The above image is from the 1929 silent film Big Business starring Laurel & Hardy. In it, the duo are trying to make money by selling Christmas trees, eventually arriving at the home of a rather cranky man played by James Findlayson. Annoyed by their persistent badgering, he emerges from his house with hedge clippers and chops the top off the tree Laurel & Hardy are trying to sell him. They retaliate by vandalising his door... he then damages their clothes... the altercation escalates rapidly as the man's house is destroyed by Laurel & Hardy. Meanwhile, as they smash out his windows, destroy his piano, etc., he takes an axe to their car, eventually ripping it apart with his bare hands. A crowd gathers to watch the melee, and things take another turn as a police officer arrives and gets in the way of flying debris.
Well, we woke up to this weather yesterday morning. Sigh.:
One thing I really hate about this social distancing is not being able to see my nephews and nieces, who are managing to keep busy:
Apparently the young'uns thought Martin Luther needed some artistic flairs:
For my sister who home schools her kids, education hasn't changed much. In geography this week, they were studying the United States and yesterday had a quiz. Her youngest- who's three- wanted to participate, so she gave him a copy of the map. Some time later, he brought it to her, asking "Did I get them all right?"
Continuing with maps, some of the kids are spending their time off plotting the takeover of the world:
I can't wait until all this is over and I can see these little munchkins again, because I miss their antics.
Not long after Cissy tells Valancy of her past, she succumbs to her illness, finally at peace and free of her pain and suffering. Valancy is with her when she dies, and afterwards she goes out to meet Roaring Abel and tell him what's happened. Abel- as usual- is three sheets to the wind, but the shock sobers him up a bit. He reminisces about Cissy as a little girl, running up the lane to meet him with flowers in her hair. This gives me a moment's twinge of pity for the man, but it swiftly passes when I remember that he squandered his daughter's love and affection by caring more for the contents of a bottle than he did for her. It's too little, too late for his regrets. Valancy has to plan the funeral because of course Roaring Abel is useless. Barney Snaith doesn't attend, but before the funeral he helps Valancy with preparations and brings white roses for Cissy's coffin. The man whom the entire town despises actually displays more kindness and compassion than any of the so-called respectable pillars of the community. Speaking of whom, the whole town shows up for the funeral, just as if they hadn't shunned and shamed Cissy for the last few years. Death lends her a respectability which she no longer possessed in life... people start remembering what a quiet, modest girl she had been before her disgrace. The Stirlings are all there, looking pious and solemn. After a family meeting, it was decided that they would attend, lending an air of respectability to Valancy's actions by pretending that she had the family's approval. They hope to convince the rest of the community that Valancy was actually performing a laudable act of charity, not engaging in scandalous behaviour. To their surprise, they find their errant relation conducting herself in a very competent and respectable manner as she manages the logistics of the funeral. They begin to hope that they might just be able to pull off their retcon of the events of the past months, saving the Stirling family name from being dragged through the mud. Also, a local widower in attendance takes notice of Valancy's abilities and starts considering her as a possible stepmother to his brood. As unlikely as it seems, both Valancy's reputation and matrimonial chances have gotten a boost from Cissy's funeral. After the funeral, Valancy's mother asks her when she's coming home, because obviously she can't stay on with Roaring Abel. Valancy, who's preparing dinner for some of Abel's relatives, says absently no, of course she won't be staying but will need a few days to get the house in order. Neither her mother nor the others notice that, while Valancy says she won't be staying at Roaring Abel's, she doesn't say that she will be returning home. Naively sure that the prodigal will return, the Stirlings leave the funeral satisfied and Uncle Benjamin says that, when Valancy does return, no one must reprimand her or mention her actions at all. This by itself shows how much the family has changed in the way they regard Valancy. Previously she was held in derision, every misdeed she'd made in her life- however minor- constantly brought up and talked/joked about. Now, having actually done something scandalous, the family can't even bring it up because they're afraid of what she might say or do. And well they might be, as we shall soon see.
