- Historic Sites
Helen Keller—Movie Star
April/may 1980 | Volume 31, Issue 3
Helen must have agreed to be more discreet, for a few weeks later she, Teacher, and Polly set out for Hollywood. Ned Holmes was left to watch Forest Hills and their Great Dane Sieglinde. The company had leased the Brunton Studio, and the filming began. Platt was a director of sensitivity, eager to combine what Helen and Teacher hoped the film would be with his own view that they should aim for movement, compactness, continuity, rather than lavishness. A child actress played Helen in her early years. Miller’s script did not consist of dialogue but captions that preceded a series of frames. Thus series nine heralded Helen’s birth: “Soon comes an eventful hour at Ivy Green [Helen’s birthplace].” Frame thirty seven dealt with the arrival of Anne Sullivan: “I pray God that you can teach her.” Then a series of frames dealt with the episodes that playwright William Gibson more than three decades later presented so tellingly in The Miracle Worker . Dr. Miller sensed that here was drama. His script reflected the state of the cinematic art at the time:
THE BATTLE BEGINS Within the Walls of Darkness and Silence, Patience and Love struggle with Ignorance
“It is a tremendous task, Mrs. Keller. … Sometimes it seems almost impossible.”
A moment of discouragement
Through days of ceaseless struggle.
THE SUPREME MOMENT OF REVELATION The Walls Crumble … The Light Penetrates … A Soul Awakes …
“That living word awakened my soul, gave it light, hope, joy, set it free. … Everything had a name, and each name gave birth to a new thought. ”
THE MIRACLE OF MIRACLES “In a few hours she had added thirty new words to her vocabulary.”
In the later scenes Helen played herself. The director and Mrs. Macy devised a system of stamping on the floor to convey his instructions to her. First Polly Thompson or Mrs. Macy spelled into her hand what she was supposed to do in the next series of “takes” and the effect they were trying for—walk toward the window on her right, hold up her hands to the sun, discover the bird’s cage, express surprise, pleasure. A series of taps on the floor signaled each action. It was a difficult process. She often stood for half an hour before the camera began to grind. The studio lights grew hotter; the sweat rolled off her made-up face; her hands grew moist. But she was a born trouper and took the twice-a-day sessions in her stride. The director often was unable to hold back his tears as he tapped out “be natural” and Helen, who could not see the result, tried gamely to fulfill his wishes. Her face was capable of great animation. Frequent flickers and starts of feeling seemed to be registering little inner electric shocks. Her gestures were equally expressive. But to synchronize gesture and feeling was a laborious process.
However, it was not Helen’s acting ability that caused the greatest difficulty but the story line, or rather its absence. A series of tableaux did not make gripping film fare—as Miss Marbury had foreseen. For conflict, emotional impact, and character development they sought solutions in symbolism. A fierce battle was staged before the Cave of Father Time between Knowledge and Ignorance for control of Helen’s mind. Instead of an undergraduate love affair, and because of her passion for the Greek myths, she was given a love affair with the mythical Ulysses that included a realistic shipwreck on the Isle of Circe. In the final part of the picture, to show her triumph over physical limitations, she took her first flight in helmet and goggles in an airplane, over the protests of Teacher, as well as her mother and her brother Phillips Brooks, in uniform, who had arrived for roles in the last part of the picture.
A penultimate scene with hundreds of extras, the blind, the maimed, the halt, all of them fearing the “flu” which was then raging everywhere, showed Helen as the Mother of Sorrows touching the kneeling petitioners with her torch of hope. The grand finale was to be a scene in which Helen was ushered into a meeting of the Big Four to urge them to bring the war to a close, and the final spectacle, so dearly beloved of Hollywood, presented Helen on a large white charger, blowing a trumpet, and leading thousands of shipyard and factory workers, people of all nations, toward “deliverance.”