Cast & Crew
Nearly ten years after graduating from St. Charles Catholic School for Boys, Paul Reis returns to the school as the new physical education teacher. After meeting with headmaster Father Frank Mozian, Paul is welcomed in the faculty lounge by his former English teacher, Joseph Dobbs. When Father Bill Griffin observes with concern that thirty-five students are on detention, Father George Penny cynically calls the boys "little killers." Dobbs dismisses Father Griffin's apprehension, reminding them that the students are always restless before winter holidays. When Latin teacher Jerome Malley comes into the lounge, Dobbs asks him to reconsider reporting student Jennings for a prank phone call to Malley's home. Malley refuses, asserting that he will bring the issue up with Father Mozian. Later, Paul accompanies Dobbs to his classroom and they reminisce about Paul's days as a student. After Paul admits the stern Malley still frightens him, Dobbs confides that he looks forward to assuming responsibility for the senior class once Malley retires. The men visit the gym but upon hearing a noise from the locker room, Paul goes to investigate and is horrified to find several students forcibly slamming the arm of another boy, Travis, in a locker door. After the students flee, Paul questions the injured Travis about the incident, but the boy refuses to comment. When Paul returns to the lounge and mentions the disturbing assault, Father Penny relates that students have seriously injured six boys at the school and wonders what is causing the malevolence among them. That evening, Malley, who lives with his elderly, infirm mother, is angered when Dobbs telephones him to discuss Jennings. The next day in Malley's class, only Fred Banks successfully translates the assigned text correctly. Later in gym class, Paul asks Banks to supervise the class momentarily while he returns to the lounge for his stopwatch. Paul finds Malley and Dobbs quarrelling, with Malley accusing Dobbs of going to extremes to win the students' affections. When the men hear muffled cheering from the gym, Paul hastens back to find several boys striking a prostrate Banks. After his cries to stop the attack fail, Paul strikes two students to reach the strangely submissive Banks, whose eye is shockingly bloodied. At a staff meeting later, Paul relates the incidents surrounding the assault, ending with his stunned conclusion that Banks seemed to want to be hurt. Uncertain how to respond, Father Mozian declares that the school cannot suspend all eleven of the boys who attacked Banks. Afterward, Father Mozian meets privately with Malley to request that he drop his accusation against Jennings in light of the far more serious Banks incident. When Malley refuses, insisting that despite his rigid expectations he cares about the students, Father Mozian points out that the students despise him, reflected by the crude graffiti about Malley scrawled in the boys' lavatory. Mozian then gives Malley an ugly note being passed among the students and is startled when Malley accuses Dobbs of writing it. Later, Paul and Dobbs visit Banks in the infirmary, where the injured boy refuses to discuss the assault but hints there is some pact among the boys. In the chapel that afternoon, Malley finds Dobbs, who expresses his concern that Malley's inflexible manner has alienated the students. Malley criticizes Dobbs for taking all his complaints to Father Mozian and acknowledges his awareness of Dobbs's hatred for him, but implores Dobbs to stop tormenting his ailing mother with phone calls to their home. After the men depart the chapel from opposite ends of the church, several boys gather in the gloom and move the altar's life-size Christ statue. Later, when Father Griffin arrives to set up mass, he is mortified to find a dazed student, stripped and bound, hanging over the altar. After the incident, Dobbs learns that Father Mozian has instituted a cessation of all mass services and ordered the students to leave the building directly after classes. Soon after, Malley's mother's condition worsens and upon the advice of the live-in nurse, Malley has her hospitalized. Father Griffin contacts Malley to inform him that he may take time off, but Malley refuses and instead of going to the hospital, returns to St. Charles. Malley finds only Paul in the lounge and angrily begins searching Dobbs's desk. When Paul expresses concern over Malley's agitation, Malley accuses him of joining in Dobbs's plan to harass him and force his retirement. Sensing Paul's sincere confusion, however, Malley reveals he is searching for a magazine that he claims Dobbs sent him. Not finding the magazine, Malley sits at his desk and reflects that he knows he was unpopular with even Paul's class, but believes his blunt honesty is best for students. Soon after, when the hospital telephones to report Mrs. Malley has died, Malley laments that Dobbs's actions have kept him from his mother's side. Late in the afternoon, while alone in the lounge, Paul