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The Chalk Garden (1964) – Deborah Kerr, Hayley Mills, John Mills

download (2)1964-65 was a good year for governesses. Julie Andrews accounted for two of them, Mary Poppins and The Sound of Music, but Deborah Kerr does very well in her own, less known, 1964 governess role in The Chalk Garden. Of course, the film is not very like Mary Poppins and Kerr’s Miss Madrigal is not very like Fraulein Maria. She has a secret. And the child she must care for, Hayley Mills, makes Julie Andrew’s charges look like haloed little saints.

The film stars Deborah Kerr, Hayley Mills – in a brief departure from her Disney films – and Hayley Mill’s father, John Mills. The film opens with Miss Madrigal (Deborah Kerr) applying for the job of governess at a large home near the coast. She has no references and no experience. However, the child she is supposed to take care of, Laurel (Hayley Mills), is a positive terror and scares away the other applicant for the job with outrageous behavior, statements, and tales of horror about governesses being eaten by sharks. But the butler, Maitland (John Mills) rather likes Miss Madrigal. She meets Laurel’s grandmother, Mrs. St. Maugham (Edith Evans), who is at first not willing to hire Miss Madrigal until she discovers that she is extremely knowledgeable about gardens. Miss Madrigal makes the observation that the reason the flowers won’t grow for Mrs. St. Maugham is because the soil, chalk, is all wrong for those particular flowers and mentions what sort of soil she would need. On a whim, and because she has been unable to keep any other governess around for long, Mrs. St. Maugham hires Miss Madrigal.

Laurel is no ordinary problem child. The reason she is living with her grandmother is that several years previously her mother Olivia, (Elizabeth Sellars) had had an affair, divorced her father and remarried. The entire series of events set off something in Laurel, who became convinced that her mother did not love her and is obsessed with the notion of her mother living in sin, a notion reinforced by her grandmother. She feels abandoned and rejected. She is also obsessed with arson, murder, crime and is a chronic liar who likes to make outrageous statements to get a reaction from people. She speaks of having a desire to burn the house down, a desire channeled by her grandmother into simply burning large bonfires. Her grandmother comments wryly to Miss Madrigal that little by little they are making it smaller. “Laurel hasn’t noticed yet. One day it won’t be there.”

Laurel is attempting to scare away the governess while Miss Madrigal, on the right, is unmoved

Laurel is attempting to scare away the governess while Miss Madrigal, on the right, is unmoved

But Miss Madrigal sees something in Laurel. She sees something of herself when she was that age (it is amusing to try to imagine Deborah Kerr, young and wild and screaming). She sees herself as a liar, unable to appreciate that she is loved, filled with rage at the world and other people and she longs to to help Laurel.

The key, as she sees it, is to get Laurel away from her grandmother and back to her mother. It’s not that Mrs. St. Maugham is evil, but she “does not have a green thumb,” either for children or flowers, as Miss Madrigal tells her. Besides, she suspects that Mrs. St. Maugham is using Laurel to hurt Laurel’s mother, whether consciously or not.

Like Laurel, or perhaps Laurel feels this way because of her, Mrs. St. Maugham feels betrayed by her daughter. She and Olivia have a fraught relationship and the man Olivia left was the man Mrs. St. Maugham had chosen for her to marry. But Olivia desperately wants to take Laurel back with her.

But meanwhile, Miss Madrigal has to deal with Laurel, who specializes in investigating her governesses, snooping in their possessions (she can pick locks), finding out their secrets, or inventing secrets, and generally exposing them and sending them packing. Miss Madrigal is an especially interesting subject. She arrives with all new clothes, still in their wrappings, still with the tags on them. She paces the room at night. And she definitely has a secret, something definite in her past. What occurs is a kind of game of cat and mouse between Laurel and Miss Madrigal, though Miss Madrigal does not put up with half the nonsense that her grandmother does.

Edna Evans. John Mills, Haley Mills, Deborah Kerr

Edith Evans. John Mills, Haley Mills, Deborah Kerr

It partially makes me think of an English Country House murder mystery. Mostly because of the setting in a English home by the sea, the eccentric people (Mrs. St. Maugham and the butler, Maitland, who has rare privileges and feels free to make cheeky comments), and also the game of wits played out between Laurel and Miss Madrigal. Laurel is trying to find out who she really is, while Miss Madrigal deflects her inquiries and is trying to reach past Laurel’s lying and outrageous exterior to the wounded child within. Also, Maitland has a great, though healthy, interest in crime and detective stories. Ironically enough, a crime is discovered in somebody’s past, but it is not an indictment of that person and does not come as a huge surprise the the viewer, either.

