Retro Daddy

The Past Isn't Over - It Isn't Even Past
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MAY 18, 2009 8:07PM

What's Your Favorite Nun Movie?

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nuns soeur sourire poster


Do you have to have gone to Catholic school to appreciate nun movies?


First, let's get this one out of the way. I'm sure it's the first one you thought of. It's not that I don't like it, it's just that it's everywhere—on TV, on DVD, even on Broadway and the West End.


nuns sister act hoods

The sister and the hoods in Sister Act


I like the music, the acting is great—especially Maggie Smith and Kathy Najimy—but I prefer Harvey Keitel in films like Bad Lieutenant, The Last Temptation of Christ, and Taxi Driver. The nuns sing do-wop for the pope?


nuns bad lieutenant

Harvey Keitel in Bad Lieutenant: An extremely lapsed Catholic


My favorite actress in Sister Act (not the best, just my favorite) is Mary Wickes as Sister Mary Lazarus (a nun's name I never heard in four different parochial schools). Mary Wickes was resurrected for Sister Act because almost thirty years before she had played Sister Clarissa in . . .


nuns trouble with angels poster

Hijinks at St. Francis School


Based on the novel Life with Mother Superior by Jane Trahey. This is my all-time favorite nun movie. I saw it in the theater in 1966 and am ashamed to admit I was surprised at the end when Hayley Mills as Mary Clancy decided to enter the convent. (Sorry for the spoiler, but there's no excuse for not seeing that coming. Even for me when I was twelve.) I had a crush on June Harding as Mary's partner in crime, Rachel Devery.


Hayley Mills in her American films has never had the chance to show the talent she was able to in her British movies (Tiger Bay, Whistle Down the Wind, and especially The Chalk Garden, directed by Ronald Neame, playing opposite Deborah Kerr and Hayley's father John Mills).


nuns chalk garden

 Hayley Mills is more mature than Deborah Kerr in The Chalk Garden


In The Trouble with Angels, Hayley Mills delivers one of the most self-aware lines in Hollywood movies since Bette Davis. The girls are taken to an old people's home for Christmas and Mary Clancy sees the mother superior (Rosalind Russell as good as she was in Gypsy or His Girl Friday) comfort an old woman whose son has better things to do than visit. Mary marches up to the mother superior and says: “I hope I die young. And very wealthy.”


And when the mother superior's close friend Sister Ligouri dies and she throws herself across the coffin . . . I am not crying!


On the lighter side . . .


nuns change of habit mtm elvis close

Mary a little too close to Elvis in A Change of Habit


Mary Tyler Moore as an undercover nun opposite Elvis's singing doctor. Romance and bad religious music ensue.


And if you're going to mix guitars with crucifixes . . .


nuns singing nun reynolds everett montalban

Debbie Reynold as The Singing Nun with platonic friends


Debbie does Dominique. Vatican II-era Catholics remember the Belgian nun Soeur Sourire (“Sister Smile”) whose hit song “Dominique” got her on the Ed Sullivan show as well as top forty radio in the U.S. Debbie Reynolds played The Singing Nun in a film co-starring Chad Everett and Ricardo Montalban.


nuns singing nun deckers

 The real singing nun


The real singing nun, Jeanine Deckers, had a less happy life after stardom than the fictitious character Sister Ann played by Debbie Reynolds probably did.


nuns soeur sourire cecile de france

Cecile de France as Soeur Sourire


Soeur Sourire is a new film starring the Belgian actress Cécile de France that purports to tell the true story of the sixties religious pop sensation who left the convent and eventually committed suicide.


Then there's the psychological crime story . . .


nuns agnes of god bancroft

Anne Bancroft in Agnes of God


Based on the play by John Pielmeier. Investigating infanticide in the convent, Jane Fonda is the agnostic psychiatrist and Anne Bancroft is the cigarette-smoking, widowed mother superior with the oddly Jewish-sounding name of Sister Miriam Ruth. It fits, because the mother superior tolerates argument from the non-believing psychiatrist more than any Catholic nun I ever knew did. Disputation comes more easily than faith to some people.


