Musical Monday: The Singing Nun (1966)

It’s no secret that the Hollywood Comet loves musicals.
In 2010, I revealed I had seen 400 movie musicals over the course of eight years. Now that number is over 600. To celebrate and share this musical love, here is my weekly feature about musicals.

singing nunThis week’s musical:
The Singing Nun (1966) – Musical #47

Studio:
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

Director:
Henry Koster

Starring:
Debbie Reynolds, Ricardo Montalbán, Greer Garson, Agnes Moorehead, Juanita Moore, Katharine Ross, Chad Everett, Tom Drake, Ricky Cordell, Michael Pate, Charles Robinson, Monique Montaigne, Joyce Vanderveen, Anne Wakefield, Pam Peterson, Marina Koshetz, Nancy Walters, Violet Rensing, Inez Pedroza, Jon Lormer (uncredited), Dorothy Patrick (uncredited)
Themselves: Ed Sullivan

Plot:
A nun, Sister Ann (Reynolds), loves music and enjoys singing. Father Clementi (Montalban) thinks Sister Ann should make a record, and she writes a song which becomes a hit. The record sells well and she even appears on the Ed Sullivan Show. As she rises to fame, Sister Ann realizes that the popularity may conflict with the vows she took. The film is a fictionalized biographical musical on the life and career of Jeannine Deckers (who served in the church as Sister Luc Gabriel and known professional as Soeur Sourire), a nun who rose to fame with her hit “Dominque.”

Trivia:
• Last film of director Henry Koster. He said this was a difficult film to make, which made him decide to retire.
• The Catholic church was not pleased about the film, and only agreed to it if the story was fictionalized.
• First film or television appearance of Ricky Cordell.
• In her autobiography, Debbie Reynolds wrote that she accepted the film so she could stay in Los Angeles with her children. Scenes were even scheduled so she could attend Carrie’s Girl Scout meetings.
• In 2009, an updated biographical film was released on Jeannine Deckers called “Soeur Sourire,” or “Sister Smile.”

singing nun3

Highlights:
• The scene where the nuns are at the recording studio.
• “Dominque” sped up for a discothèque

Notable Songs:
• “Brother John” performed by Ricardo Montalban, Debbie Reynolds, and the sisters
• “Sister Adele” performed by Debbie Reynolds
• “Beyond the Stars” performed by Debbie Reynolds and Monique Montaigne
• “Put On Your Pretty Skirt” performed by Debbie Reynolds
• “Dominque” performed by Debbie Reynolds

singing nun4

My review:
As a fictional, narrative film, “The Singing Nun” (1966) is enjoyable. But thinking of it as a biopic on a person, it all makes me sad. The film a sanitized version of a story that, in real life, was much more complex and sad.

“Unfortunately, her real life was more difficult than what we portrayed in our version,” Reynolds wrote in her autobiography of the real Singing Nun.

In the film, Sister Ann (Reynolds) arrives at her new assignment at the Samaritan House in Brussels. She’s spirited and arrives on scooter with a guitar. Mother Prioress (Garson) thinks Sister Ann might have the energy and positivity that they need, while Sister Cluny (Moorehead) at isn’t too sure at first. But when the sisters and Father Clementi (Montalban) hear her sing for the first time, Father Clementi has an idea that she should record an album of hymns. Sister Ann says that her songs are prayers set to song. When makes the record — where she meets an old friend (Everett) who is now a music executive — the record becomes a hit. Sister Ann finds fame, even appearing on “The Ed Sullivan Show.” But she finds that the fame, while she enjoys it, also gets in the way of her work, like trying to help Dominic (Cordell) and his sister Nicole (Ross).

singing nun5The film is really a Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer reunion with a cast boasting Debbie Reynolds, Greer Garson, Ricardo Montalban and Tom Drake.

“The Singing Nun” is a joyful film and has some lovely songs, but it’s sad because the real life story is rather grim.

The same year the film was released, the real Singing Nun Jeannine Deckers left the order, noting clashes between herself and her superiors when it came to her fame. Her life came to a sad end in 1985, when Deckers was hit with $63,000 in back taxes by the Belgium government and she committed suicide. Another film was later made about Deckers’s life in 2009 called “Soeur Sourire.”

The making of the film “The Singing Nun” was also not a joyful experience. While making the film, director Henry Koster decided it would be his last film — and it was. Tensions between Debbie Reynolds and producer John Beck made filming unpleasant, especially for Koster who was caught in the middle.

Reynolds doesn’t cover any of the creative issues in her autobiography, only discussing the film in two pages and largely gushing over Greer Garson and talking about Carrie’s Girl Scout troop.

While this film was perhaps inspired by the success of THE SOUND OF MUSIC, I think it stands on its own two feet as an entertaining musical. The film is largely a fictional biopic, which was the only way the Catholic Church agreed to the making of the film.

The songs in the film are lovely, and there are some fun moments. I particularly like when the nuns are in the music studio to record and the juxtaposition between them and the other 1960s singers. I like when the camera switches between the nuns singing hymns to a rock band in ridiculous costumes singing how they “love my baby!”

The entire cast is a delight, especially Greer Garson, Ricardo Montalban and Juanita Moore, though I unfortunately felt like Moore wasn’t given much to do. I was almost surprised a romance wasn’t cooked up between the characters played by Katharine Ross and Chad Everett, who didn’t play any scenes together. My only other complaint was I would have loved to see more of Tom Drake. I had to laugh at Drake complaining about the nuns’s outfits being too white and asking if they had something else to wear. I’ve been on several filming sets and this tracks.

Funnily enough, Nancy Walters, who plays a nun in the film, ended up being a minister later on.

I hadn’t watched The Singing Nun since I was a teenager, and I mainly just remembered the song “Dominque,” a song that easily gets stuck in your head. I enjoyed this revisit, even if the real story makes me sad.

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