Wednesday, 29 April 2009

Helen Keller and Nicholas Monserrat's Esther Costello

Tucked away at the end of the free film channel on Sky TV is Simply Movies, a channel which shows quality films produced during my childhood and when a young man. Although I have an increasing number of number of cinema and TV DVD’s waiting to be viewed and which I am look forward with enthusiasm. I delay whenever I come across a gem of a film from a bygone age, especially those with a story which is of concern or priority interest to me.

Such was that of Ester Costello, a film which I have no recollection of seeing before but which combines three issues of profound significance. The film is based on a novel by Nicholas Monserrat, the author of the Cruel Sea.

I was much affected by this World War Two account of a small naval ship whose function it was to try and guard merchant convoys as they crossed the Atlantic and in addition to seeing the film several times over the years I also acquired a copy of the book. I was aware the Nicholas Monserrat had written several books about the war and the navy including Three Corvettes, HMS Marlborough will enter harbour, The Ship that died of shame (also made into a film) and HM Frigate. I knew nothing about the Life of Mr Monserrat 1910 to 1979 or that he had written this important book, albeit a melodrama, The Esther Costello Story..

Monserrat was educated at Winchester College and Trinity College Cambridge which suggests a family upbringing of some wealth and culture. However after deciding not to take up law, his original career intention, he became a freelance writer for newspapers to support himself while completing four novels and a play within five years until the outbreak of the second World War. Nor can I discover information about how be became a pacifist. He has written two autobiographical works which I assume cover his early years and his reasons for rejecting violence. At first he joined the ambulance brigade but then joined the Royal Naval Reserve and then took a commission serving on ships such as the corvettes designed to try and protect the merchant convoys. By the end of the war he had become the Commander of a Frigate. With a love of the sea, from sailing in his youth, he could have continued with a naval career, but in 1946 he resigned his commission and joined the diplomatic service with postings to South Africa and Canada. Then in 1959 after the success of some of his books he became a full time writer living in Guernsey and then the Gozo, Islands of Malta.

I can well understand why his work, the Esther Costello story created such a fuss when it was first released, especially in the USA and that the Helen Keller Foundation attempted to have the book banned and considered suing (according to Wikipedia). This was not surprising given the potential damage the film could have caused, setting back those working for organisations to assist in the care and treatment of the blind, the deaf and deaf blind. I can also understand that the similarity with aspects of the Helen Keller story could have been initially misinterpreted to suggest that author was saying something about the campaigning and fund raising aspects of her subsequent life. Then on considering the film, and the I presume the novel further it would have been appreciated that any similarities were just a commercial coat peg upon which to tell a very different story.

Helen Keller was born in 1880 and was a normal child of a well connected Southern family in the USA whose father had been a Confederate officer and her mother a cousin of Robert E Lee and whose father was a Confederate General. She could have expected a good life from such a background until illness struck her which at the time was not described as meningitis or scarlet fever. She became blind and deaf. She appears to have been about five years of age and would therefore have memory of the visual and sound, a most cruel and traumatic form of disability for both child and for her parents to bear.

I was brought up in a family environment which included an aunt who became deaf, blind, mute and eventually bedridden from meningitis in childhood. And later through my professional and managerial work I had responsibilities and contact with adults who were blind, (visually handicapped and then visual disabilities) terminology which society came to recognise were more acceptable terms, and the deaf, (hearing disabilities) for the same reason and which are also more accurate as it is rare for individuals to live in complete darkness for example. I also grew up knowing that I was different from others, although in my instance the potential disability was nothing like as horrifying, and was became the drive to achieve something with my life more than existing and surviving.

In the true story by good fortune the daughter of the cook, also a child decided that she would learn to communicate with Helen and helped her to learn some sixty signs which enabled her to communicate with the family.

At this point I want to begin the story of the film in which Joan Crawford plays a middle class city based separated married woman with no children who goes on a Family History trip to Ireland and is persuaded by the parish priest to visit the home of Esther Costello who she finds living in poverty with her grandmother after her mother perished in a storm which destroyed part of their home. The priest has worked out that since the break up of her marriage, the character played by Joan is living in a void and searching for something which has brought her to Ireland. He is able to tell her that medical opinion is that the disabilities were caused by the trauma of witnessing the death of her mother and that the experience prevents her from dealing with psychological causes of her condition.

Against her better judgement Joan is persuaded to take responsibility for the girl although at first she sees herself as providing the funds to take the girl to the best doctors and to provide for her upbringing. It is only after Harley Street Doctors confirm the Irish diagnosis that she decided that Esther should attend the best education and training establishment in the USA. It is at this point, given the rest of fictitious story that alarm bells would have sounded by all those concerned with Helen Keller and her story because there is reference to the Helen Keller and what was achieved by one to one teaching In the film this is undertaken by Joan Crawford under professional guidance

In the real life story of Helen Keller, her mother arranged for her daughter accompanied by her father to see the leading specialist and this led to being referred to the same establishment which had been successful with a child which Charles Dickens had written about and which had been read by Helen’s mother. This was the Perkins Institute for the Blind and it was the decision of the school’s Director to ask a former student, visually impaired and only twenty years of age, Anne Sullivan, to provide one to one tuition. Their relationship lasted for 49 years, later as governess and then as companion.