“No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear.” ― C.S. Lewis
It's been a rough week for Nova Scotians. Last Saturday night, a man in the small rural community of Portapique went on a murderous rampage, in a fake police uniform and a car which he had tricked out to look like a police cruiser. He shot and killed 22 people in the fourteen hours before he himself was taken down- 23 if you count the unborn baby of one of the victims, which I certainly do. The incident has shocked and shaken our little province; Halifax is a fair-sized city, for eastern Canada anyway, but a lot of the province is still made up of small towns and communities. It's not unusual to know, if not one of the victims, then someone who knows someone who knows them. My next door neighbour was acquainted slightly with one of the murdered women, because they were both in the VON (Victorian Order of Nurses). My sister worked with the daughter of one of the slain couples at summer camp. It literally hits home for a lot of people. I've mostly avoided social media this week, because the unremitting deluge of posts from people declaring their grief and sorrow swiftly becomes too much for me. It's not that I begrudge people an outlet for their feelings- no doubt magnified by the fact that so many of them are at home with no connections except through social media- but there's a point where some of the maudlin outpourings become almost ... unseemly, performative. This probably sounds judgemental, and maybe my Anglo Saxon Protestant distaste for scenes in public plays into my discomfort, but I truly don't mean it that way. It's just seems that the people who are emoting the most online aren't even peripherally involved, and it feels almost disrespectful to the families of the victims to be sucking up attention like that. And that was definitely a judgement of peoples' motives, so I'll backtrack by saying that perhaps some people need that very public outlet for their emotions. It's just not for me. I couldn't even make it through the online vigil the other night; the minute Justin Trudeau appeared on the screen I shut it off. Because his whole career has been performative fakery and faux emotion and frankly, I just can't take it- especially now. My heart aches for the victims and their families, but what can be said that hasn't been said thousands of times before? The reason why so many statements, however sincerely meant, sound trite and cliched is because they are; tragedies and violent crimes have been occurring since the dawn of time... what response can we make to them that isn't hackneyed? And yet, perhaps there is comfort to be found in the very familiarity and rote nature of these expressions of sympathy and grief. They provide us with a familiar script in the face of a vicious outrage which would otherwise render us clumsily inarticulate. I've often been sad this week, but almost as often I've been angry, and I'm aware that this is a flaw of mine: to deal with excessive emotion by taking refuge in anger. First, I have a deep, abiding rage for the vile creature who perpetrated this terrible act. I feel nothing but satisfaction that the police ended his miserable life by perforating him with bullets. Frankly, I would have been fine with it if they had kicked his worthless carcass into a ditch somewhere and left it as carrion for the crows and coyotes. Not my finest moment as a Christian, I know. I also have a level of anger for those who use this tragedy to push their personal agendas and pet ideologies. Prime Minister Trudeau for example, didn't even have the basic human decency to wait until the bodies were cold before getting in front of a mic and shilling for his pet project, further gun control. Never mind the fact that, due to a previous conviction for assault, it was already illegal for the man to own a gun. It seems that violent murderers don't much care about abiding by the law- imagine that. But then, Trudeau has never been one to let facts get in the way of narrative. I also saw an article that some feminist had posted about how mass murder was based in misogyny, ignoring the fact that this monster killed both men and women, seemingly at random as opportunity presented itself. But why let a crisis go to waste, even if you have to figuratively spit on the bodies of the dead to do it. This is another reason I avoided social media for the majority of the week... I just would have been angry all of the time. I have less anger- and more understanding- for those who seize on the ideas pushed by opportunists at times like this as a sort of lifeline. I think it's easier for people if they can can blame something- like guns- or some ideology for what happened. Because if there was no identifiable reason behind the murderer's rampage, if these people were killed at random for no other reason than they were there, then it could have happened to anyone, and that is a fearful thought. It would be comforting to think for example that, if only no one could own a gun, nothing like this would ever happen. But this is a lie people