The movies have been good to me, but they’ve never provided the kind of solace that the library has. Some of my earliest memories involve loading up on dozens of books with those amazing hand-drawn covers, hauling them home, and surprising my disbelieving parents by finishing them all off in a couple weeks’ time. But one tome that I never picked up but remember being around was E.L. Konigsburg’s much-admired “From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler.” It’s strange that I never got around to it, since its story of two kids in search of an adventure to make their lives a little more special would’ve been right up my pre-pubescent alley. But while I’ve no doubt that I would’ve devoured Konigsburg’s book back in the day, it’s a different time now, long past the point at which my tolerance for overly-precocious children was at its zenith. Thus, it comes to pass that 1973’s The Hideaways — the first time “Frankweiler” was brought to the screen — doesn’t carry the charm that it might have before, coming across as a pale and uneventful recitation of what could’ve been a neat little story.
Claudia Kincaid (Sally Prager) feels like she’s getting a bum deal. Although she’s a bright grade-schooler who gets good marks, her folks (Richard Mulligan and Georgann Johnson) always seem to poo-poo her fantasies about King Arthur and hoist upon her an endless succession of chores (yeah, life’s a real bitch, ain’t it?). But Claudia has had enough of emptying wastebaskets, deciding to run away from home on an adventure, with her little brother Jamie (Johnny Doran) in tow. However, they’re not tearing off to just anywhere, for Claudia has in mind the perfect hiding spot: New York City’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. The Kincaid siblings quickly make themselves at home, sleeping in old exhibits, hitting up free food samples at Macy’s, and taking baths in the water fountain. Then one day, Claudia becomes fascinated with the museum’s latest acquisition, an angel statue said to have been created by Michelangelo himself. Excited at the prospect of a mystery to be solved, the kids decide to authenticate the piece themselves, with their ensuing investigation leading them to its original owner: a rich, old recluse named Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler (Ingrid Bergman).
Say what you will about going easy on young performers, but one of my biggest cinematic pet peeves is kids acting like adults. While I know that children who are wise beyond their years do exist in the real world, nothing takes me out of a movie faster than when such a character ceases to embody the simple truths that grown-ups so often forget and starts serving as a mouthpiece for what nuggets of wisdom the writer thought looked good on paper. It wasn’t long after Claudia started speaking that I knew I was in trouble with The Hideaways, which is more of a criticism of the script than of Prager herself. Both she and Doran give fine performances for their ages, but the film itself never succeeds in selling the stilted and contrived dialogue with which each is stuck. On the one hand, the point of The Hideaways is ultimately to pull the rug out from under Claudia, to show that no matter how much proper diction she tries to enforce upon her brother or how wise to the ways of the world she thinks she might be, she’s still a kid with a lot to learn. But the film so seldom glimpses at the humanity behind her bossy and self-important behavior, she really does spend most of her time feeling like a brat putting her folks through grief for no good reason.
Also, there’s the simple fact that The Hideaways is a picture in which very few events of interest actually take place. Being directed at children and set primarily in a museum with no Ben Stiller or supernaturally-enhanced exhibits in sight, I didn’t expect the story to thrust the Kincaids into peril at every turn. That said, a movie whose protagonists only occasionally take time away from gazing at artwork to sidestep a guard or two could’ve easily made room for a little more conflict. Aside from a fun little cameo by Madeline Kahn as a tour guide Jamie snarks off to, the flick is ill-prepared to give the children stuff to do once they get to the museum. The statue mystery doesn’t arise until pretty late in the game (and with no reason for Claudia to become so invested in it, other than she just is), with Mrs. Frankweiler showing up even further into the third act. Bergman puts on a good performance (one of her last, to boot), but the story tries to pretend she’s this figure dominating the proceedings, when she’s really more thrown in as an afterthought.
I couldn’t tell you how well The Hideaways represents Konigsburg’s original book, but in spite of all my curmudgeonly griping, the movie will do kids absolutely zero harm. While there’s not much to it, I can see some impressionable youngsters popping it in and being inspired to take an interest in the arts or tap into their own creativity to bring some specialness into their lives. That’s the best one can hope for out of The Hideaways, a film that, even considering all its good intentions, is still a whole lot of boring.
(The Hideaways is available to purchase through the Warner Archive Collection.)