The Chalk Garden
1964 / 106 min. / 1:85:1
Starring Deborah Kerr, Hayley Mills, John Mills
Cinematography by Arthur Ibbetson
Directed by Ronald Neame
Julie Andrews thrived in the role of governess—even when pitted against the Nazis in The Sound of Music she found plenty of time for sing-alongs—the same for Mary Poppins where the greatest threat was Dick Van Dyke’s British accent. But Deborah Kerr was never so lucky in the job; as the tutor assigned to a pair of possibly possessed tykes in The Innocents, she struggled as much with her own demons as the children’s. She still hadn’t learned her lesson when she signed on as companion to a troubled child in 1964’s The Chalk Garden. Kerr’s presence, along with Hayley Mills, Dame Edith Evans, and Hayley’s dad John, may seem inviting, but beware—the production is in the heavy hands of producer Ross Hunter—which means the trappings of this post-Freudian potboiler are as subtle as one of Lon Chaney’s Inner Sanctum mysteries.
Directed by Ronald Neame, the film is based on Enid Bagnold’s stage production which not only suffered mixed reviews from the critics but also from the actresses to whom the play was offered (Katherine Hepburn, for one, ran the other direction). Most disappointing, Kerr and Mills, usually graceful and unaffected performers, play to the cheap seats the moment they’re on screen. Kerr is Miss Madrigal, a woman with a shady past and Mills is Laurel, a disturbed kid with a penchant for starting fires, both real and metaphorical. John Mills plays Maitland, an authoritarian butler, and Dame Edith Evans is Mrs. St. Maugham, the éminence grise whose tentacles extend past the house and into the barren chalk garden which serves as a reminder of Laurel’s stunted childhood.
As time passes Madrigal and Laurel enter a tentative friendship and the ice begins to melt ala Anne Sullivan and Helen Keller in The Miracle Worker. But there are still lingering questions about the real nature of Laurel’s unpleasant fantasies concerning her absent parents and the actual number of skeletons in Madrigal’s closet. The beginning of the end comes when Maitland, already romantically inclined toward the beautiful if brittle guardian, discovers Madrigal’s secret—she’s just been released from prison where she was serving time for a murder rap.
Hunter was known for melodramas fraught with unbridled passion and some of them have gained in reputation over the years thanks mainly to his frequent collaborator Douglas Sirk. The director was unafraid to ramp up the melodramatics in Magnificent Obsession and All That Heaven Allows, both of which dared their audience to either laugh or swoon. Oddly, Hunter seemed dismissive of that highly theatrical approach when he discussed the Neame film—”I’d like to make one Chalk Garden type movie a year if I can find a good one.” The histrionic atmosphere that made his films with Sirk so compelling is missing in The Chalk Garden, but the producer’s brand is still very much in evidence.
Hunter’s light comedies, like Tammy and the Doctor and The Thrill of it All, are so weightless they evaporate—but for his tear-jerkers, he brings on the heavy artillery—and he didn’t mind spending money to achieve his goals. The Chalk Garden is no exception. The film’s exteriors were shot at Beachy Head, a chalk headland near the village of Litlington in Sussex—with its empyrean cliffs and brilliant blue skies it’s a perfect setting for windswept emotions—though some of those bleached white escarpments were duplicated for interior shots at a pretty penny. The film’s composer was the storied Malcolm Arnold—the man who wrote the hard as nails score for The Bridge on the River Kwai—but here he piles on the schmaltz as if it were the story of Madame X. Managing to hold on to his dignity was the movie’s cinematographer Arthur Ibbetson, the photographer on Neame’s The Horse’s Mouth. Ibbetson had an estimable career with Die, Die, My Darling, Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, and Where Eagles Dare—to his credit his work on The Chalk Garden is ravishing yet avoids sentimentality.
Ibbetson’s grand photography is given a great platform on the new Blu ray from Kino Lorber. The disc is fairly bare-boned with just the theatrical trailer attached but it does feature a fact-packed new commentary from Tim Lucas which details the film’s production history and the actors’ day to day deliberations—the audio equivalent of a monograph.