- Historic Sites
Helen Keller—Movie Star
April/may 1980 | Volume 31, Issue 3
They enjoyed their stay in Hollywood, indeed, found it exciting. Helen and Polly, joined occasionally by Teacher, regularly rode the trails of unsettled Beverly Hills, where a coyote might still be heard. They met Hollywood’s glamorous stars, Lillian Gish, Constance TaImadge, Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford, and what Teacher described as a “roomful of others.” Charlie Chaplin had them to dinner at a club along with Dr. Miller, Upton Sinclair, and his wife. He confessed to Mrs. Macy that just before their arrival he had debated whether to run away. He took to Teacher, however, and talked to no one else throughout dinner, telling her much about his life, complaining about his current marriage. He took great pride in A Dog’s Life , a film that he had just made and which would be called “his first real masterpiece.” Had she seen it? When Teacher said no, he asked her whether she thought he was disgusting. Yes, she replied. She had always thought of him as a custard-pie thrower. Would she come to his studio? Would Helen be interested? They did so, and he had A Dog’s Life and Shoulder Arms screened for them as they alternately wept and laughed.
They themselves did not entertain. Teacher claimed it was too expensive. But it may also have been Hollywood’s tendency, except for Chaplin, to lionize Helen and ignore her, an indignity to which Teacher never submitted easily. As usual in her book Teacher , Helen mentions Annie’s resentment obliquely. “Everybody was friendly, but in their compliments to me I was unintentionally left with a defrauded feeling. Few, if any, spoke of Teacher as one who deserved special praise. … However, Teacher was her exuberant, charming self with Charles Chaplin. They had both endured poverty and the deformations it creates in body and soul.”
At the end of October she took time off to lead a Liberty Bond rally in Los Angeles. She had kept her word to Dr. Miller and muted her social and political statements. She had gone further, telegraphing Secretary of the Treasury William G. McAdoo on October 5, “I want to help you sell Liberty Bonds. ” He accepted with alacrity and gave it out to the press. Now she stood before a hushed crowd and urged it to “strike out for the dawn” by the purchase of a bond. It was twelve days before the Armistice. Many who were critical of the government’s repressions under the Espionage Act nevertheless had rallied to Wilson’s statement of war aims. “I am glad America stands before the world for man’s holy dream of liberty. Buy a Liberty Bond and hasten the day when war shall be impossible between nations,” she said in slow, high-pitched, painfully enunciated phrases that Teacher translated.
After her talk, telegrams received by Helen from McAdoo, Caruso, Mrs. Thaw, Charles Evans Hughes, Elihu Root, and Adolph Lewisohn, subscribing to more bonds, were read to the crowd.
By the end of December the filming was finished. There was nothing yet to look at, but everyone was confident that when the film was cut and edited, it would be a success. Helen and Teacher had to borrow money to get back to Forest Hills. Dr. Liebfreed refused to advance it to them and in the end they had to appeal to Ned Holmes. Their troubles with Liebfreed were only beginning. He had decided to take control of the film, discharging all the staff, including the director, Mr. Platt. “The people in Mr. Schwab’s office refused to discuss the matter with anybody,” Mrs. Macy wrote Helen’s sister, Mildred. “Their lawyer was very nasty at first. They presumed that the picture was finished, and that they had the film locked up in the bank.” Dr. Liebfreed then discovered that the titles had still to be written and that Dr. Miller’s contract stipulated he should write them. “Then I told them I should get out an injunction and stop procedure. Dr. Liebfreed caved in.” Dr. Miller was reinstalled as writer, but they could not persuade Liebfreed to have Platt do the editing and cutting, and with the inimitable highhandedness of money men in show business, Platt was not even invited to the advance screening—“his own work. Think of it!” They were “tired and sick of the whole business. We only hope that after the picture is sold, we shall have little to do with our capitalist, and that the box office receipts will perfume our remembrance of the past year. …”
The screening produced a new confrontation over what should come out and what should go in. Teacher and Liebfreed were the primary antagonists. Purple with rage, Liebfreed cited the mounting costs. Teacher in a fury charged him with breach of his word. Both shouted. Occasionally Liebfreed remembered Helen and addressed a few honeyed words to her, and then returned to the attack. “He wanted a commercial ‘thriller,’ ” wrote Helen, “and Teacher and I asked for an historical record, and these two points of view appeared irreconcilable.” They refused to consent to the film’s public exhibition or sale. They stated their objections in several letters to Dr. Miller and, finally, in desperation, to Mrs. Thaw. That kindly woman sent on Helen’s letter to Mr. and Mrs. Schwab, her Pittsburgh neighbors, with the grieved observation that Helen’s “two letters from California were so joyous and hopeful that by contrast this, from which I quote some paragraphs, is the more painful. I can see that to have her hopes shattered as to being able to provide, indirectly, an object lesson to other afflicted ones, is only less bitter than to have her whole attitude toward life and its duties misrepresented in so heartless a fashion as her letter indicates. ” Helen’s letter in part read: