- The Story of Esther Costello (1957) movie review: Outlandish situations can be found everywhere you look in David Miller’s British-made melodrama with shades of, to name two titles, The Miracle Worker and The Spiral Staircase. Joan Crawford, however, is the ultimate – and ultimately stylish – pro.
The Story of Esther Costello movie review: Joan Crawford is the stylishly garbed heart of an otherwise absurd psychological melodrama
Joan Crawford gets top billing in David Miller’s 1957 melodrama The Story of Esther Costello, the maudlin tale – at least nominally – of a deaf, mute, and blind orphan girl (Best British Actress BAFTA winner Heather Sears) from an Irish village.
Dressed like she’s ready to open a Pepsi bottling plant in County Down, Crawford’s wealthy, miserable, and childless Margaret Landi 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 the girl in the best school for the deaf and blind that her money can buy. Esther learns so miraculously fast that Margaret starts teaching her the manual alphabet and hand-to-mouth lip reading.
Yet all doesn’t go smoothly at first. When, in a fit of frustration, Esther has a temper outburst, Margaret slaps her on the face. She later explains, “I didn’t mean to slap her, but I had to.” (Something Crawford must have said about Christina on many an occasion.)
Later on, Margaret’s impassioned plea for the handicapped gets a favorable response from the public and soon donations start rolling into the Esther Costello Fund.
That’s when the real trouble begins.
Margaret’s estranged husband, Carlo (Rossano Brazzi), who knows a good opportunity when he sees one, comes out of the woodwork to attempt to gain control of his wife’s charitable organization so he can embezzle its funds. And just like a man, he uses his sex appeal to subdue Margaret and seduce Esther.
Jealousy over Carlo’s roving eye and guilt over how the Esther Costello Fund is being run lead Margaret to become increasingly wary of her husband.
Before The Story of Esther Costello is over we also get a case of rape and death. (We can tell that something bad has happened to Esther by the broken vase and the rainstorm outside.)
There’s more: Esther suddenly regains her sight and hearing. Never mind all that time she wasted attending school for the deaf and blind. All she needed was some violent sex to cure her psychosomatic disabilities.
Joan Crawford packs a rod
To her credit, Joan Crawford takes hold of the melodramatic situations, packing a rod like she did in Mildred Pierce, Possessed, and Flamingo Road. In fact, I must note that The Story of Esther Costello should actually have been called “The Story of Margaret Landi,” as the movie’s focus keeps reverting to Margaret’s unending wardrobe changes.
Now, in all fairness, this isn’t Joan Crawford’s worst picture. After all, she still gets to slap a publicity agent and knock a drink out of Rossano Brazzi’s hand. The film’s chief problem is its lack of verisimilitude; after all, Esther is no more Helen Keller than Margaret is Anne Sullivan.
And here’s where I explain that The Story of Esther Costello director David Miller had previously helmed Joan Crawford’s 1952 star vehicle Sudden Fear, which earned her a Best Actress Oscar nomination and had another narrative I couldn’t believe one word of.
And here’s where I add that future Oscar nominee Charles Kaufman (Freud, 1962) was credited for the screenplay of The Story of Esther Costello, having adapted the 1952 novel by Nicholas Monsarrat (better known for his sea stories, e.g., Corvette Command, The Cruel Sea).
Lastly, on the positive side it’s fun seeing former silent film star Bessie Love (whose Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer musical The Broadway Melody was the first Academy Award-winning talkie) in a brief cameo as a rich society lady in the art gallery.
To have been a fly on the wall to hear the conversations that these three dynamos must have had about the old MGM days.
The Story of Esther Costello (1957)
Director: David Miller.
Screenplay: Charles Kaufman.
From Nicholas Monsarrat’s 1952 novel.
Cast: Joan Crawford. Rossano Brazzi. Heather Sears. Lee Patterson. Ron Randell. Fay Compton. John Loder. Denis O’Dea. Sidney James. Bessie Love. Robert Ayres. June Clyde. Megs Jenkins.
“The Story of Esther Costello (1957): Preposterous Crawford Melodrama” review text © Danny Fortune; excerpt, image captions, bullet point introduction, and notes/endnotes © Alt Film Guide.
“The Story of Esther Costello (1957) Movie Review” notes
The Miracle Worker
 Likely just a coincidence, but William Gibson’s teleplay The Miracle Worker was first aired on Playhouse 90 in 1957 – the same year The Story of Esther Costello came out – with Arthur Penn directing Teresa Wright as Anne Sullivan and Patty McCormack as Helen Keller.
Again under Penn’s direction, both Bancroft and Duke would win Oscars for their work in the 1962 movie version.
“The Story of Esther Costello (1957)” endnotes
Heather Sears, Lee Patterson, Rossano Brazzi, and Joan Crawford The Story of Esther Costello movie images: Columbia Pictures.
“The Story of Esther Costello (1957): Preposterous Crawford Melodrama” last updated in October 2021.