Penn #3 – The Miracle Worker (1962)

“Wah wah” as “Eureka.”

The Story

Scarlet fever wrecks Alabama toddler Helen Keller, leaving her permanently blind and deaf. Years later, Helen (Patty Duke) is locked in her own head, nearly feral, and her desperate family asks specialist Anne Sullivan (Anne Bancroft) to reach her. Teacher and unwilling student go to war over simple tasks like holding a spoon, but just as Helen seems poised to win the conflict, a breakthrough at the water pump sparks her connection to the rest of the world.

The Production

The Miracle Worker was only Arthur Penn’s second film, but the director had worked on the project for years. The story began as a teleplay written by William Gibson (no, not that William Gibson) and directed by Penn as a 1957 episode of anthology TV series Playhouse 90, a success that led to a Broadway version in 1959, also guided by Penn. It was on stage that Penn first cast Bancroft and Duke into their iconic roles and, like the episode, the production was a runaway hit.


Smelling money, Hollywood began to circle the story. United Artists, seeing a film version as a potential vehicle for Elizabeth Taylor, snatched up the rights, and hired Penn to recreate his Broadway experience for the movies. Surprisingly, Penn’s first major decision was to dump Taylor. Penn vowed to retain Bancroft as the lead and held firm through months of negotiation until UA eventually caved, but with one major concession: the planned $2 million shooting budget was slashed to under $700k.

Penn’s gamble paid off huge, both for UA, who cashed in when the film hit big, and for Bancroft, who made her career on the role. The Miracle Worker earned five Oscar nominations, including the first of three Best Director nods for Penn, and won two for Bancroft and Duke’s performances. Ironically, the only one dissatisfied with the film was Penn, who felt he relied too heavily on the play and sometimes spoke of a remake. That never happened, but he did direct a sequel play in 1982 about Helen’s college years entitled Monday after the Miracle.

pictured: Science

The Issue

The Miracle Worker is arguably Arthur Penn’s most popular film and, not coincidentally, his least political. Helen’s true story is compelling enough on its own, leaving little room for social commentary. I’ve always found it interesting, however, how Penn takes the time to bring the Kellers’ poor, black servants into the shot, if only to observe Helen’s wild behavior. These characters don’t affect the narrative, but they stand as silent reminders that Helen is a child of privilege. If a black child had been so afflicted, Anne Sullivan would have never been called.

The Scene

The Miracle Worker spends much of its running time teetering back and forth between cinema and stage, transposing moving and haunting images with static shots of people screaming at each other. While the film’s tone can be uneven, the infamous “breakfast scene” is one moment where the recipe is exactly right. The scene’s single location and lack of cutaway shots betray its stage origins, but the struggle—one of the best in the movies, if you ask me—is told entirely through movement, and through facial expressions that run from rage to exasperation.

Note how the frantic camera movements add to the tension of the scene, rather than distract from it. Penn told his camera operators to keep the angle wide, but to point the camera at whatever interested them, which most of the time was Duke. She pulls the camera with her like a magnet, becoming the scene’s focus. We know Anne has won when there’s change at the center.


It’s not unusual for the public to disagree with an artist’s perception of his work, but The Miracle Worker is a special case. Usually, this kind of pop reexamination works against the artist, who ends up wondering where all the rotten apples came from. It’s rarer for the world to totally embrace a film that the artist can’t stand. Arthur Penn spent a long career looking down his nose at The Miracle Worker, which he regarded as a stylistic hodgepodge, a failure to adapt to the medium. Primarily, he believed he wasted time on Helen’s screeching parents who vocalize (and vocalize) Anne’s challenge. Penn felt the audience would get the point with a simple closeup of Helen, and he could therefore dial the melodrama down a few notches on the burner.

Like, a lot of notches.

This strikes me as failing to see the well for the water. Penn is correct that The Miracle Worker could use much less of the Kellers. They’re flat characters who exist only to add an artificial obstacle to Anne. Why do they invite Anne to their home at great expense, only to spend the rest of the movie ordering her not to interfere? Because, in the play, Anne needs someone to talk to who can talk back. In film, a medium about showing, this becomes much less urgent.

But the Kellers (and the cringe-inducing earnestness of the big “wah wah” moment) are minor annoyances in a film that’s at times eerie, artful, and slyly unconventional. The easy way to tell the story would be to tell it flat; the plot is certainly compelling enough without bells and whistles. But Penn, still experimenting with an artistic style that he’d fully embrace for Mickey One, frames the plot as a true-life horror tale, and casts Helen as the monster, wandering, arms outstretched, clutching at whatever crosses her path as a means to keep sane. Rather than draft a historical pamphlet, a movie-of-the-week in period garb, Penn makes the story about our fears, fear of losing our senses, of losing control, of losing society and returning to an animal state. When Anne breaks through to Helen, it isn’t just communication. Anne’s “miracle” restores Helen’s humanity, and the moment is deeply cathartic.