The heartwarming ecumenical fairy tale . . .


nuns lilies of the field poitier skala

Sidney Poitier and Lilia Skala in Lilies of the Field


Based on the novel by William E. Barrett. With Sidney Poiter and Austrian star Lilia Skala, who learned acting in Max Reinhardt's theater before escaping Nazi Europe with her Jewish husband. Funny, but no one mentions race in this story. Homer Smith (Poitier) uses his skin to demonstrate the English word “black,” but that's all.


The priest-nun love story that dare not speak its name . . .


nuns bells of st

Ingrid Bergman in The Bells of St. Mary's


This was one of Ingrid Bergman's last American films before her affair with Roberto Rossellini made the American movie-going public turn on her. If she hadn't just made them believe she was a saintly tubercular nun on film, they might have accepted her real-life passions more readily. (In going to Europe I think she may also have been trying to escape Alfred Hitchcock's figurative and literal clutches. Bergman did St. Mary's between Hitchcock's Spellbound and Notorious, and a lot has been published lately on just how sick his behavior toward actresses was. Tippi Hedren, Janet Leigh, and Vera Miles all had to run away from him, breaking contracts in some cases.)


Another forbidden love story, this time on a true island paradise during World War II . . .


nuns heaven knows kerr widescreen

Deborah Kerr, afraid of the Japanese and a U. S. Marine, in Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison


This film deeply affected most people who saw it . . .


nuns nun's story poster 3


From the novel by Kathryn Hulme. Audrey Hepburn as Sister Luke is the only movie nun I can think of who leaves the convent. Mary Tyler Moore even said no to Elvis to stay in the religious life. Our film fantasies of nuns require them to reject the world and give us an example of purity of conscience few real human beings can maintain.


What we need from movie nuns is their commitment to a cause higher than themselves. If they take vows we don't have to.


nuns door 2


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Great fun! Like all girls raised Catholic, I had my fantasies of becoming a nun...briefly. I absolutely love The Nun's Story, which is a wonderful film (and Hepburn's own favorite performance of hers) and Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison as well (Robert Mitchum! adore him). I saw both at formative age but have seen them again more than once and they hold up. I also loved Trouble with Angels but haven't seen it in about 30 years and have a feeling it doesn't hold up as well....
I haven't seen all of these, but I loved both The Bells of St. Mary's and The Trouble With Angels. A movie that is not about a nun, but seems like it should be included here is The Inn of Sixth Happiness which made a strong impression on me many years ago. Enjoyed this post, and your selections - I have a few movies I'll be putting on the Netflix list.
I loved "Lilies of the Field". Completely unsentimental, all the way through the ending.

As a veteran of 12 years of Catholic school, all I can say is that real nuns are quite a mixed bag. Some good ones, some bad ones, and some who should have been committed.
Having grown up Catholic, I avoided nun movies, but I did enjoy Song of Bernadette because of the wistful way she looked out the carriage window at the boy she had been fond of as she went away to the nunnery or whatever. Bad Lieutenant is another wistful fave. I guess I should say I don't mean that last.
2 Mules for Sister Sarah!

Did you leave it out because she's not a "real " nun in the end? Or did you just forget it? Because I know anyone who knows 'Change of Habit' and 'The Trouble with Angels' has seen 'Two Mules for Sister Sarah'.

That's it-my favorite nun movie is the one where the nun turns out to be a whore actually.
Great post, and just when I was thinking about Catholic School. The first two that came to mind were The Trouble with Angels and Lilies of the Field. Those hard-driving German nuns gave Sydney Poitier more trouble even than the English kids in To Sir With Love!
I have to admit, I never really thought of nun movies as a specific genre before! That Elvis-MTM film looks like a hoot, just corny enough to be enjoyable. Does "Sound of Music" count as a nun film?
Thanks to everyone for reading and commenting.

