Blood Runs Cold. Who Killed Teddy Bear? is structured as an against-type breakout role for teen heartthrob and two-time Oscar-nominee (Rebel Without a CauseExodus) Sal Mineo, but the truth is that, while fine in the part, the actor is consistently upstaged by his physique. You'd have to watch a Raquel Welch movie to see a film where the exposure of a physique is favored so deferentially over a performance.
For a film marketed to the heteronormative exploitation market, no physique in the film comes under quite the same degree of close-up camera scrutiny as Mineo's. Not that I'm complaining.

An actor’s body is obviously their instrument, but when that instrument is puffed out with ornamental muscles, it runs the risk of actually inhibiting expression, not assisting (think Channing Tatum’s neck). Such is the case with Mineo in Who Killed Teddy Bear?. I imagine we are supposed to glean that Lawrence channels his sexual repression into a fetishistic preoccupation with working out, but Mineo's body and shrink-wrap wardrobe seem to encase and inhibit him. He seems overly aware of his muscles, as though he were getting used to wearing a new garment, resulting in his pants beginning his performance a good 30 seconds before he does.
A few of the shows running on Broadway at the time 
For many, a question far more pressing than Who Killed Teddy Bear? is how did the careers of Mineo (a talented actor) and Prowse (a talented dancer and singer) sink to this level of grindhouse sleaze?

Who Killed Teddy Bear? would be a feature film with a running time of 60-minutes if it excised all the footage devoted to filming the dancers at the discotheque doing The Watusi and The Frug. Serious padding there. But happily, along with this film being a perfect time-capsule of New York at its grimiest, it's also a movie that offers fans of '60s go-go, ample opportunity to see it in action.
The film's erotic set-piece, one precipitated by Lawrence's observation that the way people dance is "Very suggestive!" is a two-minute dance-off by the statuesque Prowse and slim-hipped Mineo that is both hilarious and terribly, terribly sexy. Suggestive, indeed!
The songs used in the film (all three of them) are composed by Bob Gaudino of The Four Seasons and Al Kasha, the Best Song Oscar winner for The Towering Inferno and The Poseidon Adventure.

I saw Who Killed Teddy Bear? for the first time when I was about nine or ten. Bad idea. It aired on TV in the wee small hours of the morning on something like the The Late, Late, Late Show, and I was excited at the prospect of staying up late and seeing what I thought would be a fun/scary B-movie like Die! Die! My Darling! or Whatever Happened to Aunt Alice? (the latter, playing in the theaters at the time). Of course, what I got was this weird, terribly dark movie about depravity, porn, rape, and murder. Needless to say, this head trip of a movie disturbed the hell out of me (Mineo with his magic pants and action torso played no small part), and for the longest time Who Killed Teddy Bear? occupied a place in my psyche reserved for kindertrauma. The ending in particular--how it was shot, that dream effect that black and white film can create--gave me lingering nightmares.
Prohibited from simulating masturbation onscreen back in 1965, Mineo is instead shown stroking his thighs while making an obscene phone call. According to Mineo, this was the first American film to feature a man in jockey shots

It’s a curious thing, kids and scary movies. Monsters and ghouls engaged in simplistic struggles of good vs. evil played out against low-budget backdrops of drafty castles and decaying mansions have a strangely comforting, distancing artificiality. The scares they supply are fun because the worlds depicted are so reassuringly false.
Less easy to shake off is a grim treatise on the corruptibility of innocence shot in grainy, news-bulletin black and white, set in a grimy, claustrophobic New York teeming not with easy-to-identify monsters, but the flesh and blood kind that look just like everybody else.

