Angels, Nuns & Oh God: 9 Movies That Opens up the Pearly Gates

THE TEN COMMANDMENTS, Charlton Heston, 1956.
Courtesy Everett Collection

Over The Decades, Hollywood Has Looked Up At The Pearly Gates And Wondered What It Takes To Gain Entrance And How Professionals — Angels, Nuns And Other Nice Folks — Do It. Here Are Some Of Those Movies And The News They Reported Back.

1 The Ten Commandments

Charlton Heston as Moses holding inscribed stone tablets, alongside John Derek as Joshua, Debra Paget as Lilia and Yvonne De Carlo as Sephora, in Cecil B. DeMille's The Ten Commandments (1956)

Cecil B. DeMille’s first attempt at The Ten Commandments was in a 1923 silent film. Three decades later he gave it a second try, assembling all of Hollywood in Technicolor glory. Moses (Charlton Heston) grows up in the Egyptian fold, becoming fast friends with his foster brother Rameses II (Yul Brynner). One becomes pharaoh, the other the leader of the Hebrews, and an epic war between heaven and Earth ensues to break the Hebrews free. There are plagues and burning hail and a parting Red Sea (360,000 gallons were dumped on a backlot set to create the effect). Up on top of Mount Sinai, Moses receives the Ten Commandments on two tablets and takes them down to the people; but idolatry and revelry have taken over, and Moses breaks the tablets in rage. An explosion kills half the Hebrews, and the rest must wander the wilderness for 40 years until coming in sight of the Promised Land. The nearly four-hour film was symphonically scored by Elmer Bernstein; its all-star cast included Debra Paget, Edward G. Robinson and Yvonne De Carlo. A cast of thousands — literally — was used for the crowd shots: 14,000 extras and 15,000 animals. The Ten Commandments was one of the most popular movies ever made, with a worldwide box office of more than $2 billion in inflation-adjusted dollars; it was nominated for seven Academy Awards including Best Picture, winning in the Special Effects category. A perennial Easter favorite on TV and is currently streaming on Amazon.

2Cabin in the Sky

CABIN IN THE SKY, Ethel Waters, Eddie (Rochester) Anderson, Lena Horne, 1943.

Courtesy Everett Collection

Based on the 1940 Broadway musical and filmed when most of Hollywood was engaged in the war effort, Cabin in the Sky (1943) is a rare gem for the time, featuring an all-Black cast and some of the finest musical entertainment of the day. Little Joe (Eddie “Rochester” Anderson) is well-meaning but weak. After getting shot over his gambling debts, he’s revived on his deathbed by an angel and given six months to redeem his soul. Earnest to repent, Little Joe becomes a devoted and hardworking husband to his wife Petunia (Ethel Waters). But Lucifer has gotten a taste for Little Joe’s soul and sends gold digger Georgia Brown (Lena Horne) his way. Duke Ellington and Louie Armstrong bring both heavenly harmonies and dem devil blues to the battle for Little Joe’s soul. There’s plenty of catchy song and frenzied dance to keep the tribulation fires burning.

3 It’s a Wonderful Life

IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE, Carol Coomes, Donna Reed, Karolyn Grimes, James Stewart, Jimmy Hawkins, Larry Simms, 1946

Courtesy Everett Collection

The tinkling of angel wings rings through this classic Christmas tale. George Bailey (James Stewart), everyone’s favorite citizen in Bedford Falls and head of the building and loan, is pitted against Henry F. Potter (Lionel Barrymore), the richest man in town who aims to make more by impoverishing everyone else. Just when it seems that power and wealth will destroy goodness, George is visited on Christmas Eve by a guardian angel named Clarence Odbody (Henry Travers). How to convince George that his life was not in vain? Clarence gives George a hard look at what Bedford Falls would be had he never been born — a cold haunt now called Pottersville, filled with seedy bars and dime-a-dance halls. A feverish prayer results in the spell getting reversed. George runs home to wife Mary (Donna Reed) and the kids, and then the miracle: Everyone in town (auditor included) stops by to drop a few bucks in the hat and sing “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing.” Bedford Falls is saved. Considered one of the most inspirational movies of all time, It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) is all about the lasting dividends of goodness, and director Frank Capra’s heavenly message is simple: care.

4 Angels in the Outfield

ANGELS IN THE OUTFIELD, Paul Douglas, Janet Leigh, 1951.

Courtesy Everett Collection

The Pittsburgh Pirates are having a lousy season; wallowing in last place, coach Guffy McGovern (Paul Douglas) doesn’t spare any swear word advising the team of his disappointment. One night while looking for the good luck charm he dropped in the field, a voice informs Guffy that angels will come to the Pirates’ aid if he will stop his swearing. Guffy is amenable to anything that would kick-start his team, and soon the Pirates are all playing better. It’s as if the ghost of a baseball great is standing by each one, helping out. (They are.) An 8-year-old orphan named Bridget (Donna Corcoran) insists she can see the angels helping out — after all, it was her prayers for the team that inspired the angelic visit in the first place. A local reporter (Janet Leigh) makes big news out of the story, causing all kinds of derision for Guffy. Finally the Pirates are playing the New York Giants in the pennant-deciding game, and the tension unlocks Guffy’s potty mouth. Angels leave the field, and the team must play without divine help. But lo and behold! The unaided Pirates play like angels. Maybe all it took was a kinder word. A 1994 remake of the 1951 film starred Danny Glover as the team’s irascible manager.