Silkstone -

You're right, The Trouble with Angels isn't as good a film, but it's a guilty pleasure.

dustbowldiva -

Thanks. Inn of the Sixth Happiness is going on my list.

Jeanette -

I think some of them went into the convent INSTEAD of being committed. Like when the judge gives you a choice between the army and prison.

latethink -

Bad Lieutenant is some sick . . . But I love Abel Ferrara movies. See The Addiction for the best movie about vampires and philosophers.

dizedd -

I saw Two Mules on television a long time ago. Nuns who aren't nuns is a whole subgenre unto itself.

NoisyNora -

To Sir With Love is another movie I'll have to watch again. I've been reading cultural history about Britain in the sixties and seventies lately: Jon Savage's England's Dreaming and Dominic Sandbrook's books.

Procopius -

When you watch The Sound of Music you don't feel icky when Maria hooks up with the Captain (at least not because she came from the convent). So I wouldn't classify it as a nun movie.
Noisy Nora thanks for sending me this way.
Retro Daddy, what a great idea for a post. With 18 years of Catholic school under my belt, wait that doesn't sound right... Anyway, my favorite nun scene in a movie is the slap-a-thon in "The Blues Brothers." Does that count? Rated for a fun post.
JLee -

Haven't seen Nuns on the Run yet. Thanks.

Kris -

When I wrote this, I was on a mission from God.
When I was twelve years old my sixth grade teacher, Sister Mary Mara, told my mother she thought I had the calling and I had to travel for six hours in a sedan with three middle-aged nuns to the Sisters of Notre Dame motherhouse in Toledo, Ohio where I spent a weekend being delicately indoctrinated and hanging out with the novice to whom I was asssigned (and really liked, despite the endless rosaries we had to say.) When I got home my mother was sitting at the kitchen table and she looked up from her book and said, "So, what do you think?" I said I didn't think so.

I loved "The Trouble with Angels" and was kind of devastated when Mary decided to become a nun.
Ken Russell's The Devils.

Oh, all right. Black Narcissus with Deborah Kerr.
Can I add a European art house selection?

Luis Buñuel's Viridiana (1961). I remember enjoying it.

From imdb: "Viridiana, a young nun about to take her final vows, pays a visit to her widowed uncle at the request of her Mother Superior."
I didn't realize I was a nun-movie addict until I read your post. I've seen all but a few of the above and those mentioned in the comments and enjoyed most of them. They're hard for me to pass up when they show up on TCM. A few months ago I caught "The Singing Nun"...and laughed and sang through the whole thing. I was surprised at how bad, and infectious, it was.
I'm very curious about "Soeur Sourire". I've known for some time that her life turned troubled and tragic. I'll be looking for it.
Although it's hard to pick, "The Nun's Story" was one of my all time nun-favorites. I read the book before the movie came out and still enjoyed the movie. I've heard that a video production exists that, well, here is the only information I could find about it right now at short notice, except for the following from Wikipedia (last sentence in the short article):
"The relationship between Hulme, Habets and Hepburn is explored in Zoe Fairbairns' radio play "The Belgian Nurse" first broadcast on BBC Radio Four in January 2007. "
Guess I'd better get busy at Netflix and become a full-fledged nun-movie addict!
Sister Act II: Back in the Habit.
Of these I've seen only Bells of St Mary's,>/i> and The Nun's Story. I enjoyed Bells, although being Protestant, I thought it the alternate title might be "Isn't it great to be Catholic?"

I liked The Nun's Story as it shows Sister Luke genuinely struggling with the demands of her vocation which gives credibility to her decision to eventually leave the Convent. (Well I'd struggle too, as the Order she enters is pretty strict and heavy duty.) But it shows the human struggle--she's not a perfect nun by any means, and her superious acknowledge the demands of the life she's chosen are rigorous.
The Flying Nun!!!
Yes, Black Narcissus! I had completely forgotten about that one. A strange tale indeed.
Definitely The Trouble With Angels! I went to an all-girl high school connected the the Felician Sister's motherhouse - lots of old haunted (seriously) buildings that reminded me of some of the scenes in that movie.
I think Sound of Music is a nun movie, but only tangentially. We spend very little time in the convent. But they do have that great song about Maria, one of the best in the movie.
neilpaul -

A lot of Harvey Keitel's movies were made during his naked period.

