Cinema: All Thumbs, None Green

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The Chalk Garden. Transplanted from stage to screen, Enid Bagnold's witty, pitiless and elliptical high comedy yields only a withered bouquet of hearts and flowers. Made by Producer Ross Hunter, who customarily trafficks in Doris Daysies, the movie is all thumbs, none of them green.

Into an elegant manse atop the white cliffs of England's south coast ventures Deborah Kerr, beautifully coiffed and dressed for a royal weekend, doing her primmest impersonation of a gentlewoman fallen upon difficult days. Indeed, no one would suspect that she is a convicted murderess but recently released from prison. So Dame Edith Evans hires Deborah to tend her garden —where nothing grows—and to keep an eye on Granddaughter Hayley Mills.

"The child is fond of screaming," Dame Edith explains, because "by some extraordinary carelessness she was violated in Hyde Park at the age of twelve." Moreover, the child hates her mother, who has recently remarried, and she keeps threatening to burn down the house. While Deborah gallantly maneuvers to reunite mother and daughter and keep the home fires from spreading, the butler (Hayley's real-life father, John Mills) arranges luncheon for a guest, an elderly judge. Of course the judge's intimates call him "Puppy." Of course he is the very man who once condemned the lovely governess to death.

Patently contrived, the plot gave Author Bagnold a framework on which to hang some illuminating asides about "the astonishment of life" and life's wasted possibilities. But Scriptwriter John Michael Hayes sticks doggedly to the substance of a story that was all shadows, revealing a sure instinct for the nonessential. In this version, Governess Kerr and Butler Mills are obviously made for each other and for a formula fadeout. The younger Mills, abrim with mental health and ebullient spirits and thus strikingly miscast, suggests that she alone knows what it is that makes this Garden grow. Potash? Peat moss? Lime? No, just gobs and gobs of Pollyannalysis, laid on with a silver trowel.