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A Child Is Waiting

Posted by martinteller on July 2, 2014

Dr. Clark (Burt Lancaster) runs the Crawthorne State Training Institute, a facility for the care and education of mentally retarded children.  Jean Hansen (Judy Garland) responds to a help wanted ad… she is a failed music scholar with no experience in education or nursing, but her desire to find meaning in her life convinces Dr. Clark to hire her.  Jean grows attached to Reuben Widdicombe (Bruce Ritchey), an unresponsive lad of about 12, with the mind of a 5-year-old.  Clark calls Reuben “one of the institution’s greatest failures” but Jean believes that what the boy really needs is to see the mother (Gena Rowlands) he yearns for, the mother that never comes.  But things aren’t as simple as they seem, and Clark is firmly against any contact with the mother.

This is a minor footnote in the career of John Cassavetes, one of two studio films he directed between his independent debut Shadows and his artistic breakthrough Faces.  But there are some interesting things about it.  First is the casting.  There’s several actors — many in tiny roles — that were or would become part of Cassavetes’s regular troupe.  Besides his wife Rowlands, there’s Fred Draper, John Marley and Marilyn Clark.  The great, dark-eyed Paul Stewart has a significant part (and one of the film’s best scenes), and he would later appear in Opening Night as well.  I was delighted to see Juanita Moore pop up, even if only in a small part.  Lawrence Tierney appears in an amazingly subdued role for him, as Reuben’s downright normal stepfather.  Child stars Billy Mumy (“Twilight Zone”, “Lost in Space”) and Butch Patrick (“The Munsters”) are among the juvenile cast, although most of the children were actually mentally disabled.  And then of course there are the stars.  Lancaster is intense as always, his sharp delivery evoking an air of confidence and integrity that suits the character.  Garland — in one of her final onscreen appearances — has a shakiness that may be attributable to the drugs and alcohol, but it adds to Jean’s uncertainty.  She also gets to sing a song, albeit in a most un-Judy-Garland-esque fashion.

The film is quite progressive, reflecting changing attitudes about how we “handle” our mentally challenged children.  The movie puts forth a number of liberal, caring thoughts on the matter (though some are now dated).  Quite a number, actually, and this leads to some problems.  Apparently the film was taken away from Cassavetes in the editing room by the heavy hand of producer Stanley Kramer, whose hammy fist would deliver Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner a few years later.  The movie’s message is muddled, and Clark’s methods and philosophies are all over the place.  Furthermore, the script deals far too much in hokey platitudes (“It’s not about what you can do for them, Miss Hansen… it’s about what they can do for you”).  There’s remarkably little to Garland’s character, and it’s somewhat troubling that the child she latches onto is one of the “normal” looking ones.

It’s too bad we can’t see Cassavetes’s cut, because there’s a decent movie lurking in here.  Besides the strong performances and general good intentions, the cinematography hints at what would come from the director in its intimate close-ups.  Some shots are perhaps needlessly showy, but others are quite captivating and expressive.  The subject matter is treated with a sensitivity that doesn’t feel the slightest bit exploitative.  The climax is genuinely touching, and surprisingly not that mawkish.  It’s too bad there’s so much messy drivel leading up to it, no matter how well-intentioned.  Rating: Fair (66)


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