tell themselves to avoid the truth that we have little control over tragedy. Behind the very real sympathy and sorrow we have for the victims lurks the fear that it could have been us, or our loved ones. It's easier to look for a way to assuage that fear rather than face the unpalatable truth of our own vulnerability to pain and death. "How could this happen here?" some people ask plaintively. Well, why would it not? There are violent, evil people the world over and we are not immune. Rather, we're fortunate to live in a place where such deeds occur so rarely that they shock us to our core. We Christians start out with a belief in the total depravity of man, so while we are shaken and grieving, we cannot be surprised that this could happen, and that it could happen here as well as anywhere else. This has been a rather dark, rambling post, and perhaps I should have written something more comforting and uplifting. Certainly there have been many acts of kindness done in the wake of the events of last weekend, with people reaching out to help in any way they can. There have also been genuine messages of caring and support pouring in from a lot of people across the country and around the world. At work one day this week, I was on a call with someone in Edmonton who, originally from Nova Scotia, choked up as she tried to express her sympathy; I ended up comforting her. On Friday across Canada, people paused at 2 pm for two minutes of silence for the victims. Unable to gather together, many stood quietly at the end of their driveways. One of my sisters knew that she wouldn't be able to get her two youngest to be still unless she made some sort of explanation to them, something she hadn't done up until then. So she sat them down and told them briefly what had happened; my six year old nephew asked worriedly if it had been Grandma and Grandad who were shot. My sister said no, but it had been other peoples' grandmothers and grandfathers and mums and dads. He then wanted to kill the bad guy... she assured him that the police had already done that. She also told them that a police officer- a mother of two- had been killed. That's what got to my four year old niece: "Shh! Guys! Somebody's mom died!" It seems to me that these two grasped the fundamental points of this tragedy: the bad guy needed to be dead, and the people he killed were someone's parents and grandparents, brothers and sisters- and could just as easily have been ours. If, as the events of the past week fade into memory, we can hold on to one thought, it should be that life is fragile and fleeting, and we should treasure every moment we have with those we love.
“Whereas ye know not what shall be on the morrow. For what is your life? It is even a vapour, that appeareth for a little time, and then vanisheth away.”- James 4:14
As we begin these chapters, Valancy's disgrace in the eyes of her family is complete because what they most fear occurs: her behaviour becomes public knowledge. Of course, the people of Deerwood already knew that Valancy is staying at Roaring Abel's caring for Cissy, but the Stirlings had managed to hush up the fact that she had been with Barney Snaith in a car in the middle of the night. Now however, everyone knows that she went to dinner and a movie with the jail bird in Port Lawrence. For her part, Valancy may be in love with Barney but she harbours no illusions about his feelings for her. She knows that he asked her to go out of kindness, and because that night Roaring Abel was at the stage of drunkenness where he sang- loudly- ribald songs, so it was just as well for her to be out of range. Their night out in the Port is quite innocent, but it leaves a trail of scandal and gossip in their wake... neither of them care, but the Stirlings are beside themselves with shame and helpless anger. In these chapters we also learn Cissy's tragic backstory as she relates it to Valancy one night not long before her death. This sad tale highlights a few issues, one of them being the dangers of keeping girls in ignorance of the facts of life. Cissy confesses that she didn't know "some things" and it's not surprising: her mother died when she was a small child, her sot of a father only cares about himself, and his behaviour ensured that no respectable woman would come to care for his child, only a series of uncaring old crones. Also, the only place that Cissy ever went socially was to the local church, where they definitely weren't teaching sex ed. Roaring Abel bears a lot of responsibility for Cissy's wrecked life: as I mentioned before, he was no kind of a father to her, other than providing the bare essentials of life, and every study shows- even today- that girls who grow up without the love and protection of their fathers will go looking for it elsewhere, usually in the wrong places. This, of course, does not absolve Cissy of all blame; ultimately we're all responsible for our own choices, but she was set up for failure. Naturally, there is one other person who is also responsible for this debacle: the young man with whom Cissy was involved.