discovers a framed picture of Jesus with the eyes gouged out lying on the floor outside the door. When Dobbs arrives, Paul express his fears that the students are prowling about, then mentions Malley's accusations and distress. Angered, Dobbs complains that he has endured years of Malley's warped allegations and knows Malley believes that Dobbs hounded Mrs. Malley to her death. Insisting that the students despise Malley's bitter destructiveness and want him to leave the school, Dobbs declares he will always support "his" boys. The day after Mrs. Malley's funeral, Malley returns to the school, although his classes have been reassigned to a substitute. At a staff meeting, Father Mozian reads a letter from the Archdiocese stating that the next incident at the school will result in its closure for the term. Father Mozian then meets with Malley, but when the teacher refuses to take a leave-of-absence, the priest shows him a lewd magazine and asks him if it belongs to him. Malley admits he received it in the mail at home, but never brought it to school and insists that Dobbs sent him the magazine. Malley refuses to sign resignation papers and attempts to return to his classroom, but Paul intercepts him. As Paul guides him away from the classroom, Malley relates Father Mozian's attempt to force him to resign, prompting Paul to visit the headmaster to plead for the Latin teacher. When Father Mozian admits that Dobbs gave him the magazine, Paul realizes Malley has been telling the truth about Dobbs's machinations. In the faculty lounge Paul finds a silent Malley and Dobbs. Confronted by Paul's accusation, Dobbs admits he gave Father Mozian the magazine to protect the students. Malley lashes out at Dobbs for poisoning the school against him and rushes from the room to the top of the building, where he throws himself to his death as students watch implacably. Later, as St. Charles prepares to close down, Paul finds a grade book and then goes to Dobbs's office, where he overhears the professor accepting a new job at another boys' school. Paul confronts Dobbs with the fact that all the students who had high grades in Malley's class were the ones attacked and injured. Dobbs insists the students love him and takes Paul to a classroom full of students. Paul tells the boys not to trust Dobbs and reveals that he has already taken a job elsewhere, but several boys recite a Latin quote about trust, then as Dobbs departs, attack Paul. Later in the chapel, Dobbs sits quietly, only to be surrounded by a group of threatening students.
Julius Lo Iacono
Mark Hall Haefeli
Robert D. Randall
Child's Play - Robert Preston & James Mason in Sidney Lumet's CHILD'S PLAY
Merrick then recruited the celebrated director Sidney Lumet to work with a trio of stellar actors with very different performing styles: James Mason, Marlon Brando and Beau Bridges. After (reportedly) discovering that James Mason's character was the plum part, Brando suddenly backed out. Stage great Robert Preston of The Music Man was hired to take his place. Paramount gave the show an Oscar push by opening it in December, but the dark and moody film was promptly forgotten in the holiday rush.
Child's Play is a somewhat murky mystery with satanic overtones. Think of the academic rivalry of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie crossed with the purported Loudon possessions played in subdued key. Gym teacher Paul Reis (Beau Bridges) returns to teach at the same boys' school that he attended ten years before. Welcoming him back is the exceedingly popular English teacher Joseph Dobbs (Robert Preston), who is quick to demonstrate his hold over his pupils. But Dobbs' colleague Jerome Malley (James Mason), an instructor in Latin and Greek, is thoroughly despised by every boy in the school. Malley berates and harasses his students under the seemingly paranoid delusion that they're conspiring against him -- he receives mysterious threatening phone calls at home, where he's trying to care for his beloved dying mother. Malley insists that the rival Dobbs is orchestrating the persecutions to force Malley's retirement, and take over Malley's coveted position as senior class leader.
Paul would like to stay clear of this bitter rivalry but cannot because of another factor. Various unexplainable acts of violence are occurring after hours in the dorms and the chapel. A student that might inform to one of the priests becomes the next victim. The disturbing brutality has a cultish aspect: the victims are complicit in the cover-up, even one boy whose eye is gouged out.
Malley's accusations become so erratic that the priests think he is making up the personal persecutions to get back at Dobbs. Paul begins in Dobbs' camp but is swayed by the passion and anguish of Malley's protests. When news comes that Malley is receiving pornographic magazines in the mail, the schoolmaster resolves to force him into retirement. That brings the violent incidents to a head, threatening the existence of the school itself.
