The Chalk Garden (1964) is a film adaptation of a stage play by the British author Enid Bagnold, probably best known for her book National Velvet. The play was first performed on Broadway in 1955, and three years later in London’s West End. Directed by Ronald Neame, the film stars John Mills, Deborah Kerr and Edith Evans (who was nominated for an Oscar as Best Supporting Actress), alongside Hayley Mills. It was produced by Ross Hunter, who (among many other films) is especially well known for his work on a series of 1950s melodramas directed by Douglas Sirk: Magnificent Obsession, All that Heaven Allows and Imitation of Life.
The plot of The Chalk Garden is somewhat convoluted, to say the least. Mills’s character Laurel is a troubled and deceitful sixteen-year-old who appears to have been abandoned by her mother when she remarried, and sent to live with her domineering grandmother in a large country house. Her grandmother engages a new governess, Miss Madrigal, who has few qualifications for the job, and appears to have dark secrets of her own. Laurel spies on Miss Madrigal, in the hope of finding out information that will force her to quit her job: she eventually discovers that she had been tried and imprisoned for murdering her step-sister many years previously. Meanwhile, the grandmother is resisting the mother’s attempts to take Laurel back, accusing her of being an ‘unfit mother’. Miss Madrigal, who recognizes something of herself in Laurel’s troubled feelings, realizes that reuniting with her mother would be the best outcome for her emotional health; and this is what she eventually achieves.
The Chalk Garden might be described as a psychological mystery, although it has strong elements of melodrama. Ross Hunter’s influence is especially apparent in the insistent use of music, the somewhat lurid Technicolor, and the occasionally expressionistic camerawork. At the same time, the film betrays its origins as a stage play. There is a kind of literary pomposity about the dialogue, much of it delivered with cut-glass English elocution. The film is also infused with some tiresome symbolism, whose significance is repeatedly explained lest we miss the point. For example, the barren chalk garden of the title represents the grandmother’s emotional sterility, and she engages Miss Madrigal largely because she promises to cultivate it. Like Laurel, the garden is lacking in the food (that is, the emotional nourishment and love) that will help it to grow. There is also an element of overt psychobabble that provides an additional level of explanation, as when Laurel announces early in the film that her problems are ‘Freudian’. The captions in the film’s trailer neatly summarise the motivations of the two main female characters: ‘a girl who defied life yet longed for love… a woman who longed for love yet fled from life… both running from affection – yet starved for love’. It is Miss Madrigal who finally teaches Laurel to love – and at the very end, it seems as though she might be able to teach her grandmother as well. The film’s psychological lessons could hardly be clearer. In all these respects, The Chalk Garden appears quite old-fashioned: stylistically and in terms of its content and themes, it seems to belong to the mid-1950s rather than the decade in which it was made.
Mills’s character, Laurel, is described in the trailer as ‘sixteen and outrageous’, and by other characters in the film itself as ‘troubling’ and ‘frightening’. Apparently alienated by her mother’s remarriage, she has developed a destructive streak, and enjoys setting fires while screaming rather unconvincingly. She tells elaborate lies, affects a kind of nihilistic despair, and is insolent and sarcastic – although her acid tongue is more than matched by the highly polished repartee of the adults around her. Laurel is troubled by sex, and frequently makes flaunting references to it: she describes her mother as ‘a Jezebel, overloaded with sex’, and says that Miss Madrigal has led ‘a sex life of fire and brimstone’ – although she later suggests to Miss Madrigal that her duties should include sex education, arguing that she will have to learn about it eventually. Even so, the full causes of her condition are never made clear – for example, it is not certain whether she was raped or sexually assaulted at some point – and she seems to be caught up in a semi-fictional world of accusations and fantasies.
Nevertheless, Laurel looks somewhat younger than the sixteen-year-old she is supposed to be: Mills’s bland, fresh face, wide eyes and neat blonde hair make her look somewhat too angelic for the part. At the same time, the adults consistently refer to her as a ‘child’, which in many respects she clearly is not. As a character, Laurel displays some of the characteristics of Jim Stark, James Dean’s character from Rebel Without a Cause, made ten years earlier, although Mills’s performance has little of the emotional anguish of Dean. For much of the time, Laurel/Mills appears to be playing the role of the ‘troubled adolescent’, almost as though it were a self-conscious affectation, or a form of attention-seeking; and while it may be that this is how she is supposed to appear, for much of the time she seems lacking in conviction, and distinctly less than ‘frightening’.
That Darn Cat! (1965), Mills’s final Disney production, is a very different kind of film, yet some of the same problems and limitations are apparent here too. Directed by Robert Stevenson, and based on the novel Undercover Cat, it is essentially a light comedy thriller. In terms of box office, the film narrowly overtook The Parent Trap to become Mills’s most successful Disney movie: it was remade in 1997.
Mills plays a suburban teenager, Patti Randall, who lives with her older sister Ingrid and their cat ‘DC’ (their parents are conveniently absent, travelling abroad). Through a series of coincidences, Patti comes to believe that DC knows the whereabouts of two hoodlums who have kidnapped a bank-teller in a robbery. She approaches an FBI agent, Zeke Kelso, who sets up base in the house, and they proceed to track the cat’s movements at night through a series of comical chase sequences. Needless to say, the criminals are eventually apprehended; and in the final scenes, various romantic sub-plots (between Ingrid and Zeke, between Patti and her surfing-obsessed boyfriend Canoe, and even one involving DC himself) are safely resolved.
