In Hollywood where escapist themed films that consist of glamour and physical beauty are dominant, subject matters that unearth human crises and personal and emotional burdens are very rarely taken into consideration.

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One such issue that is very seldom discussed in films are disabilities and mental retardation. When the topic is highlighted in the form of motion pictures however they are usually lauded for the accurate depictions and the poignant message that they deliver.


In real life the world is largely populated with people suffering from disabilities. Many of these were born defected while others were injured in accidents and left severely or moderately disabled. In a census report that estimates the number of people living with a disability, Autism was stated to be among the most common impairments in existence.

For a disability that is so well known, the subject of Autism is not often discussed in movies. In fact when running a search for related films very little comes up. But as coincidence has it, one of the first classic movies I discovered was A Child Is Waiting, a rather underrated production from 1963 that represents the effects of an Autistic child and the many facets of mental disorders in children.


The films producer, Stanley Kramer had long been immersed in the subject of disability and psychological disorders and felt the need to address the condition and the issues faced by the less fortunate to the movie going public, but for such a heavy topic that deals with mentally and emotionally disturbed children required many months of planning. Kramer also felt that the proper way to bring attention to a topic that is not often approached was to hire special needs children from the Pacific State Hospital and train them to play extras in the film to help fully enlighten audiences and give them a better understanding of these sad circumstances that a plethora of people worldwide endure.

Stanley Kramer who was fresh out of work from the Academy Award winning production, Judgement At Nuremberg wanted to reunite most of the cast members from the predecessor and assign them suitable roles in the latter. Burt Lancaster who was experienced with the mentally challenged and who raised a troubled child of his own was Kramer’s initial choice to play Dr. Matthew Clark, the head of the Crawthorne School. The role of Jean Hanson however involved some serious negotiations. At first, Ingrid Bergman, Katharine Hepburn and Elizabeth Taylor were all considered for the part until the original director, Jack Clayton implored Kramer to cast Judy Garland as he felt that a supportive work environment would help her get through her own personal struggles and daily oppressions. Abby Mann, who also wrote the script for Judgement At Nuremberg was hired as the films screenwriter.

Shortly after Judy Garland entered the production, Jack Clayton underwent scheduling problems and was forced to withdraw from the project. John Cassavettes who only had two credits on his resume was asked to replace Clayton and take on the role of director. To add to the dilemma that was confronted every day, Judy Garland began to disintegrate due to the strain and the overload of work that lasted for twelve months. Unable to cope with the pressure, Garland was quite often absent from filming, meaning that the cast would have to work around her.

Child 1

Following several altercations between Stanley Kramer and John Cassavetes, A Child Is Waiting was finally released to mixed reviews. Bosley Crowther from the New York times wrote, “Don’t go to see it expecting to be agreeably entertained or, for that matter, really uplifted by examples of man’s nobility. The drama of social service, written by Abby Mann to convey a general illustration of the philosophy and kind of work done in modern institutions for retarded children, is presented in such conventional terms that it has no more impact or validity than an average television-doctor show […] Miss Garland’s misty-eyed compassion and Mr. Lancaster’s crisp authority as the all-seeing, all-knowing doctor who patiently runs the home are of a standard dramatic order. Gena Rowlands and Steven Hill are a bit more erratic and thus convincing as the highly emotional parents of the boy. But top honors go to Bruce Ritchey, who plays the latter role, and to the group of actual retarded children who appear uninhibitedly in this film. To them and to John Cassavetes, who directed them with notable control […] we must be thankful that what might have been harrowing and even distasteful beyond words to behold comes out as a forthright, moving documentation of most unfortunate but hopeful youngsters in a school. From the graphic accounts of how their teachers treat them and train them, how the rule of firm, realistic and unemotional discipline is preserved, and from the simplifications of theory that appear in the dialogue, one should learn a great deal from this picture – all of which should be helpful and give hope.”, while Variety stated that the film was a poignant, provocative, revealing dramatization” and added, “Burt Lancaster delivers a firm, sincere, persuasive and unaffected performance as the professionally objective but understanding psychologist who heads the institution. Judy Garland gives a sympathetic portrayal of an overly involved teacher who comes to see the error of her obsession with the plight of one child.”



A Child Is Waiting centers on the lives of the mentally disturbed children at Crawthorne Training School ran by Dr. Matthew Clark ( Burt Lancaster ) who is strict with his teaching and discipline techniques. One day however his methods are challenged when Jean Hanson ( Judy Garland ) a Juilliard graduate with no teaching experience enters the scene and questions Clark’s motives while she forms a bond with Reuben Widdicombe ( Bruce Ritchey ) an Autistic child who Clark considers a failure.


