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“A Child Is Waiting” (1963) Review

January 31, 2013

On Saturday afternoon I was channel-surfing, looking for something interesting to watch. I landed on a black and white film starring Judy Garland and Burt Lancaster, and it quickly caught my attention. This was a very different film, especially for the time period. It was an American drama called “A Child Is Waiting“. It was released in 1963, written by Abby Mann and directed by John Cassavetes.

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The film takes place at the fictional Crawthorne State Training Institute, which was modeled after the Vineland Training School in New Jersey. The producer wanted to bring new light to the struggle of educating mentally challenged children. Though the way of conduct represented in the movie was somewhat dated, the concept of the movie is still true in today’s age. Burt Lancaster was cast as the director of the institute, Dr. Matthew Clark. His character believed in maintaining strict and repetitive training methods to gain results. However, he was not able to make any progress with Reuben Widdicombe- one of the boys at the institute, portrayed by Bruce Ritchey.

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Bruce was the only actor among the children in the film, the rest of the students were actual mentally challenged children from Pacific State Hospital in Pomona, California. I was amazed at his performance, and felt he captured the role beautifully. I had to actually look up the movie on IMDB to make sure he was really an actor. He played the role very realistically. The other students at the institute, portrayed by actual mentally challenged children did an amazing job as well. It was interesting watching their performance and thinking about how challenging it must have been for them. It must have also been an interesting experience for Judy Garland, Burt Lancaster, and the other actors. The producer, Stanley Kramer said, “They surprised us every day in reaction and what they did.”. Burt Lancaster commented, “We have to ad-lib around the periphery of a scene and I have to attune and adjust myself to the unexpected things they do. But they are much better than child actors for the parts. They have certain gestures that are characteristic, very difficult for even an experienced actor.”. I thought both the actors and children in the movie did a very convincing job, and it was very inspiring to me as an actor!

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Judy Garland portrayed Jean Hansen, a teacher who has just joined the staff at the institute. Her character develops an emotional bond with Reuben, and she tries everything to help him. Judy’s performance literally had me in tears. Especially when her view on helping Reuben is changed after visiting an adult institution with Dr. Clark. There is a scene near the end of the film where Judy sits at the piano surrounded by the children. She teaches them a song for an upcoming Thanksgiving play. The emotion Judy conveys in this scene is simply heart-wrenching. Her determination to help Reuben as well as the other children has never been stronger. Judy Garland had been going through some very difficult personal issues during this time, and the previous director of the film, Jack Clayton thought being involved in a project would help Judy. I don’t know if some of the emotions shown on the screen are personal to Judy, or if it is simply her terrific acting skills- but she was amazing in this film!

I definitely recommend this film, especially as an actor. The classic actors in this movie gave an extremely touching performance, and by the end of the movie- I definitely felt more informed. However, you may want to watch it with a tissue box by your side!

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