Helen Keller—Movie Star

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“We started out to make an honest picture of my life, my struggles, triumphs, aspirations. … Well, more than two-thirds of our conception of the picture has been realized. But towards the end we seem to have fallen down somehow. For instance, there is a scene called ‘The CouncilChamber,’ where all the great generals, kings and statesmen are assembled in a sort of peace conference. I enter in a queer medieval costume and proclaim the Rights of Man rather feebly. There is no foundation in fact for such a scene, and the symbolism is not apparent. We want it omitted.

“This scene is followed by a Pageant with me on horseback, leading all the peoples of the world to freedom—or something. It is altogether too hilarious to typify the struggles of mankind for liberty.

“These are our vital objections to the picture, but there are minor ones; for instance, our friends—those who are gone, such as Bishop Brooks and Mark Twain and others; and the ones we love who are still living, but not in the picture either—Dr. Bell, Mr. Edison and yourself.

“My Wrentham [Massachusetts] house, which is historic, does not appear in the picture. Then we think there should be a scene of Evergreen, showing what is being done to re-educate our blinded soldiers. It is a work very near to my heart, as you know, and we are sure it will be a helpful picture in many ways.

“According to our contract, we have the right to reject the picture if it does not satisfy us. Of course we did not want to take this extreme step. We hoped that Dr. Liebfreed would live up to his agreement. But we have been sadly disappointed. …”

A few changes were made. The council-chamber scene was eliminated, but the spectacular ending, of hundreds of extras rushing pell-mell behind Helen on her white charger, remained. Wrentham was not filmed nor the scene they wanted with Dr. Bell. Despite Mrs. Thaw’s letter and their threats of an injunction, they were kept completely on the outside.

“We had very little definite information about the picture,” Helen lamented to her mother in early July, “until two weeks ago when in desperation Ned called upon Mr. Shubert. You may not know it but it is more difficult to see Mr. Shubert than the President of the United States—or even the Mikado of Japan. Ned was permitted to talk with Mr. S. only two minutes and a half. He learned that the picture had been sold, and that it would open in Shubert’s Broadway theatre next October. That means we shall not receive our payment until then. We have been frightfully ‘hard up,’ mother. I don’t remember a time since college days when we were so much ‘up against it.’ But we shall manage all right. Our credit is good, and people understand. Everyone believes in the success of the picture, and that keeps them quiet and contented because they know they will receive their money eventually.”

The picture opened at the Lyric Theater in August. Helen was sent tickets for two boxes, but she did not attend. Actors Equity was on strike, and she refused to cross its picket line. She felt that Shubert had rushed to present the picture in order to break the strike. “I am afraid that the actors and some of my friends may construe my presence as a lack of sympathy with the strikers. In order to avoid possible misunderstanding, I feel that it is better for me not to come to the Lyric Theater Monday night,” she wrote.

The reviewers were enthusiastic. The New York Times called it “one of the triumphs of the motion picture,” with the opening-night audience several times breaking into spontaneous applause. In places it was “overburdened with moralizing and its optimism is sometimes spread too thickly,” but in the main it was “compelling. … And, let it be repeated, the story, as a story, grips and holds the interest as few photo stories do.” The New York Sun credited the director, George Platt, whom Liebfreed would not let into the studio for the screening, with “a new technique … a method approximating that of the speaking stage … it is one of the most compact photo plays ever screened, each flash upon the silver sheet being filled with action that has a meaning. ” Another paper could not praise Deliverance “too highly.” It was an “educational picture in the highest sense.”

Despite the fine reviews, the Shuberts soon sold the distribution rights for fifty thousand dollars to a Chicago distributor, George Kleine, claiming later that they had never been able to make any profit out of it. The always hopeful Dr. Miller was elated that Mr. Kleine now had charge of the distribution. “He is one of the most successful in the business; he has made several million dollars as a distributor; among his productions was Quo Vadis . He is enthusiastic over Deliverance and declares that it will break all records. If half what he thinks comes true, then none of us need worry over the future.”

 

But it was not a commercial success. As Kleine sadly reported to Helen years later: “It is a fact that a feature film which is produced with the usual heavy outlay cannot succeed financially unless it goes over well in moving picture theatres. Deliverance has been appreciated by what may be called the more refined classes and thinking people, but it did not succeed in drawing crowds to the box office.” It is doubtful that Helen and Teacher received more than the original ten thousand dollars at the signing. They were the kind of people, Helen commented ruefully, “who come out of an enterprise poorer than when we went into it.”