From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler (1973)

When I was about our son’s age, my mom would drop my brother and me at the Lewis A. Ray Public Library to see summer movies. One that has always stood out in my memory was 1973’s adaptation of a novel by E.L. Konigsburg, From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler. Of course I didn’t know then what a bad print was, but my memory has always “shown” me this film as a very beat-up and faded 16mm print all covered in cigarette ash and hair.

A few years ago, the Warner Archive – no expense incurred – reissued this movie on DVD-R. I don’t mean the title, I mean the exact same print they showed us in ’79 or so. It even has the projectionists’ “change reel” burn marks in the upper corner, which was thoughtful of them, since we were telling our son about those earlier in the week.

If you click the picture, you can order this film under its later title, The Hideaways. I’m not sure why it gained that name for home video. At one point, as you can see on Wikipedia, it was doing the rounds with a cover that featured photos of Richard Mulligan and Madeline Kahn and claimed them as co-stars. These actors are maybe onscreen for a combined two and a half minutes. It’s like the home video people don’t want to admit that this is a movie starring children for children. Until the movie takes us to the house of the reclusive Mrs. Frankweiler, the real stars, Sally Prager and Johnny Doran, have delivered about 90% of its dialogue.

Critic Vincent Canby really didn’t like this film. I love this line from his NYT review: “From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler is one of those G-rated movies about children, not as they are but as they appear in television commercials for things like peanut butter and potato chips.” But while I love Canby’s wordplay, I think he’s wrong. Prager’s character, a middle-schooler named Claudia, is perfectly real and believably high-strung as middle school girls are. When she gets discouraging news, the world ends.

Claudia takes her younger brother and his money with her when she runs away to have an adventure. They set up camp in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, avoiding guards and bathing in the fountain after hours, and Claudia goes gaga over a statue that might be a Michelangelo that can’t be positively identified. It was not donated to the museum by the rich and very grouchy widow Mrs. Frankweiler, because she doesn’t donate things, but she sold it to ’em for a paltry $225. Claudia figures that a couple of days in the NYPL will positively identify the piece, but when her amateur investigations don’t turn her into Nancy Drew and her world ends, she decides that forcing the issue with Mrs. Frankweiler – played by a too-young Ingrid Bergman, I say – is the only thing she can do, but what she doesn’t expect is that some people enjoy the power of secrets.

From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler is an amusing diversion for kids and an entertaining time capsule of design, costume and signage for grownups. (The Amtrak line from rural Jersey to Boston was $9.90 when this was filmed.) But the story is merely pleasant and incredibly convenient for its protagonists, who navigate obstacles with superhuman luck and confidence. The movie doesn’t find any teeth until we meet Mrs. Frankweiler. Bergman is hilarious, and I enjoyed watching the children upend her static and stifling existence with their intrusion, and Claudia’s demands that her own secrets stay hidden. But in the end, it’s more amusing than thrilling, and you’d kind of expect a movie about hiding from grownups to have a thrill or two.