As Margaret Landi, Joan Crawford gets top billing in the 1957 melodrama The Story of Esther Costello, a maudlin tale of a deaf, blind, mute, orphan girl, Esther (Heather Sears), she meets in Ireland. Crawford, dressed like she was ready to open a Pepsi bottling plant in County Down, feels sorry for Esther and takes the little waif under her wing.
On their first night together, Margaret teaches Esther to clap her hands whenever she's got to tee-tee, then promptly enrolls her in the best school for the deaf and blind that her money can buy. All doesn't go smoothly at first. In a fit of frustration, the girl has a temper outburst and Margaret slaps her face, later claiming, “I didn't mean to slap her, but I had to.” (Something Crawford must have said about Christina on many an occasion.) Miraculously (and unbelievably), Esther learns fast, so Margaret teaches her the manual alphabet and hand-to-mouth lip reading.
Eventually, Margaret's impassioned plea gets a favorable response from the public and soon donations start rolling into the Esther Costello Fund. And that's when the trouble begins.
Margaret's estranged husband, Carlo (Rossano Brazzi), who knows a good opportunity when he sees one, comes out of the woodwork and attempts to gain control of the charitable organization and embezzle its funds. And just like a man, he uses his sex appeal to subdue Margaret and then seduce Esther. Jealousy over Carlo's roving eye and guilt over funneling funds cause Margaret to become suspicious.
Rape and death also take place before The Story of Esther Costello is over. (We can tell that something bad happened to the girl by the broken vase and the rainstorm outside.) Also, miraculously Esther regains her sight and hearing. Never mind all those years she wasted going to deaf-blind school. All she needed was some violent sex to cure her disabilities.
Crawford, to her credit, takes hold of the situation and packs a rod, like she did in Mildred Pierce, Possessed, and Flamingo Road. (Although the plot supposedly revolves around the life of the handicapped girl, the movie should have been called “The Story of Margaret Landi,” as its focus keeps reverting to her many wardrobe changes.)
The Story of Esther Costello isn't Joan Crawford's worst picture. After all, she still gets to slap a publicity agent in the face and knock a drink out of Brazzi's hand. The film's chief problem is its lack of credibility. Esther is no more Helen Keller than Margaret is Anne Sullivan. (The Story of Esther Costello was directed by David Miller, who also helmed the 1952 Crawford vehicle Sudden Fear — which had another storyline I couldn't believe one word of.)
Nevertheless, it was fun to see former silent film star Bessie Love in a brief cameo as a rich society lady in the art gallery. I've also read that Ramon Novarro visited Crawford, his Across to Singapore (1928) leading lady, on the Esther Costello set. I like to imagine the conversations about the old MGM days that these three dynamos must have had.
© Danny Fortune
The Story of Esther Costello (1957). Dir.: David Miller. Scr.: Charles Kaufman; from Nicholas Monsarrat's novel. Cast: Joan Crawford, Rossano Brazzi, Heather Sears, Lee Patterson, Ron Randell, Fay Compton, John Loder, Denis O'Dea, Sid James, Bessie Love