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.