Deborah Kerr does a marvelous job. She plays it both humorously – at moments she is enjoying this game of wits – but also deeply passionate, initially hidden behind her blank exterior. Ironically, she is hiding something, but must lose her secret and expose her heart to win Laurel. Hayley Mills also does a great job in a role quite different from anything she did at Disney. Underneath, there is a very vulnerable child playing games, until she realizes that she’s stumbled on something that is not a game at all.

HayleyMillsandDeborahKerrinTheChalkGarden-1The Chalk Garden is an adaptation of a play by Enid Bagnold and Edith Evans played Mrs. St. Maugham in the play as well as in the movie. She’s quite an interesting character, because she is not a villain, nor does she play her like a selfish harpy. She strikes me as one of those ladies who was probably a flapper in her day, witty and, as we learn, with a host of admiring men in her past, some of who she still knows (like the judge played by Felix Aylmer, who she wants to help her keep Laurel from Olivia). But she obviously does not have it in her to raise children. She is kind to Maitland, however, who has sad story in his past.

This trailer makes the film look quite melodramatic, which it is in a way, but not quite as hysterical as all that! I really enjoyed it. There is warmth and real feeling, learning to open up the heart to accept love, wry wit. Maitland, especially, has some good dialogue (he and Miss Madrigal are talking in the library when he notices that Laurel is spying on them and he closes the door, commenting “Laurel is not at her best through mahogany”), though he is not the comic relief. He is almost the heart of the film, though he does not seem to do much. He is the solid, kind presence that balances them all.

 
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Posted by on April 1, 2015 in Drama

 

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Tiger Bay (1959)

tiger_bay_posterBefore Hayley Mills became a Disney superstar with her performance in Pollyanna, she did one British film: Tiger Bay. She wasn’t even supposed to be in it originally. The script called for a boy, but when director J. Lee Thompson visited John Mills, who was to appear in the movie, he saw his daughter Hayley Mills playing at the house and asked if John Mills would be willing to let her take a screen test. He liked her so much that he changed the role from a boy to a girl.

Tiger Bay is a port city in Cardiff, Wales. A boat docks and Polish immigrant Bronislav Korchinsky (Horst Buchholz) disembarks. He is in an expectantly happy mood, on his way to his apartment to see his girlfriend, Anya (Yvonne Mitchell), and ask her to marry him. But when he arrives there, he cannot find her and eventually tracks her down at another apartment complex, where he discovers that she has left him and is now being kept by another, richer, man. Living in the apartment complex is also Gillie Evans (Haylay Mills), who is an orphan and lives with her aunt (Megs Jenkins). She’s a chronic liar, a bit of an imp, and a tomboy who just wants to play cowboys and Indians with the rest of the kids on the street, though they won’t let her because she does not have a toy gun.

When Bronislav and Anya get into an argument, Gillie hears them and curiously peeks through the letterbox. Bronislav is telling Anya that he wants to marry her, but she can’t stand the fact that he is a sailor and is always gone. They argue and she insults him and Bronislav begins to lose his temper. Finally, Anya grabs a gun, which he takes from her and in a burst of blind passion, shoots her with it. He runs out of the apartment and hides the gun, which Gillie takes to show to her friends.

John Mills, Megs Jenkins and Hayley Mills

John Mills, Megs Jenkins and Hayley Mills

The police question everyone, one of whom is Inspector Graham (John Mills), who has an inkling that Gillie is lying to him about what she knows. But the inspector is most interested in tracking down the man who was keeping Anya in the apartment, a sports announcer named Barclay (Anthony Dawson). While Inspector Graham investigates, Bronislav knows that Gillie has his gun and follows her to take it back, but realizes that she also saw everything. But Gillie likes him and when she finds out he’s a sailor, begs him to take her with him. He realizes that if he can keep her with him until he gets a ship out of England, then she won’t be able to tell the police. He agrees that she can come with him, intending to leave her just before he sails.

