The Flying Nun: Review and History Of 1960s Show

The Flying Nun Review

Photo: ABC Television, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The American sitcom known as The Flying Nun was originally aired on the ABC Network as of September 7, 1967, until April 3, 1970. It was inspired by the book “The Fifteenth Pelican”, written by author Tere Rios. Produced by Screen Gems, the theme of the show featured a community of nuns where one of them could fly. The flying nun herself, Sister Bertrille, was played by actress Sally Field throughout the series. The character’s ninety-pound frame allowed her to fly while sporting her Cornette when the winds were high enough to do so.

At the start of the show’s one-hour pilot episode, Chicago native Elsie Etherington becomes Sister Bertrille at a convent after being arrested for a protest she took part in while in New York. Once she was released, she flew to San Juan. It is later learned in the series that the lead character comes from a family line of physicians, but it was a trade she never took personal interest to embark on herself. She opted to become a nun instead, joining the Convento San Tanco, as a result of being inspired by her aunt’s missionary work. The pursuit of Etherington’s desire to become a nun saw the break up of her eight-month relationship with her boyfriend, who was a salesman for children’s toys.

Flying Problem Solver

The Flying Nun saw novice nun, Sister Bertrille, literally fly to the rescue under specific weather conditions. With the assistance of her heavily starched Cornette, Field’s character would make good use of the right wind velocity to take flight and save the day. However, the desire to do good was met with unexpected consequences as Sister Bertrille’s attempt to solve one problem would break out into a series of more problems before the whole matter could be resolved. And, whenever the weather would work against her, such as heavy rains, the soaked down Cornette would force her to remain on the ground. Health conditions also played a factor, such as an occasion where the character experiences an ear infection that had an adverse impact on her navigational ability.

Weight Issues

In one particular episode of the series, Sister Bertrille attempts to gain weight in hopes it would help keep her grounded. As much as the Cornette did enable her the ability to do good as her character’s nature intended, it was also an inconvenience because of how vulnerable her small frame was whenever the wind would pick up, and in a direction, she may not be so willing to travel. In another episode, there is a young man who wishes to use Sister Bertrille’s Cornette to fly but is warned that it takes more than just a light body frame to be able to properly fly without experiencing complications.

Character Roster

In addition to the lead character played by Sally Field, are the supporting cast members who each had their own role that would interact with Sister Bertrille either on a regular or occasional basis. Played by Madeleine Sherwood is the head of the convent, Reverend Mother Placido. Sister Jaqueline (played by Marge Redmond) was Sister Bertrille’s humorously wise friend, who was also the narrator at the beginning of each episode of the show. Shelley Morrison’s Puerto Rican Sister Sixto had trouble handling English slang words while Linda Dangcil’s Sister Ana was a novice nun, just like Sister Bertrille.

The only two male regular characters on the show featured Captain Gaspar Fomento (played by Vito Scotti), who never knew about Sister Bertrille’s flying ability, and casino owner and a respectfully sinful playboy named Carlos Ramirez (played by Alejandro Rey). Ramirez would often get reluctantly caught up in Sister Bertrille’s schemes and work with her to get out of them.

Reluctant Nun

Prior to The Flying Nun, Sally Field starred in the canceled series known as Gidget. Hollywood producers wanted to keep the popular young actress on the air, so came up with a new series that the actress felt was too silly to be involved with at first. After being convinced by her stepfather, Jock Mahoney, that if she refused the role there’s a good bet her promising career as an actress would be over, Field agreed to take part. When she finally accepted the leading role as Sister Bertrille, the network’s second choice, Ronne Troup, had already begun to film in the pilot episode before they ousted her to make room for Field.

Because of Sally Field’s small frame, while starring in The Flying Nun, she was often ridiculed by various episodic directors as they enjoyed parading the petite actress around and treat her like a prop instead of a person. As much as Sally Field enjoyed starring in her previous series, she did not feel the same way with The Flying Nun. She also revealed in interviews how Madeline Sherwood encouraged her to take acting classes,

In addition to her acting as the lead character for the series, the soundtrack “Star Of The Flying Nun” features songs sung by Sally Field, which was released as an LP by Colgems Records in 1967.

Catholic Concern

Because of the series revolving around the Catholic Church and their faith system, there were concerns shared by the producers as to how their shows would be received. In an attempt to avoid religious criticism, the National Catholic Office for Radio and Television served as a credited series advisor. Eventually, NCORT was integrated into the United States Catholic Conference, which was later absorbed into the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, specifically in the division of Office for Film and Broadcasting.

Production Issues

From its series debut until the end, the direction and tone of the series continually changed. The first season started off as a warm, feel-good series into the second season where the approach turned into broadened slapstick humor. By the show’s third season, it reverted back to a more serene tone that had the series originally start out with. During the final season, when Sally Field’s pregnancy with her first child served as a conflict to justify her character’s vow of celibacy, measures were taken to film her only from the chest up. And, with the scenes involving the character in flight, Field’s stunt double would be filmed from a greater distance.

When The Flying Nun first came out as a series, it was an instant hit. Starting out with high ratings, it was dubbed “hit of the season,” but the popularity of the show began to drop before the first season was even over. Despite attempts to keep The Flying Nun on the air, all the shows the series competed against during its run were consistently more popular, so this ultimately led to its cancellation in 1970. In total, The Flying Nun has eighty-two episodes.

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