Like The Parent Trap, the film contains a good deal of farcical comedy and slapstick, especially as the FBI agents attempt to follow the cat. It would seem that Disney’s own right-wing politics, and his granting of script approval to J. Edgar Hoover, did not preclude a degree of harmless, light-hearted satire here. Meanwhile, Mills’s role as a child investigator comes straight out of the Nancy Drew Mystery Stories, a children’s book series that was enjoying a revival at the time.
As in The Chalk Garden, there is a good deal in the film that seems to come from the mid-1950s rather than the mid-1960s. The swinging title song by Bobby Darin; the kidnapping hoodlums, who talk in the lingo of 1930s gangster movies; the clean-cut FBI agent; the drive-in movie theatre, and the surfing movies Canoe takes Patti to see – all show very few signs of the cultural changes of the 1960s that were well under way at the time. The setting is also very safely suburban, white and middle-class. DC takes off to the city on his nightly perambulations, but it is hardly a dangerous ghetto: indeed, it is hard to see it as anything other than the cardboard back-lot at Burbank Studios where it was filmed.
There are several intimations of romance in the film, although sex barely rears its head. The girls are spied upon by their prurient neighbour Mrs. MacDougall, although she has little to fear. Canoe comes and goes from the Randalls’ house – he enjoys ‘kitchen privileges’ – but his relationship with Patti seems entirely chaste and domestic: despite his boyish interest in surfing, he actually smokes a pipe, like a middle-aged suburban father. Meanwhile, Patti adjusts her clothing a little in order to gain the attention of Agent Kelso when she first meets him, but his romantic interests eventually focus on her older sister. The only notable sign of actual sex is in the closing shots, where we see that DC has fathered a set of kittens with a long-haired cat he had been courting earlier in the film.
According to Ron DePeter, there is a level of mild sexual innuendo and flirtation in the original novel, which is largely missing from the film. Nevertheless, DePeter tries hard to find such elements in the Disney version. He writes about Mills’s ‘simmering, paradoxical sensuality’ and her ‘burgeoning womanhood’, describing her as ‘dazzlingly sexy’. He argues that the film contains ‘echoes of sexual liberation’ and ‘hints of feminism’, and that Patti is ‘freer and more sexually progressive’ than the role of Lolita, for which (as I have noted) Mills was once considered. It may be that I like my coffee a little stronger, but frankly I find this quite unconvincing – and perhaps a little reminiscent of Graham Greene. Far from being a ‘quasi-feminist depiction of autonomous, independent, and sexually liberated women’, the Randall sisters seem entirely tame and conventional. Both are effectively partnered up by the end of the film, in a wholly chaste and unthreatening way. At the age of nineteen, Hayley Mills resembles nobody so much as Doris Day, the middle-aged, pastel-clad icon of 1950s domestic femininity.
At least in these two films, it seems that – like many child stars – Mills was struggling to make the transition to more adult roles. As she later acknowledged, in discussing The Chalk Garden: ‘that was a difficult time for me… I was moving out of childhood and developing into another kind of actress, because I was developing into a woman. It was new territory and I wasn’t sure of myself.’ If she appears uncomfortable and implausible as a troubled adolescent, her role in That Darn Cat! seems bland and lacking in individuality. Sexuality might serve as one obvious marker of a transition to adulthood; yet while sex is certainly referred to in The Chalk Garden – albeit primarily as a means for Laurel to outrage the adults – in That Darn Cat! it seems to be largely repressed.
At the same time, both films also seem to reflect difficulties in making the transition from the 1950s to the 1960s. While The Chalk Garden might be seen to make implicit reference to the ‘youth revolution’ of the 1960s, Laurel is mostly confined to the claustrophobic atmosphere of the house and family. There are no other young people in the film, and no evidence of anything remotely approaching ‘youth culture’. Likewise, the young people of That Darn Cat! – like much else in the film – seem to have walked straight out of the 1950s: they are bland, suburban, and entirely wholesome. In different ways, the style of these films also seems to look backwards – to 1950s melodrama, and to comedy capers of an earlier age. Ultimately, both seem distinctly old-fashioned for the time in which they were made.
Hayley Mills became a child star on the cusp of a period of great social and cultural change. By definition, a child star is a temporary phenomenon; and making the transition to adult roles is rarely straightforward. Like many others before and since, Mills clearly found the inevitable end of her career as a child star to be uncomfortable and difficult, both personally and professionally. This was compounded by the historical period in which it took place. Her films towards the end of this period seemed to be unable to take account of emerging changes in the social position of young people more broadly, and of young women in particular.
The contrast between Mills’s experiences in low-budget British films and in the Disney Studios must have made this transition more difficult than it might otherwise have been. Tiger Bay and Whistle Down the Wind offer very different representations of childhood from the Disney version – and very different opportunities for Mills as an actor. Of course, the production context of Disney Studios was (and still is) very different from that of independently produced British cinema, in all sorts of obvious ways. Yet in these two British films, there is an element of genuine spontaneity in her performances.
It was this spontaneity that Disney clearly noticed, and yet in taking it and using it, he transformed it into something merely cute. Mills later credited her time at Disney for giving her the opportunity to ‘learn her craft’; but in fact it was a particular kind of craft she was learning – and one that did not easily transfer to more mature, adult roles. In her Disney films, it is as though Mills is self-consciously acting the part of a child, and doing so in quite narrowly defined terms. When she could no longer do this, there was really nowhere for her to go. In this sense, Hayley Mills was ‘Disneyfied’, in a way that did not ultimately serve her very well.