For a young person, a movie like Who Killed Teddy Bear?a film that offers few likable characters, little in the way of hope, and no happy endingis particularly disturbing because it’s just too real. The technical gloss of a big-budget picture can actually keep what's happening onscreen at a safe and comfortable remove. The low-budget black and white of Who Killed Teddy Bear? looks disconcertingly like reality as depicted in a documentary. I recall it was one of the earliest films to give me the feeling that the world wasn't a safe place.
Who Killed Teddy Bear? popped up frequently on TV when I was young, then just seemed to disappear. Sometime in the '90s it resurfaced at a local revival theater here in LA, allowing me the opportunity to see it with an audience for the first time. By now, what I'd once thought of as disturbing looked hopelessly camp, overwrought, and overemphatic, but the film somehow retained all of its edge (it was banned in the UK until very recently). After all these years Who Killed Teddy Bear? holds up as one of the strangest films to come out of the so-called swinging '60s. And that’s saying something.
This Teddy Bear's No Picnic

The version of Who Killed Teddy Bear? available on DVD overseas is a slightly edited version from the 94-minute original. Here is what can be found in the uncut version (spoilers):
1. The first telltale sign of an edited copy is that during the title sequence, the caressing bodies behind the credits appear blurred & fully obscured. In the uncut version, the intertwined bodies in the title sequence are clear and visible.
2. Scene with Stritch and Prowse in her apartment is lengthier in the uncut version, including Stritch relaying this information: “I never wore a bra until I was 28. And then for a fast ten minutes. Some quack convinced me it helped firm the muscles. I don’t like being fenced in. It’s a hang-up of mine.”
3. A flashback sequence featuring Mineo being seduced by an older woman is longer and slightly more explicit (his body, not hers) in the uncut version.
4. The scenes of Mineo at Times Square porn shops and in front of the porno theater are longer.
5. The uncut version features a brief moment when Mineo kisses and embraces Stritch after killing her in the alley.
6. The uncut version features a brief deleted scene where Mineo is seen humping his bed in his BVDs.
7. Final assault is slightly more explicit in the uncut version.

Who Killed Teddy Bear? detective Bruce Glover (l.) can be seen exercising a similar smirk nearly ten years later as Jack Nicholson's associate in Roman Polanski's Chinatown (1974).  

Depending on the source, the voice singing the title song over the film's opening credits has been attributed to either Rita Dyson or Claire Francis (Mikki Young). *Update: In 2016, a reader found that both Variety and Billboard credited singer Vi Velasco with singing the title song.

Here are a couple of the cover versions floating around the net;

Hear Leslie Uggams sing the haunting theme to Who Killed Teddy Bear?

Hear 80s pop singer Josie Cotton sing the haunting theme to Who Killed Teddy Bear?

In 1965, the same year Who Killed Teddy Bear? was released, Juliet Prowse debuted in her own TV sitcom, the short-lived (and rather terrible, as I recall) Mona McCluskey. Sal Mineo appeared as a guest on an episode. See Mona McCluskey opening credits on YouTube.

Copyright © Ken Anderson 2009 - 2014

Thursday, October 9, 2014


I grew up in the '60s, the era of the “fun nun.”
And while it’s true I attended Catholic schools almost exclusively during my youth, the real-life nuns I encountered on a daily basis bore more a resemblance to Jessica Lange’s steely Sister Jude in American Horror Story:Asylum than all those spunky, irrepressible, exhaustingly adorable nuns that littered the pop-cultural landscape in the wake of the '60s reconfiguration of the Catholic Church and Vatican II.
Sister Luc-Gabrielle (The Singing Nun) and her ecumenical earworm of a pop-ditty Dominique topped the charts and actually outsold The Beatles in 1963. In 1965, Julie Andrews and those Nazi-thwarting nuns of The Sound of Music broke boxoffice records nationwide. Sister Luc’s life story was Hollywoodized in 1966’s The Singing Nun, which was little more than perky Debbie Reynolds playing perky Debbie Reynolds in a wimple. Moving on to groovier, more socially-relevant pastures, Mary Tyler Moore played a toothsome, inner-city nun romanced by Elvis Presley (of all people) in his last film Change of Habit (1969). But perhaps the ultimate nadir and apogee of the entire '60s "Nuns can be fun!" mania has to be the sitcom that launched a thousand Johnny Carson monologues: Sally Field as The Flying Nun (1967-1970): a credit which took the actress an entire career, three Emmys, and two Oscars to live down.
Rosalind Russell as Mother Superior (Madeline Rouche)