We don't know much about the man who got Cissy pregnant, other than the fact that he was from a wealthy family, was weak and behaved dishonourably. To be fair, when he found out that she was pregnant he showed up and offered to marry Cissy. When she refused however, he slunk away and never returned. A real man would have admitted his responsibility and, even if she refused marriage, supported his child and been involved in its life. Speaking of that refusal, Cissy says she did it because she could see that he no longer loved her and asks Valancy if she thinks that she made the wrong choice. Valancy loyally says no, but I'm going to be contrary on this and say heck, yes she made the wrong choice- one of several. First of all, Cissy says that he didn't love her anymore; I would argue that he never did. At that time, a girl found to be having a sexual relationship outside of marriage would have her reputation and often- as we see here- her life ruined. No man who truly loved a woman would demand that of her and then, to compound his selfishness, leave her without a backward glance or concern about consequences. So she was having a sexual relationship- and a child- with a guy who obviously didn't love her, but marrying him under those circumstances was a bridge too far? We live in a time period where one or the other of the partners in a marriage can decide that they are no longer "in love" and this is thought to be a good reason to get a divorce. Well not in my opinion, especially if there are children involved. It is the height of selfishness to explode their world just because you don't happen to be feeling the old spark; every study shows that divorce is more traumatic for kids than the death of a parent. Now, before anyone starts having a seizure, I'm not talking about abusive relationships: obviously, if a spouse is abusive, the other owes it to herself/himself and their kids to get out and stay out. But I've never seen the "I'm just not feelin' it no more" clause in the marriage vows. The world would be a better place if more people would suck it up, stand by their commitments, and work at their marriages instead of jumping ship when the going gets tough.
But- I hear some say- Cissy and her former lover aren't married. No, but they had a child together and the needs of that child should be put before their own. They both owed it to the baby to make the best of a bad situation. Does anyone really think that the better option here was choosing to raise this child with the stigma of illegitimacy, in the house of an unrepentant alcoholic whose drunken antics led to the premature death of his wife and the ruination of his daughter's life? That was the best choice in these less than ideal circumstances? The guy not loving Cissy enough seems to me to be the lesser- and not insurmountable- problem here. Apart from anything else, Cissy was doing the young man- and I use that term with reservations- no favours by letting him off the hook. Being forced to behave like a man and face up to his responsibilities might have been the making of him. Now though, he will forever be a lesser person because, no matter where he goes or what he accomplishes, he will always be a man who took the coward's way out, cravenly abandoning his child. There's no escaping that fact, whether anyone else besides himself knows about it or not. As is so often the case, the woman in this situation- Cissy- pays the highest price, with not only her reputation, but her health being ruined. And, when her baby dies, she also loses her will to live, not even trying to fight the disease which is slowly killing her. I'll discuss this in a follow-up post, because this one- thanks to my ranting- is getting too long.
We know not what it is, dear, this sleep so deep and still; The folded hands, the awful calm, the cheek so pale and chill; The lids that will not lift again, though we may call and call; The strange white solitude of peace that settles over all.
We know not what it means, dear, this desolate heart-pain; This dread to take our daily way, and walk in it again; We know not to what other sphere the loved who leave us go, Nor why we ‘re left to wonder still, nor why we do not know.
But this we know: Our loved and dead, if they should come this day-- Should come and ask us, “What is life?” not one of us could say. Life is a mystery, as deep as ever death can be; Yet, O, how dear it is to us, this life we live and see!
Then might they say—these vanished ones—and blessed is the thought, “So death is sweet to us, beloved! though we may show you nought; We may not to the quick reveal the mystery of death-- Ye cannot tell us, if ye would, the mystery of breath.” The child who enters life comes not with knowledge or intent, So those who enter death must go as little children sent. Nothing is known. But I believe that God is overhead; And as life is to the living, so death is to the dead.
