Cast & Crew
Madrigal, an Englishwoman recently released from prison after serving time for murder, arrives at the home of Mrs. St. Maugham to apply for the position of governess and companion to the elderly woman's 16-year-old granddaughter, Laurel. She is hired, despite her lack of references, primarily for her knowledge of gardening because Mrs. St. Maugham has difficulty raising anything in the chalky earth of her garden. Madrigal keeps her past a secret, but Laurel, who lives in a partial fantasy world (she hates her mother whom she believes abandoned her when she divorced and remarried) tries to uncover the secrets of her new governess. Maitland, the butler, becomes attracted to Madrigal and tells her that Laurel's wild tales are untrue. When the judge who convicted Madrigal comes to lunch, he does not recognize her, but they get into a heated discussion about the case. Laurel suspects that Madrigal is the murderess in question but makes a pact with Maitland never to reveal her suspicion. Madrigal realizes that Laurel is much the same as she was at 16 and fears that Laurel might make the same mistakes if she is not told the truth about her mother. She tells Mrs. St. Maugham that Laurel's mother should be allowed to have her, and Laurel, overhearing them, realizes that she was never abandoned. When her mother arrives, Laurel is ready to go with her, and Madrigal remains at the house as companion to Mrs. St. Maugham.
John Michael Hayes
A. W. Watkins
Best Supporting Actress
The Chalk Garden -
Laurel meets her match in a newly hired governess, Miss Madrigal (Deborah Kerr), an enigmatic soul with a mysterious past. Laurel and the household's self-effacing valet Maitland (John Mills, Hayley's real-life father) share a love of mystery and together collect "The Great True British Crime Series." The girl, who has rid herself of a series of caretakers, begins to assemble clues about her governess, noting that she has only new possessions and no communication with the outside world, and paces her room at night "like a caged animal." After the arrival of a visiting judge (Felix Aylmer) who carries an important link to Madrigal's past, Laurel realizes she may have been too ruthless in probing the mystery.
The symbolic title refers not only to the garden - which will be barren unless, as Madrigal suggests, potash and other essential nutrients are added to the chalky soil - but to Laurel herself, whose emotional growth has been thwarted by the absence of a mother's love and attention. Once she is hired, Madrigal tells Mrs. St. Maugham that "I'll do my best to help you with your garden, and the child. Their problems are similar."
Bagnold's play was originally produced on Broadway at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre in 1955, with Irene M. Selznick as producer and Cecil Beaton as designer of sets and costumes. Siobhán McKenna played Madrigal, with Betsy von Furstenberg as Laurel and Gladys Cooper in the juicy role of Mrs. St. Maugham. Also in the cast were Fritz Weaver as Maitland and Marian Seldes as Olivia. The production received several Tony Award nominations including those for Best Play, Director (Albert Marre), Actress (both McKenna and Cooper) and Featured Actor (Weaver). A production of The Chalk Garden in London's West End opened in 1956, with direction by John Gielgud and a cast that included Peggy Ashcroft as Madrigal, Edith Evans as Mrs. St. Maugham, Judith Stott as Lauren and Rachel Gurney as Olivia.
The play has earned high critical praise in its various productions over the years, with the renowned British critic Kenneth Tynan writing in1956 that it "may well be the finest artificial comedy to have flowed from an English pen since the death of Congreve." On the occasion of a 1982 revival Frank Rich commented in The New York Times that he found the play "extraordinarily modern for a high comedy set in the drawing room of a stuffy Sussex manor house: its plot and structure are elliptical, its witty lines aren't brittle but are instead redolent with what the author calls 'the shape and shadow of life.' "
One could imagine The Chalk Garden having been produced in England as an austere black-and-white film with emphasis on its high-comedy elements and astringent character studies. Instead, Universal Pictures bought the rights to the play and assigned it to producer Ross Hunter, famous for such opulent and colorful movies as Magnificent Obsession (1954), Pillow Talk (1959) and Imitation of Life (1959). Hunter's first idea was to switch the locale from "dreary" English locations to scenic Carmel, Calif. He planned to cast American actresses Joanne Woodward and Sandra Dee as Miss Madrigal and Laurel. This idea was stymied when Woodward became pregnant and unavailable. (For a time, Ingrid Bergman also was mentioned for the role of Madrigal.)
Hunter eventually reconsidered and honored the play's English setting, also choosing a British director and cast. Among filming locations were several areas in East Sussex including Alfriston, Brighton and Eastbourne, with interiors to be shot at the MGM British Studios in Borehamwood, Hertfordshire. Englishman Ronald Neame, who had worked as a producer/writer for David Lean and would later direct The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1969), was chosen to direct The Chalk Garden.
Deborah Kerr, who had famously played governesses in The King and I (1956) and The Innocents (1961), now seems the obvious choice for Madrigal, the kind of multi-layered, fire-and-ice character that was a Kerr specialty. Hayley Mills, nearing the end of her tenure as a wholesome adolescent Disney star, enjoyed a change of pace as the stubborn and confrontational Laurel. Hunter had wanted Gladys Cooper to repeat her role as Mrs. St. Maugham from the original Broadway production, but Edith Evans from the London production had her eye on the part. She reportedly persuaded director Neame take her to meet producer Hunter at Claridge's Hotel in London, and convinced him that she was the better choice. Cooper reportedly was "bitterly disgruntled" over losing the film role.
