The Five Pennies

In The Five Pennies Danny Kaye plays successful cornet player and bandleader Red Nichols during the Roaring Twenties, enjoying a lucrative career and jamming with the likes of Louis Armstrong, until his young daughter Dorothy contracts polio while he’s on tour. He and his wife Willa are taken to the bleak contagious diseases ward, where they are sternly warned by a fully gowned and masked nurse to keep their hands at their sides, not to touch the patients or anything a patient has touched, and not to pick up anything they’ve dropped. After the lecture they’re ushered into the vast ward filled with rows of iron lungs, their daughter unconscious in one of them. Red tosses his cornet off the Golden Gate Bridge in despair, perhaps as a symbolic suicide.

Red blames himself for sending Dorothy to boarding school during his tour, and takes umbrage when a doctor tells him Dorothy will likely never walk again. Dorothy, now in rehab and suffering from the depression common after a disabling illness, initially refuses to participate in physical therapy and expresses anger at her father for spending so much time away. To make up for it, Red buys a house in Los Angeles and quits the band to go to work in a local shipyard. This enables him to participate in the rest of her rehabilitation at home, covering Dorothy’s body with scalding hot towels and (in what is surely a Hollywood exaggeration) building Rube Goldberg-esque contraptions to squirt seltzer in his face if Dorothy lifted her foot high enough. In the relentless focus on physical therapy, even Dorothy’s 14th birthday song is the exhortation to “Stand up and say your name” while the camera focuses on her orthopedic shoe-clad feet and silver cane.

The records played at the birthday party bring back old memories of Red’s glory days on tour, and Dorothy blames herself for Red’s unhappiness. Dorothy and Willa conspire to have Red run into his old band members, hoping he’ll get back into the game. Red doesn’t want to “start at the bottom” and is afraid that after all these years of not playing, he’s “lost his lip”. Dorothy draws a parallel between her long rehabilitation and Red needing to learn things all over again, and convinces him to start small with a gig where she and her mother are essentially the only audience. Louis Armstrong and his band appear in a conga line to sing “When the Saints Go Marching In”, and just when you think there couldn’t possibly be any more allusions to the act of walking… Dorothy surprises Red with her first unassisted steps since contracting polio. Father and daughter waltz together, silver cane forgotten at the side.

In real life, Red had quit the music business in 1942, some time before his daughter contracted what was thought to be polio (or spinal meningitis) in 1943. Nor did he have trouble returning to it; by 1945 he had re-signed with Capital Records, and worked as a bandleader and performer until his death in 1965. But the pathos of an emotional struggle with a loved one’s disability and the relief of a pretty young girl walking again was required for a happy ending in Hollywood of that era.

Padre Pio: Miracle Man

Padre Pio Miracle Man, distributed by Catholic publishing company Ignatius Press, gets high marks for its attempt to present the cinematic endeavor in more than one language and to include subtitles for each language with which the movie is dubbed. The English-language soundtrack is the victim of some stilted English expression, unfortunately complementing some stilted acting.
One reviewer on recommends using the Italian soundtrack in combination with the English subtitles (fortunately, a technical possibility).

The movie presents a version of Padre Pio’s life story largely told in flashbacks at the behest of another priest who is engaging in the (to some) extraordinary effort of investigating (and, at times, interrogating) Padre Pio in the later years of his life. The investigating priest is seen to use a cane, but in spite of having a mobility impairment himself, ignores Padre Pio’s obvious fatigue during the series of interviews. Padre Pio is depicted in the film as intermittantly using an oxygen tank in old age, and occasionally a manual wheelchair. It would seem he had a generalized weakness in later life, but he was still sufficiently ambulatory to celebrate mass, and to be censured by his religious superiors for taking three hours to do so.

When Padre Pio was a child growing up in the Catholic Church, he witnessed a woman in his church praying to St. Peregrine to cure her young son, whom she held in her arms. Growing increasingly frustrated, she left the boy, who appeared to be five or six years old, and initially seemed spastic, but later was depicted as unconscious, at the altar of the church, whereupon, either through the gesture of “leaving him to God/the Church” just below the altar steps, or the mental focus of the young Francisco (later to become Pio) silently and more directly imploring the help of God for the boy, the boy regained consciousness, and got up and walked. The movie did not specify what, exactly, the boy had, but St. Peregrine is the patron saint of cancer sufferers.

