Sunday, March 22, 2020

Fun Nuns from Ida Lupino

"Her vagina is probably stuffed with diplomas." That's a line of dialogue delivered by a snarky high school hipster in 2019's BOOKSMART. First time film director, Olivia Wilde, deserved an A for giving us a funny new addition to the high school teen comedy genre. Yes, I know a lot of the language is naughty but it had me laughing out loud so much that I had watch the movie twice. I could relate to it because I was a high school senior who was graduating with a high average and an acceptance to a good university. However, I was also voted Most Courteous for three consecutive years, I won the English Lit. Award, the Typing Class Award and I was president of the library staff. If there had been a certificate given to the one voted Most Likely to Die Alone and a Virgin, I'd have won that too. I longed to be a cool dude. I prayed I'd be invited to a hot high school party before graduation. I picked up on the humanity director Olivia Wilde injected into the tale of occasionally foul-mouthed teens, two of whom desperately say "We have to go to a party tonight" and "Nobody knows that we are fun."  Those two are star students, academic overachievers more popular with teachers than with their fellow graduating students. They are Molly, the full-figured brainiac destined to leave Southern California for Harvard, and her awkward lesbianette best friend, Amy.
Beanie Feldstein plays Molly. Kaitlyn Dever plays Amy. Their friendship makes for some fresh and original onscreen female bonding. If you'd think this would probably be another formula teen comedy, you'd be pleasantly surprised in the first 20 minutes. One has a photo of Eleanor Roosevelt in her room. There are mentions of Picasso, Rosa Parks, Susan B. Anthony and Ruth Bader Ginsburg in addition to the chat about masturbation techniques. Molly and Amy go to a party. They'll have experiences that are both disappointing and memorable. Their graduation ceremony will be even more memorable.
The second time I watched BOOKSMART, I said to myself, "Ida Lupino would've sent roses and champagne to Olivia Wilde."

Olivia Wilde is an actress. Ron Howard's unjustly overlooked RUSH, HER starring Joaquin Phoenix and Clint Eastwood's RICHARD JEWELL are among her film acting credits. Ida Lupino was a celebrated Hollywood actress of the 1930s and 40s who turned to film directing in the late 1940s and continued to act. Lupino distinguished herself as the director of several gritty black and white movie dramas. Lupino then turned her trailblazing directorial talents to television. Her extensive list of credits as a TV director is just as impressive as her extensive list of credits as an actress.
Ida Lupino directed only one movie in color -- and that movie was a comedy. It rarely gets mentioned when high-tone film historians and film critics discuss Lupino's movie, but it should be. The entertaining Catholic school comedy, THE TROUBLE WITH ANGELS, directed by Ida Lupino, is a 1966 feature film that, just like BOOKSMART directed by Olivia Wilde, is a valentine to female friendships.

I loved watching THE TROUBLE WITH ANGELS on TV because it was energetic, funny, it starred Hayley Mills and nuns in the movie reminded me of cool nuns I had as teachers when I was a Catholic school student back home in Los Angeles. In the 1990s, I had a side job I loved in the Chelsea section of New York. I was a clerk at an independent video store. Back then, we all rented VHS tapes. Our store, called Video Blitz, had two monitors. One in the store and the other was positioned in the large window facing 8th Avenue at 17th Street. Every single time we played THE TROUBLE WITH ANGELS, a customer would come in and gush, "I love that movie!" The customer was usually someone who'd done time in Catholic schools and also had nuns as teachers. The movie was a popular rental and the movie itself, in its original run, was so popular with mainstream movie audiences that it led to a sequel.
Hayley Mills played the iron-willed, mischievous, lively and smart Mary Clancy. June Harding played the awkward and shy Rachel. The two quickly bond to become best friends through three years at St. Francis Academy, an all-girls boarding school with an all-nun staff headed by the no-nonsense Mother Superior played by Rosalind Russell. It was obvious that the 1992 hit comedy, SISTER ACT, had a little influence from this Ida Lupino comedy. In fact, Mary Wickes who plays the Physical Education nun in THE TROUBLE WITH ANGELS got back into the habit for SISTER ACT.
Those of us who love THE TROUBLE WITH ANGELS can quote Hayley Mills' line that always preceded a prank that got Mary and Rachel in trouble with Mother Superior:  "I have got the most scathingly brilliant idea!"

The movie is wisely modestly-budgeted. We're in a Catholic boarding school with nuns. No need for frills, fancy costumes and special effects. Lupino made the movie with wise simplicity and warmth.

THE TROUBLE WITH ANGELS gets categorized as a sweet, sometimes goofy, teen comedy about two best friends in school. But Lupino's comedy, the only comedy film she directed, has more going for it than just the several funny scenes. I watched it last month. There's poignancy and depth to it. Now that I'm older, I caught that Ida Lupino directed a dear love letter to female bonding in three stages of a female's life -- youth, middle age and old age. The same number of years that Mary and Rachel have at St. Francis Academy for Girls.

We have the youth of the girls in the academy. As for middle age, we see that there's a sisterhood among the sisters. Mother Superior's best friend is school favorite, Sister Ligouri. She's a wonderfully down-to-earth nun who loved horses and thoroughbred horse racing. She infuses a spirit of that love into the way she teaches class which excites, delights and inspires the students.  Sister Ligouri knows that Mother Superior can often be too iron-willed. She knows Mother Superior's soft side and reminds her to not be too strict with the girls. One of the nuns is elderly and dozes off a lot. The sisters treat her with great affection and ask the girls to do the same. Mother Superior will reveal to Mary Clancy the great heartbreak of her life when she was a teenager.

The major scene of female bonding in old age comes in a Christmas sequence. Mother Superior tells the girls that the academy annually visits senior citizen women at a holiday function. We see and hear that just about all the old women have not been visited by relatives. They got cards or calls saying that the family wouldn't be able to visit or they were not contacted at all. This is why Mother Superior wants the young girls to devote time being kind and attentive to these old ladies at Christmas.

Ida Lupino showed us female bonding at three stage of a female's life -- youth, middle age and old age -- and she has females from all those stages interact and connect during the story. Lupino gave us something more than just a teen comedy starring successful Disney film graduate, Hayley Mills, and veteran Hollywood star Rosalind Russell. At its joyful heart, THE TROUBLE WITH ANGELS is a salute to the sisterhood of females.

For some laughs focusing on female friendships in high school years, comedies we see through the gaze of female directors, check out BOOKSMART directed by Olivia Wilde and 1966's THE TROUBLE WITH ANGELS directed by Ida Lupino.

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