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Eighteen-year-old Esther has been deaf and blind since the accident which killed her mother. Wealthy Margaret Landi, a native of Esther's village in Ireland, is talked into helping to educate and possibly heal Esther. Margaret grows to love Esther as a daughter, but finds Esther's innocence threatened by sleazy promoters and her own sleazy ex-husband. Radiant performance by Heather Sears. Based on a book that nearly had Helen Keller's co-workers suing for libel due to perceived parallels between Carlo Landi and the husband of Annie Sullivan. Written by
Unusual late-Crawford melodrama compelling but heavy-handed
Joan Crawford looked back on The Story of Esther Costello as her last "really top" movie and remarked that if she had earned her Oscar for Mildred Pierce, she should have gotten "two" for Esther Costello. Perhaps one each for the dramatic arches of her eyebrows, which by this stage of her career were pencilled in with such savage abandon that they could have spanned the wide Missouri.
The grim determination she brought to every role at this late stage in her career remains tauter than ever. As a wealthy American visiting her birthplace in Ireland, she is nudged by the local Padre to look in on poor Esther (Heather Sears), a girl rendered blind and deaf by the explosion of a grenade left over from the "troubles." and living in squalid poverty. Of course Crawford takes Esther back to America, where she finds her the best schools for those similarly afflicted. Soon, the heart-wrenching tale reaches the press, at the same time luring Crawford's long-lost husband (Rossano Brazzi) out of the hole he's been hiding in.
Implausibly, Crawford falls for him all over again, and succumbs to his grandiose schemes for national and European fund-raising rallies for the "Esther Costello Fund," a racket for his self-aggrandizement. He also drinks a lot and starts stealing peeks at the blind Esther slipping in and out of her clothes. (She's busting out of the schoolgirlish frocks and ribbons she's given to dress in.)
Along happens a young reporter who's also smitten with Esther but who starts suspecting that the racket is not on the up and up. From then on it's a race to see whether Brazzi's financial chicanery or his unhealthy interest catches up with him. Crawford does, however, and ends the melodrama a la Thelma Jordon.
The distinctive and responsive score is by Georges Auric, and Jack Clayton gets an odd credit that suggests he had more to do with the movie than its nominal director. The story is certain offbeat and interesting enough, but its social comment invariably defers to the lures of heavy melodrama. The film reaches a crescendo when Brazzi learns that Esther has been left alone; he slithers to her bedside while thunder crashes and the French doors blow open to let a torrent of rain into the room...You get the picture. It's the kind of touch that's effective to watch but which undermines any claim to a serious exploration of the unusual subject matter. It's that kind of literal heavy-handedness that led Lenny Bruce to devise an irreverent (and very funny) routine on this movie's story line.
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