Clyde’s Movie Palace: The Singing Nun (1966)

Given my religious beliefs, or lack thereof, one might think I couldn’t review a movie with religious overtones fairly. I was once asked about this and was kind of puzzled about the question since there are all kinds of movies about all kinds of fantasy worlds I don’t believe in.

Which brings us to MGM’s make a quick buck movie off the songs and life of Jeanne-Paule Marie “Jeannine” Deckers also known as Sœur Sourire but more commonly referred to as The Singing Nun which was released in 1966.

But her life was not the cheery uplifting 99 percent fictional account we see here which was produced by John Beck and directed by Henry Koster. It’s more like a Shakespearean Tragedy. Maybe worse than that. One thing is almost certain. The true life account of The Singing Nun would probably make for a much better movie.

In 2009 French Director Stijn Coninx did film what was supposed to be a more accurate portrayal of Deckers and her longtime companion Annie Pescher. But the film is only available as an expensive import and may not even have English Subtitles. The reviews on Amazon of those who have seen it are mixed. So much for that.

There is also a Kindle Book, The Singing Nun Story: The Life and Death of Soeur Sourire, available on Amazon for free if you have Kindle Unlimited which I don’t but I bought it anyway for $3.99. Paperback will set you back $10.99. The reviews are so-so but I’ll eventually give it a read and get back to you. Right after I read the 50 or so other books I have for the Kindle.

The juicy details on the making of The Singing Nun and getting it into theaters is the stuff E True Hollywood Stories are made of. Henry King was supposed to direct originally but dropped out because he couldn’t get along with producer John Beck. Henry Koster had been directing movies since the 1930’s but when The Singing Nun wrapped, it would be his last hurrah and he called it quits for good.

Supposedly, the conflict between Reynolds and producer Beck wore him down. Turner Classic Movies gives us the dirty details:

All did not flow smoothly on the set, however. Though Reynolds got along fine with the cast, she had problems with director Koster and co-producer John Beck. Beck, in particular, resented any suggestions for changes in the picture, often getting into shouting matches with Reynolds. Then he called her agent and turned the air blue with his complaints about the star, not realizing she was listening on another phone. Reynolds demanded he be barred from the set and, since she’d been shooting for a few weeks already, got her way. Koster had to fight with MGM management to at least get Beck back on the lot, where the director and his defrocked producer had lunch every day. Ultimately, the problems wore on the director as well, shattering his friendship with Beck. When the film was finished, Koster didn’t even bother to see it and retired from directing.

There are more details to be found on Turner’s description of the film, including the Catholic Church’s attempt to squash her career by forcing MGM to fictionalize the movie and change the name of the main character to Sister Ann. And worse, just about everybody else took advantage of Deckers including Philips Records, MGM, and her producer.  Sister Luc Gabriel, as she was called in the convent put it this way:

“I was never allowed to be depressed. The mother superior used to censor my songs and take out any verses I wrote when I was feeling sad.” In other words, become a nun and sign your life away.

Damn!  I swore I wouldn’t do this review by going off on some long tangent but here we are.  Let’s get busy!

Reynolds plays Sister Ann who leaves her convent at Antwerp and heads out on her Scooter, along with Sister Adele strapped to the back, her destination being a poverty row multi-functional run down beat up old building known as Samaritan House where they would tend to the poverty ridden neighborhood surrounding the building. In case you’re wondering, Sister Adele is the name Sister Ann gave her guitar that she has had since roughly forever.

Upon arriving at the convent, the happy smiling guitar playing Ann is befriended by the rest of the herd, including the Prioress played by Greer Garson.  Sister Cluny (Agnes Morehead), potato peeler extraordinaire is skeptical wondering why Sister Ann should be allowed to keep such a worldly possession as a guitar.   

And then there’s Sister Mary (Juanita Moore) whose mission in life is to get Sister Ann trained to work at a missionary somewhere deep in the jungles of Africa.

When they have a nun sing-along get together one evening, Father Clemente is bowled over by Sister Ann’s remarkable singing talent and guitar strumming.  So much so that he enlists a producer friend of his, Robert Gerarde (Chad Everett) to lend them a studio so Sister Ann can record songs to be shipped to all the other convents in the world so every nun of every order can just be pea green with envy. Just like Santa bringing gifts.

At the studio, Gerarde not only learns about Ann’s great singing voice and song writing, but also discovers that this Sister Ann is apparently the same woman he had a fling with some years ago at the Paris Conservatory of Music.  Small world, isn’t it?

Robert, who sees Ann’s nun outfit as only a minor inconvenience, tries to rekindle their romance while at the same time convincing the church to let him make a big star out of the reluctant Ann and even arranges an appearance for her on The Ed Sullivan Show. 

Ann meanwhile, can’t help but become the church’s official buttinsky.  She befriends a little boy named Dominique and writes a song about him, destined to become a number one hit in the real world and in the make-believe world of this movie.  The difference being is that the movie version has real honest to jeebus English lyrics so that we Americans know what it is that Ann is singing about.

