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|Mary Jane Harper Cried Last Night|
|Written by||Joanna Lee|
|Directed by||Allen Reisner|
|Music by||Billy Goldenberg|
|Country of origin||United States|
|Editor(s)||Kenneth R. Koch|
|Running time||101 minutes|
CBS Television Distribution
|Original release||October 5, 1977|
Mary Jane Harper Cried Last Night is a Golden Globe nominated CBS television film starring Susan Dey as an abusive mother. The film, which aired in October 1977, was written and produced by Joanna Lee and featured a supporting cast including Rhea Perlman, Kevin McCarthy and Natasha Ryan as Mary Jane Harper.
A novelization of the film, packaged and by-lined to give the impression of being the story source, was published by Signet Books shortly after the film aired, to capitalize on its ratings impact. (There is no record of the book having ever existed prior to this paperback edition.) The stated authorship is shared by Joanna Lee and T.S. Cook. Given that the book is a tie-in created after the fact, what the by-line implies, but avoids particularizing, is that Cook actually wrote the novel based on Lee's teleplay. As Cook would himself soon emerge as an award-winning screenwriter (The China Syndrome), it's likely that Lee and he were colleagues, and that he took the assignment at her behest. In media tie-in terms, an adaptation presented in this manner is called an "implied novelization."
This article's plot summary may be too long or excessively detailed. (July 2019) (Learn how and when to remove this template message)
Rowena Harper is a young woman who is separated from her husband Bill. She suffers from psychological problems due to an unhappy childhood. To relieve this, she takes to smoking and drinking. Unfortunately, the problems also cause her to physically abuse her 3-year-old daughter, Mary Jane.
One day, Bill comes by to pick up Mary Jane. Rowena tries to make Mary Jane and her house look good to impress Bill, hoping he'll come back home. However, while chasing a cat outside, Mary Jane accidentally falls down, getting dirty. Angered with Rowena for not looking after Mary Jane properly, Bill storms out of the house. Angry with her daughter for ruining it, Rowena takes Mary Jane into another room and closes the door. Shortly afterwards, Mary Jane is admitted to the hospital for a broken arm.
At the hospital, Dr. Angela Buccieri, is assigned to work on Mary Jane. In addition to the broken arm, she notices a couple of healed-over cigarette burns on the girl's buttocks. She questions Rowena, who claims that Mary Jane broke her arm by falling out of her crib, which she still sleeps in since she's a bed-wetter, and that she accidentally bumped into a lit cigarette, claiming that Mary Jane is accident prone and a crier. Dr. Buccieri asks if Mary Jane can stay over at the hospital so they can do some neurological tests. Rowena, however, insists on taking her home that night. When the doctor asks Mary Jane about her arm, she refuses to speak.
Dr. Buccieri goes to Dr. Orrin Helgerson, the director of Pediatrics, bringing him this news and requesting a set of full-skeletal x-rays to see if there are any healed-over broken bones. The director thinks that she is just traumatized due to the fact that she came from the ghetto of Brooklyn. Still, he decides to go and take a look. When he arrives, he recognizes Rowena, as he is a good friend of her father, who is also a trustee of the hospital and a respected pillar of the community. He tells Dr. Buccieri to send down an orthopedist, get Mary Jane out of there in an hour, and not to pursue the matter any further.
Dr. Buccieri still brings the matter to Child Protective Services. However, since the report is unauthorized, she goes to them in person. There, she meets with a social worker named Dave Williams, who agrees to investigate. When he visits Rowena, she is pleasant, her house is clean, and Mary Jane seems to be happy. He recommends to Rowena that she join Parents Anonymous to help with her stress. After he leaves, Rowena grows agitated, realizing that someone at the hospital has reported her. She then hears Mary Jane crying for her. In her fear, she goes into the nursery and yells at Mary Jane. When Mary Jane tries to look away from her mother, she grabs her, digging her nails into her skin.
Dave tells Angie that Rowena didn't show any signs of being abusive, and neither the police nor the county has records of any previous abuse. However, he did notice that the crib Mary Jane supposedly fell from when she broke her arm was resting on a carpet about 2 inches thick. He then goes to talk to Bill, who doesn't know anything, since he doesn't see Mary Jane very often and isn't even sure whether he's her biological father. With nothing to go on, Dave considers closing the case. Dr. Buccieri, however, who grew up in an abusive environment, persuades him to follow up. Unfortunately, one of his colleagues then gets sick, and so he is forced to cover for her, preventing him from doing the investigation.
Rowena tells her father about Dave Williams. Her dad calls Dr. Helgerson, threatening to sue the hospital. Helgerson mentions this to Buccieri, who points out that, if she hadn't reported this to Child Protective Services, she could be sued for malpractice and so could he. Helgerson then threatens to fire her, not just for this, but because she generally has a hostile attitude.
