God’s Away on Business – Child’s Play, 1972

Sidney Lumet was one of the industry’s great storytellers, successful with an array of genres and always able to take a script-heavy piece (play adaptations like 12 Angry Men, Equus and Deathtrap) and make it work cinematically.  He was so well-versed in so many different areas that seeing him do such a dark and ominous piece as Child’s Play, also adapted from a play, shouldn’t be surprising and yet it still was.  It was also surprising to see Robert Preston and James Mason, two actors you might not immediately consider perfectly matched, play off of each other so well.  Not only does this movie provide great dual lead performances that would fit into my recent post on just that subject, but it has several great showdowns as well.  And though both leads are terrific, James Mason is simply commanding in his role, a performance so powerful and deeply personal, I cannot believe he was not nominated for Best Actor.  But these things happen and what matters is the movie, a chilling tale of a Catholic boarding school gone wrong with two teachers battling it out and God nowhere to be found.

Mason Preston 01

Child’s Play was brought to the screen in 1972 and had originally scheduled Marlon Brando to play the Robert Preston role of teacher Joe Dobbs.  Brando purportedly dropped out when he realized Mason had the better role and Preston came in.  Brando was sued for breach of contract and after everything settled down, Brando walked away with Best Actor for The Godfather and Mason had nothing at all.  That’s a shame because Mason’s performance is one of the best of his entire career.  It really is quite something but more than that, the producers needn’t have worried about Brando leaving because Robert Preston seems so absolutely perfect as the beloved-by-all-his-students Joe Dobbs that, honestly, I can’t imagine Brando playing it.  It wouldn’t feel right with Brando.

The story begins with Joe Dobbs teaching English to students who clearly love him and his class.   One of them has gotten in trouble with Jerome Malley, Latin and Greek teacher played by James Mason.   He wrote some smutty things on a blackboard and Malley, as hard as they come, wants to put him on indefinite suspension.  Dobbs thinks that’s ridiculous and pleads with Malley to lighten up.  Malley informs Dobbs he’s not there to be beloved, he’s there to teach.  The plea for lenience goes nowhere and the student ends up getting suspended.

Meanwhile, Paul Reis (Beau Bridges), a former student, has now returned as the new gym teacher and is already noticing things seem a little off.  The boys are becoming increasingly violent towards each other, to the point the school is having to consider shutting down.  It’s that bad.  When Reis addresses this to Dobbs, whom he idolized as a student too, Dobbs tells him it’s just a phase and it will soon be worked out.   But Malley is telling Reis something completely different.  Malley is telling Reis that it’s Dobbs and that Dobbs is pure evil.  According to him, Dobbs is calling Malley’s sick mother and harrassing her.  Dobbs has turned the boys against Malley and against each other.  Dobbs is even sending pornography to Malley to cause him anxiety.  Unfortunately for Malley, Reis recognizes all the signs of a man under great stress, and pays him little mind.

Dobbs even tries to have a heart to heart talk with Malley in the school chapel, pleading with him to stop blaming him, Dobbs, for all his troubles.  Malley, at the edge of a nervous breakdown, says he will back off if Dobbs stops calling his mother.  Dobbs shakes his head and looks down in defeat.  No matter what he does, Malley won’t stop suspecting him.

Mason Preston 02

Things turn decidedly worse for all involved after this point and the accusations grow louder as the violence towards the students becomes more intense.   The movie itself is an odd mixture of boarding school drama, competitive character study and meditation on evil.  Is not the smoothest mixture there could be but it doesn’t fail.

When the movie was released, a lead review by Vincent Canby of the New York Times doomed it from the start.  Back in those days, there were a handful of top critics that had the power to sway the critical masses for or against a movie.  Canby was one of them.  However, reading his complaints now, his criticisms seem of the nitpicking variety more than the in-depth analysis kind.  He complains of musical cues that are too loud, sinister and telegraphing.  They’re no louder than any other cues from the period I can recall and definitely a lot less intense and telegraphing than we get now in this golden age of cheap jump scares.

