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Blu-ray Review

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The Miracle Worker (1962)


Starring: Anne Bancroft, Patty Duke, Victor Jory, Inga Swenson and Andrew Prine
Distributor: Eureka Entertainment
RRP: £17.99
Certificate: PG
Release Date: 27 January 2020

Playwright William Gibson was trying to get “breathing money” so he could finish his play Two for the Seesaw and told his friend television director Arthur Penn, “I need some money.” Penn asked what else Gibson had in his drawer and Gibson, in desperation told him about a nouveau dance piece he’d written about Annie Sullivan a pioneering teacher who had taught the deaf, speech-impaired and blind child Helen Keller to read, write and communicate. Penn was sparked. True stories can do that. Everybody knew about Helen Keller, the embodiment of inspiration. Together Gibson and Penn dashed out a narrative and key scenes on yellow tablet pages and from this rough handwritten brilliance Penn advanced the playwright $500. Gibson hit the typewriter keys and the teleplay the Miracle Worker was quickly delivered for the Playhouse 90 series in 1957.

Teresa Wright (Shadow of a Doubt, 1943) and Patty McCormack (The Bad Seed, 1956) played Annie Sullivan and young Helen Keller. Necessity, the mother of all invention - and making a buck - on occasion gives birth to great plays. She’s a sneaky mother this way. Not many people remember Gibson’s Two For The Seesaw, everybody remembers The Miracle Worker. It is one of the most revived plays in theater history and filmmakers return to it every generation.

The Penn film of 1962 is the template subsequent efforts hallow or, at their puerile peril tinker with, forgetting the adage: If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. In 1979 it was mounted as a vehicle for the young Little House on the Prairie’s Mellissa Sue Gilbert’s Half Pint Productions with Gilbert as Keller and in stroke of inspiration, Duke returning now as Annie Sullivan. The comparisons to the original Oscar winners in Penn’s classic ranged from ho-hum to blood curdling; in 2000 The Wonderful World of Disney gave the world Alison Elliott as Sullivan and Hallie Kate Eisenberg as Helen and another sad example of Disney cynicism toward its cutesy child labour force. If the talented Ms. Eisenberg survives as a careering adult it will be in spite of her cookie cutter treatment by the mouse factory. I sincerely wish her all the best.

(Hear Penn tell it himself: how William Gibson’s teleplay directed by Penn became a tsunami hit for Playhouse 90 in1957; and see the history, definitely not always rosy, of the play’s attractive but formidable nature: ); and just for the heck of it watch SCTV’s bludgeoning of the tradition and even its New Yorky, Ernesto Caparrós high contrast cinematography in a no punches pulled satire with Andrea Martin and Catherine O’Hara

Arthur Penn is a New York director who did not fit into the Hollywood mould. Only when he could be protected under the wings of eagles like Brando (The Chase, 1966) or Brando and Nicholson (Missouri Breaks,1976) or Warren Beatty (in the classic Bonnie and Clyde, 1967) did he find success beyond industry ridicule. This is sad because Penn’s strength as a performance director of par excellence was never fully appreciated. The Miracle Worker established his standing. It won Oscars for Anne Bancroft and Patty Duke. It won him general hatred from Hollywood. When Burt Lancaster had him fired after one day of shooting The Train (1964) and replaced by John Frankenheimer he said, “Frankenheimer is a bit of a whore, but he’ll do what I want.” Penn is not a whore. His dedication to human passion shows that and is reinforced in such classics as Alice’s Restaurant (1969) or a Gene Hackman character turn nobody remembers Night Moves (1975).

Ann Bancroft was known as a gifted actor. She worked her way up to respectable supporting roles in film, paying dues in camp and schlock like Gorilla At Large (1954) while child savant Patty Duke was known for her stage success as Helen Keller in the Broadway production of Miracle Worker. With these two perfect performers Penn realized the masterpiece play into film. Ernesto Caparrós, known more for his work in Spanish language films, brought a contrast style in medium deep focus that makes human feeling hard to avoid. This film is a storm of intensity, internal and external, existential and spiritual, fluent in love. In this era of heroic care-givers Annie Sullivan as given us by Anne Bancroft is a beloved archetype.

Eureka’s superb 1080p transfer from a high-definition digital transfer and crisply reproduced mono track includes a new look at the legacy with a perceptive audio essay by Amy Simmons and a collector’s booklet with intuitive written essays by critic and film scholar Alexandra Heller-Nicholas as well as critic and author Richard Combs. It is redundant to say but say it, I must, The Miracle Worker has never looked or sounded better.

It is a re-watcher, a triumph of human spirit over opaque tragedy. That never gets old.


John Huff

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