David -

Deborah Kerr keeps showing up in this context, doesn't she? Even the teacher's wife she played in Tea and Sympathy (1956, one year before Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison) is a monastic type of character.

gailrae -

Thanks for the info on The Belgian Nurse.

Dea-dog -

I left TV shows out, but Marge Redmond (who played Sister Jacqueline on The Flying Nun) must have gotten the part because she already played Sister Ligouri in The Trouble with Angels. Typecast as a nun, like Mary Wickes.

phm -

I'll have to see Viridiana. Thanks.

Shiral -

You're right about the message in The Bells of St. Mary's: "Isn't it great to be a Catholic?" Catholics were being considered full-fledged Americans and movie directors like Leo McCarey put out films like Going My Way, The Bells of St. Mary's, and even anti-Communist McCarthy era fear-fests like My Son John had Catholic undertones. One way to prove how good an American you were was to show how much you hated communism.
Disclaimer: RC girl here; not lapsed, not recovering, not former. They got me by the age of seven, so they've got me, one way or another, for life.

The Nun's Story gave me nightmares, because of the scene in which a confined mental "patient" tricks Sister Luke into bringing her water and then attacks. (Although personally, I can think of a few former teachers I would like to have seen attacked by a snarling madwoman! I have great compassion for the victims of priest sexual abuse, but I'm still waiting for the nun-abuse trials to start. Most of my teacher s were vicious, sadistic, frustrated, child-hating villians. And those were the nice ones.)

I wanted to BE Hayley Mills in The Trouble with Angels until I saw Ann-Margret in Bye-Bye, Birdie (which I still love).

All the others, even the much-despised (by real nuns) Sister Act, I have seen and loved.

Despite my personal experiences, I LOVE nun movies. I especially love The Bells of St. Mary's, in part because my first husband, a man not given to compliments, once told me "You have Ingrid Bergman's jaw," and her jaw really shows to good advantage in that movie!

And "Dead Man Walking" is probably my favorite nun movie.

Song of Bernadette.
Or maybe just the song of the same name, by Leonard Cohen.
This is great. I never knew how much I loved nun movies until I read this!
"You vill build a Shappel!" is the line I use to let my husband know when I mean business Gotta love the hard-core german Schwesters in "Lilies of the Field."

"Household Saints" is not about nuns, but is about an Italian-American family with a teenage daughter who wants to become a nun over the parents objections, especially her father's . Sort of an anti-nun movie. Came as a shock to me as my family was mourning the death of the last of the "religious" in our clan.

Off to Netflix! I don't think my daughter have seen "The Song of Bernadette!"
My two favorite Nun movies are Nasty Habits and Doubt.

Nasty Habits was a great film that came out after the Watergate Scandal. The lead actress is from England, her name escapes me. But it was a stellar cast of Ely Wallach and his wife, Sandy Dennis etc. The Mother Superior ran her rectory like Nixon ran the whitehouse. She taped conversations, she was paranoid and always screaming. In the end she gets transfered to some third world country and when she boards the plane she lifts up her hands and does the peace sign. HILLARIOUS!!!

Doubt is just magnificant!!! The acting is superb. It so captures the feeling in the United States in the early sixties. The kids look like the characatures in the John and Jane primary readers, everything prim and proper. The abuse is implied. No need to be graphic. I think this story being told in a generation where everything was supposed to be so much more innocent really amplifies the possiblity of it occuring today. And I feel it helped to heal deep wounds endured by boomers who suffered abuse at the hand of a priest. It was the BEST movie I saw last year.
Definitely "Where Angels Go, Trouble Follows."
My favorite Nun story is "Come to the Stable" starring Loretta Young.
My favorite nun movie is "The Magdalene Sisters".
I also liked sisters act.