Then he complains that, “everything in ‘Child’s Play’ seems to be rather cheaply tricky—such as the low-range photography and floor lighting designed to throw faces into eerie relief. In a more thoughtful film, the screen play and the performances might have been expected to create the sense of true menace and mystery.”

But the thing is, the screenplay and performances do create the sense of menace and mystery.  The lighting, as with any drama or horror movie, simply ornaments it.  And besides that, those low-angle shots and floor lighting don’t occur at anything close to constant intervals.  They are used sporadically, here and there, when appropriate.

I don’t often bring up an old review in my write up of a movie but when I watched Child’s Play for the first time this year and realized what a stunning performance James Mason gives, I got irritated that, perhaps, because of a lackluster reception, in no small part thanks to Vincent Canby, the movie and the performance had been shut out in 1972.   And no, I don’t think it’s a great movie but I do think it’s good and I wish Mr. Canby could have seen more in it than he did.  He calls out Mason’s performance as the best thing in the movie, and it is, but calling him “fine as the mad, exhausted Latin teacher” is really selling that performance short.  He’s not “fine,” he’s incredible.

And Robert Preston is excellent as well but has a little less demanded of him than Mason’s character, which is probably what Brando was seeing early on when he decided to drop out.  Still, to give the performance he gives, of a character that goes in many different directions and can come off as both charming and menacing, and not even be mentioned seems a bit lazy.

Mason Preston 03

In fact, every actor in the movie is good, from Beau Bridges as the gym teacher to David Founders as the cynical Father Penny, an actor who died too young at the age of 53.  But Preston and Mason stand out and of those two, Mason simply wows.

Child’s Play is one of Sidney Lumet’s least known films, not ranking as high in the public consciousness as 12 Angry Men, Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon or Network, but a worthy film nonetheless.  And it contains irrefutable proof that James Mason was a titan among actors and that Robert Preston was more than just beguiling charm.  It’s one of the great acting match-ups of the seventies.

________________________

And a special thanks to former Morlock Jeff Stafford for introducing me to Child’s Play in the first place, when he sent me the DVD.   Thanks again, Jeff.

19 Responses God’s Away on Business – Child’s Play, 1972
Posted By tdraicer : January 16, 2013 3:11 pm

I wanted to see this for years, so I ordered it as soon as I saw it was available, and it was worth the wait. But then I’m a big fan of both Preston and (especially) Mason.

In the book Reel Terror. Tobe Hooper says of Mason as the vampire helper in Salem’s lot, “You can almost see the tail feathers of the canary sticking out of his mouth.”

Posted By tdraicer : January 16, 2013 3:11 pm

I wanted to see this for years, so I ordered it as soon as I saw it was available, and it was worth the wait. But then I’m a big fan of both Preston and (especially) Mason.

In the book Reel Terror. Tobe Hooper says of Mason as the vampire helper in Salem’s lot, “You can almost see the tail feathers of the canary sticking out of his mouth.”

Posted By jbryant : January 16, 2013 5:22 pm

Had no idea this “Holy Grail” film had been released, and on Blu-Ray no less! Thanks for the heads up. I read the play around the time the film came out, and waited in vain for it to show up at a theater in my area (Western Kentucky/Southern Indiana). Now if only Netflix would add it to their stock.

Posted By jbryant : January 16, 2013 5:22 pm

Had no idea this “Holy Grail” film had been released, and on Blu-Ray no less! Thanks for the heads up. I read the play around the time the film came out, and waited in vain for it to show up at a theater in my area (Western Kentucky/Southern Indiana). Now if only Netflix would add it to their stock.