Hayley Mills as Mary Clancy

June Harding as Rachel Devery

When I was very small, nuns onscreen seemed like near-mythic figures of virtue, wisdom, and heroism on par with cowboys in white hats and combat soldiers at the front. The embodiment of Christian values in human form, they were untouchable (and, all-importantly, untouched), and representative of all the noble (aka, maternal) female virtues. But as I grew older, the long-suffering, queenly brand of nuns portrayed in movies like The Bells of Saint Mary’s (1945), Come to the Stable (1949), and The Nun’s Story (1959) struck me as just another variation of the self-sacrificing  “grand lady” stereotype.

Come the 1960s, when overt displays of religious piety began to be viewed as corny and old-fashioned by the moviegoing populace, nuns became overnight comic foils. Much in the way that viewers today never cease to find amusement in little old ladies engaging in comically inappropriate behavior like smoking joints, swearing, expressing sexual rapaciousness, or rapping (kill me now); nuns became the go-to images of charmingly comic inappropriateness. Anti-establishment humor, so popular at the time, relied on clearly defined standards of decency to offend, so in the mid-'60s it was nunsthose walking anachronisms of starchy moralitywho played Margaret Dumont to a world of counterculture Grouchos.
Tolerance Tested 
Reverend Mother falls victim to the old bubble-bath-in-the-sugar-bowl trick 

To avoid the appearance of mocking Catholicism, these films took the stance that their lighthearted ribbing actually contributed to “humanizing” nunsnot a bad idea, as nuns can be pretty terrifying. To mute the impression that Catholicism itself was being mocked from outsiders, these films tended to place the antagonist “in-house.” Meaning, the standard set-up was always very similar to that of your basic opposites-attract buddy film: a high-spirited, independent-minded novice (how does one solve a problem like Maria?) butts heads with a staunch defender of the old Catholic order. Old order Catholicism in these instances represented by the imposing figure of a Mother Superior: your typical imperious disciplinarian, wet-blanket authority figure, and parental surrogate.

Thanks to saturation, it didn't take long for the whole wacky nuns sub-genre to fall into a series of overworked, sitcomy tropes (nuns on scooters, nuns in brawls, nuns in discothèques), but in 1966, director Ida Lupino made what is perhaps the best film to come out of the whole “fun nuns” genre: the delightful The Trouble with Angels. One of the funniest and most egregiously overlooked comedies of the 1960s. 
Fleur de Lis & Kim Novak meet The Dragon
Set in fictional St. Francis Academy, a conservative Catholic boarding school for girls in Philadelphia, The Trouble with Angels chronicles (in seriocomic vignettes) the misadventures of rebellious, headstrong Mary Clancy (Mills) and her bumbling partner-in-crime Rachel Devery (Harding), as their mischievous antics provoke the mounting consternation and ire of the school’s formidable Mother Superior (Russell).
Marge Redmond as Sister Ligouri, Russell as Mother Superior, and Binnie Barnes as Sister Celestine

