Thursday, April 23, 2020

Debbie Reynolds as The Singing Nun

Debbie Reynolds in the title role.
In 1963, a Belgian nun named Sœur Sourire--also known as The Singing Nun--had a worldwide hit record with the song "Dominque." Even though the lyrics were in French, the song went to #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart in the U.S. It's no surprise that this amazing feat attracted the attention of Hollywood filmmakers. Thus, in 1966, MGM released The Singing Nun, which starred Debbie Reynolds as a young nun very loosely based on Sœur Sourire.

The film opens with Sister Ann (Reynolds) arriving at Samaritan House, which is located in a struggling community in Brussels. Sister Ann composes and sings music, accompanying herself on guitar. Her talents immediately attract the attention of Father Clementi (Ricardo Montalban), who believes her faith-inspired music can bring comfort to millions. With the church's approval, he convinces a record executive (Chad Everett) to make an album with Sister Ann. (It turns out that the executive studied music with Sister Ann prior to her conversion.)

Katharine Ross.
Meanwhile, Sister Ann has become involved with a motherless little boy whose unemployed father is an alcoholic and whose older sister (Katharine Ross) makes money by posing for risque photos. As her music fame grows, Sister Ann struggles with her own success--especially when a tragedy strikes close to her heart.

It's a flimsy plot for a 97-minute movie and The Singing Nun relies on Debbie Reynolds' charm and musical talents to carry the day. There are some good tunes, especially an English-language version of "Dominque" as well as a boisterous rendition of "Brother John" (which was written by Randy Sparks, founder of The New Christy Minstrels). However, the subplot about the little boy and his family lacks interest, likely because it feels manufactured solely to tug at the heart strings.

Ricardo Montalban.
The Singing Nun boasts an impressive supporting cast, but none of them have much to do except for Ricardo Montalban. That includes Greer Garson as the Mother Prioress and Agnes Moorehead and Juanita Moore as two of Sister Ann's fellow nuns. On the plus side, Ed Sullivan appears as himself in one of the film's better scenes in which Sister Ann records a song for his popular show.

The real-life story of Sœur Sourire would have made a far more interesting film--though not the family film that MGM wanted. As Jeannine Deckers, she left the convent and continued to record music, although her former music company would not allow her to use the names Sœur Sourire or The Singing Nun. She found little success, eventually recording a disco version of "Dominique" in 1982. Jeannine Deckers and a close friend committed suicide in 1985; she was 51.

As for The Singing Nun, it was a modest hit, finishing #23 at the boxoffice in 1966. Director Henry Koster has said that the production wasn't a pleasant one with star Debbie Reynolds and producer John Beck clashing frequently. It turned out to be Koster's last film, following an impressive career that included The Bishop's Wife, Harvey, and Come to the Stable.

Here's a clip of Debbie Reynolds singing "Brother John," courtesy of our YouTube Channel:


  1. The cast and the subject matter presented MGM with an opportunity for a much better movie than they offered.

  2. Debbie as a nun made me smile as much as Bing as a priest, but loved both movies and their great acting.

  3. This is an enjoyable movie – who can resist Debbie Reynolds? – but the supporting cast is really under-utilized. Like you said, the real-life story is far more interesting.