Posted By Anonymous : January 16, 2013 10:40 pm

Thanks for a great post Greg.
Have never seen CHILD’S PLAY, and knew next to nothing about it.
Will happily add it to my list of Lumet’s films to track down.
I always find it a little strange (being over here in Australia my perception could be mistaken)that Lumet appears to be regarded with a little less esteem by Hollywood than, say, Coppola or Scorsese. I’ve always wondered why. When he is at the top of his game, his films are as good as anyone’s.

Posted By Anonymous : January 16, 2013 10:40 pm

Thanks for a great post Greg.
Have never seen CHILD’S PLAY, and knew next to nothing about it.
Will happily add it to my list of Lumet’s films to track down.
I always find it a little strange (being over here in Australia my perception could be mistaken)that Lumet appears to be regarded with a little less esteem by Hollywood than, say, Coppola or Scorsese. I’ve always wondered why. When he is at the top of his game, his films are as good as anyone’s.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : January 17, 2013 12:26 am

tdraicer, I love that line from Hooper. Never saw that before.

Since I went on and on about Mason in the piece, let me go on a bit about Preston here. He has a certain smarmy charm about him that works for him where it wouldn’t for most others. When he’s on your side, you trust that charm and when he’s not, that charm seems diabolical. After watching this, I can say that Preston was not only the right choice but the best choice. I honestly don’t know what they were thinking with Brando.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : January 17, 2013 12:26 am

tdraicer, I love that line from Hooper. Never saw that before.

Since I went on and on about Mason in the piece, let me go on a bit about Preston here. He has a certain smarmy charm about him that works for him where it wouldn’t for most others. When he’s on your side, you trust that charm and when he’s not, that charm seems diabolical. After watching this, I can say that Preston was not only the right choice but the best choice. I honestly don’t know what they were thinking with Brando.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : January 17, 2013 12:29 am

Now if only Netflix would add it to their stock.

I thought that surely you were mistaken but I just checked and, nope, I couldn’t find it on Netflix. Boy, that’s really a shame. I hope you get a copy soon.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : January 17, 2013 12:29 am

Now if only Netflix would add it to their stock.

I thought that surely you were mistaken but I just checked and, nope, I couldn’t find it on Netflix. Boy, that’s really a shame. I hope you get a copy soon.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : January 17, 2013 12:31 am

Anon – I think Lumet was pretty incredible myself. I think the film historian world likes directors with big, bold personal works or larger than life movies like Scorsese and Coppola with movies like Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, The Godfather, and Apocalypse Now whereas Lumet merely did one finely crafted film after another. Personally, I think he was one of the best.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : January 17, 2013 12:31 am

Anon – I think Lumet was pretty incredible myself. I think the film historian world likes directors with big, bold personal works or larger than life movies like Scorsese and Coppola with movies like Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, The Godfather, and Apocalypse Now whereas Lumet merely did one finely crafted film after another. Personally, I think he was one of the best.

Posted By swac44 : January 18, 2013 10:04 am

Thanks to looking for this on Amazon (after wading through a stack of assorted Chucky movies), I also learned that the excellent thriller Man on a Swing is also now available, on blu-ray as well. How I missed out on both of these, I’ll never know, thanks for the tip, Greg!

(I signed up for Olive Films’ email newsletter, but like the aforementioned Warner Archive newsletter, it has yet to materialize. Someone needs to whip these marketing departments into shape.)

Posted By swac44 : January 18, 2013 10:04 am

Thanks to looking for this on Amazon (after wading through a stack of assorted Chucky movies), I also learned that the excellent thriller Man on a Swing is also now available, on blu-ray as well. How I missed out on both of these, I’ll never know, thanks for the tip, Greg!

(I signed up for Olive Films’ email newsletter, but like the aforementioned Warner Archive newsletter, it has yet to materialize. Someone needs to whip these marketing departments into shape.)

Posted By jennifromrollamo : January 18, 2013 1:08 pm

My daughter was reading the title to your post over my shoulder and was horrified to think that I was reading about a Chucky doll movie!! This one sounds great, and I have never heard of it. Love both Mason and Preston, so I will be on the lookout for it. TCM? Hello? Air it please??!!

