Oh that it seems far away, that time when Judy Garland was gambolling on the yellow bricks road and singing “We’re Off to See the Wizard” when you look at her years later in John Cassavetes’s A Child Is Waiting (1963)! If this film was among her lasts before her premature death in 1969, it was one of Cassavetes’s first. But the two managed to mix their respective talents for a worthy result. To that was added a glimpse of always-great-on-screen Burst Lancaster and a beautiful supporting cast composed by Elizabeth Wilson, Gena Rowlands (John Cassavetes’s wife from 1954 to his death in 1989), Bruce Ritchey, Steven Hill, Lawrence Tierney, Barbara Pepper, John Marley and Paul Stewart. The film was produced by Stanley Kramer. Even if Cassavetes lost power as a director under the production of Kramer and wasn’t satisfied with the final product, A Child Is Waiting remains, on many levels, a masterpiece, but, a forgotten one. Indeed, when one thinks of its two main stars, Garland and Lancaster, this is rarely the first film that we think about.
I must admit, as odd as it seems, I’ve only seen two Judy Garland’s films: The Wizard of Oz (obviously) and this one (I also saw some parts of Meet Me in St. Louis). As a matter of fact, when Crystal from In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood announced that she’ll be hosting the Judy Garland Blogathon in honour of this musical entertainer’s birthday, I thought that it would be a good occasion for me to finally watch this film who was on my to-watch list for quite some time. This was due to the presence of Burt Lancaster, and actor I adore, but also to this review written by Crystal herself and the simply good occasion to discover another Garland’s film.
Yesterday, the lovely Judy would have been 95 and a blogathon is, of course, the best way for us, bloggers, to honour her memory.
From the first minute of A Child Is Waiting, I knew this would be a film I would like. I hope I’m not too weird by saying that, but I’ve always liked psychological movies or movies that take place in a psychiatric institution, a mental hospital, etc. I simply find these fascinating, especially for what concerns the way the patients evolve in this environment.
A Child Is Waiting takes place at the Crawthorne State Mental Hospital. Judy Garland plays Jean Hansen, a newcomer among the staff of the hospital. Due to her musical background, she is hired as a music therapist. The psychologist, Dr. Matthew Clark, is played by Burt Lancaster. Jean becomes fond of a little boy named Reuben Widdicome who suffers from a mental retardation. The child, who hasn’t seen his mother since two years, easily finds a friend in Jean who has a real maternal instinct. She and Dr. Clark are put in opposition in what concerns their ideal for the child’s development. If she believes he will improve his condition by seeing his mother, the doctor believes he should not and that he must learn to live with different people.
The film is a special one as its extras include real mentally-challenged children from Pacific State Hospital in Pomona, California, just like Milos Forman would use real mentally hill patients in his highly acclaimed One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. This creates a sense of authenticity and realism. Concerning these children, I particularly appreciated the inclusion of Burt Lancaster in this film as I don’t remember having seen him interact often with kids on screen. He is presented as a man with a calm temperament. He can get angry, but he’ll never scream at someone. As always, Mr. Lancaster loves to show his teeth when he talks, but that’s how we love him! His acting is well calculated, without unnecessary extravagances. The child, who is for him (the doctor) a hopeless case, is played by Bruce Ritchey, who certainly breaks our hearts with his sad eyes. If A Child Is Waiting is credited as his only major film role, and the child actor is quite forgotten today, it goes without saying that his performance is one that we don’t easily forget. Playing people mentally ill never seems to be an easy task for the simple reason that it would be “dangerous” to be too cliché. But Ritchey keeps it simple and his acting full of sensibility almost makes us forget the film’s two big stars, Burt Lancaster and Judy Garland.
Talking about Judy, if this one was particularly known for her musicals, this film allows us to discover her talent as a dramatic actress. We become easily fond of her as she gives to her character a beautiful aura of kindness and chooses a type of acting that fits perfectly the mood of the film. Even if A Child Is Waiting isn’t a musical, we even have the occasion to hear Mrs. Garland’s beautiful voice in a brief moment of the film. Sadly, if she delivers a thoughtful performance, Mrs. Garland had important personal problems at the time and this can be felt in her acting. There is the impression of a certain discomfort, but, luckily, this one is easily forgotten. Anyway, let’s not talk too much about Judy Garland’s life problems on her celebration! Judy Garland and Burt Lancaster were reunited before in Stanley Kramer’s Judgement at Nuremberg (1961).
Interestingly, A Child Is Waiting marks the first cinematographic collaboration between John Cassavetes and his beautiful wife actress Gena Rowlands. She plays Reuben’s sad mother and her supportive presence is nothing but a strong addition to the film.
As always, I’m always talking too much about the actors, so I will stop here. Nothing bad to say about the rest of the cast, they were all good.
Another thing that particularly struck me about this film is the music. First, in the opening titles embellished with naive children’s drawings, we hear an a capella chorus of children (which can make us think of the famous school scene in Hitchcock’s The Birds) which indicates us the importance of these children in the film. The rest of the score was composed by Ernest Gold (who was not at his first, nor last collaboration with Stanley Kramer) and there’s something about it that represents quite perfectly the mood of the film, but also Reuben’s psychological states. One one side, there’s something somehow disquieting about it, but on the other one, it’s always a calm melody.
If John Cassavetes was fired from the production when editing time came (…), there’s nothing really bad to say about this editing, but we feel it’s not a John Cassavetes’ one. I’m not a Cassavetes expert, but from what I know of his methods, we feel that his editing would have been more creative. Here, no particular liberties are taken nor creativity shown. Of course, this doesn’t necessarily affect the quality of the film, but maybe Cassavetes’ editing would have accentuated the psychological side of the film and give it a different meaning. Just an idea…
What disappointed me about the film is the development of the characters. We actually don’t really feel there is one. If that was the intention, then ok, but I think more efforts could have been put on this level. This doesn’t only concern Reuben, who, unfortunately, never really seem to change as a patient (this doesn’t necessarily have to be a positive change. It can be a bad one too), but also for the doctor and Jean. We always feel Jean is about to tell us something crucial about her past life, but no… This constant impression could have been avoided as, here, it is only annoying. Also, at the end, we don’t really know what will happen with each of the characters. I’m all for open endings, but here it doesn’t seem that necessary.
But, apart from that, I highly enjoyed the film!
On its released, A Child Is Waiting sadly was a commercial failure. On another side, it received some good reviews.
It is difficult to know why the film is forgotten nowadays at it reunites a masterful team. So, if you haven’t seen it, I highly recommend it. It is the perfect film for those who like thoughtful, but not too mentally extravagant films (even if this one takes place in a mental hospital, it remains quite sober on that level). Fans of Garland, I’m sure, will appreciate it as it shows a different facet of her acting.
Before leaving you, I want to thank Crystal for hosting this lovely event and, of course, wish a happy (belated) heavenly birthday to the celebrated star. Happy birthday Judy, wherever you are!
Don’t forget to take a look at the other entries, here!
My! This is the first article I was writing since mid-April (blogathon announcements don’t count). I hope I haven’t lost my touch!