- Historic Sites
Helen Keller—Movie Star
April/may 1980 | Volume 31, Issue 3
In Helen’s work he had glimpsed the unfolding of a “soul-vision,” an “undiscovered world” innate in every human being which Helen’s story could help make a reality: “My suggestion is that we reach the whole seeing world through the medium of Motion Pictures. This is the greatest medium that we have for appealing to the hearts and sympathies of the people, with its 20,000 theaters in the United States alone, and a daily attendance of 15,000,000 people, according to government estimates. Moreover, the Motion Pictures speak a universal language—they can be seen and understood in every nation in every part of the world.”
In mid-January, 1918, Helen, Teacher, and Polly Thompson (who had been hired as a temporary assistant and had become a permanent member of the ménage) met with Dr. Miller at his office. He was an astute fellow with a sixth sense for fathoming what he thought the other wanted to hear. He talked about Helen’s intellectual attainments. They seemed almost “incredible,” but then he quickly added, “I can explain it only from the fact that she must have been under the hand of a master, thus Mrs. Macy’s achievement places them both in the ranks of genius.” He was ready, he told them, to set aside all his other work “and begin immediately to study all the material relating to Miss Keller’s life and arrange it in its technical form for motion picture production.” He thought that $100,000 would have to be raised to produce the picture, asserted that he and Helen should receive “a liberal salary,” and suggested that Helen would make “from $50,000 to $100,000 through this production.” On February 1, Teacher formally authorized him and his representatives “to proceed towards the realization of the project,” including the preparation of “a plot synopsis” and a canvas of the possibilities for raising the finances needed.
An accompanying letter from Helen set forth the theme she expected the film to embody: ”… It will help me carry farther the message that has so long burned in my heart—a message of courage, a message of a brighter, happier future for all men. I dream of a day when all who go forth sorrowing and struggling shall bring their golden sheaves home with them in joy. 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. …”
They decided they needed the help of Elizabeth Marbury, a successful theatrical agent with a sure sense for what the public wanted in the way of entertainment. The project excited her, but she asked for a “plot synopsis.” Dr. Miller, although new to this art form, undertook to prepare one in a few weeks. By the beginning of April, Miller’s agent sent the draft to Miss Marbury with a little sales talk of his own. The dramatization of the Helen Keller story, he rhapsodized, “can only result in a record-breaking financial success as well as an artistic triumph.” Miller’s synopsis showed “a great human psychologist, a master of human emotions” at work. “Moreover, he has a large following: his thirty-seven books have sold more than $4,000,000 gross. The motion-picture market has been stagnating for new ideas—something original and vital.” The enterprise would have Helen Keller’s prestige and cooperation and they, he pointed out, were worth “at least $500,000 in news publicity.” His letter to Miss Marbury ended with a Hollywood flourish: “Its possibilities far exceed the Birth of a Nation .”
Miller’s letter to Helen that accompanied his script was equally grandiloquent: “The month of March has been the greatest month of my whole literary experience. I have spent years in analyzing the laws of cause and effect behind nations and epochs, and in psychological investigations into the characters and lives of the moulders of civilization. But never before have I delved so deeply into the Spiritual forces—into the real world of your existence.” He was satisfied that Helen’s was “the real existence. … Your world sees ; our world is spiritually blind.” If his manuscript had not caught the essence of her experience, “remember that it is all subject to your guidance. …” The two of them must help lead the world to its DELIVERANCE , the title he had, on Helen’s suggestion, given the script.
Whatever the excesses of Dr. Miller’s rhetoric, he had some conception of the technique of a plot synopsis, and, what was more important, had caught Helen’s image of herself. “I am delighted with your conception of the drama of my life as illustrating the struggles, hopes and aspirations of mankind,” she wrote a week later. (This letter, dated April 10, 1918, may not have been sent, but it embodied her sentiments.) “It is poetic and stirs me to the deepest depths.” She recapitulated her spiritual pilgrimage, and then in a few phrases again recited the faith of the idealist and romantic: “The world is what we think of it. It measures up to our idea of it. The soul shapes outward circumstances to its needs. What else is imagination given us for?” She praised Dr. Miller as one of “few” who had truly seen “the very sweetness and light that have gladdened me [and] have lifted me up in revolt against the powers of darkness” to challenge “the night of ignorance, oppression and poverty” that held the mass of mankind in its grip. Could Dr. Miller suggest “a good way of saying this acceptably, yet boldly?”
The cover page on Dr. Miller’s synopsis read like a poster: