The Crawthorne State Mental Hospital is an institution that specializes in housing and treating children with mental handicaps. It’s run by the stern but dedicated Dr Clark (Burt Lancaster), a serious doctor who does his best to care for the children put under his care. He soon finds himself dealing with a new set of challenges with the arrival of Jean Hansen (Judy Garland), a middle-aged former singer who has abandoned her dreams of stardom, and is seeking the solace of the simple life, taking the opportunity to apply for a vacancy as the institution’s musical teacher, a position she feels she is capable of holding, despite not having any experience teaching or working with mentally-handicapped individuals. The two of them clash almost instantly – Dr Clark is a very principled man, someone who makes sure to run his institution as tightly as possible, while Hansen is more of a free spirit, prioritizing the student’s individual desires rather than what her superiors say they need. Their biggest challenge comes in the form of Reuben (Bruce Ritchey), a young boy who was left by his absent parents (Steven Hill and Gena Rowlands), who could not bear to raise a son who they knew was never going to be able to live a fruitful life. Clark sees him as just another troubled student, one who refuses to follow the rules, while Hansen is far more sympathetic, to the point where she becomes akin to the boy’s surrogate mother, giving him the affection he never received prior to his enrollment at Crawthorne. She does her best to give him the attention he craves to get him out of his shell – but when he latches onto her, the other students start to feel unappreciated, which only causes more of a rift between the liberal teacher and her more strict colleagues, who do their best to maintain a form of decorum, no matter the cost.
The main problem with A Child Is Waiting is that there is certainly a great film in there somewhere, its just so difficult to see. Had his name not appeared in the credits, you’d not believe this film is one helmed by John Cassavetes, one of the most important filmmakers to ever work in the medium. This film came about earlier in his career, when he was still making his living as a working actor in a variety of productions, as well as taking on the occasional director-for-hire job that required him to shepherd films like this, works that appear to be promising based on their premise or pedigree attached to them, but prove to be little more than small-scale productions that don’t offer too much other than what’s presented on the surface-level. Stanley Kramer, who acted as producer on this film, designed it to be a starring vehicle for Burt Lancaster and Judy Garland, two of the Golden Age’s most incredible performers, which almost immediately indicates how much of an outlier this film was from the rest of Cassavetes’ career since he wasn’t one to work with stars – he was more intent on making them. A Child Is Waiting is not a bad film – in fact, its actually just short of an excellent film. The problem derives from the fact that it is a by-the-numbers social drama that attempts to say far too much than it knew it was capable of, overstuffing a plethora of different themes into a story that would have been far more lucid had a more simple approach been taken. Despite being quite a meaningful work, the film occupies a space on the lower end of the director’s career, and whether you see this as a strength of the director’s more notable work that he’d leap into a few years after making this, or a result of Cassavetes directing a film in which he had virtually no control, it’s undeniable to say that A Child Is Waiting, while a fascinating experiment, is not all that successful.
Films about social issues tend to be a dime-a-dozen, particularly in the decades immediately after the Second World War, where filmmaking was used as a means to convey messages that would show the realities underpinning a particular society, in the hopes of unifying the general public into seeing certain issues from a specific point of view. Films that tend to cause us to think in one way aren’t always the best examples of artistic integrity, but when they’re executed well (namely, making some kind of effort to put heart into the story), it can be very effective. A Child Is Waiting is one such film – Cassavetes may not have been working from a story that he himself was involved in conceiving, nor is it one that seems to be particularly resonant with him, beyond the marginal similarities with this film and the later works of gritty social realism that would define his career, but he still made the best out of what was essentially a very flimsy script, one in which a dozen different ideas are flaunted, with less than half of them reaching fruition. Abby Mann (who had previously written Kramer’s most successful film, Judgment at Nuremberg) took a promising story, and while perhaps not squandering its potential, instead constructed something quite weak and forgettable from a premise that should’ve been far more moving than it actually was. The responsibility then fell to the director, who didn’t have much to go with, grasping at what he could in order to make this interesting, but scattershot, storyline seem coherent and, most importantly, convincing to the audience. When a film’s most significant problems come from a weak screenplay, that’s not the most promising sign.
