[12 September 2006]
In the courtyard of a sunny convent in San Tanco, Puerto Rico, Sister Bertrille (Sally Field) is sorting through the personal effects of her recently deceased Aunt Martha with the help of her sisters. At the bottom of the box she finds a parasol and, holding it up to catch an island breeze, floats fumblingly aloft—only to drift back down and fall on her ass in the courtyard fountain. Low-brow humor, to be sure, of the pie-in-the-face, man-in-the-swimming pool sort The Flying Nun delivers by the pallet-load. But Field, scarcely over 20 but already demonstrating the talent for performance she would later become known for, gives the moment a twist. “What’s Mary Poppins got that I haven’t got?” she complains, twirling her damp parasol sadly.
It’s a nice inside joke from an actress who’s always shown a knack for stealing the occasional sly wink with her audience. Just about anyone watching The Flying Nun during the three seasons it aired between 1967 and ‘70 would immediately intuit its immense debt to the 1964 Disney movie and the popular P.L. Travers children’s novels on which it was (scandalously loosely) based. Indeed, Nun‘s premise—weighing less than 100 pounds soaking wet, the novitiate Bertrille dons the outsized, winged cornet particular to her order and finds herself capable of taking to the air at will—is promoted from outright farce to magic realism only if one takes the show as a conspicuous, conscious update of Mary Poppins to fit the mod sensibilities of the late ‘60s.
As Fields so deftly conveys in the courtyard fountain when she simultaneously imitates and differentiates herself from Julie Andrews’ magic nanny, the relationship between Sister Bertrille and the character’s Disneyesque roots is a more complicated business than one might initially suspect. In her foursquare interview for the first season DVD release of The Flying Nun, Field—whose memory of the show is not entirely fond—reveals that her aerial harness throughout the series was the same Mary Martin used in the TV show, Peter Pan, and didn’t fit right. “It was all so rinky-dink,” says she, “and nobody gave a rat’s hind-end how long I was hanging there.” (Reading about Field’s revealing interview for the season one DVD, incidentally, makes it that much more disappointing that the second-season collection has no extras at all.) Whenever Sister Bertrille sails upward the cables on her harness are conspicuously visible, so much as to exceed the likely consequence of mere budgetary constraint or technical inattention.
Again this seems a clever nudge in the ribs to the audience, who would get more of a chuckle for having so recently seen Mary Poppins and the early Disney movie Peter Pan. Each had themes in common with The Flying Nun but differed from the later show with their dazzling animation and special effects.
In the same interview, Field laments her time on The Flying Nun because the show, to her mind, didn’t follow the rest of America from Mayberry to Haight-Ashbury. “It was 1967, 1968, 1969. Everybody was eating granola and running around naked. And I was the Flying Nun…. I became the laughingstock of the nation.” In his review of the first season The Flying Nun DVD set, James Plath of DVDTown.com describes Field as simply wanting to bring back Gidget, which had enjoyed a surge of popularity the season it was cancelled. In some ways Nun is a lot like Gidget. But the earlier series, like the Sandra Dee movies from which it was adapted—and the Annette Funicello-Frankie Avalon beach flicks of which Gidget was a cousin—was largely about suburban coming of age and the struggle to surmount the generation gap. Gidget goes on dates, dad frets aloud over her ability to guard her virtue against temptation; Gidget’s heart is broken, dad tries to console her even though, for him, the days of youthful romance seem part of a distant past. Throughout, though, it’s understood that eventually Gidget will marry the right boy and settle down, just as in Beach Party (1963) Frankie and DeeDee’s sun-and-surf weekend is understood as a last adolescent fling before they embark on an adulthood of college, marriage, career, and child raising.
The Flying Nun preserves enough of Gidget‘s preoccupation with generational issues—and enough of Sally-Field-as-Gidget’s plum-cheeked, nigh-diagnosable vivaciousness—that it often feels like a Gidget spin-off. So it might take a while to notice that The Flying Nun actually jettisons many of Gidget‘s central themes. Sister Bertrille, studying for the vows of sisterhood, naturally doesn’t date. Marriage and children are basically out of the question for her. And since she is presumably orphaned—an elderly aunt of hers comes up often in conversation as her inspiration to join the convent, but her parents are rarely if ever mentioned—issues of generational misunderstanding occur outside the family proper, being directed instead through her relationship with the Reverend Mother Superior Plaseato (Madeleine Sherwood).
The typical episode has the struggling convent in need of funds for one reason or another; Sister Bertrille concocts an improbable scheme to raise the money and Plaseato, judging it unwise, rejects it, leaving Sister Bertrille—with the help of Carlos (Alejandro Ray), reluctant benefactor and playboy casino owner—to execute the scheme anyway, with near-disaster and much hilarity being the most common result. So despite Field’s complaint, The Flying Nun did at least update itself somewhat for younger, hipper audiences by refraining from Gidget‘s sappy portrayals of idealized (albeit single-parent) families and the earlier show’s frequent implication that traditional coupling and parenting were the only respectable thing to do with one’s life, an inevitable consequence of growing up.
Admittedly, turning Gidget into a nun so as to appeal to the hippie set is not without its dangers. But for an ostensibly reverent show The Flying Nun is surprisingly secular. This comes across particularly in Sister Bertrille’s friendship with Carlos, the wealthy womanizer one would think someone as religious as she would not even befriend. Their odd-couple partnership occasions many meditations on situational ethics as Sister Bertrille compromises her sense of right and wrong or tries to avoid lying even as events enjoin her to stretch the truth, and Carlos regularly feigns frustration with her so as to balance his obvious paternal affection for her with his need to preserve his image as a ladykiller and hardnosed businessman. So in “The Great Casino Robbery” the sister, by orchestrating a cover story that the police have stopped investigating a theft at Carlos’ casino, helps him trick the couple guilty of the robbery into letting down their guard. “It’s not entirely honest,” she concedes, “but you have to fight fire with fire.”