Posted By jennifromrollamo : January 18, 2013 1:08 pm

My daughter was reading the title to your post over my shoulder and was horrified to think that I was reading about a Chucky doll movie!! This one sounds great, and I have never heard of it. Love both Mason and Preston, so I will be on the lookout for it. TCM? Hello? Air it please??!!

Posted By lrobhubbard : January 19, 2013 12:46 pm

Very nice write-up… glad to see that Olive Films came through and made this (amongst other obscurities) available.

Although it’s not technically a horror film, it can be seen as a horror film for teachers:

http://mimezine.blogspot.com/2010/08/obscure-film-of-moment-childs-play-plus.html

Posted By lrobhubbard : January 19, 2013 12:46 pm

Very nice write-up… glad to see that Olive Films came through and made this (amongst other obscurities) available.

Although it’s not technically a horror film, it can be seen as a horror film for teachers:

http://mimezine.blogspot.com/2010/08/obscure-film-of-moment-childs-play-plus.html

Posted By shane : January 2, 2014 10:08 am

Thanks for bring this back up Greg as I missed it first time around. But not this time. I’ll let you know how it hits me.

Leave a Reply

Current day month ye@r *

MovieMorlocks.com is the official blog for TCM. No topic is too obscure or niche to be excluded from our film discussions. And we welcome your comments on our blogs and bloggers.
See more: facebook.com/tcmtv
See more: twitter.com/tcm
3-D  Action Films  Actors  Actors' Endorsements  Actresses  animal stars  Animation  Anime  Anthology Films  Art in Movies  Autobiography  Avant-Garde  Aviation  Awards  B-movies  Beer in Film  Behind the Scenes  Best of the Year lists  Biography  Biopics  Blu-Ray  Books on Film  Boxing films  British Cinema  Canadian Cinema  Character Actors  Chicago Film History  Cinematography  Classic Films  College Life on Film  Comedy  Comic Book Movies  Crime  Czech Film  Dance on Film  Digital Cinema  Directors  Disaster Films  Documentary  Drama  DVD  Early Talkies  Editing  Educational Films  European Influence on American Cinema  Experimental  Exploitation  Fairy Tales on Film  Faith or Christian-based Films  Family Films  Film Composers  Film Criticism  film festivals  Film History in Florida  Film Noir  Film Scholars  Film titles  Filmmaking Techniques  Films of the 1980s  Food in Film  Foreign Film  French Film  Gangster films  Genre  Genre spoofs  HD & Blu-Ray  Holiday Movies  Hollywood history  Hollywood lifestyles  Horror  Horror Movies  Icons  independent film  Italian Film  Japanese Film  Korean Film  Literary Adaptations  Martial Arts  Melodramas  Method Acting  Mexican Cinema  Moguls  Monster Movies  Movie Books  Movie Costumes  movie flops  Movie locations  Movie lovers  Movie Reviewers  Movie settings  Movie Stars  Movies about movies  Music in Film  Musicals  Outdoor Cinema  Paranoid Thrillers  Parenting on film  Pirate movies  Polish film industry  political thrillers  Politics in Film  Pornography  Pre-Code  Producers  Race in American Film  Remakes  Revenge  Road Movies  Romance  Romantic Comedies  Satire  Scandals  Science Fiction  Screenwriters  Semi-documentaries  Serials  Short Films  Silent Film  silent films  Social Problem Film  Sports  Sports on Film  Stereotypes  Straight-to-DVD  Studio Politics  Stunts and stuntmen  Suspense thriller  TCM Classic Film Festival  TCM Underground  Television  The British in Hollywood  The Germans in Hollywood  The Hungarians in Hollywood  The Irish in Hollywood  Theaters  Thriller  Trains in movies  Underground Cinema  VOD  War film  Westerns  Women in the Film Industry  Women's Weepies