However, Cassavetes (not to give him too much credit, since this is one of his more disposable works) does do very well in working within the confines of a weak script, particularly through employing perhaps the most distinctive quality of his directorial career at large: his effortless ability to work with actors and bring out memorable performances from them, regardless of their experience or technique. A Child Is Waiting is the first times Cassavetes had worked with major stars, which would not become a regular occurrence for a director who preferred working with novice amateurs, veterans who have deviated out of the spotlight and skilled character actors over bigger names. However, he does bring the same dedication to the main roles of this film, which were occupied by Burt Lancaster and Judy Garland. I stand steadfast in my belief that Lancaster could do absolutely no wrong as an actor – the quality of his films may differ, but his performances are always of an extremely high-calibre. A Child Is Waiting is not an exception – playing the stern but dedicated Dr Clark is not a challenge for an actor who was comfortable in absolutely any role, but it did give him another chance to add nuance to a relatively unremarkable character, bringing his intense everyman sensibilities and ethereal grandeur to a role that made perfect use of it, allowing him to command the screen in ways only he knew. Garland, on the other hand, made this film at a very difficult time in her personal and professional life, and while he was certainly an icon already, A Child Is Waiting was part of her attempt to revitalize her film career in darker projects. Her previous collaboration with Kramer, the aforementioned Judgment at Nuremberg, had brought her a lot of success and set her up for this fascinating stage in her career. It’s not a performance without flaws – but they all work in the context of the story, which establishes Jean as a woman torn apart by her inner quandaries, while still attempting to remain a guiding light for the younger children, who look to her for motivation. Both leads are terrific, as is Gena Rowlands in her first proper collaboration with her husband, giving one of her notably nuanced performances that may only have a handful of scenes, but are nothing short of extraordinary in their own right.
The effectiveness of taking a lacklustre script and having it interpreted by a small cast of actors working on a level much higher than what was required from them creates quite a bewildering experience and makes A Child Is Waiting something quite unique, for better or worse. There’s a very serious set of themes underpinning this film, particularly in regards to the topic of mental disability, which is persistent throughout, and which the film does attempt to make a profound statement on, particularly in how art talks about something that is still a challenge to discuss even by modern standards but still falters somewhat, not as a result of clumsy filmmaking (if anything, A Child Is Waiting is remarkably ahead of its time with this kind of discourse – it never exploits the plight of the disabled, nor does it play them for laughs or falsely sentimental emotions, instead keeping it all fundamentally human), but rather the fact that everyone involved has the same idea of what they want to do with this film – they all want to provide an insightful discussion on the issue of disability that can genuinely change hearts and minds. An admirable endeavour, and one that can easily come about through the sheer willpower to investigate these issues through the lens of socially-charged realism. Where the filmmaker’s struggle is in how they each have different approaches to get there, while results in a film that has its heart in the right place, but its style all over it. It doesn’t establish a clear line, and right up until the final moments (which are hauntingly beautiful), the film doesn’t seem to know exactly where it wants to go, or what it specifically wants to say, other than the general consensus being that there was supposed to be an insightful look into the lives of the social workers who commit themselves to help those who so desperately need it, especially the weakest and most vulnerable.
There’s something to be said about A Child Is Waiting, it just doesn’t realize exactly what it wants to convey, besides the central theme. It does make some bold statements, such as in a moment during the third-act, where Clark takes Hansen to the area of the hospital where they house the mentally-handicapped adults who have been shown to be unable to function in society and are going to live out their days under the care of those who have dedicated their lives to this line of work. This is one of the most profound sequences in the film, and the moment in which it seems to come into its own if only to show how this film meant well, and had the steadfast determination to be sensitive about a very difficult subject, while not deviating too far from the general formulae that go into the making of such social dramas. Everyone involved did better work than this, and it really should only be of interest to either those who are completionists of any of the cast or crew (particularly those interested in the work of the gifted director), or those who want glimpses into the perceptions surrounding mental disability at this point. Other than a few marginal groups of people who could derive value from it, A Child Is Waiting is a relatively unremarkable film that is undeniably solid and meaningful, but not enough to overcome a relatively lacklustre screenplay that has enough underlying commentary to account for a film twice as long as this, but not necessarily following through on the vast majority of any of them. It’s a decent film, one that does mean well and manages to be convincing enough, especially through the impressive performances given by its talented cast, but is ultimately not that much of an achievement, other than being a worthwhile entry into an abundant sub-category of socially-aware dramas that carry meaning but stop just short of being effective enough to linger in the memory of the viewer.