Jan 20, 2013

The Flying Nun

My parents weren't as anti-Catholic as my church.  We were allowed to watch movies with Catholic characters, especially nuns:  The Sound of Music (1965), The Singing Nun (1966), A Change of Habit (1969,).  (With Elvis Presley, right, as a hunky priest).

And on Thursday nights, squeezed in between  Batman and Bewitched so you couldn't skip it if you tried, The Flying Nun (1967-70), a "girl power" sitcom that all but eliminated hetero-romance.

Novice nun Sister Bertrille (Sally Field, previously of Gidget), assigned to a convent in San Juan, Puerto Rico, develops an amazing power: she can fly!  It's no miracle: she has a petite frame, and all of the nuns wear hats with flappy wing-like things that are perfect for taking off.  The Reverend Mother naturally disapproves, like Darren in Bewitched and Major Nelson in I Dream of Jeannie, and insists that Sister Bertrille stay grounded, especially when a representative of the Vatican is visiting.

Critics thought it silly and derivative, Sally Field hated it, and TV Guide named it #42 on the list of the 50 Worst TV Shows of All Time (just above Woops!, about the hilarious adventures of the survivors of a nuclear holocaust).  The adults kept changing the channel to Hawaii Five-0 or The Glenn Campbell Goodtime Hour (one of the dreaded variety shows).  But kids all wanted Sister Bertrille as our big sister; she was cool, adventurous, funny, and never too busy to play.  Girls and boys alike bought (or asked for) the coloring books, comic books, lunch boxes, and toys.

And there was a special attraction for gay kids:

1. No heterosexual romance.  Nuns didn't date.

2. Hispanic beefcake.  Scores of hunky Hispanic (and non Hispanic) actors were trotted in so that Sister Bertrille could help a gangster reform, a boxer regain his confidence, a handyman become a bullfighter, and a priest overcome his fear of public speaking.

3. There was a full contingent of teen idol guest stars, including Craig Hundley (left), Manuel Padilla Jr., Michael Gray, Paul Petersen, Keith Schultz, Dwayne Hickman, and Boyce and Hart.






4. Carlos (Alejandro Rey), who ran the local casino,  was often annoyed and infuriated by Sister Bertrille's hairbrained schemes.  They became friends, but he never displayed any romantic interest in her.


Even today, you almost never see a male-female friendship on tv. From Sam and Diane (Cheers) to Ross and Rachel (Friends) to Mulder and Scully (The X-Files), no matter how much they deny it or bandy around words like "arrogant" and "infuriating," any male-female pairing inevitably results in romance.  And in the 1960s, male-female friendships were even more rare.


So seeing Carlos and Sister Bertrille together gave gay boys "permission" to be "just friends" with girls, to hang out with them but not approach them as dark mysterious creatures whose curves and breasts held the key to manhood.