Arthur Penn (director)
27 January 2020 (released)
30 January 2020
This biographical film is a true story and is based on a very special person who does not deserve to be forgotten. Sad to say she is almost forgotten to many today. Screenwriter William Gibson adapted this from his own award winning play; originally a TV production. The film tells the story of Helen Keller (Patty Duke making her film debut), who became deaf and dumb after contracting scarlet fever in her infancy.
It is a considerable misfortune (one can't imagine she had much recollection from such an early age) to have been stricken with one of those deficiencies but to have both hardly bares thinking about. Keller (born in 1880 to a reasonably well-to-do family in Alabama) went onto to become the first deaf and dumb woman to gain a B.A. and lived to a ripe old age. It is almost a certainty that this goal would never have been attained without the help (that word is virtually an understatement) of the ‘miracle worker' in question, Anne Sullivan (Anne Bancroft) herself a partially sighted person.
The film begins with Keller’s parents Kate Keller and Captain Arthur Keller (Inga Swenson and Victor Jory respectively) at a complete loss as to how to cope with their almost feral daughter who is prone to violent outbursts. The remaining household consists of older brother James (Andrew Prine) and an array of black housekeepers and farmworkers. The overall domestic situation is worsened by the fact that James seems constantly at loggerheads with his authoritarian father. As Helen’s outbursts worsens the parents contact the Perkins School for the Blind who in turn send a former student (now teacher) to the Keller residency: Anne Sullivan, partially blind herself.
What ensues over the next hours is a sheer battle of wills not only between the stubborn child and her equally stubborn ‘teacher’ but initially Helen’s parents – in particular Captain Keller – disapprove of Anne’s unorthodox methods. Unfazed, Anne demands that the Kellers give her carte blanche, even insisting that she and Helen temporarily move into a nearby cottage usually occupied by one of the black families employed as farm workers. The scenes in which Anne tries to teach Helen to recognize sensations we would take for granted, and also teach her table manners such as folding a napkin and eating with cutlery (as opposed to simply grabbing food from plates, which her family allowed her to do) at first culminates in little more than food fights reminiscent of slapstick movies from the silent era though of course, here the issue is no laughing matter. Furthermore, Helen has the rather unpleasant habit of scratching and attacking every person trying to control her unruly behavior and it goes without saying that Anne ends up with more than just a few scratches. Ultimately though, her perseverance pays off… Once can only imagine how physically exhausting it must have been both for Duke and for Bancroft to rehearse those sense over and over.
Screenwriter Gibson may have indulged in some poetic license for dramatic effect for the real life Keller, it would seem, was a little more aware and could define a considerable number of senses at the age of seven when her lifelong mentor Anne Sullivan appeared on the scene. Many parents would have abandoned the case as Helen is seen as a little more than 'just a handful' but we can only begin to imagine what it must have been like for poor Helen. One might get the initial impression that a film engrossing such subject matter might not work and how wrong that would be. That said, the bravura performances of Bancroft and Duke do positive wonders! Both are here repeating their stage roles and deservedly won ‘Oscars’ (Duke later played Anne Sullivan in a remake). Practically all of the action takes place at the Keller homestead and what Sullivan actually achieved was nigh on a miracle – however, it was actually the touch of pumped water on Helen’s hands that provided the breakthrough. In the film, Anne Sullivan is forming letters with the girl's fingers throughout. In later life the real Helen Keller was not only able to read and write (hence the B.A.) but was a lecturer and famed social reformer, therefore one can only imagine the effort Helen Keller put into her own long life.
Director Arthur Penn (possibly now best known for ‘Bonnie and Clyde’) repeats easily his stage success with his two leads and writer William Gibson had Keller’s own 1902 autobiography The Story Of My Life as his basis for what may have appeared an unlikely Broadway success. The actual Helen Keller was seven years old when she first encountered Anne Sullivan. Patty Duke was in her 15th year when this film was made - although looking somewhat younger. It would not have been easy for a child of seven to play such a part. The film deserved the praise it received upon its 1962 theatrical release.