The Miracle Worker

Director: Arthur Penn
Screenplay: William Gibson (based on his play)
Stars: Anne Bancroft (Annie Sullivan), Victor Jory (Captain Arthur Keller), Inga Swenson (Kate Keller), Andrew Prine (James Keller), Kathleen Comegys (Aunt Ev), Patty Duke (Helen Keller)
MPAA Rating: NR
Year of Release: 1962
Country: U.S.
The Miracle Worker Blu-ray
The Miracle Worker

Before it became a celebrated, Oscar-winning film, The Miracle Worker had already lived two lives, one on the small screen and one on the stage. The dramatization of how a determined young teacher named Annie Sullivan broke through the isolation of the deaf-blind Hellen Keller as a child by teaching her to use language had first appeared on television in 1957 as an episode of the anthology series Playhouse 90, written by William Gibson. Gibson then adapted it into a three-act stageplay, which debuted on Broadway in 1959; it had more than 700 performances and won five Tony Awards.

Three of those Tonys went to actress Anne Bancroft for playing Anne, Patty Duke for playing Helen, and Arthur Penn for his direction. Not surprisingly, when Gibson again adapted it, this time into a screenplay, Bancroft, Duke, and Penn were all brought on board to translate their Broadway success to the silver screen. Bancroft and Duke both went on to win Oscars, while Penn, who had also directed the Playhouse 90 episode, was nominated for Best Director (he lost out to David Lean for Lawrence of Arabia). The Bancroft-Duke-Penn triumvirate turned out to be a powerful one indeed, and their collective work on The Miracle Worker—a unique collaboration forged over numerous years on stage and in front of a camera—has ensured that the films remains an indelible classic of deeply felt, character-centered drama.

The story focuses on the relationship between Anne (Bancroft) and Helen (Duke), which grows from teacher-pupil to something closer to mother-daughter. The film takes place almost entirely in and around the Keller house in Tuscumbia, Alabama, in 1887, where Helen’s parents, Captain Arthur Keller (Victor Jory, whose penchant for overacting is one of the film’s few weaknesses) and Kate (Inga Swenson), out of pure desperation hire Anne as a governess and teacher for Helen, who has been blind and deaf since infancy. As a result, Helen has grown up as something of a wild child that her parents can barely contain, much to the consternation of Helen’s half-brother James (Andrew Prine). When Anne arrives, Helen is little more than feral, given to extreme physical outbursts whenever she is confronted with something unexpected or denied something she wants. Unable to express herself through language or understand what others want to communicate to her, she lives in a perpetual isolation into which Anne must break.

Although only 20 years old, Anne has already endured a challenging life, during much of which she was functionally blind (nine operations had restored some of her sight, but she still had to wear dark glasses to protect her eyes). Her Irish background ensures her a certain level of resolute toughness, which has been sharpened by a life in squalid orphanages and institutions. While others mistake Helen for a “mental defective,” she recognizes instead a bright child whose potential has been limited by her inability to communicate in anything other than an animalistic fashion—grunting, pounding her fists, slapping and gesturing wildly. Duke makes Helen’s various tantrums both frightening and pathetic, and the manner in which she lashes out is laced with a sense of desperation and abject fear. Helen is supposed to be six years old, a point that is explicitly referenced at one point, and the fact that Duke was well into her teenage years feels almost beside the point (it helps that she looks considerably younger, although nowhere close to six).

To break through, Anne must engage Helen on her own terms at first, which means a number of intense physical altercations, including the now-famous breakfast scene in which Anne and Helen battle tooth and nail during a nearly excruciating wordless nine minutes, with Anne intent that Helen will sit at the table and use a spoon while Helen does everything in her power to resist and escape. The blunt violence of the scene, captured in long, handheld takes that bob and weave around the room, is quite the opposite of the highly stylized violence for which Penn would subsequently become famous in Bonnie and Clyde (1967). The physicality of Bancroft and Duke’s performance is astonishing, and the visceral nature of their bodily conflict makes the quieter moments in which Helen begins to realize the expressive potential in making letter signs with her hands that much more moving. (Interestingly, this story had been told on the big screen before in the almost forgotten 1919 silent film Deliverance, which was a kind of proto-documentary feature in which Helen Keller, Anne Sullivan, and others appeared as themselves, but which also used dramatic re-enactments from Helen’s childhood, including her fighting with Anne and her breakthrough moment of understanding at the water pump.)

Given the power of the two brawling, knock-down-drag-out central performances, Penn’s direction is always at risk of being overshadowed even though it is the glue that holds the film together. Penn had worked primarily in television, directing a number of notable anthology dramas, before making his feature debut with The Left Handed Gun (1958). Although he was not yet an icon of the American New Wave (which would come with Bonnie and Clyde, 1969’s Alice’s Restaurant, and 1971’s Little Big Man), you can sense throughout The Miracle Worker the merging of emotional Hollywood storytelling with the off-beat, subversive, and unexpected aesthetic flourishes that were just beginning to make their way across the pond from the world of European art film. Penn, cinematographer Ernesto Caparrós, and editor Aram Avakian create a sustained sense of engagement through a canny mix of convention and experimentation. While many scenes are played in a standard Hollywood studio aesthetic, they punctuate various moments with explicitly expressive devices like handheld camerawork, dramatic lighting, and extended lap dissolves that use grainy imagery to suggest a never-quite fading past. Interestingly, neither Caparrós nor Avakian went on to lengthy, distinguished careers; Caparrós, who started his career as a director in his native Cuba, subsequently shot a dozen or so television episodes, mostly for The Naked City, and two forgettable features, Andy (1965) and What’s So Bad About Feeling Good (1968), while Avakian only edited six additional features, including Penn’s Mickey One (1965) and Francis Ford Coppola’s early studio effort You’re a Big Boy Now (1968). Nevertheless, their work here with Penn is outstanding, lending intense visual support to Bancroft and Duke’s highly memorable performances.

The Miracle Worker Blu-ray

Aspect Ratio1.85:1
AudioEnglish DTS-HD Master Audio 1.0 monaural
DistributorOlive Films
Release DateOctober 31, 2017

Previously available only on a long-since-out-of-print MGM DVD, The Miracle Worker looks quite impressive in high-definition. There is little to complain about Olive Films’s 1080p/AVC-encoded transfer, which maintains a nicely film-like texture of fine grain that boasts good detail, excellent black levels, and solid contrast. The film’s visual palette, which is framed at 1.66:1, is generally impressive, and the new transfer shows it off admirably. There are no major signs of damage, although there are some noticeable white specks here and there. Otherwise, it is extremely clean. The DTS-HD Master Audio monaural soundtrack is likewise good, showing off the dialogue and sound effects in a manner fitting to a film of its era. No supplements are included.

Copyright © 2017 James Kendrick

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All images copyright © Olive Films / MGM

Overall Rating: (3.5)

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