In the first part of The Trouble With Angels, Mary and Rachael- especially Mary- are rather unlikable. Rachael, as the Mother Superior correctly deduces, is a follower; Mary is the leader and planner. And at first, the pranks they pull are meant to defy and anger the nuns. This would be understandable if the nuns were nasty and unreasonable, but they're not. The girls arrive at the school determined from the start to hate it and cause trouble despite the fact that the school and grounds are beautiful, the scholastic demands placed on them are reasonable not stringent, and the nuns treat them fairly and often with outright kindness. For example, when Mary is kneeling in the chapel, praying for forgiveness-supposedly- for one of her many misdeeds, one of the nuns brings her a cushion so that her knees won't get sore. So when Mary continues to plot things to upset them, she frequently comes off as mean spirited. Fortunately, we are gradually shown why Mary is like she is which goes a long distance to explain, if not excuse, how she behaves. Her parents are dead and her guardian is her businessman uncle who spends most of his time and attention on his multiple "secretaries", ignoring Mary until she becomes a problem, at which point he bundles her off to St. Francis. She's pretty much been left to raise herself and then along comes the Mother Superior, enforcing a code of conduct and placing reasonable but firm expectations of education and behaviour upon her. For the first time in her life Mary is butting heads with an authority figure and it's natural that she resents it before she learns to be grateful for it. It's after meeting Mary's uncle (who's with his latest "secretary") that the Mother Superior decides not to expel Mary, which she had been planning to do. Instead she decides to try harder to reach the girl, telling one of the other nuns that she needs to find a way to teach Mary, "... to bend but not break, to yield but not capitulate, to have pride but also humility." This power struggle between the Mother Superior and Mary Clancy is the central conflict in The Trouble With Angels. Obviously, the Mother Superior comes out victorious as Mary decides to become a nun though, as I said in my previous post, there is no evidence given in the film that Mary ever feels any kind of spiritual call. What there is evidence of, though, is Mary's growing respect for the Mother Superior and the other nuns. When she's not up to no good, frequently we see Mary lurking behind posts and on staircases, just quietly watching the nuns go about their business. Even when she is up to something, the tenor of her misbehaviour gradually changes. At first, her misdeeds are designed to actively and obviously defy the nuns and cause them stress. At about the midpoint, her rule breaking is just that... breaking the rules, such as smoking in the basement with Rachael. It's still wrong, but passively rather than aggressively. In her final year, Mary actually breaks the rules in order to help the nuns; the school needs a new boiler, which they can get the money to purchase if their marching band wins the state competition. Mary and Rachael sneak off from a museum field trip to go spy on their main competition and find out what their band needs to do to beat them. Again, they're still engaging in misdeeds, but their motivation has totally changed.
This all points to a shift in Mary's thinking though, as I said, I see no evidence of any spiritual awakening. What I can buy is that Mary eventually saw something worth having in the nuns' way of life. Every summer she would go home and witness her uncle's sleazy existence where she knows herself to be unwanted, and then return to the convent school where the nuns all seem to have great care for each other, and a sense of purpose. She further witnesses this when the girls are taken to a seniors' home at Christmas time, to serve tea and chat with the elderly people there. Once again quietly observing, Mary sees the sadness of many of the residents whose families appear to have forgotten them, not even bothering to visit at Christmas. This again can be contrasted with the nuns at the convent, who lovingly care for and include in every day life the elderly and failing sisters of their order. At one point, Mary asks the Mother Superior how she could bear to leave her former life, and Mother Superior replies that she "found something better." Considering the life that Mary has known outside of school, it would not be completely surprising if she did the same.
What I do derive quite a bit of amusement from is the way The Trouble With Angels craps all over "progressive" education. Before Rachael is sent to St. Francis, she was attending a progressive school where she was learning to grow sweet potatoes and play the "silent piano". Her father gets fed up with this, demanding to know why he's paying $40 an hour for piano lessons in which she doesn't play an actual piano. Rachael is shocked when, at St. Francis, she is studying actual core subjects and is required to work at them. At Mary's urging, she writes to Mr. Petrie- the principal at her former school- telling him that the nuns are "stifling her creative flow" and that she might be driven to an "act of desperation". Like a good little progressive, Mr. Petrie shows up to protest this treatment of his former student. He is soundly routed by the Mother Superior:
To sum up, The Trouble With Angels is rather a mixed bag. The plot is pretty thin, and the ending abrupt and frankly, unconvincing. On the other hand, Rosalind Russell is great as the Mother Superior- the beat thing about this film, in fact. And the movie does have some interesting- and thought provoking- moments. As for Hayley Mills using this as a stepping stone away from her Disney persona... well, she's certainly a bit more malevolent in The Trouble With Angels to begin with, but then ends up becoming a nun so I'm not sure how well that worked out. Of course, also in the film's favour, it had the seemingly ageless Mary Wickes playing one of the nuns... seriously, the woman's career lasted for most of the 20th century and she always looked the same, just more so as she got older.