Feeling lonely that night, Rowena decides to attend a Parents Anonymous meeting. At first, she refuses to admit that she beats her child, but then decides to come clean. She reveals that her mother didn't like her, since she thought that she had sex with her father. She realizes that Mary Jane is just like her mother, in that neither one of them listens to her. Her mother refused to believe Rowena when she told her she didn't have sex with her father. Then, she remembers that she left Mary Jane home alone, so she leaves. Unfortunately she had dropped an unfinished cigarette in the ashtray, and an open window blows it over, resulting in a fire. The neighbors (Fritzi Burr and Warren Munson) spot the fire in time and call 9-1-1. Mary Jane is taken to the hospital to check on smoke inhalation, and Rowena is arrested for child endangerment.
When Mary Jane arrives at the hospital, Dr. Buccieri calls Dr. Helgerson and informs him of what happened. This time, he becomes more involved, ordering a set of full-skeletal x-rays. Dr. Buccieri tries again to talk to Mary Jane, who has become mute, giving her a china doll and tells the child how, when she was young, she used to talk to her doll about her abusive parents. She encourages Mary Jane to do the same. However, Mary Jane throws the doll on the ground, causing it to break.
Rowena's parents appoint her a lawyer, who says that they should get Rowena into treatment with a psychiatrist who generally works with the court and to get letters that make her look good. He tells Rowena only to answer questions that he asks her and not to talk to anyone else. He asks her where she went that night, and Rowena tells him about the Parents Anonymous meeting. Her mother is angered at this, thinking that Rowena has told them her private business.
Mary Jane's x-rays are developed. However, while the radiologist is on the phone, a clerk comes in to collect the closed files and mistakenly takes Mary Jane's when the doctor points to a group of files near him. With the x-rays not back, the judge, F. F. Carlson, considers returning Mary Jane to Rowena at the formal hearing, yet he is skeptical about Rowena's actions of endangering her daughter. Her lawyer defends her by saying that her mind has become unsettled by the abandonment of her husband and that she has agreed to seek therapeutic help and her parents will supervise it. Judge Carlson accepts this.
Dr. Buccieri is angry and tries to get Dave to find evidence against Rowena. Dave and his wife, who is a nursery school teacher, both say that small children are more comfortable with their parents than in foster care, even if their parent is abusive. He points out that parents can change and that they need to try to help them do this, or else the children will become abusive to their children. Angie, however, thinks that Rowena is too far gone for that. So the two agree to try and find evidence against her.
Dave talks to Rowena's maid, her mother, and the neighbors, all of whom claim not to have heard or know anything. When he tries to get in touch with Rowena's husband, he learns that he has fled to Mexico. Meanwhile, at the hospital, the clerk looks through the closed files box and discovers the Harper file. Dr. Buccieri and Dr. Helgerson look at the x-rays and see three healed-over broken bones. Helgerson is shocked.
In court, Angie tries to ask Rowena about the x-rays, but she refuses to talk and almost cries, making Angie realize that Rowena is not entirely to blame. Judge Carlson is presented with the evidence but has been informed by Rowena's psychiatrist that her disturbed mental state is only temporary. Within two months, they will have another hearing where they will decide about legal custody of Mary Jane, who is returned to Rowena for the present with social services providing supervision. Dr. Buccieri and Dave are disturbed at this. When complaining about it to Dr. Helgerson, Dr. Buccieri informs him that she will sue him if he tries to fire her, feeling that the hospital needs someone like her. She also agrees to improve her professional attitude. She and the other doctors, including Helgerson, enroll in a course to detect signs of child abuse and neglect.
During a therapeutic session, Rowena reveals what happened in her childhood. Rowena's mother, angered at finding her half naked with her father, locked her in the closet while her father went off sailing for the weekend. In the closet, Rowena saw a rat and began screaming for her mother to let her out. Just as she begins to have a breakthrough, the session ends. Now left paranoid, Rowena takes Mary Jane and goes off to a motel in the desert.
In the motel room, Rowena suddenly sees hallucinations of the rat that she saw as a child. She freaks out, causing Mary Jane to cry. Not knowing what to do, Rowena calls Judy, the woman who runs the Parents Anonymous group. Judy tells two of the girls in the group to call Dave Williams and tell him of the situation. While attempting to calm Rowena down, she tells her to go to the motel manager and have him call the police. Not wanting the police to know where she is, Rowena hangs up. She tries to calmly tell Mary Jane to stop crying, but winds up smothering her with a pillow. Dave Williams and the police arrive at the motel where they find Rowena cradling Mary Jane's body and singing to it.
At the courthouse, Judge Carlson receives the psychiatric evaluation of Rowena and considers ending supervision. But at just that moment, he gets a phone call informing him that "Mary Jane Harper died last night." (the film is purposely titled "... Cried Last Night" so as not to give away the ending).
Mary Jane Harper Cried Last Night was nominated at 1978's Primetime Emmy Awards for Outstanding Achievement in Video Tape Editing for a Special.