Jenny Brooks (Salome Jens) is an emotionally scarred young woman. After spending her childhood with an abusive father who beat both her and her mother, Jenny has become mute. She has also begun turning to men for validation and affection, much to the dismay of her religious mother.
Paul Strand (George Hamilton) is a preacher who seems to be able to heal people through faith, and through miracles. Jenny and her mother visit him one night, and before a large and enthusiastic crowd, Jenny’s voice returns.
Genuinely inspired and transformed by the experience, Jenny decides to use her new voice to speak the Lord’s praises, joining up with Paul’s troupe of traveling Evangelists. She quickly becomes friends with Ben (Henry Jones) and Mollie Hays (Joan Blondell), but evokes the jealousy of Paul’s vindictive wife (Mercedes McCambridge).
Paul Wendkos directs 1961’s Angel Baby, based on the novel Jennie Angel by Elsie Oakes Barber.
Angel Baby begins with some unusual opening text:
“This is the story of an Evangelist named Jenny Angel who was moved by true faith and sincere belief. It is not the story of all Evangelists for there are those who are venal and unscrupulous and who trade on the faith of others to their own wicked ends. We believe that each person has a right to worship according to his or her own conscience but that this freedom of religion is not license to abuse or mislead the faith of honest people. In order to prevent any possible confusion, we urge that you consider carefully this picture’s suitability for viewing by impressionable children.”
I was surprised by this text as I began the film, having expected a simple melodrama of a woman being healed and then using that healing to preach to others, based on what little I knew of it. Before long I saw the necessity of the “warning.” Jenny is, as the text states, a genuinely good and faithful person. Paul is also very sincere in his devotion to his beliefs. The same can’t be said for the rest of the troupe, or the other folks Jenny gets mixed up with as time passes.
While some of the Evangelists are well-intentioned, some of them are blatantly taking advantage of those in need of hope and help. Others outside of the troupe react in varied manner to Jenny’s healing and her decision to join the troupe. With those few sincerely faithful characters, the film doesn’t lean too far in favor of or in opposition to Evangelism, which leaves the viewer with a lot to think about. I can also see why the film wouldn’t be recommended for “impressionable children,” beyond its exploration of religion.
As for the quality of the picture, the performances are hit or miss. I didn’t find George Hamilton very impactful; my interest in his character’s journey came solely from the script rather than his efforts. Mercedes McCambridge overacts at times but is suitable to the melodramatic side of the film. Salome Jens is alright in her role of Jenny, but like Hamilton is not too memorable. Joan Blondell is a highlight of the supporting cast as the often-drunk but good-hearted Mollie.
On the plus side, along with fine supporting performances, the script is an interesting one, and the film is very well-photographed. I didn’t love Angel Baby, but I would recommend it to those interested in films about religion.