Grade: B+/A-
Entire family: No
1962, 106 min., Black-and-White
Olive Films
Not rated (would be PG for intense scenes of struggle)
Aspect ratio: 1.66:1
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 2.0 Mono
Bonus features: n/a
Amazon link

I saw The Miracle Worker in the theater when it was first released in 1962, and it affected me deeply. Patty Duke, who played young Helen Keller in the film, was close to my age, so naturally I pictured myself going through a similar struggle. I didn’t identify with her, but I put myself in her place.

These days, I don’t get the sense that young people do that as much. It’s more about interest or entertainment, and older films like this have a few strikes against them.

For one thing, The Miracle Worker is in black and white, and as terrific as it looks on Blu-ray, a generation born into color often has a hard time with anything other than eye-popping visuals. For another thing, drama in the ‘50s and early ‘60s was really melodrama, and the long lingering close-ups with dramatic music may seem a little soapy to contemporary audiences. And while indie films may still employ long takes, the average mainstream film has been edited to fit the shorter attention spans that seem to have evolved.

So when a nine-minute scene shows “miracle worker” Annie Sullivan (Anne Bancroft) physically wrestling with a blind child who has never been disciplined in her life, it could seem like an eternity to younger viewers. My daughter says she already saw the film in school, so teachers see value in it, and this is a pivotal scene. It’s intense, and shows why Bancroft won the Oscar for Best Actress and Duke won for Best Supporting Actress.

The Miracle Worker is worth watching for that scene alone and for this story about the “birth” of Helen Keller, who became the first deaf and blind person to earn a B.A. and gained national prominence as an advocate-activist for socialism and women’s rights. It was Keller’s teacher who gave her a language that would enable her to break through the isolation that led to frustration and wildness and tantrums, and this film captures her breakthrough.

Based on a 1959 teleplay, The Miracle Worker has a staged feel to it, with most of the shots filmed in the family dining room, guest house, and front yard. The action spans only a brief period of time. Set in Alabama in 1887, just 32 years removed from the Civil War when slaves were converted into servants, The Miracle Worker structurally has much in common with a Western. The plot turns on a stranger who comes to town, confronts a problem the townspeople cannot solve, and leaves when that problem has been addressed. It may have been all about language and teaching someone how to communicate, but watching some of the more violent scenes between Annie and the strong-willed Helen it’s hard not to think of a Western hero trying to tame a wild mustang.

In 2000, Disney backed a made-for-TV remake of The Miracle Worker, but the original is still the stronger film. Arthur Penn’s direction is downright brave, and though it’s primarily a two-character show, Victor Jory, Inga Swenson, and Andrew Prine, as the rest of the Keller family, each have a scene that contributes significantly to the film’s emotional punch . . . and it does pack a wallop, even 55 years later. That’s why the film is recommended for families with children of junior high age or older.