16 February 2001 | lugonian
A painful but compelling study about retarded children.
A CHILD IS WAITING (United Artists, 1963), directed by John Cassavetes, is a groundbreaking study about mentally retarded children (today called mentally challenged), as seen through the eyes of Jean Hansen (Judy Garland), a new music teacher. Besides the top-billed Burt Lancaster, excellent as Matthew Clark, a strict but fair superintendent doctor of a state institution, the central character here is a 12-year-old-boy named Reuben (Bruce Ritchey), a borderline case, who is abandoned at the institution by his father (Steven Hill), who cannot accept his son's state of condition, which puts a conflict on his marriage. Although he and his wife (Gena Rowlands) also have a younger daughter, the father is the one who tries to forget about Reuben's existence. Two years pass with the silent and sad-faced Reuben seen patiently waiting, in hope that one of his parents will some day come to see him on visiting day. He fails to make friends with the other kids and remains mostly to himself, sometimes becoming difficult in the classroom, but after he meets Miss Hansen, he soon bonds with her. In spite of Dr. Clark advising her to stay out of the family affair, Miss Hansen tries to see what she can do to get one of the parents to come to visit with him. After tense moments between Miss Hansen and Reuben's mother, as well as with Dr. Clark, a compelling scene ensues when Reuben's mother leaves without making an effort to see Reuben. She gets in her car, drives away only to be spotted by Reuben, who tries to chase after the car.
What makes this movie particularly interesting to watch is not only seeing Judy Garland, known for her musical film roles in her glory days at MGM, tasking a difficult role with warmth and conviction, but the use of retarded children, actual patients of the Pacific State Hospital in Pomona, California, where most of the movie was filmed. Baby boomers who grew up watching the 1960s TV show, LOST IN SPACE, will notice young Billy Mumy of that same program appearing very briefly as one of the patients who greet Miss Hansen at the early portion of the story after arriving at the institution.
While the movie itself was a commercial failure when released, mainly due to its sensitive subject matter, I find that it was ahead of its time, and only Stanley Kramer, who produced this, could challenge such a project and make it work so well. Yes, there are moments when a viewer will try to refrain from getting all teary-eyed, but be warned, it's impossible not to do, especially before the fadeout. The scene with Miss Hansen directing a Thanksgiving play with the children performing for the audience, their parents, is also moving, as is the scene where Reuben, after appearing in the show, stepping down from the stage and being surrounded by a crowd of people only to look up and find that special person there to greet him. A CHILD IS WAITING, available on video, can also be seen occasionally on Turner Classic Movies. When last aired on that station, host Robert Osborne has mentioned that the movie was originally a 1957 television play. But as for the 1963 screen adaptation, done tastefully with conviction, it should be seen and studied, for that a movie such as this only comes around once. And let's not forget young Bruce Ritchey as Reuben in a great performance of his short-lived acting career. (****)