While this cinematic retelling of significant events in the life of Padre Pio adheres to the Catholic tradition of equating suffering with holiness by depicting Padre Pio’s more mundane health conditions as well as his receiving of the stigmata, and how Pio and the religious authorities of his time and place dealt with it, it also shows that Padre Pio had a long and active life in spite of some chronic conditions.

When Pio was of military age, he was ordered to report to his draft board for a physical examination, in spite of his status as clergy, for which he should have been given an exemption. Nevertheless, upon having actually submitted to physical examination, he was spared military service by doctors who were seen to examine his chest X-Ray, and to reject him for military service, on the grounds that he would “infect the whole unit”, the implication being that he had tuberculosis.

Indeed, it was because of the fact that people sought him out and Padre Pio developed a considerable and devoted following during his lifetime, that it was a reasonable concern to orthodox Catholicism that because of his influence, people were coming back to the church for the wrong reasons, or more precisely, that they were coming to Padre Pio, because of what would today be termed mediumistic or psychic powers (also said by occultists outside the church to at times be accompanied or caused by a declining physical body). When asked how he was able to know certain things in advance of their actual occurence, Padre Pio gave an answer surprisingly similar to Cayce’s concept of the Akashic Records; “sometimes God allows me a look at his notebook”.

It was perhaps with this and his public influence in mind that Padre Pio’s religious superiors had him effectively held prisoner for a period of time.

The movie does a good job of showing that some miraculous occurrences attributed to Padre Pio may have had alternative explanations not involving the supernatural or the power of God, such as Pio’s ability to tell people who came to him for news about relatives in military service: the priest who questioned him about his life said that it was “the law of averages” which allowed him to predict the fate of soldiers to their loved ones with some degree of accuracy.
However, some other things are left open to belief, such as one incident in which Pio was established to have successfully bilocated in order to be on the scene during a combat incident during the war, and give a dying soldier last rites, while the other priest shrank from going forward to do so, gun shy because the soldier had been killed by a flying bullet and there was still shooting. There was another incident in which he barred the door against a mortally wounded soldier seeking absolution (within the context of Last Rites) because he was afraid for his own safety.

Though the movie dealt with some miracles said to have been committed by Padre Pio, it left out other reputed supernatural abilities, including the fact that at one point in his life, Padre Pio, like some other stigmatics, manifested the phenomenon of inedia.

Padre Pio was said to have survived on nothing but the Blessed Sacrament and an occasional beer. Whether such a feat was truly miraculous is open to more than one interpretation, like many of Padre Pio’s other unusual abilities depicted in the movie. If Padre Pio remained in his bed or wheelchair for most of the day, it may well be that he had few caloric needs at that time of his life. (And everyone knows that beer is full of empty calories!)

The Christmas Cottage

The Christmas Cottage is the story of a pivotal moment in painter Thomas Kinkade’s career; when he had to help his mother keep the family home from falling into foreclosure and help his mentor and neighbor Glen through his last days. Glen’s main disabilities are due to age; he has blurry vision, memory problems, and trouble walking, but refuses to use a walker even when one is procured for him. However, he does agree to use a gnarled branch, which he calls his “staff and rod”, pointing out that it could also be used to fight off his enemies if need be. He refuses any attempt to get him out of the house and seems to be in a depression as well, often bemoaning the fact that he can no longer capture his late wife on canvas.

Another elderly character is seen out and about more often in their little town; an old lady with hearing problems who’s still playing the piano for the annual Christmas pageant and drinking martinis. Though she’s seen getting pushed around in a wheelchair for longer distances, she’s still able to stand and even help fix up the Kinkade family cottage towards the end.

Soon after the town appears en masse at the cottage, Glen hobbles over on his staff and rod to deliver his last painting as a gift. He tells them to sell it and pay off the mortgage, and explains to Thomas that he had finally figured out the secret: that leaves are impermanent, so one should always paint the light that illuminates them instead. For an uncomfortable moment, we at Disability Movies were sure he was about to fulfill the cliche of the cripple who imparts his inspirational message and promptly dies. But Glen recovers himself, has Christmas dinner with the family, and dies serenely in his studio instead.