As I’ve expressed in previous posts, so-called “family films” held very little interest for me when I was a kid. It's not that I thought they were beneath me (I did), it's just that I found most of the 1966 options in inoffensive family entertainment (when I was all of 9-years-old) to be pretty offensive. On the one hand, there was the “wholesome smut” genre, typified by Bob Hope’s Boy Did I Get The Wrong Number, and Jerry Lewis in Way…Way Out; and on the other, live-action Disney films, which, when not engaged in music or magic, were so plastic and artificial (The Monkey’s Uncle, That Darn Cat!) they were like images beamed from another planet.
Given that my older sister attended an all-girls Catholic school and was a huge Rosalind Russell fan, there was never any question about whether or not I was going to see The Trouble with Angels when it came out, merely when. (My sister turned me into a Russell Rooter by always insisting I watch Gypsy and Auntie Mame when they aired on TV, and by frequently pointing out how much Tony Curtis resembled her in Some Like It Hot.) Besides, like many '60s-era little boys and girls, I harbored a mad (secret) crush on Hayley Mills.
Mary Clancy on the verge of a "Scathingly brilliant idea"
When it came to finally seeing The Trouble with Angels, I’ll admit my expectations weren't very high. But from the minute I saw the pre-credits sequence which features an animated Haley Mills (complete with wings and halo) mischievously blowing out the torch of the Columbia Pictures lady, The Trouble with Angels had me in its pocket.
Part insubordinate teen comedy, part sensitive coming-of-age film; part female buddy picture, part generation-gap farce (crossed with a little Sunday School theology); The Trouble with Angels is something of a family movie miracle. Certainly, divine intervention is at least one explanation for the phenomenon of a film that doesn't exactly tread new comedy ground, nevertheless feeling so refreshingly original.
Of course, the most obvious miracle worker is trailblazing actress/writer/director Ida Lupino, here directing her first film since 1953s The Bigamist. She handles both the comedy and drama with real aplomb and gets engaging performances out of her talented cast of seasoned performers and newcomers (June Harding, who gets an “introducing" credit, is especially good). 
Girl Power
A true Hollywood rarity, The Trouble with Angels is a major motion picture directed by a woman (Lupino),  written by a woman (screenplay by Blanche Hanalis from Janet Trahey's 1962 memoir, Life with Mother Superior), focusing on the lives of its almost exclusively female cast.  In the screencap above is classic character actress Mary Wickes as Sister Clarissa. Wickes reprised her role for the 1968 sequel Where Angels Go, Trouble Follows, and, 26-years-later, dusted off her nun's habit again to appear in both Whoopi Goldberg Sister Act movies.

Lupino's deft touch is in evidence in the seamless manner in which the episodic sequences are tied together with clever connecting devices (the departure and triumphant return of the school band is a wonderful bit of visual shorthand), and in the largely silent scenes conveying the maturation of the Mary Clancy character. Best of all, Lupino manages all of this without resorting to cloying sentimentality, mean-spiritedness, vulgarity, or the kind of over-the-top slapstick that bogged down the 1968 sequel, Where Angels Go…Trouble Follows.
Madame Rose & Her Daughter, Gypsy
Rosalind Russell famously portrayed the mother of stripper/author/talk-show-hostess Gypsy Rose Lee in the eponymous 1962 musical. The Trouble with Angels brings mother and daughter together again (for the first time) as Miss Gypsy herself  portrays Mrs. Mabel Dowling Phipps, interpretive dance instructor

The Trouble with Angels' original title (changed sometime during production) was the far less whimsical-sounding, Mother Superior. Well, the name may have been changed, but there's no denying that the film’s comedic, dramatic, and emotional focus remains with the character embodied by the actress who is the film's chief asset and most valuable player: Rosalind Russell. Whether getting laughs for her pricelessly droll delivery of simple lines like "Where's the fire?" or adding unexpected layers of emotional poignancy to scenes providing us brief glimpses of the woman behind the nun's habit; Rosalind Russell gives an extraordinarily layered, subdued performance. No Sylvia Fowler (The Women), Auntie Mame, or Mama Rose flamboyance here. Russell downplays beautiful and conveys volumes with those expressive eyes and peerless vocal inflections.
After appearing to the students to be coolly unmoved by the loss of a friend, in private, Mother Superior gives vent to her full anguish. Russell's performance in this scene alone single-highhandedly raises The Trouble with Angels far above the usual family film fare

