Helen Keller—Movie Star


But suddenly it all came together. The funding crisis was surmounted when Charles M. Schwab, the steel magnate, was persuaded by intermediaries, primarily Dr. Edwin Liebfreed, to put up two hundred and fifty thousand dollars to produce the picture. At the end of May a formal contract was signed between Helen and Annie on one side and Dr. Miller as president of the “Helen Keller Film Corporation” on the other, authorizing the production, distribution, and leasing of the film. Helen and Teacher were paid ten thousand dollars on signing. Another ten thousand dollars would be paid on completion of the film. Other paragraphs spoke of royalties up to five hundred thousand dollars after deductions for overhead, expenses, and repayment of investors. The contract also provided that Helen and Teacher were to come to Hollywood to be available for consultation, and, in the case of Helen, for a role in the film. It was, of course, the day of the silents. A director, George Foster Platt, was engaged, a studio in Hollywood leased. Helen wrote Alexander Graham Bell: “When we saw you in New York several weeks ago, we told you that the story of my life was to be dramatized for a motion picture, and we asked you if you would be willing to appear in it. You laughed and said, ‘Do you expect me to go to California to have my picture taken?’ Well, it is not quite as bad as that—not quite. The present plan is to have several pictures made here and in Boston and vicinity before we start West where the main part of the picture will be made. … The producers are very desirous to have you appear with Caruso and my teacher and me in the opening scene of the drama. … You know that Gibbon has told us how, when he wrote the last lines of the last page of The Decline and Fall , he went out into the garden and paced up and down in his acacia walk overlooking Lausanne and the mountains. … I conceive of the picture-drama as my walk under the acacias. I mean, in a sense, it will be the finish of my life story. … You can readily see, if the people who are taking part in the drama are not the real people who have walked with me under the acacias, this message will lose something of its force and genuineness. A number of the friends whose love and devotion have enriched my life are gone. Phillips Brooks, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Edward Everett Hale, Samuel Clemens and many others would have a place in the picture if they were living. You and Mrs. William Thaw are almost the only ones left who entered the acacia walk with me where it begins in the sweet dawn of childhood.”

It had been Dr. Bell who had heartened Teacher and herself for the struggle: “Again and again you said to me, ‘Helen, let no sense of limitations hold you back. You can do anything you think you can. Remember that many will be brave in your courage.

The letter reached Bell in Nova Scotia. He would do anything for her that he could, but he would be unable to get down to the States before Helen left for California: “You must remember that when I met you first I wasn’t seventy-one years old and didn’t have white hair, and you were only a little girl of seven, so it is obvious that any historical picture will have to be made with substitutes for both of us. You will have to find someone with dark hair to impersonate the Alexander Graham Bell of your childhood, and then perhaps your appearance with me in a later scene when we both are as we are now may be interesting by contrast.”

Dr. Bell did appear, and money matters were settled. However, a new crisis arose before they left for California, over Helen’s radicalism. There were advance rumblings at the Walt Whitman dinner to which Helen and Teacher took Dr. Miller. “Helen’s speech was brilliant,” he wrote Ned Holmes, but did “Mrs. Macy and Helen realize what a hotbed of treason developed at the Whitman dinner?” Helen had to be protected. “I know you will be very careful that she does not allow spies and enemies of our Homeland to come into her presence and use her beautiful soul and mind for an endorsement of their nefarious schemes. …” Her great mission could be destroyed “by dangerous associations in these war times.” A few weeks later he was more insistent. Helen had joined John Dewey, Thorstein Veblen, Carlton J. Hayes, and others in a plea in The New Republic for a fair trial for some imprisoned Wobblies. The Department of Justice was sufficiently upset to warn the magazine against reprinting the statement. Miller was a staunch Republican and historian-general of the Sons and Daughters of the Pilgrims, and the advisory boards on his histories were studded with admirals and generals. He was horrified. Dr. Leibfreed, who controlled the purse strings, shared his alarm. “He is of German origin,” Miller wrote Holmes, “but he is heart and soul against the despotism of the military caste that is ruling Germany.” Theaters would be shut to them, he warned. If Helen persisted, the government could visit all sorts of harassments upon them. He requested “a letter of assurance that can be read to all our associates to establish their confidence.”