In “How to Be a Spanish Grandmother,” Carlos concocts a fake wife and children to placate his doting grandmother Amalia (Lillian Adams), who doesn’t know he’s an incorrigible bachelor; consequently Sister Bertrille finds herself cornered into hastily improvising half-truths so as to keep Carlos’ secret. (When Carlos’ faux son fails to respond to his false name, Sister Bertrille whispers his real one to get his attention. “Why,” Amalia asks, “do you call him Pepe?” “Well, i-it just seems to suit him better,” the sister responds, thinking fast.)
In Gidget‘s moral universe Carlos would doubtless feel enjoined by his grandmother to actually settle down and raise children, rather than simply taking pains to deflect her desire to see him as a family man. Likewise Sister Bertrille’s commitment to churchly celibacy would probably be characterized as a youthful indulgence, a wayward diversion on the path to motherhood. The Flying Nun has a chance to be the traditional show everyone always accuses it of being in “The Boyfriend”, in which Randy (Dwayne Hickman)—an ex of Sister Bertrille’s from her pre-convent days when she was known by her Christian name, Else—happens across her at poolside during a vacation. When Randy learns that she has since become a nun, he assumes this happened because he cruelly dumped her after an eight-month courtship.
Most shows of the time (or, for that matter, most shows today) would likely share at least some of Randy’s unspoken assumption here that all of us are born on an ineluctable trajectory toward family living and are dislocated from that course only by emotional upset or spiritual tragedy. In other words, just about any other show would surrender to the urge to give Sister Bertrille even a moment’s doubt over the unconventional track she’s followed. But the writers avoid this cliché, and Field seems careful never to have her character express even a fleeting ambivalence over her choice of profession. Indeed, she soon diagnoses Randy as someone who is genuinely destined for connubial bliss when she learns that he has foolishly broken off his engagement with his fiancée while he sorts through his guilt over breaking Else’s heart. He thinks he’s the emotional upset that has derailed Else on her path to happiness but she realizes, more accurately, that in a roundabout way she has become the emotional upset that’s disrupted Randy on the road to his.
Struggling to communicate this to him, and so convince him to go through with his marriage, she happens on the idea of putting on an impromptu puppet show for him to say what she otherwise cannot. Acting out the roles of Randy and herself in miniature, she pretends to contemplate renouncing her vows if Randy will confess romantic feelings for her, but she seems already to know how this exercise will turn out. Suddenly confronted with Else’s evident affection, Randy is led not into temptation but into re-discovering his love for his fiancée, whom he promptly calls and begs to take him back. Sister Bertrille’s benevolently deceptive puppet show also masks an underlying spiritual certitude. She never really intended to renounce the order for Randy; by now we’ve already learned she was the one to cleverly initiate the breakup those years previous and merely maneuvered Randy into thinking it was his doing. At the same time, when, as a part of her benign subterfuge with the puppets, she raises and dismisses the prospect of leaving the convent, we get the impression she’s comfortable with such conjecture.
She’s already considered her options, in other words, and she likes it where she is.
The twin morals of this story—that some are congenitally cut out for the traditional lifestyle and others, just as congenitally, are not—again hearkens back to Sister Bertrille’s air-worthy prototype Mary Poppins: the version in the P.L. Travers books, though, not the Disney movie. Travers, who herself never bore a child and who spent years in a lesbian relationship, had good reasons for preferring stories that embraced diversity of lifestyle. The broadmindedness of her literary output is precisely what the Disney adaptation edits out, and what The Flying Nun, to a degree, restores. Travers and Walt Disney both had “a reverence for the delights of family life,” Caitlin Flanagan wrote in “Becoming Mary Poppins,” an article-length biography in New Yorker magazine last year, but Travers’ “opinion about the shape such a life might assume was far more nuanced.” Disney had notoriously monolithic ideas about what made for a healthy family and liberally revised Mary Poppins to reflect this. Where the Travers books are ambiguous on the subject the movie takes a definite, proscriptive stance: children should be raised in a two-parent house, with the mother at home. Period.
Thus in the movie, Poppins descends mysteriously on a family in apparent disarray because they’ve strayed from this established domestic order. Mrs. Banks, the mom, is so busy being a suffragist that she countenances discord at home; this so distracts Mr. Banks that his work performance suffers and the children, raised by servants, are left feeling neglected and unloved. Poppins takes it upon herself to straighten out this distinctly un-Disneyish milieu. By the end she has convinced Mrs. Banks to forsake her political activism and return to the homestead, whereupon the nanny floats quietly away, back to the sky from whence she came. The childless and spouseless make serviceable passing visitors, Mary Poppins here opines, particularly when their purpose is to selflessly right a clan that’s strayed from the true path. But over the long term the earthly realm belongs to the fertile.
By the late ‘60s such notions doubtless struck many as backward-looking—“square”, perhaps, in the day’s parlance—particularly once everybody had a few years to digest works like The Feminine Mystique. By then a popular preference had started to emerge for embracing difference and entertaining multiple possibilities—as Field recalls, eating granola and running around naked. Those so minded would likely pass up Poppins’ style of counsel for Bertrille’s, in which she returns the lost to the paths of their desire while faithfully following her own. This might explain why the show, despite its laughable premise, was much better liked in its run than Field’s comments would suggest. Turns out her flying nun had quite a lot that Disney’s Mary Poppins didn’t.