Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBBB. USA, 1963. Stanley Kramer Productions. Screenplay by Abby Mann, based on his story. Cinematography by Joseph LaShelle. Produced by Stanley Kramer. Music by Ernest Gold. Production Design by Rudolph Sternad. Film Editing by Gene Fowler Jr., Robert C. Jones.
Burt Lancaster plays a psychologist who runs a school in a small American town for children with developmental issues; because it’s 1963, all manner of either mental or physical issues are combined in one institution and, because post-war society was only interested in winners, many of the children are there because their families are ashamed to have them in their homes. Along comes Judy Garland as a plucky music teacher who is looking for meaning since, as we are told, she’s in her thirties and unmarried so what else could there be? Garland quickly makes the acquaintance of one particularly challenging boy, a sweet kid whose parents (Gena Rowlands, Steven Hill) never visit him and whose rage as a result of this makes it impossible for him to fit in with the others or benefit from his education. Garland’s heart breaks for the child and she finds herself constantly at odds with Lancaster’s harsh discipline in dealing with him. As she spends more time in the school and with the children who live there, though, she begins to realize that they need more than love and sympathy, they need an opportunity to live their own lives independent of the kind of care they get at this institution. Written by Abby Mann from his own story, the film is a rare opportunity to see the likes of Garland directed by the likes of John Cassavetes and she does an exceptional job of it. Her Golden Age of Hollywood training is nowhere to be found in the subtlety she displays; watch her face as she forces herself to sing happy while her eyes tell a different story in the scene where she begins to understand the proper way to discipline her favourite charge. It was unfortunately her penultimate film (released just after the last film she ever made, I Could Go On Singing), while Lancaster equals her work with the tough-love approach that never successfully conceals the care and concern he feels for his students. Cassavetes reportedly had such arguments with producer Stanley Kramer about the final cut that he was fired before post-production ended, which likely is the reason why the film has such a traditional narrative structure, but there’s no denying his touch on the great performances including many charismatic non-professional kids. The scenes with Rowlands (the real life Mrs. Cassavetes) having to face her feelings about a child she believes she has failed are truly heartbreaking.