The film is anchored by Bancroft and Duke’s tremendous performances. They give and take from each other with ease, and they share a kinship and a chemistry that can only come from over 700 Broadway performances together. It’s the combination of their talents and Penn’s instincts that give the film its oomph. “Wah wah” aside, Penn’s version of the final pump scene has an uncommon and unusual strength that revivals—such as the dim 1979 TV remake which cast Duke in the elder role and Melissa Gilbert as Helen—misses by an Alabama mile. Part of this is performance. Duke, in particular, is unrestrained joy as she bounces from object to object, learning its name. But Penn assists by adding delicate insert shots, such as a close up of the water drops glistening on Helen’s hand that gives us that tiny moment of realization, of feeling as Helen feels, and making the connection ourselves.

Arthur Penn was right. The Miracle Worker could be better. But, hey, what Penn made is still pretty damn good. In a career filled with stories about misfits striking out on their own, Penn found a unique power in filming the story of a misfit being brought back to the fold. As a result, his film connected with audiences and he found himself with his one, unabashed, bonafide hit. He spent the rest of his career trying to live it down.

The Arthur Penn Project

14. Penn & Teller Get Killed (1989)

13. Four Friends (1981)

12. Target (1985)

11. Dead of Winter (1987)

10. The Missouri Breaks (1976)

9. Inside (1996)

8. Alice’s Restaurant (1969)

7. The Chase (1966)

6. The Left Handed Gun (1958)

5. Night Moves (1975)

4. Mickey One (1965)

3. The Miracle Worker (1962)

2. ???

  1. #1 by Gelpi2011 on 07/12/2011 - 11:01 PM

    Sorry, I do disagree with you about the parents – they serve an essential function in the narrative. For me, The Kellers represent the “the Establishment”. Sullivan is a revolutionary, an iconoclast to the core. Her methods, her persona, are a threat to traditional thinking and popular wisdom.

    Sullivan is attempting to do something new and she needs to convince the parents to think out of the box. She has to buck the system in order to get to where she needs to be. Yes, The Kellers want Sullivan to succeed but they also fear her; she’s shaking up their entire value system. That’s what all great people do.

    Also, let’s not forget that Sullivan and Helen are two females in the 19th Century. The Kellers have set the bar very low because it is all about a “daughter”, not a son, and they are dealing with a female teacher. Sullivan understands her limitations as both a servant and a woman, and she is able to manipulate The Father on multiple occasions – watch the scenes between Bancroft and Jory. I’ve seen the play on stage and I don’t get the same feeling. Misogyny is brilliantly implied (in the movie).

    Maybe, just maybe, Arthur Penn, the lover of outsiders, at a subconscious level, made The Kellers the “villains” of the piece, antagonists we all love to hate: mainstream America. It makes Sullivan a much more endearing heroine. She’s able to prove to “the Establishment” that the crazy persons of today are often the genius of tomorrow.

    • #2 by thehollywoodprojects on 07/13/2011 - 3:13 PM

      Once again, we disagree, but I’ll concede at least one of your points: Anne Sullivan’s feminism is a valuable arc in the film and one that I thought long and hard about when writing my review before deciding to leave it be. It may not look like it, but I try to keep my reviews within a certain word count, and I knew I wouldn’t have the room to say what I wanted to say AND give Anne her due as a character.

      However, as much as I agree with you on the value in the way she stands up to the parents, it’s the execution I object to. I disagree with Penn that the parents could have been almost completely excised (some of his interviews are really venomous about the parents in the film, and the father in particular. He never faults the actors, just his reliance on them) but I certainly believe the film could stand LESS of them. We get the point fairly quickly, and what we’re left with is endless shouting matches that seem to spin their wheels and distract from the true heart of the drama, which is Sullivan and Helen. The battle between Helen and Anne is always moving forward. The conflict between Anne and the Kellers is a dead end, dramatically. They might as well be a brick wall that Anne flings herself into on occasion, just to see if this time it gives. To me, the film’s chemistry has all the right components, but the mix is off.

      But, only slightly. I still placed this film high up on the list for a reason. The Miracle Worker is a very strong movie, with or without all of the shrill screaming.

      (And, incidentally, it’s the mother I’m annoyed with even more than the father. The way her maternal obsession is laid out there is condescending and offensive. She has almost no rational thoughts in the movie. It’s all “I want my baby girl” over and over and over ad nauseum.)

%d bloggers like this: