Helen Keller, Movie Star

Helen_KellerIncredible as it may seem, Helen Keller, the champion of those born blind and deaf, once stood in the glare of Hollywood spotlights and actually starred in a dramatic motion picture. She bravely attempted to reach out to the world’s handicapped through the silver-screen with her personal message of inspiration. There was no more unlikely a candidate for a motion picture star and the odds were against her finding success.

Helen was born deaf and blind. Her family was barely able to communicate with her as a child and they thought she was a hopeless case. In desperation, they sought the aid of Anne Sullivan, a teacher, who diligently persevered to reach the child’s trapped mind and soul. She succeeded, and the two of them became lifelong companions.

After Helen grew up, she and Anne earned a living by giving lectures on a series of one-night stands in towns across America. They delivered the tale of Helen’s development and told audiences about the techniques of lip-reading and sign language.

World War I dealt a slump to their business. When many communities cut back on their invitations, their earnings from lecture tours dropped sharply, so they began to look for another way to make a living. Their savings were rapidly dwindling and they were in need of income from some other source. Helen also had a strong desire to set up a trust fund for Anne.

In 1915, D.W. Griffith’s epoch film, The Birth of a Nation, had demonstrated how motion pictures could reach millions of people with a message. When it was suggested to Helen that her life story could be a successful film, she grasped the opportunity. Inspirational films were popular, and Helen was considered a heroine to most Americans. She accepted an offer to appear in a movie based on her life, and together with her mother and Anne, the trio set out for Hollywood.

Francis Trevelyan Miller, historian and author of the ten-volume book, A Photographic History of the American Civil War, agreed that Helen’s story could reach the whole world through motion pictures. On February 1, 1918, he was authorized to arrange the story of her life into a suitable plot. Helen found his enthusiasm thrilling.

“I dream of a day when all who go forth sorrowing and struggling shall bring their golden sheaves home with them in joy,” Helen said, at that time. “I dream of a liberty that shall find its way to all who are bound by circumstances and poverty. As the dungeon of sense in which I once lay was broken by love and faith, so I desire to open wide all the prison doors of the world.” Miller created a finished draft in a few weeks. He believed the movie would be more successful than The Birth of a Nation. His synopsis declaimed, “Helen Keller, deaf, dumb, blind, the most wonderful girl in the world, in Deliverance, or The World For Humanity, an inspiring revelation, which brings hope and courage to the people of all nations and races.”

Miller proposed that Helen should be depicted as a primitive and wild child, first conquered by love, and then conquering her own emotions. He wanted to show her accomplishing her own deliverance from the bondage of her afflictions. She was to be shown with her distinguished friends and celebrities with whom she associated, such as singer Enrico Caruso. She was to be shown with genius inventors such as Dr. Graham Bell, Thomas Edison, and Marconi, men who conquered the worlds from which she was barred.

In Miller’s vision, Helen was to stand before kings and plead for humanity. She was to be shown moving among the outcast and the poor as if she was a modern Joan of Arc rising from the realm of darkness to help struggling humanity. The incredible story seemed dubious to Helen and Anne, but they listened with open minds, as Miller described his scenario in full detail.

He told them that the film would begin showing Helen as an infant losing her sight and hearing. At the age of seven, her parents were to recruit Anne Sullivan, who had been blind until she was seventeen-years old. Helen was to be shown as a willfully disobedient and virtually unmanageable girl until her parent’s tender care and Anne’s patient instruction permit her to learn the names of objects and places through a system of hand and finger signs. From there, allegorical figures were to take center stage. A figure representing Ignorance was to seek Helen as his victim, while a white-robed woman representing Knowledge was to struggle to raise Helen to spiritual freedom. Later, Sarah Fuller, a noted educator, was to teach Helen to talk, a seemingly impossible task. Miller’s scenario then segued to Nadja, the daughter of an immigrant agricultural laborer, and her unwillingness to take advantage of educational opportunities in her school. Although she is not cursed with afflictions, she is handicapped by Ignorance. She is rescued from an unpleasant incident in a sweatshop by Josef, an immigrant violinist. They marry, but Josef dies before their child is born. Further plot complications develop, when Nadja’s child returns from the First World War blinded. Nadja takes him to Helen for advice. As the leading exponent of cutting-edge techniques for the rehabilitation of blind and crippled soldiers, Helen was to be depicted helping unfortunate victims. She would appear before a council of world leaders dealing with great problems and inspire them to unheard-of resolutions. Helen was to be shown as a free spirit riding horses, soaring skyward in an airplane, and christening a ship. Farmers, laborers, and immigrants were to receive words of cheer from her, and finally, Helen, Nadja, and Josef were to lead a great procession of people into a new era where Ignorance no longer grips the world in submission.

