Athena's Head

On Writing, Parenting, and Pop-Mom Culture

Martha Nichols

Martha Nichols
Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA
March 18
Editor in Chief
Talking Writing
I am Editor in Chief of Talking Writing, an online literary magazine. I'm also a contributing editor at the Women's Review of Books and a freelance journalist in the Boston area. Martha on Twitter: (I cross-post most OS entries on my website Athena's Head. I am not paid a cent for any reviews or product references—these opinions are mine alone.)


NOVEMBER 9, 2009 11:55AM

"Scathingly Brilliant": A Feminist Ode to Hayley Mills

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The Trouble with Angels is one of my all-time favorite guilty pleasures. It's like eating candy canes and macaroni and cheese. It's dumb and dated and still mildly subversive.

Most of all it's got Hayley Mills. Her curls are still golden, but she's a rebel in this one, playing against her "frilly-knickers" Disney roles (her description from a 1967 interview). It's got Rosalind Russell, a toughie actress I'll always love, as the sternly righteous Mother Superior. And it's got Ida Lupino directing it, a rare feat for a woman in the early 1960s.

Set in a tumble-down convent school, it's really about the intense friendship of girls and girl culture when boys aren't around.

Mary Clancy, the character Mills plays, is always saying, "I've got the most scathingly brilliant idea!" She befriends Rachel, an awkward goof who's always licking down her bangs. Mary and Rachel have a series of misadventures during their school years, until they graduate, leading to a bittersweet parting of ways.

While the movie's vision of the church as a proper home for young ladies is retro, I'd like to make a claim for Mills as an early feminist inspiration.

Her self-assured young adult characters often ended up settling for traditional female roles—newlywed, proper daughter, nun. But the storylines didn't really matter to me, not in the way Mills and the sense of adventure she exuded did. Like the Nancy Drew series, The Trouble with Angels and Mills at her tomboy finest may have felt safer for us introspective girls than Women's Lib.

Those justifiably angry banners of the '60s and '70s seemed a little scary. That was the point—remember "the personal is political"?—but I needed to work out what liberation meant in my head first. By the time feminism got ripped to shreds as an ideal, I knew how much it mattered to me.

I have other reasons, too, for loving the movie. (Spoiler alert.) I know that Mary's decision to become a nun at the end of The Trouble with Angels felt deeply satisfying to me in the 1970s, when the convent-school setting was already absurdly anachronistic.

I've never been Catholic, but the romance of the church got to me, not to mention a girl's commitment to faith and anything but a conventional life. A young writer, I felt a need for my own solitude.

That may be why the movie's pleasures are so enduring for a certain kind of dreamy girl—or boy.

As for Mills, it's hard not to wonder where she went. Her career took off with her Disney films Pollyanna and The Parent Trap—she was at her peak in 1966 with The Trouble with Angels, a non-Disney effort—and then zoomed downward with episodes of the Love Boat and three made-for-TV Parent Trap sequels in the '80s.

Weird Fact: She wrote the preface to the Hare Krishna Book of Vegetarian Cooking, originally published in 1984.

For some, her plummet from worldwide fame is a cautionary tale. But I think it's a more complicated script for what really happens to girls when they enter adulthood. The fact that Mills was considered for the part of Lolita in Stanley Kubrick's film—an idea that essentially got nixed by Disney when she was under contract—seems especially symbolic.

She recently appeared in Wild at Heart, a British drama about an African wild-animal park on ITV that also starred her sister Juliet. ITV's site describes the Hayley Mills character as "something of a battleaxe."

But in a 1997 interview, Mills gets under this kind of simplistic reduction of older women who may have more of an agenda than catching the boy next door or appearing helpless. She told then-editor-in-chief Ingrid Sischy of Interview magazine:

"Joan Plowright once said that you don't need to go to a psychiatrist if you're an actor, because you can express so many of your problems and your emotions through your work. And you really can. The theater in particular is a great discipline. You can't stop in the middle of a play and burst into tears because the person you love has walked out on you and your life is collapsing around you, or because you've had bad notices. You have to get on with it. You have to draw from your deep inner resources, those strengths that keep us all alive."
Hayley the pretty tomboy remains indelible, just as my own version of that tomboy survives in me. I first watched The Trouble with Angels on "Dialing for Dollars," a Bay Area TV station's afternoon movie show. Decades later, I watched it on a big screen at the Brattle Theatre in Cambridge, Massachusetts, during an Ida Lupino retrospective.

 I now own the DVD. I'll always call the movie's vision of girlhood scathingly brilliant. And by the way: We don't grow up to be battleaxes.

This post has been adapted from a piece that originally appeared on Martha Nichols Online.