The method used involved touching the lips and throat, and finger spelling on the palm of the hand. It was only later that she learnt to read Braille, not just in English, but also French, German, Latin and Greek. Together the two were at the Perkins Institute for six years and then to New York two attend schools for Deaf, before turning to Massachusetts where Helen attended an establishment for young ladies and then in 1900 Radcliffe College and in 1904, aged 24 years. Helen became the first deaf and blind person to commence work for a Batchelor of Arts degree. This has to be put into the perspective of very few young women receiving higher education at that time, anywhere in the world compared to the number of men. Given the impact Helen had during her life it is fitting that tribute is given to Anne Sullivan who married in 1905 but maintained her companionship with Helen after her health became to deteriorate. In 1914 another young woman was hired to keep house who had not been trained communicate or had experience of working for the visually disabled. However she is said to have settled also became her secretary and remained companion. Anne Sullivan died in 1936 and Helen and Polly Thomson moved to Connecticut where they lived together for over two decades. Polly then had stroke in 1957 and died three years later in 1960. When Polly had a stroke Helen arranged for a nurse Winnie Corbally to care for her and she in turn stayed with Helen until her death in 1968.

In the film of Esther Costello very little is made of training after the opening sequences although she is also shown to have abilities which her disabilities and social position had masked. Very early on because of the interest of a journalist Joan needed little persuasion to use the child to promote interest and attention to the plight of others in a similar situation. From the outset Esther is portrayed as a willing subject who enjoys participating in the fun raising and public education mass presentations which have the appearance of a revivalist service and the herself as a circus novelty and freak. Joan as the substitute mother appears to have never hesitated or debated with the professionals the impact of this upon such a young girl.

This is where the film deviates significantly from the reality of the life Helen Keller which could explain why lawyers decided that legal action would not be successful.

In real life while Helen also campaigned on behalf of those with disabilities, but as an adult and where her main interests were political and social. She became a suffragist, a pacifist, she supported birth control and was fervent socialist being a member of the Socialist Party and supporting its candidate in his campaigns for the American Presidency. She help found the American Civil Liberties Union and founded an international organisation devoted to research in vision, health and nutrition. As a consequence of her work and interests she became an International celebrity, known to USA Presidents and to personalities in a wide range of fields, including Charlie Chaplin, Mark Twain and Alexander Graham Bell. She published twelve books.

I saw the film the Miracle Worker, and other films, including a Disney version either failed to mention or skipped over her commitment to socialism and social idealism, as well as her view of spirituality and religion about which she also wrote at length. Although this clearly was the intention of the book by Nicolas Monserrat Helen would have been very unpopular in the era of Senator McCarthy and anti communism which developed in the USA after the end of World War 2. There would have been many interests, some secretive wishing to discredit, one of the leading spokesperson on behalf of disability in the world.

The Story of Esther Costello is at one level a much more one dimensional feature in order to make a point of the danger that people with severe disabilities can be exploited to their detriment, and that funds raised at spectacular and emotion charged events can be diverted to the interests of others, together with the vulnerability of the disabled to criminal sexual violence as well as sexual exploitation which has been a feature of training establishments, especially those employing the visually disabled. This has been a secretive and dark aspect of specialist establishments in the UK and why I fully supported the approach of integration, not just among all forms of disability, but with the able bodied. I was fortunate to work for a local authority which had one of the best multipurpose centres in the UK, and where I was once the registered publican after a bar was incorporated and which because of suitability of the available space was located next to the chapel and where to the delight of the Bishop of Durham one Sunday morning he enjoyed a pint after taking the service.

Later a magnificent all sing and dancing centre which also provided a range of activities for the elderly was built in another part of the authority and not be outdone a third community helped raise the funds to provide a centre for those with disability to participate in social activities with the able bodied. Given the authority was then one of the smallest in terms of population size in England and Wales the choice and nature of facilities was unique. Nevertheless the local voluntary organisation for the visually disabled resisted involvement in part of the Borough preferring their own facility.

In the film, because of the publicity surrounding the success of Esther being able to communicate, the separated husband reappears and soon takes over responsibility for the exploitation of public interest in Esther and does a deal with someone who acts more as an Impresario than the chief executive of a charitable foundation. The role of the husband is played by the text book Latin Lover Rossano Brazzi. He and his henchman ignore pleas by Joan and Esther that the tours are too much with Rossano exploiting that Joan had remained in love with him despite his departure five years before. When Joan insists that they will give up the circus when the present worldwide tour ends and they return home, so that Esther can go to college, Rossano and his henchman plot to persuade Joan to change her mind. However Rossano has become more interested in the attractive sixteen year old than he has been about the money and lifestyle they are enjoying.

