Friday, September 25, 2009

The Chalk Garden: A Tale About Secrets and the Passing of Judgment

Hayley Mills and Deborah Kerr in The Chalk Garden (1964).
The Chalk Garden and Whistle Down the Wind probably rank as two of Hayley Mills' lesser-known films, especially to American audiences who associate her with Disney fare. Yet, Mills' loyal fans consider these films, along with the immensely popular Pollyanna, to be the best showcases for her underrated dramatic talents. On its own merits, The Chalk Garden is a haunting tale about secrets and the passing of judgment on people, often without charity.

John Mills and Deborah Kerr.
Arthur Ibbetson's photography sweeps the audience past water and cliffs into Belle Fountain. It is a lovely but cold mansion that rarely reverberates with warm laughter. The residents of this house include a dowager, Mrs. St. Maugham (Dame Edith Evans), her out-of-control teenage granddaughter Laurel (Mills), and their manservant Maitland (John Mills).

Hayley Mills as Laurel.
Enter Deborah Kerr as Madrigal, who is hired as governess without a reference because she knows something about gardening. Mrs. St. Maugham makes it clear that “Laurel is mine” because her daughter, Olivia, threw away breeding for a passing infatuation. She poisons Laurel's mind against her own mother, causing Madrigal to note that “flowers need nourishment ... your soil can't give them what it doesn't have.” To which the grandmother replies: “Then you give them what they need. You're in charge of my garden.” Madrigal answers: “Am I? I wasn't sure. I'll do my help you with your garden and the child. Their problems are similar.”

Laurel spying on her new governess.
Madrigal herself is “wonderfully odd.” She is quiet and very observational. Laurel realizes that Madrigal is a mystery woman who paces her room at night “like a caged animal,” has only new possessions, doesn't have a picture of a loved one in her room, and receives no letters or phone calls. Laurel discusses these concerns with her grandmother and Maitland as she begins her work to rid herself of another in a long line of caregivers. But even Laurel isn’t prepared for what she learns about Madrigal.

Ronald Neame's tight direction keeps this intriguing story moving quickly as viewer focus shifts from Laurel to Madrigal. He hides the stage play origins extremely well until the climactic confrontations, where the close quarters actually increase the intensity of the revelations.

Dame Edith Evans.
Although Mills accounts for The Chalk Garden's following, her fellow performers steal their share of the spotlight, especially Dame Edith Evans and Deborah Kerr. Evans earned a Best Supporting Actress nomination as Laurel's grandmother. Interestingly, Kerr played a questionably disturbed governess three years earlier in The Innocents, a film version of Henry James' haunting novel The Turn of the Screw. In The Chalk Garden, her charge is a young girl unafraid of possession from ghosts, but with a disturbing need to lie and a fear of expressing honest emotions.

It's an ideal role for Mills, allowing her to combine brattiness with vulnerability and unrepressed anger with youthful innocence. The allure for Mills' fans is obvious, since it provides a welcome change-of-pace from the standard Disney heroine roles (e.g., In Search of the Castaways, The Moonspinners) that stifled her adult career.


  1. Toto, beautifully written article! I always loved Hayley Mills because we were about the same age when I was a teen. The Chalk Garden was a favorite film with the wonderful performances you describe. I would love to see it again now that you have reminded me how good it was.

  2. Toto2, I love this movie and show it frequently to family and friends! My favorite scenes: the "game" that Madrigal and Laurel play on the bus; the scene where Madrigal and Judge "Puppy" watch each other, one filled with fear and the other with curiosity.

  3. I've always like Hayley Mills movies. "Pollyanna" was a sweet film, and "The Parent Trap" was wonderful. The Chalk Garden and Whistle Down the Wind, also sound good. i will add them to my list of must see films. Thank you

  4. Thank you so much for a terrific blog! I, too, have seen THE CHALK GARDEN. My movie-loving aunt and uncle showed me more than a few Deborah Kerr films, sparking a Deborah marathon and making me a fan of the wonderful redheaded actress. THE CHALK GARDEN is great. You mentioned THE INNOCENTS, and I think those two films would be a splendid Deborah Kerr double feature. Two very different performances but equally strong. Looking forward to future toto2 blogs!

  5. I saw the play on stage in London last year. It was good but not as good as the film you described. I love the film.

  6. hey toto,
    where can i find this film? you are the second person i know to recommend this one. tcm doesn't have it in their archives do they? any suggestions where i might want to look? veejay

  7. veejay, I wouldn't be surprised if it showed up on TCM eventually. It's unavailable on DVD and the 1992 VHS release is out of date. However, you can purchase a used VHS copy through Amazon for $20. It might be cheaper on eBay.

  8. veejay, don't forget to check with your local library as well. Sometimes they will have an unusual selection of videos available, though certain movies may only be available on VHS, even if they have been released to DVD. A lot of times when folks upgrade their collections to DVD they get rid of their VHS holdings and the library may be the place they are donated.