Play It Again – A Child is Waiting

Play It Again – A Child is Waiting. By Jess Lomas.

Play It Again is a weekly feature in which classic-film connoisseur Jess Lomas revisits a revered motion picture from the annals of movie history, to see if it holds up… or if it has aged terribly. And yes, it takes its name from a famously misquoted Casablanca line (hey, whatever; it fits!).

I can count on one hand the number of movies I have wept during and John Cassavetes’ 1963 A Child Is Waiting sits atop that exclusive list.

Judy Garland plays newly-arrived music teacher Jean Hansen at the Crawthorne State Training Institute, a boarding school for mentally handicapped children. Searching for meaning in her life she is drawn to working with the children, but quarrels with the school’s director Dr. Matthew Clark (Burt Lancaster) and his teaching methods. Jean develops a special bond with Reuben Widdicombe (Bruce Ritchey), a borderline case who she believes will benefit from being reunited with his divorced parents. However, when her unorthodox methods see Reuben run away from the school, Jean begins to question her tactics.

Cassavetes and producer, Stanley Kramer (Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner) famously clashed over the final edit, with Cassavetes being fired and ultimately distancing himself from the picture for being overly sentimental. Of the released cut he said: “The philosophy of [Stanley’s] film was that retarded children are separate and alone and therefore should be in institutions with others of their kind …The point of the original picture that we made was that there was no fault, that there was nothing wrong with these children except that their mentality was lower.”

The film is certainly designed to tug at the heart strings and the stellar performances, which only momentarily give in to sensationalism, further contribute to this. The majority of children, except Ritchey, were mentally challenged and their performances prompted Lancaster and Garland to improvise and work with what they delivered on the day of shooting, adding a much needed element of realism.

The content of the picture ensured it wasn’t a box office success at the time but A Child Is Waiting remains a time capsule of how mental disability was dealt with in decades past. This harrowing film is occasionally distressing but always thought provoking, though one would love the opportunity to see what Cassavetes’ final edit would have been like.

A Child is Waiting is now available on DVD.

One Response to “Play It Again – A Child is Waiting”

  1. Ooh I’ve been wondering for ages whether to see this or not. Glad you reviewed it, Jess. Made up my mind to give it a go, duly informed about sentimentality as such! :p

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