When he learns that his wife is away for the evening and he has the cover of taking a flight to Scotland where the tour ends, he returns to the hotel and rapes the girl before making the journey. When his wife she returns and finds Esther in distress she discovers one of her husband cuff link in the bed she work out what has occurred and takes a hand gun to meet him at the airport the following day. Although not shown it is understood that she kills him and then herself although their deaths are reported as a car accident on their way from the airport.

Early on in the film a young reporter takes an interested and as Esther develops into a young woman he falls in love with her and is hostile when his editor expresses concern at the money being raised and the lack of accountability. The reporter offers to investigate in order to prove his boss wrong and then finds the position is as bad as suggested. The two travel to London to expose the situation as a major event is scheduled to take place the following day. However before setting off to meet her husband at the airport Joan has arranged for the journalist to call at 3pm and we later learn she has also arranged for the Irish priest who introduced her to Esther to either fly over or call as he it had been arranged for him to attend the London event beforehand. The journalist expresses his horror at the way he believes the couple have exploited Esther for their own ends and Joan already intent on what she plans, does not attempt to explain that she has been ignorant of what has happened but fuels his concern by adding that things are far worse than he could have realised.

Given what has happened to her and the news that the woman who rescued her and became a substitute mother has been killed along with her husband, Esther is understandably hesitant about appearing at the show, especially as the shock of the rape has brought back her sight and speech as quickly as it was taken away. The film ends as she make her way towards the auditorium where she is now able to speak.

This 1957 Columbia released film was nominated for a Golden Globe I suspect because of the issues raised and the performance of Joan Crawford. I am not being unfair to Joan in saying as he was never part of the Hollywood glamour set, but she always delivered fine performances and in this film she brilliantly communicates the horror, grief and betrayal at what happens to Esther for the second time of her life and her feelings of guilt at allowing her emotions to have prevented her realising what was going on in terms of the funds raised and her husband’s criminal interest in her ward.

Nicolas Monserrat wrote two books about his life, the first a decade after the writing of Esther and the second a further decade later, so one of these might explain why he choose to switched from writing about the Navy and the sea, or Africa and the then colonies, what seems an unusual story for him and set primarily in the USA, especially as it was sandwiched between his wartime novels with the Cruel Sea earlier and the Ship that Died of Shame seven years after.

I will leave to another occasion further discussion of some of the issues raised in the film, and that a distinction has to be made between those charitable organisations, often religious led where those raising the funds live similar lives to those they are trying to help, from the professional organisations which have the same kind of executive and administrative and professional structure as their public sector colleagues, are remunerated to the same extent but have significantly less accountability.

A very different film on the same channel is If only you could Cook and 1935 piece of whimsy, the USA expression is screwball comedy, featuring Jean Arthur, one of the great actress of the Hollywood Golden era. Jean Arthur was born in 1900 and appeared in over 80 full length films as well as being an outstanding theatre actress. She is known for her appearances in the Mr Smith Goes to Washington and Me Deeds goes to Town as well as The Plainsman, Only Angels have Wings, The Devil and Miss Jones, The Talk of the Town, A Foreign Affair and in 1953, her only film photographed in Colour, Shane. She also appeared in two Dr Fu Manchu tales! In the late 1960’s she taught drama at what became Vassar college where one of her students was Meryl Streep. Her first marriage was annulled after it lasted one day. Later she married a producer which lasted for 17 years. She had no children.

In this silly film she plays an educated young woman searching the newspaper for work at the time of great depression. Herbert Marshall heads a corporation making cars and when his latest designs are rejected by the board as being too adventurous for the times, he walks off in a huff and joins Jean on the Park Bench. Mistaking him for someone also out of work and looking for job they come across a residential position for a cook and a Butler. She can cook and passes a sauce making test at thee interview with flying colours. I mention this because in the only review discovered the opposite is stated that she had to fake the cooking to get the job which suggests the reviewer was paying insufficient attention to the work. The Herbert Marshall character also takes his role as Butler seriously, returning to his home to study the work of his own man servant.
Given this was a Pre Second World War film, when Hollywood tried to pretend that sex even between married couples did not exist so they were frequently filmed in bedroom situations with twin beds how the couple cope with being married for their employers is part of the whimsy which many will find funny, ha ha

The situation quickly becomes farcical when they discover their employer is the head of a criminal gang and one of his henchmen is suspicious of their new Butler and finds out who he is and that he is due to get married, without knowing that this was to have been a marriage of convenience and that he is disenchanted with the idea and the way his life has developed. There are several twists, including the arrest of Jean Arthur and the kidnapping of Herbert Marshall before his wedding can take place. The outcome is a happy ever after relationship between the two.

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