Story of Esther Costello, The (1957): David Miller’s Melodrama, Starring Joan Crawford, Rossano Brazzi, Heather Sears

David Miller directed The Story of Esther Costello, a popular British melodrama film starring Joan Crawford, Rossano Brazzi, and Heather Sears.

The Story of Esther Costello

Original theatrical poster

The film is an exposé of large-scale fundraising. The Story of Esther Costello was produced by David Miller and Jack Clayton, with Miller directing. The screenplay by Charles Kaufman was based on the 1952 novel by Nicholas Monsarrat. It was distributed by Columbia Pictures.

With her marriage to womanizer Carlo Landi (Rossano Brazzi) in decline, the wealthy and childless Margaret Landi (Joan Crawford) finds an emotional outlet in patronizing Esther Costello (Heather Sears), a deaf and blind Irish girl of 15.

Esther’s disabilities, the result of a childhood trauma, are psychosomatic rather than physical. As Costello makes progress with Braille and sign language, her story is seen as triumph over adversity.

Carlo views Esther as a source of cheap financial gain and arranges exploitative tours for her under mercenary manager Frank Wenzel (Ron Randell).

When Margaret is absent from the Landi apartment, Carlo rapes the now 16-year-old Esther. The shock restores the girl’s sight and hearing. When Margaret learns of her husband’s business duplicities and the rape, she consigns Esther to the care of priest and young reporter who loves her (Lee Patterson).

In the end, Margaret kills Carlo and herself.

The film is based on Nicholas Monsarrat’s book that nearly had Helen Keller’s co-workers suing for libel due to perceived parallels between Helen’s story and Esther’s.

The book slurred the character of Anne Sullivan’s husband, writer-publicist John Macy, who was close to Keller’s age. A relationship between Macy and Keller has been subject of speculation.

Esther’s reporter friend was reminiscent of Keller’s publicized attempt to elope with reporter-secretary Peter Fagan.

The novel focuses on the falsehoods behind large-scale charities and the self-serving natures of those involved. When Esther recovers her sight and hearing, her promoters worry that it will put an end to the Costello Fund. She is coached to continue acting as deaf-blind for about a year; however, she makes several slips (some deliberate). Esther’s reporter friend discerns the truth and she tells him everything. He plans to write up the story, then marry her. But as he completes the story at the newspaper office, word comes that Esther has suddenly died. The official story is that she mistook a bottle of strong sedatives for mild sleeping pills.

When Harry confronts Margaret she maintains that she did not kill Esther, and continues the charade. The story can never be printed because Margaret and charity managers command money to fund a coverup. Even if the story were printed and people believed it, it would smear Esther’s name and disillusion the people who believe in the charity, and other honest charities. The novel closes with Margaret, robed in black, delivering a speech at a convention, with millions of attendees opening their wallets.

The film was the 11th most popular film at the British box office in 1957.

Joan Crawford as Margaret Landi
Rossano Brazzi as Carlo Landi
Heather Sears as Esther Costello
Lee Patterson as Harry Grant
Ron Randell as Frank Wenzel
Fay Compton as Mother Superior
John Loder as Paul Marchant
Denis O’Dea as Father Devlin
Sidney James as Ryan
Bessie Love as Matron in Art Gallery
Robert Ayres as Mr. Wilson
Sally Smith as Susan North
Maureen Delaney as Jennie Costello
Harry Hutchinson as Irish publican
Tony Quinn as Irish pub customer
Janina Faye as Esther Costello, as a child
Victor Rietti as Signor Gatti
Wilfred Bramble as man in pub (uncredited)


Directed by David Miller
Written by Charles Kaufman, based on The Story of Esther Costello, 1952 novel by Nicholas Monsarrat
Produced by Jack Clayton, David Miller
Cinematography Robert Krasker
Edited by Ralph Kemplen
Music by Lambert Williamson

Production company: Romulus Films

Distributed by Columbia Pictures

Release date: November 6, 1957

Running time: 127 minutes
Box office $1,075,000 (US rentals)