Guest Review: The North Avenue Irregulars

“Are you a minister or Batman??”

Reverend Mike Hill (Edward Herrmann), the newly appointed minister at North Avenue Presbyterian Church, takes on the role of a crimefighter when he discovers that there is organized crime going on right in his parish community – illegal gambling. Helping him in his fight against the mob are five spunky women from the church activities committee: Vickie (Barbara Harris), Jane (Karen Valentine), Mrs. Carlisle (Virginia Capers), Claire (Cloris Leachman) and Rose (Patsy Kelly).

All of this gang busting upsets Anne (Susan Clark, the daughter of the former minister at North Avenue, who believes that the minister has no business using the church for personal or even city issues). “This is a matter for the police!” she exclaims. But how can one call on the police for help when even they are turning their eye away from the illegal gambling?

Walt Disney Pictures released a number of really fun family comedies in the 1970s and The North Avenue Irregulars is one of the best of the decade. It boasts a highly amusing script and tight direction by Bruce Bilson, but what really makes the film stand-out is the great cast, most of whom are character actors. The “church ladies” are exaggerated characterizations for sure but that is what makes them so fun to watch, especially when they are played by the likes of Barbara Harris and Virginia Capers. They are asked to trail men who may be taking the daily collections from the various bookie joints to “the bank” (the main headquarters of the mob) and so, armed with walkie-talkies, they follow them up and down the various side streets of Los Angeles.

Most of the film takes place outdoors in and around the Los Angeles area and we get to see some great footage all over the city, including Burbank and Pasadena. It is like stepping back in time seeing Ralph’s supermarket, car dealerships, pubs and other local businesses.

Other great character actors in the film include Michael Constantine and Steve Franken who play the Treasury Department agents that ask the Reverend for his help in smashing the gang, which is led by none other than Frank Campanella. Alan Hale Jr. has a wonderful guest role as a bookie known as “Harry the Hat” and the great Carl Ballantine plays a pants presser who operates the “front” for Harry. Also in the cast is Cliff Osmond, Herb Voland, Douglas Fowley (as Patsy Kelly’s fightin’ Irish husband), Ruth Buzzi, Dena Dietrich (excellent as Jane’s mother-in-law to-be) and Louisa Moritz.

Because of these talented actors the film is chock-full of wonderfully humorous little scenes, such as when Virginia Capers “trails” one of the pickup men on foot while pushing a baby carriage. Another great moment is when Reverend Hill asks Cloris Leachman if she is free that evening and tells her to meet him in Room 402 at the church. She gets dolled up thinking he wants to take her on a date…until she opens the door to Room 402 (the children’s Sunday School room) and sees five other church ladies sitting on the little kid chairs waiting to hear what Reverend Hill called them there to discuss about the church. “My, how pretty you look!” they exclaim. Such good fun.

The North Avenue Irregulars was based on the 1968 book of the same title by Reverend Hill which was an account of real-life events that happened to him when he took over the North Avenue Presbyterian Church in New Rochelle, New York, although it was naturally fictionalized and embellished to add humor. The title is a play on Sherlock Holmes’ Baker Street Irregulars, a group of ragamuffins who help gather information for Holmes. Overseas, the movie was released with the clever title Hill’s Angels.

Constance Metzinger runs the website Silver Scenes, “a blog for classic film lovers.”