Shout! Factory // 1979 // 98 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge William Lee (Retired) // March 12th, 2009
Together, they accomplished the impossible.
Helen Keller (1880-1968) was one of the most inspiring figures of the 20th century, beating the odds and living a full, rich life in spite of her handicaps. When she was 19 months old, Helen lost her sight and hearing due to an illness. With the love of her family and the remarkable determination of her teacher, Anne Sullivan, Helen went on to become a notable author, political activist and the first deaf and blind person to earn a Bachelor of Arts degree from Radcliffe College.
Helen's first steps out from the isolation of her impairment are depicted in The Miracle Worker, an Emmy Award-winning TV movie from 1979. Drawn from Helen's autobiography, playwright and novelist William Gibson's original teleplay was first produced in 1957. It was also made into a Broadway play in 1959 and a theatrical feature in 1962.
Set in Tuscumbia, Alabama, on the Keller family estate, The Miracle Worker tells the story of Anne Sullivan's first several weeks working with Helen. Frustrated that the family's pity for young Helen has made her into a spoiled pet, Anne serves up a regimen of tough love so that one day Helen will be independent. At the core of her lessons is language, which Anne drills into Helen by forming the sign language alphabet into her hand. However, it's a huge gap between Helen's mimicking of hand gestures and her comprehension of how words relate to actual things in the world that are, to her, shrouded in darkness and silence.
This segment of Helen's life is really Anne's story. The Miracle Worker is a showcase for the talents of two amazing actresses but Anne is the character at the center of it all. Patty Duke (Valley of the Dolls) played Helen in the stage production and the 1962 film (winning an Oscar), but in this television remake she graduates into the role of Anne (for which she won an Emmy). Duke injects firecracker energy to the proceedings with a performance designed to stand out from the rest of the cast. Anne's formidable confidence makes it seem as though she's either unaware of or unconcerned about the family's southern sensibilities. A couple of times, Duke seems to be operating on a different level than her fellow cast members -- her character is the only one allowed a few zingers in her dialogue -- but it's a solid performance. After all, it takes a strong personality to deal with Helen.
Where the script doesn't properly serve the character, however, is when it comes to Anne's personal background. Anne is also visually impaired, but her eyesight was partially restored through a series of operations. This detail is mentioned a couple of times but it's never dealt with in any substantial way, and I found it somewhat confusing at first. Furthermore, Anne is haunted by the memory of her brother and she occasionally hears his voice. This side of her personality does not develop toward a payoff and it's a distraction.
Melissa Gilbert (Little House on the Prairie) puts in a fierce performance as Helen. She's a wild child who is loved by her family but isolated because she hasn't any way to communicate meaningfully with anyone. Significantly, and contrary to my expectations, she's anything but helpless. Helen may appear to be out of control at times but she has an awareness of her surroundings and an understanding of what she can get from people. In many ways, she's like a child testing the boundaries of her world. Gilbert's speechless performance makes Helen a force to be reckoned with and not merely a pitiable character.
From the conservative father figure to the bratty older brother, the supporting characters are given a satisfying level of development. Gibson's script avoids simplistic characterizations to present the Keller family as intelligent people coping with a difficult situation. The climactic breakthrough moment does stray a little outside the bounds of credibility because so much happens all at once. Still, it packs an emotional punch that makes it plain to see why this story was so popular in its day.
While the power of story and the performances especially still hold up, the technical quality of the production is not well preserved. The full frame picture looks about comparable to what might be expected of a poor quality television broadcast. There is an overall pleasing warm color palette but sometimes it looks like levels are boosted from faded and aged elements. The image is very soft and finer details are lost. There is a limited but noticeable amount of dust and stray pops on the picture. The weak, mono soundtrack takes some getting used to and I was struggling to hear the dialogue during the first few minutes of the movie. However, some of the best moments take place in silence such as the extended scene when Anne tries to instruct Helen on table manners. Even without clear dialogue and a pristine picture, the great physical performances by Duke and Gilbert still hold up.
This DVD includes a photo gallery of promotional stills as a bonus. An alternate English audio track features audio descriptions for the blind. There are no optional subtitles available but viewers with closed captioning decoders will be able to follow the script using that feature.
The celebrated television production of this inspirational story isn't well served on this DVD release. Nevertheless, it's worth a rental for the strong performances.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Shout! Factory
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (English)
Running Time: 98 Minutes
Release Year: 1979
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Descriptive Audio
* Photo Gallery