A Child Is Waiting is an emotionally charged drama that is wrapped in a compelling story and delivers a pivotal message regarding the intellect of children suffering from disabilities. Many people worldwide inhabit the beliefs that special needs victims lack independence and the capability of doing things by themselves. In several instances however that is not always the case, and the main purpose of this film is to help change what people think about mentally retarded children and to try and instill in them that all these children who are inflicted with disorders still excel in certain things that normal people might find difficult.


The film assembled a stellar cast that mainly consisted of mentally disturbed children from Pacific State Hospital, which is situated in Pomona. Apart from these individuals, A Child Is Waiting is molded together by it’s leading players who are all commendable in their roles. A special mention should go to Bruce Ritchey, who portrayed the role of Reuben to such a realistic extent that audiences thought that Reuben himself hailed from the canon of defected children.

Both Judy Garland and Burt Lancaster are in fine form here. Judy Garland who was accustomed to musical extravaganzas executed the role perfectly, proving that she was just as adept at solid drama as she was playing a songstress. In  A Child Is Waiting, Garland brings warmth and compassion to her character, Jean Hanson, who is new at the Crawthorne Training Institute. With little experience at this kind of work, Jean Hanson knows nothing about the behavioral problems of these children but is determined to learn the ropes along the way. Things change however when she forms an emotional bond with Reuben Widdicombe, the Autistic child who she pities. Instead of focusing on all the children, Jean Hanson throws all her attention onto Reuben and sets out to help him, even going as far as contacting his parents, something that Dr. Matthew Clark is against.


A Child Is Waiting also depicts the real life struggles that parents of special needs children are faced with. Like a lot of other people who have discovered that their child is handicapped, Reuben’s parents ( Gena Rowlands and Steven Hill ) divorce due to the unsettling tension that arises in their relationship while they are trying to deal with their worries for Reuben.

For a film that focuses on true to life character studies of developmentally challenged children, A Child Is Waiting provides the viewer with clear insight into the world of these individuals and what they are dealt with in every day life.



“Controversy about this movie? In a world where you almost have to choose sides on everything, can there be more than one side of the subject of helping retarded children. At first I just wanted to hug them and protect them. But I realized they didn’t want protection-they wanted to be accepted. These children want affection, yes, but most of all they need to be accepted as human beings. They need to feel useful.”       ( Judy Garland )

“All children must be accepted and loved for what they are. Our everyday contact with these children made everyone care for them. It had been agreed that the greatest actors in the world could not portray them as accurately as the children themselves. They had delightful humor, they deported themselves so well and were very responsive to direction. Working with them cleared up our own misconceptions. We hope with all our hearts that our movie will clear up a lot of public misconceptions.”                      ( Burt Lancaster )



Director John Cassavetes (for whom this was his first major studio production) and Producer Stanley Kramer had many creative / economic differences and during the editing phase, Cassavetes was fired.



Judy Garland: Born, Frances Ethel Gumm on June 10th, 1922, in Grand Rapids, Minnesota. Died: June 22nd, 1969, in Chelsea, London. Aged 47. Cause of death: Barbiturate overdose.

Burt Lancaster: Born Burton Stephen Lancaster on November 2nd, 1913 in New York. Died: October 20th, 1994 in Century City, California. Aged 80. Cause of death: Heart attack.


The above was my entry for the Disability In Film Blogathon, hosted by Pop Culture Reverie. Click here to view the other articles being exhibited during the event.



  1. Pingback: The Disability in Film Blogathon Is Finally Here | Pop Culture Reverie

  2. Mike

    excellent article,.Crystal!! I’ve seen the film about 30 yeas ago and thought it was underrated. Was definitely ahead of its time. Was nice seeing Judy in a different type of role. Thanks for the backround information – all new to me.


  3. Amazing article Crystal as always! Well written, informative and captivating! I once almost watched this film when I wad doing a little Burt Lancaster marathon, but finally didn’t. Now after reading this I have one more reason to. I had no idea it was about autism.


  4. What an insightful piece, Crystal! Nicely done. I think A Child Is Waiting deserves more attention that what it has received. The Thanksgiving play is truly touching. Good performances all-around. This was an interesting blogathon. I enjoyed writing my piece and am really enjoying reading what everyone else has posted. 🙂


  5. Robin Franson Pruter

    Thanks for contributing! Including the excerpts from the reviews was a great idea. Crowther’s review gives us a lot of insight into what people expected from movies about disability. I haven’t seen the film, but it sounds from your discussion that it has some nice nuance–that it doesn’t present the issue as black and white, right or wrong.


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