Produced by Stanley Kramer (Inherit the Wind, Judgement at Nuremberg, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner), written by Abby Mann (Judgement at Nuremberg) and a rare studio effort from director John Cassavetes, A Child Is Waiting is a fascinating look at educating the mentally disabled in the early 1960’s. Stanley Kramer was well known for his ‘message films’ and this was no different. Many of the students shown in the film were actual mentally-challenged children from Pacific State Hospital in Pomona, California.
Looking to do something meaningful with her life, former Julliard piano student Jean Hansen (Judy Garland) arrives at the Crawthorne Training School in New Jersey. Though she has no teaching or nursing experience, she is eager to help. Headmaster Dr. Matthew Clark (Burt Lancaster) decides to give her a chance, and she quickly connects with lonely, detached Reuben Widdicombe (Bruce Ritchey), a 12- year-old whose divorced parents (Steven Hill, Gena Rowlands) haven’t visited Reuben since he was dropped off at the school two years earlier. In that time, Reuben’s mother has remarried and his father, an architect, has busied himself with work; both of them seemingly incapable of truly facing the emotional pain of having a mentally handicapped child (in a sign of the times, they are referred to as retarded in the film).
Dr. Clark obviously cares about the children, but doesn’t coddle them. It’s no surprise when he becomes concerned that Jean’s close relationship with Reuben might affect the other children and challenges her behavior. In a sad but effective scene, Dr. Clark takes Jean to another area of the school; adults with mental disabilities just like Reuben’s and the others are doing little more than being warehoused. Having never had a chance at an education, having been hidden away or coddled, they have little to offer society. The message is simple: love isn’t all these kids need. They must be taught basic skills so they can care for themselves and maybe even do the simplest of jobs.
The film was not a happy experience for John Cassavetes and he disowned it. His improvisational style was at odds with Stanley Kramer’s traditional approach to filmmaking. Longtime performers Burt Lancaster and Judy Garland also expressed discomfort with the idea of going of script. Things came to a head during the editing process; though Cassavetes remained the director of record, Kramer fired him from the film. After the movie was released, Cassavetes said, “I didn’t think his film—and that’s what I consider it to be, his film—was so bad, just a lot more sentimental than mine.”
Without a doubt, A Child Is Waiting is somewhat dated. Nonetheless, Judy Garland gives a quietly powerful performance despite the fact that her personal life was increasingly tumultuous and she was drinking heavily. Burt Lancaster gives the strong, forceful performance you would expect from him, though it’s interesting to note that he was drawn to the role because one of his own children was troubled. The always excellent Gena Rowlands does a fine job as Reuben’s conflicted mother. Steven Hill is heartbreaking as the distraught father and young Bruce Ritchey does a commendable job playing a disabled child. Lawrence Tierney, John Marley and Elizabeth Wilson all shine in their small but important roles.
Presented in the 1.66:1 aspect ratio, Kino Lorber’s 1080p transfer is pretty solid. Sharpness is impressive, with the exception of the occasional facial close-up. Contrast is well layered and the overall image is satisfactorily bright. I did notice an occasional compression artifact and a scratch or two, but given the age of the film, this is acceptable.
The DTS-HD Master 2.0 audio track serves this dialogue driven film quite well. Dialogue is clean and clear, mixing well with Ernest Gold’s background score and the occasional sound effect.
There are no subtitles included.
The following extras are available:
- Audio Commentary with Film Historians Tom Charity and Michael Van Den Bos: The two offer a surprising amount of information surrounding the production of the film.
- Theatrical Trailer (HD, 2:44)
- Kino Studio Classics Trailer Gallery (SD) Judgment at Nuremberg, Separate Tables, Elmer Gantry.