1. The Man Who Came To Dinner, 1942 2. White Christmas, 1954
3. The Trouble With Angels, 1966 4. Sister Act,1992
If a thing is free to be good it is also free to be bad. And free will is what has made evil possible. Why, then, did God give them free will? Because free will, though it makes evil possible, is also the only thing that makes possible any love or goodness or joy worth having. -C. S. Lewis
Sunday night I watched a movie I'd never seen before: the 1966 comedy The Trouble With Angels, starring Rosalind Russell and Hayley Mills. Rosalind Russell is the Mother Superior at the St. Francis school, an all-girl Catholic boarding school run by nuns. Hayley Mills plays Mary Clancy, a rebellious teen who has been sent there by her uncle/guardian. She becomes friends with another new girl- Rachael Devery- and the two of them engage in numerous pranks and high jinks which test the patience of Mother Superior and the other nuns. The film spans a three year period, from the girls' arrival at the school to their graduation, during which time the two get into all kinds of trouble and teeter on the edge of expulsion on several occasions. The movie is not a classic by any stretch of the imagination, but it does have its good points, some of which I found interesting/ enjoyable. To get the negatives out of the way first, there isn't much of a plot in The Trouble With Angels: it's more a series of vignettes of events which occur involving the girls and the nuns- mostly the Mother Superior. Also, there isn't much character development for anyone except the three main characters. The rest of the school girls are more or less indistinguishable, and the other nuns hover at the periphery, never getting much screen time or development. This makes the scene when one of the sisters dies during their senior year much less impactful than it could have been, because she is never a character that feels real to you. It's clear that in this film Hayley Mills was attempting to step away from her Disney persona, playing the rebellious teen Mary, smoking and talking cynically about her uncle's affairs. And at nineteen, she's still young enough to pull off playing an adolescent between the ages of 14 and 17. Some of the other girls, however, are very obviously not teenagers. For most of them, this isn't really important- they're only background dressing- but June Harding, who plays Mary's best friend/partner in crime, was 28 at the time of filming. While she skilfully portrays the awkward and gawky Rachael, at no time did I believe that she was 14 years old.
The Trouble With Angels is also fairly predictable; it's obvious from the get-go that Mary is eventually going to see the error of her ways and become a better person. And this isn't necessarily a bad thing, if skilfully done. In some ways it is- which I'll discuss later- but the ending is too abrupt and there's no build up to it. **SPOILER ALERT** At graduation, it's announced that Mary has decided to become a nun and join the school's order. There is no preparation for this at all. While it's obvious that Mary has slowly been gaining respect for the nuns- especially Mother Superior- at no time does she evince any interest in spiritual matters. The only time we see her in chapel is when she's faking doing the penance she's been assigned for one of her misdeeds, so her sudden decision to become a nun seems abrupt and unsupported by any actions or statements by Mary up until this point.
OK, having discussed some of the things which didn't work for me in The Trouble With Angels, I'll now give the film some words of praise. To start with, Rosalind Russell makes a great nun. Knowing her best as feisty spitfire Hildy Johnson in His Girl Friday, this is casting that would never have occurred to me but it works. Also, the movie doesn't make the mistake of making her out-of-touch and hopelessly naive about the world; this would simply be totally unrealistic for women who are running a school, interacting daily with teenage girls. Instead, it's made clear that the Mother Superior had a life before the convent- she had a career and had lived abroad. When she became a nun, she had experienced the world and was making an informed choice to give it up. We don't learn enough about the other nuns to know their pasts, though Mother Superior does mention one of them. When Mary and Rachael are mimicking one of the other sister's accents, she informs them that that particular nun is from Germany; during the war, she sheltered a group of Jewish children until she was eventually caught and tortured by the Nazis. My point being that the nuns aren't caricatures: stern, unworldly, and joyless wielders of rulers upon the knuckles of unsuspecting, innocent students. Rather, they are people with pasts and personalities- even if we don't learn much about them- who have standards and expectations but are not despotic, humourless, or unsympathetic. Indeed, the nuns by and large come off better than Mary and Rachael... which I'll discuss in my next post, because this one is going to end up being too long.