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I love The Trouble With Angels. Thanks for a scathingly brilliant piece.
I don't know the movie, but you convinced me I need to netflix it immediately. Thanks.
I don't know the movie, but you convinced me I need to netflix it immediately. Thanks.
I bought the movie on DVD recently, too. Mostly so that my 6-year-old daughter could watch something other than Hannah Montana. (I also bought her a copy of Cat Ballou, one of my favorites.)

Also, regarding "her plummet from worldwide fame," I find it interesting that many people (not you, the people who see her and others as "cautionary tale[s]") assume that the once famous are forever cursed with the desire to maintain it. Maybe they just want to make a living on "The Love Boat" and explore the world like the rest of us? It strikes me that fame would be a great impediment to living an interesting life. I suspect, as you do, that Ms. Mills has led a very interesting life indeed.
One of my old favorites! When I saw it first as a very young girl I took it at face value. Watching it again decades later revealed how much more there is to that movie.

There was a sequel, but not nearly as satisfying as the original.
Oh, yes, overworked, just say no to Hannah Montana! Not a worthy successor to Hailey, even with all the dual-identity stuff.

And Stellaa and Ablonde--it's true there's much more than the surface candy here, especially with Rosalind Russell's performance. So much great material about having to battle with pride, yet needing that kind of strength--this in the era of Mad Men.
As a British male of advancing years, let me tell you Hayley Mills has never fallen from the heights, except perhaps insofar as she was supplanted by Jenny Agutter for a few years!

One of her better non-Disney performances was in Twisted Nerve, with Hywel Bennett, with whom she made a couple of other movies around the same era.
I can still hear exactly how she said, "I've got the most scathingly brilliant idea!" and I didn't even really like that movie though I wanted to be Hayley Mills at one time. Around the time of Journey to the Center of the Earth I think it was. Around the time I wanted to be a nun and I was a devout little catholic girl. Disney fluff indeed.
Now that I read the comments, I think I'll netflix it, too.
Great post! I also love the movie (we even own it on DVD), but I didn't see it until after I had worn out my paperback copy of Life With Mother Superior by Jane Trahey, which the movie is based on. As a kid, I loved the surprise (well, it was a surprise to me) ending, but had second thoughts about it when I got older. [Dialing for Dollars on KTVU, there's another blast from the past!]
I always loved Hayley, even in The Parent Trap.
Nerd C., it will be interesting to hear if the movie holds up for you or takes you right back to that devout little Catholic girl place. "Angels" wasn't a Disney effort, but it is still saturated in the candy-corn of the time, and yet still I love it.

Biblio, I've always wanted to read the book. Maybe I should finally do it. And I'm glad somebody else recognized "Dialing for Dollars" (wasn't Pat McCormick the host, or do I have that wrong?)

Emma, yes, The Parent Trap is even more of a guilty pleasure for me. I used to get off on Patty Duke re-runs, too. For me, it's something about goody two-shoes and tomboy switching places...or in the real world, perhaps both those stereotypes being part of one woman??
I've always preferred Where Angels Go, Trouble Follows, because I love road movies and because Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart (songwriters for the Monkees) appear in a live number performing the title track during a dance scene. But mainly because of the face-down between the nuns and a menacing biker gang.
I used to go to old movies every week. It was fun to analyze them from many angles.
I'm sorry I missed this the first time and so happy Bibliofiles turned me on to it. I loved this movie and Hayley, too.
I'm sorry I missed this too. That film probably changed my life. Certainly prompted my decision at 11 years old to go to Catholic all girls school (this, despite the moans of my feminist academic mother.) It was not at all what I expected, but when I look back I think my early feminist aspirations really needed some structure and discipline that I'm not sure I would have gotten in the crazy 70s free for all schools that were the alternative. When I go back to my high school reunion I re connect with so many strong, hugely successful women, I realize there was a germ in that movie that spoke to a lot of young girls in a good way.

Meanwhile, my nine year old son is obsessed with the original Parent Trap, which I picked up in a DVD remainder pile. There's just something special about Hayley I guess.
Oh, I used to love going to Hayley Mills movies -- me & my bff Kathy would speak with british accents for hours afterwards. We never asked questions like why she had an accent, but her parents didn't. :) The good old days. Great review -- really makes me want to go watch it again.
I love The Trouble With Angels and have often used "that's a scathingly brilliant idea" hoping who I'm talking with is old enough to get the reference. Hayley Mills was my hero(ine). She made being a 'tomboy' okay. I even had the same haircut as Hayley in "The Truth About Spring". How many of us are there out there that wanted to be nuns? Me? For the same reasons as you.