The Miracle Worker (1979) Blu-ray Review

Patty Duke Returns to the Gripping Story of Helen Keller

Patty Duke returned to the property that made her a household name (and the youngest Oscar winner in history) with this 1979 television adaptation of The Miracle Worker. Playing Helen Keller as a teenager in the 1962 movie adaptation, it made Patty Duke a rising star in Hollywood. She would quickly become a television star on her own show, The Patty Duke Show.

First airing on television in a rarely-seen telefilm, The Miracle Worker would go on to become a hit Broadway show before getting adapted into the 1962 film featuring Patty Duke. That role earned the teenager an Academy Award, at the time the youngest to ever win the acting award.

This time around, Patty Duke plays Helen Keller’s devoted teacher. William Gibson’s gripping play famously adapts the autobiography of Helen Keller, a troubled deaf and blind mute whose inspiring personal story has captivated audiences for decades.

After a stage revival in the late 1970s with Duke now playing the role of Helen’s feisty teacher, Annie Sullivan, it was then turned back into a television movie for NBC. The Miracle Worker (1979) won three Primetime Emmy awards when that actually meant something. A young Melissa Gilbert (Little House of the Prairie) takes over the role of Helen Keller. Other cast members include Diana Muldaur, Charles Siebert and Anne Seymour.

The story of Helen Keller is a profoundly moving testament to the human spirit and overcoming personal disability. A young girl is blind, deaf and mute almost from birth, unable to communicate with her family. Locked in an internal prison of her own mind, the young Helen throws tantrums and is treated with pity by her surrounding family.

Exasperated, her parents call in a governess to watch over their difficult and unruly child. Annie Sullivan hopes she can reach Helen and teach her language through hand gestures. Helen’s erratic and wild behavior requires a steel will by the young teacher. With love and patience from Annie, Helen eventually learns how to communicate with the world.

This 1979 television adaptation drew attention with Patty Duke now playing the teacher, taking over the role that actress Anne Bancroft won for Best Actress in the theatrical movie. Duke elicits a real toughness in her stubborn portrayal, effortlessly becoming Helen’s determined teacher. It’s a performance that netted Patty Duke a Primetime Emmy and helped revitalize her career.

Interestingly enough, it hints at Annie possibly having mental issues. Patty Duke would ultimately be diagnosed as having Bipolar disorder in 1982 and would become a spokesperson for mental health issues.

Gilbert earns our sympathies as the deaf and blind Helen, helplessly trapped alone in her own mind

A young Melissa Gilbert credibly plays the afflicted Helen, a tough role for any actress. It’s a physical, draining performance that has to convey understanding and emotion without any dialogue. This is one of the most demanding roles possible for a teenager. Gilbert earns our sympathies as the deaf and blind Helen, helplessly trapped alone in her own mind. While this adaptation is a step behind the power of the Oscar-winning movie, it’s an excellent remake in its own right that remains highly watchable.

The Miracle Worker has been made in so many different forms, from stage to screen, that it’s easy to forget its tender power to move audiences. This television production comes from an era when the networks would spend real money producing movies for broadcast. It’s a high-quality effort with a strong cast and excellent production values. I’m sure that NBC was thinking Emmy awards when they put this together. The result is a heart-warming, inspiring movie that captures human tenacity and ingenuity in its infinite capacity to overcome personal limitations.

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Video

The Miracle Worker is easily the best film transfer I’ve ever seen from a VCI release on Blu-ray. The film elements are in spectacular condition. The film-like presentation has crisp definition and lively colors. There isn’t much evidence of extraneous processing. A few stray halos are virtually negligible.

The 2018 restoration is credited to Blair and Associates, which I have not heard of before this disc. It’s a commendable job from pristine elements and results in a quality catalog release. I would strongly guess this is a new transfer from the original negative.

The 98-minute main feature is presented at its original 1.33:1 broadcast ratio. The disc is a BD-25. Encoded in finely-tuned AVC, there is real detail and excellent resolution throughout the film. Definition and high-frequency detail remain impressively intact on this Blu-ray presentation.

The Miracle Worker has that crisp, clean cinematography that was still popular for television in the 1970s and 1980s. Television productions around that time hadn’t dipped into the grainier film stocks and gritty cinematography that pervaded much of that era’s theatrical films. It’s a film transfer that looks fairly organic with a mild grain structure that hasn’t been filtered away.

The only quibble is a single, odd change in the normally bright and warm color timing. It happens near the end of the first act at around the 35-minute mark for around 30 seconds. The presentation’s warm, lovely color palette go dark with obvious contrast changes and then immediately revert back.

Audio

The original monaural audio is heard in serviceable, if ordinary, 2.0 PCM sound. The Miracle Worker is a dialogue-driven affair with little room for extensive sound design. Some hiss in the upper registers is noticeable.

Dialogue is clean, intelligible and smoothly integrated with the light musical score. Television audio was still largely timid and unremarkable in this period, so expansive sound wasn’t common.

Optional English SDH play in a white font. French and Spanish dubs are included in PCM quality.

Extras

No special features have been included.

Full disclosure: This Blu-ray release was provided to us for review by the label. For information on how we handle all review material, please visit our about us page to learn more about DoBlu’s editorial policies.

The Miracle Worker
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The Miracle Worker (1979)

Patty Duke’s televised return to Helen Keller’s story was a major success. The moving TV film remains a powerful and captivating tale.

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