Monday, August 29, 2011

Joan Teaches the Blind (and Deaf)

None of us had ever seen 1957's The Story of Esther Costello before this viewing and it was definitely a pleasant surprise. Ms. Crawford plays Margaret Landi, a wealthy American woman on a visit to the town of her birth to make a donation to the village church in Cloncraig, Ireland,  Father Devlin (Denis O'Dea), however, has other ideas, and introduces Margaret to Esther Costello (Heather Sears), a local girl being raised in squalor after her mother was killed and Esther was left deaf and blind.  With some reluctance, Margaret agrees to have some tests run to confirm the severity of Esther's condition.  The tests show no physiological reason for Esther's condition, but also emphasize the need to get her some training, to enable her to live a more normal life.  Again, Margaret is reluctant to go further, but Esther's eagerness to learn impresses her.  Ultimately, she bring Esther back to America with her, becoming not only her patron, but her teacher and dearest friend. 

The movie's portrayal of the education process for the deaf-blind is extremely interesting, especially the way in which Esther is taught to lip read, and to communicate with those who cannot do sign language.  Esther's education covers the beginning of the movie; the second part of the movie is devoted to Margaret's attempts to raise money for Esther's school, a process that becomes badly corrupted when Margaret's estranged husband, Carlo (Rossano Brazzi) reappears on the scene.  Brazzi is properly slimy, as he uses sex to reclaim Margaret, then begins to cast his eye in the direction of the innocent Esther.

Some interesting guest appearances in this movie: Bessie Love has a brief scene with Brazzi as an art gallery patron; John Loder appears as a friend of Margaret's (we never see him after Esther goes to school. A shame really).  His voice did not sound the same as we remembered - we wondered if it had been dubbed for some reason?  Lee Patterson as reporter Harry Grant, Esther's love interest, was a pleasant surprise for some of our viewers - they remembered him from his later work in One Life to Live.

But the person who really steals the movie is Heather Sears as Esther.  She manages to convey so much in a part that is not only mute, but limited in the use of her eyes (Esther, after all is blind as well).  Ms. Sears (who won the Best Actress award from BAFTA for her work here) is marvelously expressive.  She had a limited film career, appearing in film and on television in the U.K. 

This is also a surprisingly adult movie.  Without giving too much away, watch for the scene, towards the end, when Crawford finds a nearly comatose Sears on the floor of her bedroom.  Then watch as Crawford tries to get the traumatized girl back to bed.  Your mind will tell you what she is actually seeing, while the screen shows you something else.  A tasteful, and telling, piece of film direction.

All in all, another Crawford film that is underrated and worth your time. Next time, we go to a much earlier film.  In the meantime, here is a trailer from our movie this week: