"Joan Crawford was fifty, and film offers grew scarce. Her agents were hesitant to mention a proposal from James and John Woolf, whose Romulus Films had produced BEAT THE DEVIL and MOULIN ROUGE, because the project had three drawbacks: it would be filmed in England, the script contained a spectacular role for a young actress, and Joan's salary would be reduced.Joan Crawford: A Biography, by Bob Thomas.
The movie was originally called THE GOLDEN VIRGIN, but later changed to THE STORY OF ESTHER COSTELLO. Joan was pleased with the casting of Rossano Brazzi as her villainous husband, and although she would be working abroad for the first time, she felt secure because David Miller, who had directed SUDDEN FEAR would function as both director and producer.
Crawford was cast as a wealthy American woman who takes a deaf and blind girl out of Irish squalor and launches a fund drive for help, only to have her efforts thwarted by the Italian philanderer she married. A promising English actress, Heather Sears, was selected to play the girl. Joan's arrival in London gave the English reporters plenty to write about. First came the white Pepsi-Cola vans bearing Crawford's thirty-seven pieces of luggage, all monogrammed "J.C." Then came the limousine with Joan and Al Steele. She carried a stuffed white poodle which replaced her own dog, left in America because of the six-month British quarantine.
THE STORY OF ESTHER COSTELLO was Joan Crawford's last film for almost three years.
The story revolves around Heather Sears' character, Esther - blind, deaf and mute since early childhood, when she was caught in a traumatic explosion which also killed her mother. (Unlike Helen Keller, Esther's disabilities are believed to be psychological in origin). She is rescued from squalor and abuse by the wealthy Margaret Landi (Joan Crawford) and, over time, learns how to communicate with others via sign language. Together, Margaret and Esther tour the U.S. and Europe, raising money for the disabled, and it is during this time that Margaret is surprised by a check from her husband, Carlo, from whom she is separated. As the husband she knew was little more than a con man, her curiosity is piqued and she calls upon him, finding him working in an art gallery. He convinces her that he has changed, and, believing in him once more, is happily reunited with him. And under Carlo's guidance, the tour becomes more and more ambitious, and the funds they raise even greater than before.
Meanwhile, Esther (now a beautiful young girl) has attracted the attention of an idealistic young journalist who does a story about her, and falls in love with her as well. Margaret is delighted at this, but Carlo begins to jealously block the young man's access to Esther, as his feelings for her begin to subtly shift from protectiveness to obsession. At the same time, the journalist's editor believes the "Esther Costello Foundation" may be even too successful, and wonders where the money is going.
Exhausted, Margaret finally begs Carlo to cut the tour short, and he agrees, half-heartedly, seeing his ready supply of cash dwindling to an end. About to be sent on a last minute business meeting in Glasgow, he learns that Margaret has left Esther in the hands of a nanny, and that she is alone. Returning to their hotel, he rapes the girl and then leaves for Glasgow, believing that she cannot express what has happened to her. Unfortunately, he loses a cufflink during the struggle, and, unbeknownst to him, the trauma of the assault has unlocked Esther's memory of speech and sound. Margaret returns, learns what has happened and is overcome with guilt for exposing Esther to such danger. Heartbroken, she places Esther in the capable hands of the young journalist who loves her, pulls a pistol out of her suitcase and leaves for the airport to meet her husband's returning flight. When the next day's papers tell of the "Esther Costello Tragedy", Esther, now able to speak, see and hear, prepares to face life - and love - without Margaret, her mentor, her "mother", and her friend.
Carlo Landi may be one of Rossano's less likeable screen characters, but even the most fervent romantic would have to admit that Rossano obviously relished this role. That we don't fully realize until later the depths to which Carlo will eventually sink, is due entirely to Rossano's careful skill at peeling away the layers of his character's personality, one thin veneer at a time, with the delicacy and precision of a surgeon. He slides almost seamlessly from one scene to the next, less carefully polished each time, until he stands pitifully at the door to Esther's bedroom - a man who has lost all of his moral compass and sense of purpose and direction. And even in that moment it is difficult not to feel pity for him. Watching him wrestle with his conscience prior to the act itself, you find yourself still believing that he might regain his confident footing, turn back, and become the charming, believable man we first met.
In his own way, Carlo does redeem himself: faced with the dawning realization that he is about to die at the hands of his wife, he neither pleads for understanding, nor attempts escape - instead, only his face reflects his internal struggle: briefly, internal and dignified - replaced by the calm, serene acceptance of his fate. He even smiles - one of those slow, sweet smiles that make you wonder how on earth Joan Crawford is going to find it in her heart to actually shoot him!
Carlo Landi is one of Rossano's richer and more multi-faceted characters - this one was a pleasure.