A Child is Waiting Review

Jean Hansen (Judy Garland) applies to be the music teacher at the Crawthorne State Training Institute, a boarding school for mentally handicapped children. She gets the job, and soon bonds with autistic Reuben (Bruce Ritchey), who had been all but abandoned by his parents in the two years since he had been enrolled at the school. However, Jean soon conflicts with the school's head, psychologist Dr Matthew Clark (Burt Lancaster), who advocates a more disciplinarian approach.

Although he had been working as an actor since the early 1950s, John Cassavetes had made his directorial debut in 1959 with Shadows, which remains a landmark in the history of American independent films. Then as now, when a director makes an impact on a low-budget independent, the major studios often take notice. As well as some TV work (including some episodes of the series Johnny Staccato, which he also starred in), Cassavetes made two films for the majors. The first was Two Late Blues, made for Paramount in 1961. Then came A Child is Waiting, produced by Stanley Kramer, with two major stars in the shape of Burt Lancaster and Judy Garland. Cassavetes’ own wife and frequent collaborator Gena Rowlands has third billing.

A Child is Waiting is undeniably well-acted and involving, but it’s a film in conflict with itself. On one hand it hews to the conventions of the liberal-minded Hollywood issue drama, with an authoritative performance from Lancaster at least. Garland is less assured, and it’s not entirely convincing that she would be employed at this home in the first place. Her character seems to be working out some personal issue through her care of the children, but this is a theme that isn't really explored.

On the other hand, Cassavetes aimed at emotional truth in the films he directed, and the use of real handicapped children (though ably directed) gives the film a dose of unmediated reality which doesn't always sit well. With four decades’ greater understanding, we can see – with these inexpert eyes at least – that some of the children appear to have Down’s Syndrome and others seem to be on various parts of the autistic spectrum, while others still seem to have emotional problems. Those are distinctions that Abby Mann’s screenplay doesn’t make. To be fair that makes this a film of its time, but there’s really only one child, Reuben, that the film is particularly interested in, to the extent that he’s onscreen before the opening credits, before we ever meet Lancaster and Garland. Joseph LaShelle’s black and white photography is fine in itself, but it’s an early 60s Hollywood type of realism – the grainy pseudo-documentary look came later.

Mental illness and impairment had been a touchy subject with a Hollywood still controlled by a Production Code which in 1963 was showing signs of crumbling. That was even more so with the British Censor, who had banned Bedlam and would ban Shock Corridor and had imposed cuts on The Snake Pit. They passed A Child is Waiting uncut with an X certificate, restricting the film to the over-sixteens. It’s a sign of the times that the film now rates a PG, and the fact that the characters frequently smoke is as much of an issue as the theme.

A Child is Waiting was something of a troubled production. Cassavetes and Kramer clashed on more than one occasion, which resulted in Cassavetes being fired during editing. Cassavetes didn't direct a feature again until 1968, returning to his independent roots with Faces. That film set the pattern for his later work, for which he raised the money from his fees as an actor. Often with Rowlands in a major role, his films would diverge further from the Hollywood model, their expanded running times encouraging a greater focus on the actors and a quest for emotional authenticity superseding the demands of a plot. A Child is Waiting is a compromised film, very much of its time. It doesn’t succeed in marrying Cassavetes’s methods with the demands of commercial cinema, but it’s an often fascinating attempt all the same.


A Child is Waiting is released as part of Optimum’s John Cassavetes Collection, on a single-layered DVD encoded for Region 2 only.

The DVD is presented in a ratio of 1.66:1. At some point American major-studio films settled on 1.85:1 for their non-Scope and non-large-format productions, but there were exceptions and this appears to be one of them. The compositions certainly look correct to my eyes, without the excess headroom that might indicate a wider intended ratio. The lack of widescreen enhancement is more likely an issue: this is a not the sharpest transfer to begin with, which becomes even softer in Garland's close-ups, shot in soft-focus in the style of many films of the time.

The soundtrack is the original mono, and it’s clear and well-balanced. Once again, Optimum have neglected to provide subtitles on an English-language release. The disc has Optimum’s customary eight chapter stops.

There are no extras, not even a trailer.

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