The play was adapted for the screen by John Michael Hayes, famous for writing such Alfred Hitchcock films as Rear Window (1954), To Catch a Thief (1955) and The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956). In typical Hunter fashion, the movie is given glamorous production values, with colorful art direction by Carmen Dillon (an Oscar-winner for her designs on the 1948 Hamlet) and chic costumes by Julie Harris (the designer, not the actress). The emphatic musical score is by Malcolm Arnold (1959's Suddenly, Last Summer), the glossy cinematography by Arthur Ibbetson (1969's Anne of a Thousand Days).
The home in the film is a real one, the 18th-century Clapman House in the Sussex village of Litlington, near Easbourne (an area known for its chalky white cliffs, which are shown to picturesque advantage in the film). Maria Fitzherbert, mistress of George IV, had once lived at Clapham House. The setting of the play had been inspired by Bagnold's own garden at North End House in Rottingdean, near Brighton. Neame had wanted the studio-shot interiors to be dusty and slightly shabby, but Hunter insisted that they be pristine and well-appointed, with large bouquets of fresh flowers in every room.
The film's director was critical of some aspects of the production, with Neame later complaining of Arnold's "crashing music" in the key scenes, and a performance by Mills that he considered "too kittenish; she should have been far more dangerous." At a 2010 screening of the film, costumer Harris remarked that the clothes she was asked to design for Deborah Kerr looked very expensively tailored for someone living on the meager salary of a governess. Kerr herself liked the film, saying that it had "a great deal of depth, a lot of scope."
Neame praised Kerr's performance, describing it as "meticulous." As quoted by Kerr biographer Michelangelo Capua, Neame noted that her "demeanor towards Edith was one of patience and understanding. She stepped back, making Edith feel like a star, even though Deborah was the more important film celebrity. I was terribly grateful to her for that gesture. It would have been impossible if my two leading ladies had competed for centerstage." Evans, noted for her peppery personality, offended Bagnold when the playwright inquired whether she might visit the set to watch a day's filming. According to Bagnold, "She had the nerve to ring me up and say, 'Yes, dear, if you keep quiet in your corner!' "
The Chalk Garden had its London premiere on April 2, 1964, before opening at New York City's Radio City Music Hall on May 21 of that year. The London reviews were unenthusiastic, drawing negative comparisons to the play. American critics noted the film's glamorization of the story, with Bosley Crowther writing in The New York Times that "The literary luxuriance of it, the succulence of its wit, the tangle of its arrangement and the overgrowth of its characters have all been trimmed and weeded" to produce a "bright, sweet and aromatic picture."
Others were more complimentary. David Zeitlin, writing in Life magazine, considered the film to be "one of the deftest transplants from stage to screen," adding that although "The Chalk Garden was no place for people or flowers, it turns out to be a paradise for actors." Box-office results were disappointing, with the film earning just over $3 million in the U.S. and Canada.
Evans was Oscar-nominated as Best Supporting Actress for her role, losing to Lila Kedrova in Zorba, the Greek. The Chalk Garden was nominated for a Golden Globe as Best Motion Picture Drama, and nominations for England's BAFTA Awards went to Kerr (Best British Actress), Evans (Supporting Actress), Ibbetson (Cinematography) and Dillon (Production Design).
Today, on its own Americanized, melodramatic and overdressed terms, The Chalk Garden remains a highly enjoyable film, with splendid performances and flashes of real feeling. Kerr acquits herself beautifully in one of those roles she was born to play, and Hayley Mills (though she might have gone further) does extend her range from what she called the "frilly-knickers" roles she had been playing for Disney. The scene-stealing Evans, in her best Lady Bracknell mode, brings genuine wit and style to her role, while John Mills is, as always, impeccably professional.
The history of The Chalk Garden as a play has continued, with Edith Evans recreating her role in a BBC radio adaptation in 1968, and Gladys Cooper reclaiming her coveted part in a revival in London's West End in 1971. The play was produced off-Broadway in 1982 with Irene Worth as Mrs. St. Maugham, and again in London in 2008, followed by another BBC radio version. Earlier this year it was announced that Angela Lansbury will star as Mrs. St. Maugham in a Broadway revival planned for the 2017-2018 season.
By Roger Fristoe
The Chalk Garden -
Ding dong, DING DONG!- Laurel
Thanks for the compliment. Don't expect one in return!- Laurel
I happen to like climbing in trees!- Laurel
Arson, at sea.- Laurel
Hush! Judge, we don't speak of her here.- Laurel
My dear child, is she living?- Judge
In sin, Judge, in sin.- Laurel
Opened in London in April 1964.
1964 Academy Award Nomination for Best Supporting Actress (Evans).
Voted Best Supporting Actress (Evans) and One of the Year's Ten Best Films by the 1964 National Board of Review.
Released in England April 1964
Released in United States June 13, 1964
Released in United States May 21, 1964
Released in United States Spring May 21, 1964
Released in United States May 21, 1964
Released in United States Spring May 21, 1964
Released in United States June 13, 1964 (New York City)