Saturday, June 12, 2010

The Story of Esther Costello

It's wonderfully ironic that a movie whose villains are sleazy publicity hounds had such a ridiculously trashy publicity campaign. Posters and trailers for the film bore the words, "The management of this theater sincerely believes that "The Story of Esther Costello" will not offend any emotionally mature person of either sex. We recommend it for our adult patrons and more-informed teenagers." (Well that rules out the Nipper, surely!) And the geniuses in marketing didn't stop there. About half-way through the trailer, we get this:

I was planning to discuss this film without spoilers but when the trailer pretty much gives the whole story away, I don't feel such discretion is necessary. Please don't reveal what happens in my post. Oh, wait, I want you to so that you'll bring a crowd of more-informed teenagers to my blog.

The its first hour, this film is a pretty standard, well-acted melodrama, but about halfway through, the script jumps into Lake Whatisthiscrazyshit and doesn't come up for air till the last frame. Joan Crawford plays a rich American woman, Margaret Landi, "permanently separated" from her cheating husband, who goes to Ireland to revisit her youth. Her local priest foists a charity project on her--a deaf, blind, mute girl named Esther Costello (Heather Sears). At first, Margaret resists, but she is moved by Esther's plight and takes the girl to London to see specialists. The doctors reveal that there's nothing wrong with Esther's eyes and ears: her condition was caused by an emotional trauma she suffered in an accident. A bit of a stretch, I'd say, but we aren't in Magnificent Obsession territory--yet.

A series of montages show Esther in America making slow progress at a special school. In one scene, Esther throws a tantrum and Margaret smacks her one. (Take care if you play this movie as a drinking game. Chugging every time Joan Crawford smacks someone will likely result in a blackout). After that, Esther decides she really does know her sign language after all. She becomes a superstar on the deaf-mute inspirational lecture circuit of Catholic schools in Boston. Like an indie band out on tour for the first time, she slowly builds up buzz until she draws the attention of a newspaper reporter, Harry Grant (Lee Patterson). After Harry writes an article calling Margaret a saint, Esther starts touring the country, and a foundation is created in her name. One day, 45 minutes into the movie, the foundation gets a check from Margaret's husband, Carlo (Rossano Brazzi), heretofore not seen in the film. Margaret decides to look Carlo up and the pair are reunited.

The next morning, we see Carlo and Margaret in bed together. Actually, it's two twin beds pushed fairly close together, because, after all, there is still a Production Code to be looked after. Emotional maturity was required to view the moment when Carlo, naked to the waist, is introduced to the young lady who will be his adopted daughter. She's blind, of course, but we're not. I confess I didn't make it through this awkward scene without some Beavis-and-Butthead-style giggling.

Carlo brings in a sleazy publicity agent to manage Esther's fundraising tour. They put together creepy, fascistic rallies in sports stadiums around the country, and begin skimming from the foundation. Nice. As if Carlo weren't enough of a dirt bag, he also begins to indulge inappropriate feelings for Esther. Meanwhile, she has a nice, innocent romance with the young reporter. They don't so much kiss as bump their faces together affectionately.

The story descends into familiar Mildred Pierce territory, as Carlo becomes jealous of the face bumping guy and Margaret increasingly jealous of Carlo. Here's where the crazy comes in. Margaret busts him deliberately under-reporting the take at a fundraising rally, and she does nothing. A few days later, she catches him watching Esther undress. Does she dump him immediately? No, she smacks Esther for forgetting to close her curtains, plans to send her away to college and gives Carlo no choice but to end the tour. Wait a sec! This is a guy you've already left once for cheating on you and you don't see these big red flags waving around! Nope.

Meanwhile, Harry the reporter starts to dig into the financial management of the foundation and doesn't like what he sees. His boss plans to print his story to coincide with Esther's big rally in Nuremberg-- I mean London.

While in London, Margaret has to go to Brighton to cancel an upcoming date on the tour. Carlo is supposed to go to Glasgow, but he decides to stay behind, realizing that this might be his last chance to get Esther alone. He walks around London trying to look evil but seems more like a trench coat advertisement. He goes back to the palatial rented digs, finds Esther asleep and rapes her. The scene isn't exactly graphic, but clever cutting away to a storm blowing in Esther's French doors leaves little doubt about what happens.

The next day, Esther wakes up--distraught about the assault but miraculously able to see and hear again. This is the biggest WTF moment in the whole shootin' match. Apparently, movie blind-deaf-muteness is cured much like movie amnesia--one trauma causes the condition, a second can magically fix everything. Hooray!

Harry arrives and confronts Margaret about the financial indiscretions . Having just found one of Carlo's cufflinks in Esther's bed, she gives Harry permission to take Esther away. They both find out that Esther is magically cured. Oh, that's gonna look good in the papers.

Margaret grabs a gun. Finally, I thought, she sees some sense. She's going to shoot her dirtbag husband. But no: she picks him up at the airport, shows him the cufflink, bundles him iton the car and then drives into oncoming traffic, killing them both. I guess that's easier than divorcing an Italian national in the 1950s.

Yo, baby have you heard? Sex with me cures blind-deaf-muteness.

The management of this blog recommends this campy, strange melodrama for those with a finely-honed sense of the ridiculous.


Sophie said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Sophie said...

"Take care if you play this movie as a drinking game. Chugging every time Joan Crawford smacks someone will likely result in a blackout."

Haha - doesn't Joan act full of anger in almost all of her films? (;

Wonderful review - I really want to see it now! Also, amazing blog! (:

Moira Finnie said...

Your review was much better than this movie, which I have seen at least three times since childhood (I was never a 'well-informed teenager' so I had to get my dirt where I could find it). Thanks so much for writing about this trash.

eva said...

I think my favourite 'slap' in this movie is definitely when Joan hits Frank Wenzel with her bag. HA!

Jennythenipper said...

Hi Sophie and welcome. I think Joan had a certain tempestuous quality. You just wait for her to get wound up and snap. That's what made her an interesting actor.

Wow, Moira, I'm impressed that you could watch it three times. I'm topped out at twice, I'm afraid.

Eva, yeah, that's a doozy. If I were a better blogger, I'd have figured out how to edit video so that I could make a slap montage for you all.

佩芳 said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Irena said...

I don't know if I will ever watch this movie but I sure enjoyed reading your review!!!
Regarding Joan Crawford's tempestuous quality -
I think her dancing is equally tempestuous. Have you seen "The Dancing Lady"? By the way, it was Fred Astaire's first screen appearance.
I half expected Joan to dance out a hole in the floor or to smash to pieces some unfortunate creature that came in her dancing way.:)

Jennythenipper said...

I haven't seen Dancing Lady, Irena. As you can probably tell from my posts I have a love/hate relationship with Joany. I love that she was truly a great actress and star, but I hate that she acted petty and ridiculous a lot. I also think she could go over the top in her acting to the detriment of the whole production. When she was in the right part, though (Mildred Pierce) look out! What a star!

Sarah said...

"Yo, baby have you heard? Sex with me cures blind-deaf-muteness."
That's pretty much the message I took away from this a well-informed teen.