They hide outside the city and the police begin to search for Gillie and discover there could be another man besides Barclay involved. But the movie is not a police drama. The heart of the story is between Gillie and Bronislav. Although a murderer, he’s not a psychopath. You can see at the beginning of the film that he likes kids and when he meets Gillie, he has a natural way with talking to children. In some ways, he’s a big kid, himself. Gillie, somewhat lonely, completely attaches herself to Bronislav. These two people, without a trace of queasy pedophilia, form a deep bond of affection and both are ultimately willing to do anything for the other person. Gillie will lie and mislead the police and in the end Bronislav must sacrifice his chance for freedom to save her.

Horst Buchholtz, Hayley Mills

Horst Buchholz, Hayley Mills

Tiger Bay has a very realistic feel to it. There are lots of scenes of the docks and the poor, ethnically diverse neighborhoods. But though the neighborhoods are comprised of blacks and immigrants, the police force is entirely Anglo-Saxon and there is an inherent undercurrent of antagonism between the police and the rest of the people, which puts many of the people automatically on Bronislav’s side against the police. In contrast, there is also the smarmy, rich guy trying to weasel out of a murder charge without having his name besmirched.

John Mills as Inspector Graham, is a wonderful presence in the film. With a touch of wry humor, he steadily works his way towards his goal. The scenes between him and his real-life daughter are well-rendered, made even more interesting by the fact that the audience knows he’s really her father. He tries to ferret out the truth as her story constantly changes. But however much Gillie doesn’t want to betray Bronislav, he is able to use her inconsistencies to learn what he wants. The irony is that Gillie proves Bronislav’s ultimate downfall. But the touching thing about it is that Bronislav doesn’t blame her. What makes the ending so beautiful (I don’t think I’m betraying anything too unexpected when I say that he does not manage to escape) is the complete, accepting affection for each other.

I was thinking about it afterwards, and what struck me is that it is not clear that anybody has changed by the end of the film. He’s not necessarily a better person, she’s not necessarily going to stop being a liar. He’s going to prison and she’s going to return to her life with her aunt. What makes the movie touching is not that caring changes a person, but that people care at all. The point is that to love is a beautiful and ennobling thing in and of itself, regardless of what it does for you. It is good simply to care.

John Mills and Hayley Mills

John Mills and Hayley Mills

Horst Buchholz makes a very endearing Bronislav and although you are repelled by the act of murder, he’s still sympathetic. He’s done a terrible thing, but he can’t change it. He’s stuck with it and can only move forward. He and Hayley Mills also have a sweet rapport. The film was meant to introduce him, a German actor, to the English public, but what it really did was launch Hayley Mills’ career. As soon as Walt Disney saw the movie, he knew he’d found the person he wanted for Pollyanna.

The movie is currently on youtube.

 
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Posted by on February 19, 2015 in British Films, Drama

 

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The Trouble With Angels (1966)

imagesA very funny and endearing movie, The Trouble With Angels is one of those few movies to be directed by a woman, written by a woman, and about women. It helps that it takes place at a Catholic girl’s school, which means any men who appear are purely incidental to the story. It was directed by Ida Lupino, written by Blanche Hanalis and stars Rosalind Russell, Hayley Mills, and June Harding.

Two girls meet on a train on their way to St. Francis Academy, a boarding school for girls. Mary Clancy (Hayley Mills) was sent there by her uncle in the hope that it might straighten her out. Rachel Devery (June Harding), however, was sent there by her parents after her abysmal performance at the progressive school, New Trends (her father did not consider “planting sweet potatoes and learning the silent piano” as real education). The two girls become fast friends, with Mary the chief trouble maker who gets “scathingly brilliant ideas” while Rachel always happily assists her, constantly getting them into hot water with the Mother Superior (Rosalind Russell). They end up spending half their time at the school washing pots (as Rachel says, “I wonder if my father knows he’s paying good money to have his daughter educated as a janitor”).

They smoke cigarettes and cigars, set off fire alarms, put bubble maker in the nun’s sugar (thus setting off a fountain of bubbles from their tea), sneak off to spy on a rival band, fake various diseases to keep them out of the swimming pool, encase Mary’s cousin’s head in plaster, give paid tours of the Nun’s living quarters and generally cause relatively innocent, though somewhat defiant, havoc. Rachel is gawky, but very endearing and a “born follower.” But Mary is the confident one, always scheming and openly resentful of the Mother Superior. As Mary says, “the only difference between St. Francis and a reform school is the tuition.” But through the years, Mary gradually finds herself revising her opinions.