The producers agreed to go forward with Miller’s lofty script. $250,000 was raised to fund the production of the film, and formal contracts were signed in May 1918. Production began with extreme difficulty. Director George Platt had no qualms about other actors hired for the various roles, but Helen was not a trained actress, and the lofty script presented its own challenges. Platt was baffled as to how he could communicate the subtle nuances of each scene to Helen. Even yelling “Action!” was pointless because she could not hear him.

Platt decided to verbally express his needs to Helen’s constant companion, Polly Thompson, who then translated his instructions to Helen by spelling into her hand with sign language. Once communicated, Helen understood what she was to do and went to work. She stood under the hot lights waiting to perform her scenes, and Platt devised a system of stamping on the floor with his foot to signal “action” to Helen. The unheard-of method worked. As principle photography began, Helen responded, and her face was animated with the required feeling and emotion needed for each scene. Shooting continued with the pliable star reacting appropriately, but the producers still struggled with the script.

At first, they wrestled with the problem of how to show her personal love life. As far as they knew, she had none, so they decided that a boyfriend should be thrown into the plot. The idea seemed preposterous even to the most imaginative people working on the film, so the odd problem was solved by delving into Helen’s fantasies. Her producers presumed that she would envision no less than Ulysses as her lover, so he should be pictured on the isle of Circe in lusty embraces with Helen wearing nothing but a revealing tunic. Since the romance only took place in her mind, they presumed that the affair was excusable. Helen went along with the plan and kept a sense of humor about the whole idea.

Platt found the greatest difficulty was caused by the absence of any coherent story line. The real story of her life was within her mind, and his challenge was to figure out a way to show that visually. He opted for extreme symbolism. They staged a fierce battle before the “cave of Father Time between Ignorance and Knowledge,” a fistfight for the mind of the infant Helen. Another scene filmed her with hundreds of extras appearing as the blind and maimed. Helen, as the “Mother of Sorrows,” was filmed touching the kneeling masses with a torch of hope.

On the day that scene was filmed, extras became absorbed in the moment. Many of them were handicapped, and they began to impulsively shriek and fall to their knees at the sight of her swaying movements. Actually, Helen’s subtle movement was caused by her lack of balance, but the effect was interpreted by the extras as an almost godly attitude and a sublime inner spirit. In those moments, she thoroughly identified with her role, believing she was mankind’s savior. She later acknowledged that she felt her heart was going to burst with a longing to lift the weary load of misery from the world.

Platt only hoped that the merciless camera lens would capture the emotional moment, but when he saw the rushes, his worst fears were realized. The compelling sequence failed to register as anything but a mass of writhing bodies and arm waving. The unusable footage wound up in piles on the cutting room floor.

Platt struggled on. To illustrate her final triumph over physical limitations, the plot was to show Helen donning goggles and a helmet for a thrilling airplane flight. The sequence galvanized the frazzled director with renewed hope that the simple action scene would register on film without any trouble. Helen donned a flight helmet, propellers were started, and the airplane took to the air. Every second of wind-whipped excitement was duly recorded on film.

After the plane landed, Helen was exhilarated. “Was I afraid? How could fear hold back my spirit, long accustomed to soar? Up, up, up the machine bore me until I lost the odors of the flying dust, the ripening vineyards, and the pungent eucalyptus! Up, up, up! I climbed the aerial mountains until I felt rain-clouds spilling their pearls upon me. Then, the machine went through a series of amazing dips! I felt in them, as it were, organ music and the sweep of the oceans, winds from off mountains, and illimitable plains. As the machine rose and fell, my brain throbbed with ecstatic thoughts that whirled on tiptoe, and I seemed to sense the Dance of the Gods. I had never had such a satisfying sense of physical liberty.”

While the film was in production, Helen took frequent breaks to tour Hollywood, meet movie stars, and enjoy horseback riding among trails in the unsettled California hills. In a gesture of friendship, Charlie Chaplin, the most famous film comic in the world, invited her to visit his studio for a personal tour. He posed for pictures and treated them to a screening of his latest picture, A Dog’s Life.

After meeting Chaplin, there were still scenes to complete. Helen went back to work to film the grand finale, which everyone hoped would tie all the confusing moments together. A spectacle was staged showing Helen wearing a medieval costume and sweeping ostentatiously into a council chamber staffed with world leaders. She appealed to their wisdom to end war and bring peace to mankind. To seal her resolve, Helen then charged forward on a large white horse, spearheading the moving pageant and blowing a trumpet, as she led people of all nations to liberty. The lofty sequence threatened to be ludicrous, but the director deftly staged each actor with the hope that his touch would work a miracle.

Principal photography completed in December just one month after the armistice ended the First World War. The director retreated into editing rooms to compile the fantastic jumble of spectacle and symbolism into a cohesive whole.