The Trouble with Angels is well-cast and well-acted throughout. Marge Redmond as Sister Ligouri, the mathematics teacher who sounds like a race track bookie, is very good in a role similar to that which she played for three years on The Flying Nun. Former Disney star Hayley Mills (19-years-old) and co-star June Harding (25) display a winning and relaxed rapport and make for a likable contrasting duo of troublemakers. Both are real charmers from the word go, and every moment they share onscreen is a delight. Mills, soon to graduate on to more aggressively adult roles (with nudity, yet!) is just excellent. Her performance gets better with each viewing. Before movies became a total boys' club in the '70s, for a brief time in the '60s there seemed to be a small surge in movies which placed the friendship between teenage girls at their center: The World of Henry Orient (1964) and I Saw What You Did (1965) are two of my favorites.
June Harding never made another motion picture after The Trouble with Angels, and at age 25 it's not likely she could have ridden that teen train for much longer. But I always thought she would have made a wonderful Emmy Lou in a film adaptation of the Bobby Sox comic strip by Marty Links

Jim Hutton makes an unbilled cameo as Mr. Petrie ("Sort of like Jack Lemmon, only younger."), the headmaster of the progressive New Trends High School 

One of the more impressive things about The Trouble with Angels is how beautifully (and effortlessly) it balances scenes of broad comedy and gentle humor while still allowing for sequences that are surprisingly touching in their humanity and compassion. Here are a few of my favorite matter how many times I see them, the comedic ones make me laugh, the dramatic ones get the ol' waterworks going:
COMEDY:  Where There's Smoke, There's Fire
DRAMA: "I Found Something Better"
COMEDY: Shopping for "Binders" 
DRAMA: The Christmas Visitors (dam-bursting waterworks scene)

The Trouble with Angels was a boxoffice success when released and is well-liked and remembered with great affection by many, yet it remains one of those movies which seem to have somehow fallen through the cracks over the years. It’s not exactly forgotten (while available on DVD, the only time you can see it in widescreen is when it screens on TCM) but it rarely seems to come up in movie circles. Part of this is due to the film being a somewhat innocuous, at times glaringly old-fashioned comedy (in 1966, where there really teens who idolized Burt Lancaster and Jack Lemmon?) with no agenda beyond the modest desire to entertain while passing along a few life lessons and a simple message about growing up.
And while the above may serve as a fairly apt description of the movie on its most superficial level, I think it's a mistake to dismiss a film merely because its ambitionswhich The Trouble with Angels surpasses with easeare modest, and chooses a light comedy touch over the bellylaugh sledgehammer. (Although I've never seen it, internet sources recommend the similar 1954 British comedy, The Belles of St. Trinian's for fans with broader tastes.)

For me, The Trouble with Angels remains one of my favorite "comfort food" movies; a thoroughly enchanting, fumy, sweet-natured movie capable of stirring up warm feelings of nostalgia. In this instance, the very distant memory I have of when I was so young that movies like this made me associate organized religion with kindness, compassion, and empathy. So sad that religion is so often used today as the banner behind which so many seek to cloak their fear, ignorance, and hatred.
Maybe it wouldn't hurt if some of those "fun nuns" made a comeback.

Rosalind Russell reprised her role as Mother Superior in the 1968 sequel, Where Angels Go, Trouble Follows, but Hayley Mills was conspicuously absent. Some say it is because Mills was back in Britain and overbooked with film projects. Others attribute it to the rumor that Russell and Mills didn't get along. A rumor supported by Rosalind Russell's 1977 autobiography, Life's a Banquet, in which Russell writes: "Haley Mills was a demon. She used to stick out her tongue whenever I passed (she couldn't stand me) and she was bursting at the seams with repressed sexuality."
Mills, for her part, has denied there was ever any bad blood between them.

Listen to the theme song to Where Angels Go, Trouble Follows by Boyce & Hart HERE

In many ways, The Trouble With Angels marks Hayley Mills' last "girlish" film role. From 1967 on she appeared in roles that seemed designed specifically to promote a mature image and divest her of her Disney persona.  In 1974, Hayley Mills dropped her Disney princess image for good (as well as her knickers) in the bizarre but oh-so engrossing British thriller, Deadly Strangers co-starring Simon Ward and Sterling Hayden. A real departure and available on YouTube HERE

Copyright © Ken Anderson 2009 - 2014