The movie spans their entire time at St. Francis for three years. It’s a coming of age story, but it is also a movie about relationships. There is the friendship between Rachel and Mary. As fun as it is to go off each summer and be free of school, you can see how extremely happy they are to be reunited at the end of each summer when another year of mischievous antics and scholastic endeavor begins. There is also the warmth between the nuns, especially between Mother Superior and the math teacher, Sister Liguori (Marge Redmond – whose methods, Mother Superior says, are “newer than new.” She likes to set up quizzes as if they were a race at Pimlico). There is also the relationship between the nuns and their students, which is extremely warm, though more austere. And finally, there is the embattled, but progressively understanding one between Mary and Mother Superior.

June Harding, Hayley Mills

June Harding, Hayley Mills

One of the things I loved about the film is that there is no one moment  when Mary comes to appreciate Mother Superior. The movie manages that rare feat of having someone’s feelings gradually change without resorting to any sudden epiphanies, though there are many little scenes that trace the change from resentment to respect to even affection. Her evolution happens naturally, without her or the audience really being aware of it.

Although Mary never complains about being an orphan, there is a sense that in St. Francis, she finds a home and in Mother Superior she finds her first real authority figure – not exactly a mother, but in a way. That is perhaps why she is so resentful in the first place. But as much as she resents Mother Superior, she is also fascinated by her, always watching her and wondering about her choice to become a nun and  it turns out that the two of them are very much alike. Her Uncle George (Kent Smith) appears to be a wealthy man who goes through “secretaries” rather quickly and Mary seems to have been left mostly to herself. Rachel, on the other hand, does have parents who also do care about her and she is less in need of a home.

The entire cast is great, but Rosalind Russell as Mother Superior particularly stands out. I read that they originally wanted Greta Garbo for the role, but all I can say is thank God she didn’t accept. Russell, a devout Catholic herself, was perfect in the role, with her dry humor, expressive face, aura of authority and genuine emotion. She takes simple lines like “Where’s the fire?” and “God is on ours [side]” into utter gems of wit and irony. Wearing a wimple really does accentuate the face and Russell has a very expressive one, reacting to bubbles coming out of her tea, lemon squirted on her face, the girls dancing around like a bunch of octopi during a dance class, the unexpectedly short band uniforms (“We are a Catholic school, Mr. Gottschalk!” she protests at one point), and the school’s derelict boiler. But she can also register deep pain and grief, as she does when one of the sisters dies unexpectedly. All the girls find her manner of telling them cold, but you can see the pain in her eyes.

June Harding and Hayley Mills in yet more trouble with Rosalind Russell

June Harding and Hayley Mills in yet more trouble with Rosalind Russell

Hayley Mills is also good. She manages her character arch without ever throwing it obviously in your face what she is thinking or feeling. I didn’t see it the first time I watched the movie, but she uses her outward expressions and words as a mask for deeper stirrings within her that is quite subtle. But she and June Harding are also a hoot together, demonstrating a real friendship between the characters.

Among the cast is Mary Wickes as Sister Clarissa, the physical education teacher who also teaches religion. It is a fun role and also a warm-up for her more famous nun role as Sister Mary Lazarus in Sister Act and Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit. There are many more nuns and each of them have their own unique personality, though it took me two viewings to properly get them sorted out.

The script is almost perfect…and quite quotable. There is just the right amount of craziness without ever going over the top. It’s almost entirely about girls and women interacting – there is very little time spent even thinking about boys. It is very refreshing in that way; that women and girls can have a life outside of chasing men. It’s a very innocent film, without being childish. These girls must still learn about life. There is death; the girls visit a home for the elderly and see first hand how the nuns care for others, but also the little sadnesses and tragedies that come with growing older. And after making fun of Sister Ursula’s accent, the girls learn how she hid 34 Jewish children during WWII and was later found out and tortured by Nazis. School may have been a romp, but they must also grow up.

 
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Posted by on February 11, 2015 in Comedy

 

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