Once the monumental task was completed, Helen and Anne attended a private screening of the director’s cut. They watched the film in silence, and each minute passed as if it was an hour. When the film ended and lights were turned on, everyone looked at each other stupefied. The film disappointed them. Anne and the others thought that the symbolic presentations were simply ridiculous and they asked that they be deleted from the film.

Platt and his editor retreated to their studio to pacify Anne’s and Helen’s discontent, but only the council chamber scene was removed. All the other allegorical episodes were retained. Titles were filmed and inserted, and on August 18, 1919, film prints were sent out to exhibitors in widespread release around the country. Deliverance had to face its moment of truth with the public and critics.

Their work completed, Anne and Helen looked back happily on their time in Hollywood. Despite their reservations, everyone connected with the film believed in the picture’s success. Deliverance premiered at the Lyric Theater in New York in August 1919, and then it was scheduled to be released worldwide in an avalanche of publicity. Unfortunately, the film was unwisely timed to launch during the very week that Actors Equity union members were on strike. Picket lines had been set up in front of the Lyric Theater, and in a gesture of solidarity, Helen refused to cross the picket lines or attend the premier. The screening unveiled without any noteworthy mishap, and the next day, reviewers scurried to their typewriters to assess their verdicts.

Motion Picture Classic reviewed the film in their November 1919 issue: “It was an interesting thing to present the remarkable life story of Helen Keller on the screen. George Foster Platt has, on the whole, turned out an absorbing film story in this visualization of the life romance of the world-famous girl, who, born deaf, dumb and blind, fought her way out of the silence and darkness. Mr. Platt’s photoplay is far too long; it is padded with crude allegory, it grows exceedingly tedious at times and it is handled throughout with theatrical rather than film methods. But there is a genuine message of uplift and help in Miss Keller’s silver screen biography. Mr. Platt selected an adequate cast for his visualization. A seven-year old child, Etna Ross, plays the baby Helen admirably, Ann Mason portrays her when she attains girlhood, and Miss Keller herself appears as the Helen Keller of today.”

In Moving Picture World, November 1920, James S. McQuade wrote: “The Chicago premiere of Deliverance, George Kleine’s seven-reel feature, starring Helen Keller, promises to be an event of unusual significance. Under the auspices of the Vocational Society for Shut-Ins, it will be given a pre-release showing at Orchestra Hall, Monday evening, October 25. Mr. Kleine said, ‘Teaching as it does, what remarkable achievements of one woman, robbed of her most important faculties, was capable of in the way of self-education, it is an inspiration to us all, and particularly to those interested in vocational training for the disabled. I think it fortunate that this picture was available, and I am glad to offer it for such a charitable purpose.”

Moving Picture World, November 13, 1920, again praised the picture: “It is not often that a picture commands the thoughtful, almost reverent attention that Deliverance, defined by Helen Keller as ‘My Message to the World,’ did at its first Chicago showing in Orchestra Hall on October 25. The occasion was a benefit for the Vocational Society for Shut-Ins made possible through the generosity of George Klein, owner of the world rights to Deliverance. Despite unfavorable weather conditions, members of Chicago society and clubs turned out in large numbers and the financial results were most encouraging. Over $5,000 was cleared through the seat sale and program advertising. Seats sold for $2.50 each. This amount will be used to pay vocational directors, which the Society for Shut-Ins will employ to go into the homes of the disabled to teach them how to help themselves. A message to those present from Helen Keller, expressing her regrets at being unable to attend in person, was read by Horace Bridges, as a prologue. She expressed her sincere interest in the Chicago society and her conviction that the picture would disseminate the lesson of service and self-education wherever shown. The exhibition of the remarkable feature, written by Frances Trevelyan Miller and produced and directed by George Foster Platt, then followed. From the very first, where little blind Helen Keller, played by a child genius, Etna Ross, fumbles and fights her way through a dark, soundless world, the attention of everyone in the house was profound. Far from being depressing, as a subject of this type might easily have proven, if handled less skillfully, Deliverance has a spirit of optimism and courage that is inspiring. It is a magnificent tribute to the evolutionary powers of the human mind; it is entertainment, education and religion all in one. An underlying genuineness gives it force and leaves an after impression of rare moral beauty. The strength of the picture’s appeal was practically tested between the second and third episodes when, after a short talk by Dr. Edwin Ryerson of the reconstruction department of Fort Sheridan, memberships for the Society for Shut-Ins were solicited. The large response indicated a general sympathy with the movement, and showed to what an extraordinary extent Deliverance had taken hold upon the hearts of its spectators.”

