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The cultural revolution of the '60s didn't happen overnight. Even as young people around the world were beginning to experiment with free love and the counterculture, audiences made a hit out of The Singing Nun (1966), MGM's highly fictionalized story of the real-life nun who rose to the top of the pop charts with her simple songs about faith. And in keeping with the story's retro tone, the film was something of a throwback to the golden days of Hollywood. The cast included such MGM stalwarts as Debbie Reynolds, Agnes Moorehead, Greer Garson, Ricardo Montalban and even "The Boy Next Door" from Meet Me in St. Louis (1944), Tom Drake. For director, they chose Henry Koster, a veteran of four decades in Hollywood who had helped make Deanna Durbin a star in the '30s.
The real singing nun was Jeanine Deckers, a Belgian woman who took the name Sister Luc-Gabrielle when she entered a Dominican convent. The songs she wrote and performed at services caught the attention of Phillips Records, which gave her a contract to record under the name Soeur Sourire (which means "Sister Smile"). Her first big hit, "Dominique," about the founder of the Dominican order, topped the charts, bringing her a Grammy for Best Gospel Record, a chance to perform on The Ed Sullivan Show and an offer from MGM to film her story. The Catholic Church was none too pleased with her growing fame. They only agreed to the film if the story were fictionalized and ultimately forced Soeur Sourire to retire from the spotlight.
The story of the re-named Sister Ann offered an irresistible opportunity to Debbie Reynolds. Riding high on the success of the musical The Unsinkable Molly Brown (1964), she was the obvious choice to play the role. She was thrilled to be working with old friends like Montalban and Moorehead, and particularly pleased, in an era marked by extensive location shooting, to be working almost entirely on the MGM lot. Not only could she stay with her family, but she even arranged to get Wednesday afternoons off to lead daughter Carrie Fisher's Girl Scout troop. Some weeks she didn't have time to get out of costume, so she showed up in full nun's habit, which confused some of the other parents, who couldn't tell if she were a real nun or some kind of nut.
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.
For all the problems - and some scathing reviews complaining of the picture's out-of-date wholesomeness - The Singing Nun soared at the box office, possibly because it gave family audiences a relief from the ever-more adult films of the swinging '60s. It even won an Oscar® nomination for its score.
Things weren't very happy for the real singing nun off-screen. She left the church in 1967 to pursue a professional singing career, but her songs grew more and more political through the years. Then she and her partner, Annie Pescher, founded a school for autistic children. Her world came toppling down in the '80s, when the Belgian government billed her for $60,000 in back taxes on her earnings as Soeur Sourire, even though all of the money had been donated to her convent. Facing bankruptcy, the singing nun killed herself in a suicide pact with Pescher (who was rumored to be her lover) - an ending you would never see in an MGM musical.
Director: Henry Koster
Screenplay: Sally Benson, John Furia, Jr.
Cinematography: Milton Krasner
Art Direction: George W. Davis, Urie McCleary
Music: Harry Sukman
Cast: Debbie Reynolds (Sister Ann), Ricardo Montalban (Father Clementi), Greer Garson (Mother Prioress), Agnes Moorehead (Sister Cluny), Chad Everett (Robert Gerarde), Katharine Ross (Nicole Arlien), Juanita Moore (Sister Mary), Tom Drake (Fitzpatrick), Ed Sullivan (Himself).
C-97m. Letterboxed. Closed captioning.
by Frank Miller