Helen Keller lost her sight, hearing and ability to speak at 19 months old after contracting a mystery illness (although, Doctors now believe it was more than likely Scarlet Fever). Over 25 years, she learnt to communicate and learn. Her schooling took her from Alabama to Boston and New York before she graduated cum laude from Radcliffe College in 1904 aged 24 and so – following the publishing of her memoir The Story of My Life – began her career of social and political activism (women’s suffrage, birth control, pacifism, socialism), and as an lifelong advocate for the blind and deaf before co-founding the ACLU.
By Keller’s side, during this time and until her own death in 1936 was Anne Sullivan. Sullivan became Keller’s teacher at just 20 years-old when she left The Perkins School for the Blind in Massachusetts for rural Alabama and the cotton plantation that the Kellers lived on.
It is this time period – well, that first month to be exact – that is the basis for The Miracle Worker. Keller’s story would have its genesis in TV before heading for the Broadway stage. It was adapted for the screen by William Gibson (who originally wrote the stage play) with Arthur Penn directing his own Broadway hit in 1962. Both Anne Bancroft and Patty Duke reprised their roles from the stage to screen to critical acclaim including two gold and shiny Academy Awards which they both received, respectively, following the film’s release.
While it opens rather histrionically, with a scene between Kate Keller (Inga Swenson) and the Captain (Victor Jory), thankfully the film quickly finds it dramatic feet with those early moments giving weight to the immediacy Helen’s hearing, speech and sight were lost as a baby. The first seven years pass in the blink of an eye and the young Helen is now wild, unruly, almost feral because no one understands her (or even really tries to). Instead, they allow her to get away with erratic behaviour and even violence, a concept far easier on their lives.
Our introduction to Anne Sullivan (Anne Bancroft) is at the train station bidding her current students’ farewell as she leaves for Alabama. The slight Irish lilt is a little distracting given that the real Anne, although the daughter of Irish immigrants, was allegedly born in Boston, however, it serves as way of establishing the difference in background of the woman – whose own sight was damaged at aged five – and the Kellers who reside on the plantation property.
It is during this travelling montage that we see flashes of Anne’s memories and her humble beginnings. Images are out-of-focus and superimposed within the frame, almost like photographs that have not been properly developed. It’s an excellent touch and however fleeting immediately flag the aspects of life Anne is haunted by. Within moments of meeting each other, Helen learns the word ‘D-O-L-L’, however, with family members still around offering unnecessary commentary describing Helen as either a ‘monkey’ or ‘fencepost’, Anne’s job is never made any easier.
Bancroft’s Sullivan takes no prisoners. She is pushy, likes to challenge the rules with her quick temper, and as a result her relationship with the Captain comes across as a pre-cursor to that of George Banks and Mary Poppins. The two are continually at logger-heads not helped by his ‘Southern Gentleman’ ways, booming voice and dismissive, tyrannical nature. Anne attempting to teach Helen is a long, arduous task. Yet, at no point is the child pitied. Duke humanises her, makes Helen a fully formed character who happens to have a disability. One which her family seeks to define her by.
These scenes between are utterly compelling but hard to watch. They’re wrought, fraught with repetition and open-handed slaps and biting – not just on Helen’s part – it is at times amusing without necessarily meaning to be and can even be described as abusive but it is a means to an end. Anne is determined to teach the ‘problem child’, make her unlearn all those awful habits her family have ignored even encouraged, and submit to learning.
While there is the occasional diegetic sound – a pair of heavy boots smacking against the wooden floor as the girl thrashes about during a tantrum or the smashing of plates – scenes between the two leads are largely silent, only occasionally punctuated lovingly by Laurence Rosenthal’s melodic soundtrack and the instrumental leitmotif of the song ‘Mockingbird’. Aram Avakian’s editing is flawless and Ernesto Caparrós cinematography stunning under Penn’s directorial eye. Yes, it is staged and the camera tends to be static more often than not but it works.
Holding all of this together are two extraordinary performances, supported ably by Swenson, Jory and Andrew Prine (as Helen’s older half-brother James). Anne Bancroft and Patty Duke are superb together and it is more than easy to see why they both won the critic’s favour and countless awards for these roles – so ingrained in her career was The Miracle Worker that Duke would not only play the Sullivan role on TV in 1979 (opposite Melissa Gilbert) but would go onto direct a run of the play in Washington during 2011. You root for both teacher and pupil throughout and by the breath-taking and cathartic ending, you love them.
Fact has been blurred somewhat, and some truths left out altogether, however, it isn’t terribly important. There is the question of whether this film could be made in this day and age without severe backlash (one tends to think not in the wake of ‘woke’). Yet, even without knowing Helen and Anne’s real history; the grit, determination and sheer awe-inspiring narrative and gutsy performances on display here are more than enough for an audience to invest in.
The film has now been restored in 1080p from a high definition digital transfer by Eureka Entertainment, as part of their Classics range and is released, available on Blu-ray for the first time, this week.
The disc restoration is evident especially when original footage is viewed via the theatrical trailer (2:21). The clean-up is very good, scratches are minimal, there is still some grain visible but extreme close-ups are crystal clear serving both women’s framing, Bancroft’s pores often visible and Duke’s child-like open face and vacant eyes transfixing (the resemblance between the 16-year-old actress and her eldest son Sean is striking).
Extras are kept to a minimum on this release when compared to some of Eureka’s other releases. However, in addition to the theatrical trailer there is an audio essay provided by critic and author Amy Simmons (11:14), who not only places the picture within historical context but also discusses the thematics of Arthur Penn’s oeuvre. It’s an interesting albeit short essay played over a slide show of stills (one can’t help but feel an extended version would have made an excellent commentary for the entire film). However, the film and its performances make up for any lack some may feel.
Accompanying the disc is a collector’s booklet featuring new essays by film critic and writer Alexandra Heller-Nicholas and film critic/author Richard Combs.