Exploring the Special Bond Between Governess and Daughter with THE CHALK GARDEN & PICTURE MOMMY…

“An only child is never 12.”

The film world is littered with spoiled rich girls; pampered youth who come from wealthy families and spend their formative years honing the skills which will allow them to become the super-Karen’s of tomorrow. How many different movies can there can be featuring these over-privileged specimens who never want for anything expect perhaps more of what family money has already afforded them? Well, turns out there can be more than a few beyond just the ultimate prototype of Willy Wonka’s Veruca Salt. What many of these girls have in common is the fact that most of them enjoy virtually non-existent relationships with their mothers, instead being brought up and shaped by the governesses in their lives. It’s those women who try to exercise the most influence on these girls in an effort to turn them into women their parents would be proud of. Of course those special relationships have their own complications as well. Recently, Kino has brought a version of an acclaimed stage play as well as a campy thriller/melodrama which show how troubled a young girl’s relationship with her governess can be.

Picture Mommy Dead

In Picture Mommy Dead, teenager Susan (Susan Gordon) has just been released from an institution where she’s lived for three years following the death of her mother Jessica (Zsa Zsa Gabor), whom she is alleged to have killed. Waiting for Susan when she comes out is her loving father Edward (Don Ameche) and his new wife Francene (Martha Hyer), who just so happens to be Susan’s former governess. Shortly after returning home and discovering that everything in her mother’s will was left to Susan, the teenager begins to have strange dreams centered around a diamond necklace her mother used to wear, which Francene is convinced the child possesses and will stop at nothing to get.

Fans of 60s camp thrillers will surely lap up this sadly forgotten treat that’s ripe with more sudsy drama, secrets and suspense than anything the likes of Harold Robbins could have written. Everyone here is playing it over-the-top, mostly without realizing it. Strangely enough, the worst offender in that department isn’t Gabor (who actually shines here), but actually the great character actor Wendell Corey in his lone scene as the family attorney. There’s a captivating oddness to Picture Mommy Dead, especially in its setting. The movie was shot almost entirely in the legendary Greystone mansion in Los Angeles with walls painted the most pop camp of teal and pink, giving the whole movie a slightly deranged quality.

Although Ameche and Hyer are pros and Gordon is giving it her all in regards to the character’s haunted nature, the whole affair ends up as laughable as can be. It’s laughable enough, anyway, until the movie’s third act in which the darkness kept hidden by certain family members and other revelations come to light, revealing a twisted household with a dangerously delusional young woman at the center. Made on the cheap, with most of the budget certainly going to the costumes no doubt, Picture Mommy Dead at least has the decency to close on an ending with no other appropriate description besides: “Wow!”

The Chalk Garden

Based on the successful stage play, The Chalk Garden opens with Ms. Madrigal (Deborah Kerr), who turns up at the seaside home of Mrs. St. Maugham (Edith Evans), a wealthy socialite looking for a governess for her high-spirited granddaughter Laurel (Hayley Mills). It doesn’t take long after securing the position and establishing a small rapport with the only other member of staff, Maitland (John Mills), that the reserved Ms. Madrigal and the wild and wise-beyond-her-years Laurel begin an emotional battle in which both must face the past, the future and each other.

With four stellar central roles, The Chalk Garden was catnip for any name actor of the day; and the producing/directing team of Ross Hunter and Ronald Neame certainly got some of the best. There isn’t a bad performance in the film. Both Mills’ are superb (Hayley in particular gives her best performance here), Kerr is properly conflicted and an Oscar-nominated Evans enjoys one long speech after another, walking away with every scene she’s in. In fact, because The Chalk Garden originated on the stage, the film contains a handful of drawn-out, dialogue-based scenes, all of which are compelling in different ways.

Apart from being the kind of prestige English affair one would expect it to be, The Chalk Garden is also a somewhat bold character drama in the way it portrays its teenage character. Laurel is seen as a perpetual liar who is used to getting her own way. She’s smiling one minute, invasive the next and altogether outrageous in between. With one of her favorite hobbies being the starting of small bonfires and running around them screaming, it doesn’t take much to discover what’s in Laurel’s future. Ms. Madrigal recognizes this as she sees herself in the unruly girl. The power shift shown in the movie’s second half from Laurel’s antics to Ms. Madrigal facing the ghosts of her past is where The Chalk Garden gets deep and raw as feelings of caution, pity, vulnerability and understanding conspire to create a beautiful and well-made ending.

Both Picture Mommy Dead and The Chalk Garden have plenty in common while still remaining far apart. Both take place during the transitionary 1960s and both feature blonde starlets (each perhaps using their films as a way of changing their screen images). Even more interesting is the fact that Mills and Gordon both collaborated with her fathers on their respective films. Mills’ real-life father John plays Maitland while Gordon is directed by her father Bert in a rare departure for him (the filmmaker was already known as the king of the creature features by then). The psychology attached to the two films (in particular Picture Mommy Dead) is made all the more interesting by the fact that the actresses are illustrating the process of burgeoning womanhood on film in the presence of their fathers. In fact , what makes each film worthy of revisiting today is the way they show the transition from girl to young woman in its complex and shapeshifting forms. So few films (both then and now) take the time to explore the workings of the young female mind and put them on the screen and few have ever done it quite like these two.

Picture Mommy Dead and The Chalk Garden are now available on Blu-Ray and DVD from Kino Lorber.

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