After Ann takes Dominique home one night, she finds out his father is a drunk and while cleaning up Dom’s sister Nicole’s room, discovers an envelope full of nude pictures.  When Nicole arrives home, Ann begins lecturing her as if being photographed nude is the crime of the century and that doing so makes poor Nicole nothing but a ho-bag despite the fact that the pictures helps pay the bills.   In the process she makes things worse by accidentally revealing to Nicole’s and Dom’s father that Nicole is a calendar pin-up.

Later, Ann yells at a pregnant woman who is going to have an abortion that she is a murderer.  Sister Mary, tells Ann she went a bit overboard, at which point we get to hear the wonderful story of Sister Mary and how her mother wanted to have an abortion but botched it and Mary was born anyway. Okay, I’m not going to get into that argument but at this point I began to lose any good will I may have had towards this movie and the judgmental bullshit of the main characters.

Sister Ann becomes conflicted about her success and Robert’s desire to have a relationship with her, and her life as a nun. But instead of letting Ann work this all out (as if we don’t know what she would do), we get a totally crummy plot contrivance involving Dom which makes the decision for her.  Oh well, at least they don’t leave us hanging like they did in Change of Habit when we never knew for sure if Mary Tyler Moore chose Elvis, stayed a nun, or headed to Minnesota to work for WJM. 

I guess what MGM wanted was a cheaply made, feel good story, where they could make a buck ripping off the real life Decker’s music and maybe hit The Sound of Music nuns and fun jackpot.  Most of the songs here are Soeur Sourire’s work, translated to English by Randy Sparks.  The one original song, Brother John, not penned by Decker is also sole courtesy of Sparks.

And the songs are the best part of the film.  Reynolds has never sounded better, and although the music may not exactly knock your socks off, they are catchy and pleasant to listen to.  But then again, you have to remember that the person responsible for the songs made nothing from them or this movie as her cut went to the Catholic Church, who even from the little I’ve read so far, does not exactly come out smelling like a rose.

The film has a nice cast, and they are perfectly capable of carrying out their on screen duties here.   But that isn’t saying much because there’s not a lot of drama in the whole 97 minute running time. 

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If you want to watch Agnes Morehead, I suggest Bewitched, or even the movie Caged.  If you want to watch Ricardo Montalban, seek him out in Wrath of Khan or maybe have him sell you a car with real Corinthian Leather.  If you want to watch Greer Garson, try out her Oscar winning portrayal in Mrs. Miniver or one of the other six films she was nominated for.  Catch Juanita Moore in Imitation of Life and have a good cry while you are at it.  Katherine Ross, who as Nicole has the few decent dramatic scenes, would soon find her fame and fortune in such films as The Graduate, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, The Hellfighters, and The Stepford Wives. And Chad Everett who does wooden as well as anybody, would go on to do more wooden better than anybody by starring in Medical Center for seven seasons.

As for Ed Sullivan, I can honestly say that nobody plays Ed Sullivan better than the man himself.  As he showed a few years earlier in Bye Bye Birdie, he has that character nailed.

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You do not need me to tell you about Debbie Reynold’s resumé.  That goes without saying.  Except for the songs, it is a head scratcher as to why she was so intent on doing this film.  The character is poorly written as all Sister Ann is required to do is to be as perky as possible and sing on key.  There is supposed to be this inner turmoil going on, but it never shows up on screen.  If Ann is attracted to Robert, she has a funny way of showing it which is not at all.  Their rehash of the good old days comes off as a couple of scouts reminiscing around the old campfire. She shows no real desire to become a star and makes it clear that she’s only doing it to make the Church and the nuns some money and so Mister Ed will donate a jeep to their mission in Africa.  In the end, the tragic accident is here just so she can make a pact with God to go to the mission in Africa which she was going to go to anyway.  And as I said, there are times when instead of offering comfort, Sister Ann is nothing but a judgmental jackass to the people she’s supposed to help. 

As for director Henry Koster, The Singing Nun just scoots along like it was something he wanted to get over and be done with. It often plays like a made for TV movie and its studio backlot locations only add to that feeling. The use of blue screen to show Sister Ann’s motor scooter travels is terribly obvious as is another scene where Robert and Father Clemente are riding down the road in Robert’s sports car.  Instead of being just his last film, it almost comes off being his Waterloo.  Too bad he couldn’t get Gene Kelly and Donald O’Conner into the movie to liven up life with Sister Ann. 

I’m sure there are those who have very fond memories of this film from when they saw it back in the day.  You can read the user reviews on IMDB to understand that.  As for myself I’m sure I saw it back in the day on one of the Network Primetime Movie Offerings but I had practically no real memory of it when viewing it now.

I’m sure some of the older audience will enjoy the catchy songs and the flimsy plot but my recommendation would be to find the Soundtrack album if possible (available on Vinyl on Amazon) or get a copy of the original recordings by the real artist Jeanine Deckers and skip this movie.  It is available on HBO Max until July 1st at least so if you really want to watch, be my guest.  It is also available as part of this 4 DVD set which is a real bargain Get it while they last because you also get Boy’s Town, A Christmas Carol, and Christmas in Connecticut for the same price as just buying the single copy of the film. 

As for myself, I’ll descend from the heavens and place upon The Singing Nun movie a C-.  Only the musical score saves it from being lower than that.  Now I have a book to read.

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