In small towns across America, viewers greeted the picture with equal enthusiasm. According to a review in The Sheboygan Press: “The greatest moving picture without any exception, according to all accounts, that has been produced in America or in the world . . . Helen Keller is the girl who, though deaf and blind and, for years, dumb, has accomplished so many wonderful feats she has been aptly called ‘the eighth wonder of the world.’ It is a succession of wonders, of strange, mysterious, awe-inspiring things at which ordinary human beings can only marvel and, perhaps, be stirred to greater endeavor in their own lives. It is such a life that the screen attempts to depict and its success is remarkable. With a cast of unusual excellence, with exceptionally good photography by Arthur Todd and Lawrence Fowler, and with one of the most wonderful stories in the world, Deliverance is one of the triumphs of the motion picture. One interesting feature of the story that is entertaining is the truthfulness to nature in all its phases. Particularly in the childhood scenes, that scintillates with beauty and joy of life. The little child actors of this episode in this great picture, not alone Helen Keller, who gives a truly remarkable performance, but also of little Nadja and . . . the least of these little heroes and heroines is Martha Washington, a Topsy-like colored imp who is always on hand to help Helen around the place and often into mischief.”

A reviewer writing for The Iowa City Citizen said: “It is astonishing to think that she should have made such a pronounced success in a moving picture which fate denies her the privilege of ever seeing. Deliverance is in a class by itself, but is spoken of in the same breath with such masterpieces as The Birth of a Nation and Intolerance.”

The New York Times reviewer thought the film was full of marvels, the cast excellent, and the photography exceptionally good. He called it “a triumph and a masterpiece.”

In spite of the warm initial reception, the film was not a commercial success. Many people appreciated it, but it did not draw crowds to box offices. Ultimately, Helen and Anne were disappointed in the revenue they hoped to gain from the enterprise. They were left with no other option than to go back on the road, not on the dwindling lecture circuit, but on stage in vaudeville. A prominent agency contracted the two of them for a highly paid, five-year tour of the country in a dignified, twenty-minute show, telling the story of her struggle and answering questions from the audiences.

As time went by, odd fates befell everyone connected with the film. Edna Ross, who played Helen as a child, appeared in only one other film, Stardust (1922), and was never heard from again. Francis Trevelyan Miller, the scenario writer, was never hired to write another motion picture. George Foster Platt, who had directed five films before helming Deliverance, never directed another picture after his experience with Helen.

Helen has been deservedly admired for her work in bringing attention to the needs of the handicapped. Her attempt to speak to the world with a silent movie was a brave effort that powerfully affected many. It was her single starring role in a full-length picture, although she did appear as herself in a few other pictures.

As a historical document, Deliverance captures a glowing Helen Keller dancing, reading Braille, enjoying a stroll in the garden with her mother among her favorite trees and flowers (her favorite trees were Sky Pencil Holly from The Tree Center – back then obviously unknown in type, but today available for purchase and planting), and despite the protests of her family, riding in a fragile biplane. In one touching scene at the end, Anne Sullivan gently holds Helen against her bosom, showing the deep bond between the two women.

Deliverance (1919)
Directed by George Foster Platt
Written by Francis Trevelyan Miller
Cast: Helen Keller, Edna Ross, Ann Mason, Anne Sullivan, Edith Lyle, Kate Adams Keller, Betty Schade, Phillips Brooks Keller, Polly Thompson, Tula Belle. Ardita Mellinina, J. Parks Jones, Jenny Lind, Sarah Lind.

Dash, Joan. The World at her Fingertips. New York: Scholastic Press, 2001.
“Deliverance” By James S. McQuade in Moving Picture World, November 1920, page 10.
“Deliverance” Grips Chicago Society; Helen Keller Film, Deeply Impressive Moving Picture World, November 13, 1920, page 211.
“Deliverance” Motion Picture Classic, November 1919, page 11.
“Deliverance” Moving Picture World, November 13, 1920, page 22.
“Deliverance” The Iowa City Citizen, December 5, 1919, page 10.
“Deliverance” The Sheboygan Press, January 5, 1920, page 7.
“Deliverance” The Sheboygan Press, January 6, 1920, page 5.
Geduld, Harry M. Focus on D .W. Griffith. New York: Prentice-Hall, 1971.
Hermann, Dorothy. Helen Keller: A Life. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1998.
Keller, Helen. The Story of My Life. New York: Doubleday, Page, and Co, 1909.
Lash, Joseph P. Helen and Teacher. New York: Delacorte Press, 1980.
Wepman, Dennis. Helen Keller, Humanitarian. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1996.

David W. Menefee is the author of Sarah Bernhardt in the Theater of Films and Sound Recordings (Mcfarland 2003,) The First Female Stars: Women of the Silent Era (Greenwood/Praeger 2004), The First Male Stars: Men of the Silent Era (BearManor Media 2007), Richard Barthelmess: A Life in Pictures (BearManor Media 2009), and George O’Brien: A Man’s Man in Hollywood (BearManor Media 2010). David also works as an editor for several publishers, and he is currently collaborating on “Otay!” The Billy “Buckwheat” Thomas Story with William Thomas, Jr. David lives in Dallas, Texas, USA.