Accomplished actors James Mason and Robert Preston give their characters compelling depth. Preston's Dobbs is the masculine Jean Brodie figure, a teacher with an unhealthy influence on his young students. Could they be carrying out the persecution of Malley under Dobbs' guidance? James Mason's Malley reminds us a bit of John Mills' Col. Barrow in Tunes of Glory, a good man under intolerable pressure. Malley has become such an emotional wreck that his effectiveness as a teacher is sorely compromised. He very well could be faking the personal attacks to lay the blame on Dobbs. The capable young actor Beau Bridges must convey a range of reactions as the tyro teacher. Unsure of his new colleagues, Paul finds himself in a teacher's nightmare, trying to keep order among a group of prep school boys that behave like half-hypnotized Manson followers.
Despite its top-notch acting and tense storyline the show has real problems, some of which must be assigned to choices made by director Sidney Lumet. The academic rivalry aspect is brilliantly handled, but not the actual mystery with its nagging hints of supernatural intervention. We see these students acting as an organized gang, choosing one of their own to torment or maim like something out of Lord of the Flies. Although a pattern in the crimes becomes apparent to all, individual inquiries yield no answers and nothing is done. Since the police are never called in we have to assume that the Catholic schoolmasters fear a scandal that might reflect badly on the institution -- an angle that connects with real-life scandals about long-term child abuse involving Catholic priests. But Child's Play doesn't explain why the wealthy parents of a boy whose eye has been gouged out would take the matter so lightly. Considering the eventual body count there is no way that this chain of events could end in anything but a detailed police investigation.
Lumet's visual choices suggest a gothic atmosphere, making the students' macabre crimes seem a prelude to supernatural horrors that never arrive. Unsubtle Halloween-like lighting marks the Joseph Dobbs character as a potential villain and possible puppet master of his pupils. Several incidents in the film foretell events in William Friedkin's The Exorcist. The priests carry on practical discussions of how to handle the creepy violence. Overstated, jarring music by Michael Small is overlaid at odd moments. In the most pointed parallel priests enter the chapel for morning prayers to discover that the altar has been vandalized. A bloodied student student victim is tied where a statue of Jesus should be.
After all the moody buildup Child's Play concludes as a vaguely unsatisfying mystery. Perhaps this gap was less strongly felt on Broadway, what with the stylization offered by the stage. Although the film sorts out the fates of the characters well enough, the blasphemous-supernatural content remains an unsatisfying question mark. We are ultimately forced to guess what it all might mean.
Olive Films' Blu-ray (and separate DVD release) of the 1971 Child's Play is an excellent encoding of this former rarity. Cinematographer Gerald Hirschfeld's dark images are finally viewable in a clear presentation, uncut and at the correct aspect ratio, allowing us to stop worrying that we've missed something. The transfer element has its share of white specks during the titles but is basically in fine shape.
Around the same time Sidney Lumet directed the equally obscure Sean Connery police brutality film The Offence. He soon returned to higher profile features starting with the mainstream hit Serpico. Oddly enough, an equally neglected Paramount release from 1971 is Unman, Wittering and Zigo, a mystery about a new teacher (David Hemmings) in a private school who discovers that his predecessor may have been murdered by a conspiracy of schoolboys.
For more information about Child's Play, visit Olive Films. To order Child's Play, go to TCM Shopping.
by Glenn Erickson
Child's Play - Robert Preston & James Mason in Sidney Lumet's CHILD'S PLAY
The film used students from Archbishop Stepinac High School in White Plains N.Y. as extras
A September 1970 Hollywood Reporter article disclosed that Broadway producer David Merrick had signed with Paramount to produce a film version of his theatrical production of Child's Play, then running at the Royale Theatre in New York City. An undated news item indicated that Merrick, who had never produced a film prior to Child's Play, was considering Orson Welles to direct the film version of the play. An October 1971 Daily Variety item states that Marlon Brando was originally cast as "Joseph Dobbs," but was replaced by Robert Preston. Filmfacts states that Brando was fired after three days of rehearsals because he requested script changes and insisted that his friend Wally Cox be cast as "Father George Penny." Penny was played by David Rounds, the only original Broadway cast member to appear in the film.
The film was shot on location at Marymount Secondary School in Tarrytown-on-the-Hudson, NY. October 1971 news items indicated there was concern the film would have to be relocated either to Boston or Hollywood due to union difficulties, but the film was shot in New York as originally planned.
Released in United States Winter January 1, 1972
Released in United States Winter January 1, 1972