The Aristocats

The Aristocats is not thought of as a “disability movie”, but like many Disney movies, it does have a character with physical and visual impairments due to aging to provide visual humor, and a character who may have a more “hidden disability”. The former is an elderly lawyer who comes to the palatial mansion belonging to the old woman who owns the cats who are the stars of the movie. Though she seems physically fit, she is older, and clearly thinking of “end-of-life issues”. She calls her lawyer, Georges Hautecourt, (who obligingly makes house calls) to draft her will, leaving everything to her cats. Hautecourt is portrayed as being senile, but is a label misapplied to a man with a lot of vitality who’s evidently still practicing law despite minor disabilities.

He drives one of those new-fangled motorcars, but has trouble getting out of it

He drives one of those new-fangled motorcars, but has trouble getting out of it

After all, he drives one of those new-fangled motorcars (the movie is set in 1910), attempts to kiss his client on the hand (getting the cat’s tail instead, the only instance in which it is hinted that he may have a vision impairment), and dances with her before getting down to business. He uses a cane to help with his unspecified but obvious mobility impairment (he has visible trouble getting out of the car, and is shown to have an irregular gait when he is seen to be walking up to the grand house.

Hautecourt dances with Madame Adelaide

Hautecourt dances with Madame Adelaide

Hautecourt sling-shots himself up the stairs using the butler's suspenders

Hautecourt sling-shots himself up the stairs using the butler's suspenders.

However, before he came to the upstairs room in which the dancing, romancing, and legal document drafting takes place, he was offered the choice of getting to his destination by taking a (human-operated) elevator, or by climbing a long, treacherous staircase of polished marble. He derides the elevator as “that birdcage” and in one of the most memorable lines of the movie, declares that “elevators are for old people”. He attempts to climb the staircase, and predictably, slips and falls backwards. Luckily, he had been accompanied up the stairs by the butler, who aids him through several slips and falls, the last and most memorable of which resulted in him hooking the butler’s stretchy suspenders with his cane, and effectively sling-shotting himself to his destination. This resulted in the butler’s pants falling down when he showed the lawyer in to the upstairs room. While it is wonderful to have a positive attitude about aging, the lawyer seems to be in denial and in spite of the comedic aspect of the scenario just described, he has put himself in any number of risky situations, setting himself up for some potentially more serious mobility impairments. This scene does nothing to advance the plot of the story, and serves only to add comic relief by poking fun at Hautecourt’s disabilities.

The butler, however, may have a more “hidden disability”. Though he may have obvious reasons to resent his job (how would you like to be effectively “pantsed” by a character like this?) his knee-jerk reaction to get rid of the cats when he overhears his employer declare her intention to leave them her considerable estate bespeaks impulsivity and poor decision making. If the cats were to get the estate, surely they would need a conservator and caretaker (after all, cats are not considered mentally competent and can’t spend money or clean up after themselves).

The Girl Who Played with Fire

The Girl Who Played With Fire, the second in the trilogy of movie adaptions of the bestselling Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The Girl Who Played with Fire, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest) includes brief depictions of a man disfigured and crippled by burn injuries and age, and a person with congenital analgesia (an inability to feel pain).

Using disfigurement as a shorthand of indicating a villain is a time-honored tradition in movies and literature before that, but at least in this case the villain arrived by his injuries as a result of his villainy; he was set afire by the plucky heroine as revenge for raping and beating her mother. Years later, when his name, Zalachenko, comes up in connection to a series of murders, the police dismiss him as a suspect because he’s a “cripple who would need to call a mobility service to get anywhere”.

Little do the police know that Zalachenko has a grown son, Niedermann, with congenital analgesia. Built like a tank and capable of carrying out Zalachenko’s dirty work; murders, intimidations, beatings, and torchings. People with an inability to feel pain have become the new cliche movie henchmen; they are portrayed as being virtually unstoppable and unmoved by the suffering of others. The reality for people with congenital insensitivity to pain is quite different. As they cannot feel the damage being done to their bodies minor injuries often escalate into permanent damage, leaving many of them unsuited to a life of crime.