5 Oh, God!

What if God came up to you at work and said he had picked you to tell the world that he was real? Imagine what folks around the water cooler would say! That’s the premise of Oh, God!, Carl Reiner’s 1977 comedy about heaven on Earth in squeaky tennis shoes. George Burns stars as the Supreme Deity disguised as some old guy; John Denver is hapless assistant supermarket manager Jerry Landers, tasked with spreading the word; and Teri Garr plays his skeptical wife. When Landers goes public with God’s message to Earth — eventually appearing on nationwide TV — this modern-day Moses is scorned by religious leaders, adored by religious nuts and shortly out of a job. Much like Santa put on trial in Miracle on 34th Street, Landers goes to court to prove God’s existence; all God has to do is show up. He does, but since he looks like a wisecracking old George Burns, believing in God takes an act of faith. Which is, of course, the whole point. After God vanishes, a voice says, “If you find it hard to believe in me, maybe it would help to know that I believe in you.”

6 Heaven Can Wait

HEAVEN CAN WAIT, US poster art, Warren Beatty, 1978.

Stay with us — the road to this heaven is neither short nor straight. Joe Pendleton (Warren Beatty) is a pro football quarterback steering the L.A. Rams to the Super Bowl when he rides his bicycle into a tunnel and almost gets killed in a car accident. An overzealous angel hauls him prematurely to heaven. Joe protests it wasn’t his time yet, and a divine clerk ascertains that the afterlife had screwed up. Joe is to be sent back; but unfortunately, his body has already been cremated. What to do? His soul gets parked temporarily in the body of a crooked industrialist until his original time is up. Problem is, the guy has just been murdered, so when Joe strolls in, the killers are, shall we say, perplexed. Joe sets to work getting back on his team so he can lead them to the  Super Bowl, but he keeps having to find a new body to continue in. Heaven Can Wait (1978) also starred James Mason and Julie Christie and was directed by Beatty and Buck Henry. The movie scored big at the box office and earned nine Academy Award nominations, proving that getting to heaven is half the fun.

7 Sister Act

SISTER ACT, Whoopi Goldberg, 1992.

Buena Vista Pictures/Courtesy Everett Collection.

Whoopi Goldberg stars in Sister Act (1992) as Reno, Nevada, lounge singer Deloris Wilson. After she sees her gangster boyfriend murder an informant, she’s placed in witness protection at a struggling San Francisco convent. Disguised as Sister Mary Clarence, Deloris takes up with the convent choir. Soon the sisters are shaking the rafters with gospel. Sunday Mass attendance begins to pick up and the convent’s financial future brightens. But the old boyfriend is in pursuit and Deloris is kidnapped back to Reno. Her singing sisters leap into action, speeding to Reno, where they join Deloris in facing off with henchmen. Saved at the last moment, Deloris and choir return to their convent and resume rocking the cathedral.

8 All Dogs Go to Heaven

The 1989 animated film, All Dogs go to Heaven, barks loud and long for faithful friendship. Charlie B. Barkin (voiced by Burt Reynolds) is a German shepherd and casino riverboat operator who is murdered by his former friend, Carface Carruthers (Vic Tayback), a bulldog gangster. Heaven’s door is open to all dogs, but because Charlie has cheated death by stealing the gold watch representing his life and winding it back, he is told he will be returned to Earth until time runs out on the watch, when he will be sent the other way. Back on Earth, Charlie and best friend Itchy (Dom DeLuise), a paranoid dachshund, team up with a young orphan named Anne-Marie (Judith Barsi) to start a rival casino and beat Carface at his own game. Joining them on their adventure are Killer (Charles Nelson Reilly), a neurotic schnoodle, and King Gator (Ken Page), an alligator who lives in the sewer. Along the way, they all learn something about friendship and love.

9 The Sound of Music

THE SOUND OF MUSIC, Julie Andrews, 1965

20th Century-Fox Film Corp./Courtesy Everett Collection

Everyone’s favorite faith-and-love story begins with Maria (Julie Andrews), a free-spirited young nun, getting sent to the villa of widower Georg von Trapp (Christopher Plummer) to be governess of his seven children. The kids are rebellious at first but are won over by Maria’s exuberance and charm. She teaches them to sing like angels, and soon the Trapp Family is performing in competitions. Father von Trapp falls in love with Maria, and the two eventually marry. Happy horizons seem everywhere until Austria is annexed to Nazi Germany and war looms. Can they all escape to Switzerland in time? How can they not, with such glorious singing and dancing? With West Side Story already to his credit, Robert Wise transformed this Rodgers and Hammerstein stage production with lush orchestration and a dazzling sweep of Alpine glory. The Sound of Music (1965) became the all-time No. 1 box-office hit at that time and cleaned up at the Academy Awards, nominated for 10 and winning five including Best Picture. Twenty million copies of the soundtrack album have sold worldwide. Not bad for an impossible nun named Maria.


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