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The 1950s were a transitional period for the deaf. Although many people at that time considered deafness an illness to be cured, the decade also saw the rise of Deaf social clubs and the birth of Deaf culture. Among those outside the Deaf community, however, there was still widespread prejudice, reflected in the use of the term "dumb" to describe people who could not speak (often deaf people who had not learned to speak). This is the world captured in Mandy, a pioneering British film from 1952 that tells the story of a family almost torn apart by their efforts to cope with their daughter's deafness.
The novel on which the film is based -- Hilda Lewis's 1946 The Day Is Ours -- has been criticized for its emphasis on speech as the solution to young Mandy's problems and some have claimed the teaching scenes - many filmed with the students at Manchester's Royal Residential Schools for the Deaf - are inaccurate in their emphasis on speech rather than signing. Yet the story still packs a powerful punch, thanks to the restrained acting of the adult leads -- Phyllis Calvert and Terence Morgan as the parents and Jack Hawkins as the teacher -- the restrained direction of Alexander Mackendrick and child actress Mandy Miller in the title role.
Boston-born director Mackendrick was a major figure in the rise of British film in the post-war years, although his major contributions were comedies such as The Man in the White Suit (1951) and The Ladykillers (1955). Those two films were produced by Ealing Studios, where Mackendrick directed five films. Mandy was his only drama there. In fact, it was the first drama he had ever directed. The story had a personal resonance for him. Although born in the U.S., he had immigrated to Scotland to live with his grandfather after his father's death during the post-World War I influenza epidemic. Needing to make her own living, his mother sent him to Scotland for a temporary stay that became permanent. He would never see her again and grew up a lonely child, not unlike the film's title character, whose parents' fear keeps her from playing with other children.
Nor was this realistic depiction of a deaf child's problems an aberration for post-war filmmaking. In the era after World War II, both British and American studios were turning to social problem films to please an audience whose wartime experiences had left them more interested in real-world issues. In both countries this often meant casting established stars in realistic stories that required them to submerge their star personalities to play more commonplace characters. For Mandy, Mackendrick cast Calvert, who had become a star in costume films of the 1940s like The Man in Grey (1943) and Madonna of the Seven Moons (1945), as the middle class mother (who still owns a fur coat). Supporting her were rising star Hawkins, who would not achieve full stardom until 1953's The Cruel Sea, and Morgan, who had played Laertes to Laurence Olivier's Hamlet (1948). Along with studio interiors, the film also used real locations at Manchester's Royal Schools for the Deaf and exteriors that still reflected the bombing of England during World War II.
The film's real star, however, was child actress Miller. Mackendrick had spotted her a year earlier when she was visiting the set of The Man in the White Suit with her father, a BBC Radio producer. Taken with her look and sensitivity, he had given her a small role in the film, then cast her in what would be her best role, as Mandy. Miller would reign as one of England's most prominent child stars, focusing on drama, until her last film, The Snorkel (1958). After a few TV appearances, she retired from acting, usually downplaying her accomplishments as a child performer in later years.
Mandy received solid reviews, with the only complaints focusing on the melodramatic insertion of a rumored affair between Calvert and Hawkins to complicate a story most felt should have focused on the child. Perhaps that was a wise move, however, as the picture was one of the top films at the box-office in England for 1952. It was nominated for six BAFTAs, including Best British Film and Best Film from any Source, Best British Actor (Hawkins), Best British Actress (Calvert) and Most Promising Newcomer (Miller). It also won the Special Jury Prize at the Venice Film Festival and did well in the U.S., where it was released under two different titles, The Story of Mandy and Crash of Silence.
This was hardly the end of the road for Mackendrick when it came to directing children. Mandy would eventually point to one of his greatest strengths in later films. When Ealing Studios were sold in 1955, he relocated to the U.S., where he first directed the cult favorite Sweet Smell of Success (1957). Although now considered a classic, the film's box office failure slowed his career. After helping other directors without credit, most notably on The Guns of Navarone (1961), he directed a pair of adventure films, A Boy Ten Feet Tall (1963) and A High Wind in Jamaica (1965), both featuring child protagonists whose acting brought him particular acclaim.
Producer: Michael Balcon, Leslie Norman
Director: Alexander Mackendrick
Screenplay: Nigel Balchin, Jack Whittingham
Based on the novel The Day Is Ours by Hilda Lewis
Cinematography: Douglas Slocombe
Score: William Alwyn
Cast: Phyllis Calvert (Christine Garland), Jack Hawkins (Dick Searle), Terence Morgan (Harry Garland), Godfrey Tearle (Mr. Garland), Mandy Miller (Mandy Garland), Marjorie Fielding (Mrs. Garland), Edward Chapman (Ackland), Jane Asher (Nina).
by Frank Miller